Shakira, in Any Language
Sony is betting the Colombian singer-songwriter's first English-language album will lead the next wave of pop globalization.
By AGUSTIN GURZA
Shakira, the perfectionist, is practicing the proper way to pronounce
Dees, as in Rick Dees, the morning deejay on pop station KIIS-FM (102.7).
At first, she says Diss, rhymes with "this." But she quickly realizes
that's not right and tries again. This time, she says Deese, sounds like
"How do you say Dees?" she asks like a conscientious student, turning to members of her entourage crowded into a small studio at the station's Burbank offices. But she doesn't wait for an answer before correcting herself again.
"Too much De-e-ees?"
The Colombian singer is in the middle of a round of interviews to promote her upcoming album, "Laundry Service," her first attempt to write and sing songs in English. She labored for months over her lyrics, phrasing and diction, knowing that her much-anticipated breakthrough in the U.S. hinges on her ability to come across credibly in a format so foreign to her native Spanish.
The station has requested that she record a series of tag lines during her visit, short promotional plugs known as station IDs. But nobody expected her to be so fussy. She doesn't quit until she has it right.
"Hi, everybody," she finally says into the mike, tape rolling. "This is Shakira and you're listening to the Rick Dees Weekly Top 40 countdown."
"Perfect," says station engineer Paul Liebskind.
But Shakira still isn't happy. Now she's worried about how she pronounced her own name, which means "woman full of grace" in Arabic.
"Sha-key-ruh," she says, mockingly. "What a name to pronounce in English."
She repeats it with a Spanish twist: "Hi, this is Cha-keeta."
"Nah," she says, "sounds like Chiquita Banana."
"That was really charming," Liebskind says later, "because obviously she tries to pronounce everything like an American. But we don't want her to sound like an
American. We'd like her to sound like Shakira."
Shakira's sound—an eclectic mix
of rock guitars, Andean melodies and Middle Eastern rhythms—has been evolving
over 10 years and five albums, starting when she was 13. Now at 24,
with a devoted following of millions throughout the Spanish-speaking world,
she is being groomed as the next Latin superstar to take on the U.S. pop
This determined and independent Colombian with the dyed blond curls has emerged as the designated heiress to stars such as Ricky Martin and Christina Aguilera who spearheaded the Latin pop tsunami of 1999. Nobody has since been able to match the chart-topping success of that season's rare crop of Latin superstars, which also included Marc Anthony, Enrique Iglesias and Jennifer Lopez.
So the stakes are high for Shakira, who's now poised to prove that the so-called Latino explosion was not just a media fad that cooled. If she succeeds, the surprisingly petite (4 foot 11) but powerful singer-songwriter could help cement the crossover strategy as a permanent passage for Latin artists, securing their place in the U.S. pop mainstream.
But if she fails, skeptics may argue that Latin artists are passé, as fluky as "La Macarena" or as dispensable as yesterday's heartthrob. At a time when Latin music sales have stalled following a decade of explosive growth, some say the industry can't afford for Shakira to bomb now.
The high-powered people pushing for her breakthrough vow they won't let that happen.
"She's like a volcano waiting to explode into the Anglo market," Sony Music Chairman Thomas D. Mottola says. "I will do whatever it takes to break her [here], no matter how long it takes. We're in it for the long haul with Shakira."
Also backing her is veteran manager Freddy DeMann, who engineered the ascension of Madonna and cultivated the early solo career of Michael Jackson. DeMann says he's so sure about his new client's potential in the U.S. that he came out of retirement to steer the new phase of her career.
DeMann had never heard of Shakira until he was blasted out of his easy chair one day by the charismatic performer, catching her by chance on television while flipping through the channels.
"Who is that girl?" he recalls thinking. "Wow, she just mesmerized me."
DeMann is not modest about his expectations for the new album, finally expected in stores Nov. 13 after several delays. He wants to see sales of 10 million copies worldwide, or he won't be happy.
That's more than twice what Sony sold of her acclaimed Spanish album "Donde Estan Los Ladrones?"
But Shakira's not counting.
"I don't know what failing exactly means in this case," she says. "I feel that even if I don't sell more than 1,000 records in America, I've already succeeded because I've accomplished the most important challenge—to write and produce a whole album in another language and be totally happy with the result. So I'm already celebrating."
