Was There Ever an Authentic Shakira? A Look at Her Controversial Crossover

It’s been 15 years since Shakira yodeled her way into the U.S. mainstream in the fall of 2001. She was suddenly everywhere – a genuine pop sensation with her own Mattel doll, thanks to the indelible Andean-exotica single “Whenever, Wherever.” Declaring her breasts “small and humble” while writhing in mud in the video, the hit song launched her blockbuster album Laundry Service and set in motion a global trajectory that continues today.

For some audiences, she has become a hopeful icon of global multiculturalism. That symbolism was recently exploited in Disney’s Zootopia, where she voiced an animated, heavily accented, and dancing superstar Gazelle who sings in favor of love and against interspecies bigotry. Some of her Latin American fans consider her a bit of a sellout, a one-dimensional, hip-shaking caricature. They comment on her YouTube videos, clamoring for old school pre-crossover Shakira, a supposedly authentic and political rockera who wrote genuine lyrics when she sang in Spanish.

Shakira often highlights her authentic rock credentials to fight these critiques. She points out that she grew up listening to rock groups like AC/DC, The Clash, and The Cure. But these competing expectations about her persona ultimately reveal that there is no real, “authentic” Shakira. She has survived the whims and idiosyncrasies of the English and Spanish-language music markets because of the way in which she uniquely — some say cynically — plays with and against expectations.

She has been playing with these expectations since the beginning of her career, long before her crossover or her Latina rockera moment. It started when she was a child performer and a teen pop princess without an audience. These campy pop origins — largely erased from her biography — are easily found in the depths of YouTube. She appears in a local talent competition organized by Barranquilla’s regional public television channel Telecaribe. The show’s name, Caribe, Alegre, y Tropical evokes the kind of music usually showcased: local rhythms and sounds of vallenato, salsa, and merengue.

In these early appearances, Shakira already turns to pop fantasies about Latin America instead of conventionally “authentic” Latin American genres. Influenced by U.S. pop, she performs Spanish-language versions of Madonna’s “Material Girl” and “La Isla Bonita.” She also sings “Será el ángel” by the now-forgotten Latinx diva Lisa Lopez. The marimba-punctuated pop hit exemplifies the melodramatic genre known as música para planchar. Originally, the name is a demeaning reference to its supposedly domestic reception among housewives and maids. It also refers to a mode of schmaltzy music, featuring heavy strings and synths, written from or to a feminine perspective, about love, mistresses, and the fleeting nature of sex and romance.

If her hips don’t lie, they’re also not her only truth.

“Será el ángel” is about a one-night stand, but in plancha mode it expresses carnal desires through heavenly imagery about an angel. In the performance, Shakira proves herself as a careful student of plancha diva theatrics, from her bedroom eyes, to her yearning vocals, including her dutiful recreation of the song’s sexually-tinged whispery monologue. “Nunca imaginé/que unos ojos me pudieran dominar,” she sings.

These pop sensibilities, backed by that powerful voice, influenced Shakira’s first single and album Magia. The lead single was a teen pop ballad in música para planchar form about how a boy makes her feel magical. Along with more uptempo pop songs (such as “Esta Noche Voy Contigo a Bailar”), the album attempted to exploit a potential Spanish-language market for innocent late 80s teen pop.

But it massively flopped. In the aftermath of that failure, 16-year-old Shakira tried a new jack swing approach in her sophomore effort Peligro, name checking Def Lepard and Elton John in the lead single. It failed to impact Colombian radio or sell any albums.

Shakira appears embarrassed about these commercially failed beginnings, which she never released as part of her back catalog (they sell for $750 on Ebay). But arguably their market failure has less to do with the music itself and more to do with the fact that there was no Colombian audience for American teen pop. It is no accident that her first blockbuster album, Pies Descalzos, took off in 1996, the same year that the Latin American literary anthology McOndo was released. A McDonald’s-inspired play on García Marquez’s mythical Macondo, the anthology (like Pies) was created by cultural producers frustrated with the global equation of Latin American culture with magical realism and rural folkore. It spoke to a new youth audience hungry for forms of urban cosmopolitanism: pop, rock, MTV, and fast food franchises.

Pies Descalzos grew out of the single “Dónde Estás Corazón,” which Sony Colombia asked Shakira to write for the anthology Nuestro Rock. It was an attempt to promote the idea of a homegrown rock tradition. It became a major hit and a full album was ordered. Follow-up hit “Estoy Aquí” was a similarly designed sleek pop rock song, and this straightforward pop rock made her famous across the globe. But her Latinx identity became more prominent after she moved to Miami to cement her post-Colombian arrival. Working with the Miami Sound Machine of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, her album ¿Dónde Están Los Ladrones? was launched with lead single “Ciega, Sordomuda,” foregrounding mariachi strings and trumpets in its intro and chorus, a gesture that signaled her savvy ability to cross musical traditions from other cultures.

