In a pop landscape littered with blonde, superficial faux-sexpots, Shakira shows her roots and walks the walkThere are conundrums that will endlessly baffle, like why soccer is the biggest sport in the world but is ignored in the U.S., or why Donald Rumsfeld still has a job despite proving himself less qualified for it than your autistic neighbor. Another is Columbiana Shakira, whose very presence in the pop-music arena is a puzzle that might be better explained by a snap of her hips and a yelp of her sultry voice than anything a journalist could offer up.
Consider the fact that, while Shakira has spent much of her recent career with golden curls falling down her back, she has absolutely nothing in common with the average blonde pop tart. In this case, “average” refers to just about everyone except Christina Aguilera who, like Shakira, insists on continuously surprising.
Sure, Shakira dyed her hair blonde at the peak of the blonde-pop renaissance of the early 2000s simply to not look out of place on an already Peroxide-saturated battlefield, but once she started singing, did anyone really think that Britney Spears’s voice could hold a candle to hers? It not only sounds beautiful, but can fluctuate between a pleading cry, a bedroom growl, and an angry tear in less time than it takes Spears to groan, “Not tonight, Kevin. Go play with the Ferrari I bought you.” Whether it’s “Objection (Tango),” “La Tortura,” or, more recently, “Don’t Bother,” there is an innate and exotic sexuality coiled around every lyric Shakira sings.
It’s this sexuality that manages to up the conundrum ante, since, when you think about it, female pop has always been bound up in sexuality; it’s there even when it’s unspoken and, sometimes, borderline pedophilic in nature — from Susan Dey to Madonna to Britney, Jessica, Mandy, and Christina. But Shakira is not sexual for pay. She doesn’t prostitute herself for scandal, publicity, or album sales like Madge. Shakira is sexual because she’s just … well, hot like that. One never gets the impression that Britney goes home and humps K-Fed like she does that motorcycle in “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll” or that Jessica has ever warmed up to the idea of a penis coming anywhere near any of her orifices. But Shakira, jeez, it’s hard not to imagine that the loves of her life are consumed by her sexuality, are subsumed by it, are made to feel what every man in the world does when she pants at a camera and snaps her hips right, left, right, so fast that — oh, God, how are we supposed to contain ourselves? If there’s choreography involved, it can’t be more complex than, “OK, Shakira, stand here and do your thing. Action!”
None of this takes into account the most glaring difference between Shakira and her so-called peers (again, exempting Aguilera), and that’s that Shakira challenges all the precepts of pop-music production. She’ll never be able to escape her Latin roots — her singing style and rhythm are forever entwined with them; and her Arabic heritage constantly rears its head through a sheen of American pop. She jams to rock guitars, writes her own lyrics, and gets guys like Rick Rubin to executive-produce her, and yet, she is forever not Latin, Arabic, or American. She is the very definition of World Music, a singer-songwriter who recognizes no boundaries except for her own tastes and imagines herself as an artist with an obligation to produce something original. It’s startling, but when the Gregorian chanting of Oral Fixation, Vol. 2’s opener “How Do You Do” starts up and, over ripping, Queen-like guitars, she asks God, “Do you go to the mosque or the synagogue?” it’s impossible not to recognize Shakira as the antithesis of the blonde pop star, despite how she should otherwise fit that description.
The two Fixation CDs — including Fijación Oral, Vol. 1 — haven’t lived up to the success of 2001’s Laundry Service, which sold more than 13 million copies worldwide, but have proven her a unique talent self-conscious enough to pack even her work with conundrums. Laundry Service offered more substance than the genre calls for, and a voice that stood out in a mediocre crowd, but it was, at best, a very good album. Oral Fixation, Vol. 2 is a great pop album, bulging with contradictions like “Illegal” and “Costume Makes the Clown” — the latter confesses guilt over an affair, while the prior expresses the heartache of being the victim of one. Or, there’s “Don’t Bother,” a song that insists on stoicism after a break-up, while the gravity of Shakira’s often-whispering voice insists that she’s dying every second she’s not with him. The final track, “Timor,” is another contradiction, with its catchy dance-disco beats contrasted with her attack on the world for ignoring the tragedy of East Timor. “It’s all right, it’s all right/If the planet splits in three,” she sings, “’Cause I’ll keep selling records and you’ve got your MTV.”
“Timor” closes out an album that is a conundrum, created by a conundrum that most guys in the world would give their right and left testicles to understand. It’s why Shakira can be called a pop star, but can’t be mistaken for the Britneys and Jessicas who trail behind her, confounded by complexities and contradictions they will never be smart enough to appreciate.