Shakira would be the first true crossover artist since the 1980s when Spanish crooner Julio Iglesias (Enrique's papa) practiced his diction on "To All the Girls I've Loved Before." Unlike the junior Iglesias, raised in Miami, or Marc Anthony, a bilingual New Yorker, Shakira and the elder Iglesias are cultural imports who learned English as a second language.
Shakira taught herself to write in English too, analyzing Walt Whitman poems she had studied in Spanish as a schoolgirl. Her collaborators, Luis Fernando Ochoa and Tim Mitchell, contributed inspiration by sharing the lyrics of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.
With a rhyming dictionary by her side—and a little help from new friends like writer-producer Glen Ballard, whose credits include Alanis Morissette and the Dave Matthews Band—Shakira came up with more English songs than she needed for the new album, which used eight. Although they can't compare to the intricacies of Cohen or Dylan, Shakira's songs are far more sophisticated than the run-of-the-mill romantic fare that prevails in Latin pop. "I didn't want to make anything that was not from the heart, that was not honest enough," says the pop-rocker who has been composing in Spanish since she was 8. "And it was quite a challenge, because I was born in Spanish and raised in Spanish. I live in Spanish, I love in Spanish. And to translate all those feelings in English is definitely one of the
most interesting things that have happened in my career so far."
Shakira's introspective "Ladrones," released in 1998, was produced by her former manager Emilio Estefan Jr., the Miami-based executive who was among the first to encourage her to give English a go.
Although they remain on good terms (Estefan is credited as executive producer of the new album), Shakira says she switched representatives because "Emilio is a very busy person ... and I needed somebody who could be my manager 100% of the time."
Enter DeMann, who in 1999 had sold his shares in Maverick Records after a falling out with Madonna. When he first offered his services to Shakira early last year, DeMann says he had a grandiose vision of his role in Latin music. He hoped to open doors to artists from other countries, as opposed to home-grown stars such as Ricky Martin, an all-American boy from Puerto Rico.
"I'm going to be the gringo that brings Latin stars to America," DeMann told himself. "I'm going to be the guy leading the charge."
But he reconsidered, concluding that stardom is not about language or country of origin. "It's about who has that certain magic," he says.
DeMann now hopes Shakira will work her charm on English-speaking audiences as she did on Latino fans with her flashy, exotic performance last year during the first Latin Grammy Awards. Big breakthroughs—such as Ricky Martin's show-stopping, 1999 Grammy performance of "The Cup of Life"—are impossible to plan, DeMann says. They involve luck and timing.
Shakira, a charismatic Aquarius, will have to wait for her lucky moment, with the help of scheduled appearances Nov. 13 on Rosie O'Donnell and both the "Today" show and "Tonight Show With Jay Leno" on Nov. 15.
Meanwhile, DeMann says, his client will concentrate on the basics of record promotion—like stopping by the radio station for lighthearted banter with Dees and his syndicated colleague, Sean Valentine.
The deejays love her at first sight. For his live audience, Dees breathlessly describes her "pair of jeans purchased in Colombia that are spray-painted on." In a separate taped interview, Valentine swoons about her eyes.
Neither seems to notice her accent or her occasional, endearing errors à la Ricky Ricardo, as when Shakira says, "I have to explain you a couple of things."
Communication crashes, though, when Shakira tries to explain why she named the album "Laundry Service." You see, she starts, she spent the past year on her two great passions, love and music, so it was like going through the laundry and getting full service, because she feels cleansed and renovated.
"Ah, yes, fluff and fold," cracks one of the deejay's sidekicks, defusing the artist's corny metaphorical stretch with a crisp American interpretation.
Valentine (taping): Let me describe you, [for those who] have never seen this girl in the Pepsi commercial or in Time magazine, or have just been living in a hole. Could you stand up? How tall are you?
Shakira (still seated): Nooooo.
Valentine: Could you turn around? Oh, never mind. She's got blond hair.
Shakira (interrupting): Dyed.
Valentine: Dyed? Whatever! It drapes down the side of her cheek, caressing her soft supple skin. She's got eyes that just electrify you, as bright as the colors of a child's imagination.