Time chose her as the cover star for their Era of the Rockera issue, signaling her pan-ethnic Latinx transcendence, but also the way her performance and visual style adhered to a minimalist rocker ethos. She wore leather pants and offbeat hairstyles and colors (such as multi-colored braids). Her videos, except for “Ojos Así,” featured minimal dancing, emphasizing shots of her playing an instrument — guitar or harmonica — or performing in concert mode. They also staged surreal (almost Almodovaresque) collages, such as in “No Creo” or “Ciega Sordomuda,” both of which feature allusions to the global 1968 protests and scenes in a prison representing a police state dystopia as a metaphor for romantic dysfunction. Because of the wide range of high and low cultural allusions in her imagery and lyrics, Shakira became the smart rocker with a Catholic good girl image.

But this image was reshaped after the emergence of a crossover Shakira, soon dismissed by some as a sexualized gringa sellout. While Shakira started her crossover project with Gloria Estefan’s translation of “Ojos Así,” she learned English herself, in part by reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Some said this project moved her into an American, whitened, blonde, and artificially thin direction. On the Laundry Service album cover, she appears to have washed herself clean of her previous rockera identity: the newly blonde Shakira is also newly nude — or so she suggests by posing with naked shoulders, parted lips, a hint of a leg on which she rests her hand.

Lead single “Whenever, Wherever,” a simple romantic ode to a boyfriend, is turned into a major quandary of existential reflection (“There’s nothing left to fear,” she sings, “if you really feel the way I feel”). The song, seminal in Shakira’s career, is exactly the kind of unique fusion for which she is both beloved and parodied. Through a spare electric guitar opening we can hear a new Shakira sighing, but she sighs with a sexual edge. The song’s electric guitar riff is accompanied by pounding drums and intense charango strings, and accentuated by the quena flute, giving it an Andean twist. That influence is also made evident in the lyrics about climbing the Andes to count freckles on Antonio de La Rua’s body, her then boyfriend.

There is an unexpectedly brash quality to her vocals. While the song is spoken to a lover, when she screamingly declares herself at her boyfriend’s feet, she sounds angry at the submission. It features one of her most complex vocal performances: she adds yodeling to her repertoire of vocal theatrics and goes from spitting out words confrontationally to girlish squeals and sighs. Every single performer who covers the song, no matter how briefly, always performs the yodeling, because it emphasizes Shakira’s otherness. Her unique phrasing is performed as the result of a bad foreign accent.

“Pop gives me the advantage of unexpected change.”

The video is a fantasy of shaking hair and hips; it’s a thousand ways of looking at Shakira, full of abruptly shifting angles focusing on her Barranquillera dance moves. She stands alone, braving the elements – emerging out of water, jumping from mountains, turning into an eagle, cavorting with horses, wrestling in mud — as she performs in modes ranging from her Arabic belly swaying to Barranquilla’s Afro-Colombian chest and hip-thrusting dance of mapalé. Of course, some argue that Shakira simply exploited stereotypes about Latina women being closer to movement and the earth to enact her crossover. A Mad TV spoof mocked the video, depicting Shakira as unable to stop dancing even after the music is turned off, as if movement is just inscribed at the center of her being rather than the work of a dance professional (she encouraged the idea when she linked truth to her hips and body).

But Shakira arguably exploits the associations and fantasies imposed on Latina women to gain visibility for her non-stereotypical sounds. In order to explore her electronic side, for example, she played a female werewolf in the “She Wolf” video, enclosing herself in a cage, creating a self-tropicalizing spectacle of a wild woman. She continues to foreground unexpected mixtures of English and Spanish and of rock and tropical sounds, such as “rapping to merengue,” as grime MC Dizzee Rascal notes in her single “Loca,” and combining vallenato accordions with the dembow riddim in “La Bicicleta.”

These blends of pop, rock, and Latin American genres have kept audiences guessing about which version of Shakira is coming next. Thanks to that unpredictability and her widely eclectic musical vocabulary, she transcended her instant as the spicy flavor of the month. Creating multiple sonic personae, responding to and playing with public fantasies about her sounds, she continues to cross over, arguably more than any other artists from supposed Latin music booms over the last few decades.

“Pop gives me the advantage of unexpected change,” Shakira told The Guardian in 2002. “And rock lets me be honest. I always fantasized about being a rock star more than a pop star, but rock ‘n’ roll is a little harder on yourself, more rigid…Pop always gives you the opportunity to metamorphose.” Pop metamorphosis is her complex honesty and there is always a new Shakira to uncover in her unending dance — and song — of revelation and concealment. If her hips don’t lie, they’re also not her only truth.