Shakira: Ah, he's talented.
Valentine: And a smile that's heartwarming. And then she looks down as I talk about her, somewhat shy.
Shakira (loudly): Yeah, I'm shy!
Valentine: Shy, but yet not. A young lady that just radiates beauty from inward to outward and back. She's Shakira.
Shakira: My God, can I write that down?
Critics say Shakira comes across much better in person than on record, and she agrees. She knew she needed to translate her passion from the stage to the studio, even in Spanish. Trying it now in a whole new language hasn't persuaded Rolling Stone, which reviewed "Laundry Service" and decided Shakira in English "sounds downright silly."
Luckily she's also photogenic. The striking former soap-opera actress has shared the covers of Time and Newsweek, always prominent in features about the rising tide of Latino talent. With looks that fluctuate between seductive and wholesome in the flash of a smile, she has graced glamour magazines throughout Latin America.
Yet, she was also the subject of a lengthy profile by renowned novelist Gabriel García Marquez, published in the June 1999 edition of his men's magazine, Hombre de Cambio. Colombia's most famous man of letters devoted four pages to the pop singer, who impressed him with her "perfect girl's countenance and deceiving fragility."
Few Latina celebrities could boast such high-minded attention. In Shakira, men see an alluring combination of smarts and good looks. Women see the strong yet sensitive person they strive to be.
The Latin public has been enamored with her magnetic persona almost since she started showing off her talents with a precocious belly dance at age 4. She was still in Catholic grade school when she wrote her first love song, "Tus Gafas Oscuras," inspired by her father's oversized sunglasses.
She signed her first recording contract with Sony at 13, a budding teenage star at the dawn of the '90s.
But it wasn't until Shakira released her third album, 1995's "Pies Descalzos" (Barefoot), that she gained international fame as a serious songwriter, often described as a Latin Morissette minus the angst.
Shakira Mebarak Ripoll is half Lebanese and half Colombian, the daughter of jewelers who shuns jewelry herself. She's methodical in her profession, disorganized in her private life. Her heroes are her parents and Jesus Christ. She's Catholic but not dogmatic.
Born in the hot coastal town of Barranquilla, she now spends most of her time abroad, bouncing among resorts from Miami to the Bahamas and Punta del Este, Uruguay. As a child, she lived temporarily in Los Angeles after her parents' jewelry stores went bankrupt, forcing the middle-class family to shed possessions and the relief of air-conditioning.
Shakira still lives and travels with her retired parents, "my guardian angels." The Mebaraks own homes in Colombia and Miami, their primary residence.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Shakira was stranded in Los Angeles, ensconced in an elegant Santa Monica hotel overlooking the ocean. Before an interview, which she chose to conduct in English, she cooperated graciously with a news photographer who gingerly suggested poses, as if arranging a delicate doll on a chaise lounge by remote control.
Dressed in tight and tasseled stretch pants, stiletto boots and corduroy jacket, Shakira sat back, turned sideways, squinted, smiled and smoldered on demand. When asked to pull her knee up, the once chubby girl worried that her thigh looked too big.
Finally, she said she felt most comfortable with a pose that was less model-like, more commanding: seated at a straight-backed chair, feet firmly on the floor, leaning forward on her thighs as if poised for action.
At a coffee table, she sifted through other photos for her new album cover, asking visitors for advice. In some, she has the wild look of an athletic sex goddess, hair windblown. In others, she has a piercing gaze as she emerges from a pool of water, belly bare.
The English album and sexy poses quickly sparked controversy with a few Spanish-speaking fans, who expressed their displeasure on Internet chat sites.
"What a hypocrite Shakira is!" huffed one fan. "Just look at her now. She's got to dye her hair blond and bare her body—which she said a decent woman would never do—just to succeed in the United States. She doesn't care about what we're going through. She just cares about conquering the Anglo market. SHE IS A TOTAL SELLOUT!"
And another sniped: "Shakira is proud to show her roots—the black roots in her hair!"
Julio Iglesias faced a similar backlash from his Latin fans 20 years ago. To avoid a revolt, DeMann says, Shakira will not ignore her Latin American base. "Everything we do here," he says, "we'll do there."
Proudly, Shakira notes that her new album was previewed first for reporters in Colombia earlier this month. "They even heard it before the Americans because they were first in my life," says the
singer, who performed last month at the Radio Music Awards in Las Vegas.
As for her critics, she says they are few and ill-informed.
"The whole continent knows that I haven't abandoned my Latin community at all," she says. "I know these comments [from bitter fans] can be provoked by the fear of losing something that belonged to
them for so long. What they don't know is that I continue belonging to them. Forever."
At first, Shakira was a reluctant crossover candidate. Working in English seemed strange, she says, but she was egged on by Gloria Estefan, Emilio's wife, who has successfully pursued a bilingual singing career of her own.
"Nah, I'm not going to sing in English," Shakira recalls telling her colleague. "I can barely speak it."
But Estefan insisted.
"Gloria injected me [with] so much confidence," Shakira says. "Like, 'You can do it. Come on! You just need to practice a little more.'"
The plan originally called for Shakira to simply sing translations of her Spanish hits, such as Gloria Estefan's English version of "Ojos Asi." Changed to "Eyes Like Yours," it's the only old song on Shakira's new album, a nod to the Estefans' early crossover support.
Shakira eventually felt so confident in her new language that she decided she didn't need an interpreter after all. She had new things to say and didn't want anybody putting words in her mouth, in any language.
Relying on others for lyrics made her feel "handicapped," the songwriter says.
"I feel pretty comfortable about this album now," she says. "The nervousness was basically, or mostly, at the beginning of the process, when I didn't believe in me enough."
Shakira has had to stand her ground so often in the rough-and-tumble record industry that she recites by heart her dialogue with male executives: "I tell them, 'Please trust me. I have good instincts.' And they say, 'Yeah, but we have experts.' And I say, "I'm an expert too. I know Shakira better than anybody. I know what works for Shakira, because I've already made my mistakes, and I know what path I should follow and which one I should don't.'"
Mistakes? What mistakes?
She pauses a long while in silence. Finally, she recalls a time she didn't trust her instincts.
"I let them pluck my eyebrows," admits the singer with the elegantly arched brows. "You know, the time I gave myself up like that, it was the lesson of my life: I have to be really in control."
Rick Dees (on the air): Do you write your own music?
Shakira: Yeah, I do. And I produce it too.
Dees: Wow, that's excellent.
Shakira: I'm a control freak. That's my problem. I like to be on top of everything.
Dees: You have to be. But then, you have to let the person who's going to mix the song, mix it ....
Shakira: I'm actually [involved] in the mix too, with the mixer.
Dees: Are you really?
Shakira: I'm everywhere. I'm horrible.
Dees: So does your boyfriend mind that?
Shakira: No, he likes it. I control him too. That's the best part.
Shakira's high-profile romance with Antonio de la Rúa, son of Argentina's president, has intensified press scrutiny of her private life. The glamorous couple has been criticized for a jet-set lifestyle in austere times.
Recently, the singer has also found herself rebutting revelations made in a slew of tell-all books written by former confidantes, like the ex-publicity agent who accuses her of turning her back on people who helped build her career.
Lies, retorts Shakira, who claims she hasn't read the books. The singer also dismisses criticism that she has pulled away from the social themes of past albums. Of course, she is still concerned about her troubled country. She's even launched a new foundation, Pies Descalzos, to help abandoned street children of Latin America.
But today, she says, she's experiencing love as never before. She felt the need to "explain this new stage in my life," she says. So it's natural that her new album would focus on her romantic feelings for her famous fiancé.
"But then I thought that this is probably one of the most social albums I have ever written, because it is talking about love," she adds. "And what does this world need? It needs love. Love and music."
In the first single, "Whenever, Wherever," Shakira vows to "climb the Andes solely to count the freckles on your body." The English lyrics are co-credited to Gloria Estefan, although the song was originally written by Shakira in Spanish with a different title, "Suerte." (Both versions are included on the new album, along with three other original Spanish songs.) In the Spanish version, though, she's not counting freckles, which sounds funny. She's counting lunares, which means moles or beauty spots, and evokes the romanticism of the moon, or luna.
Subtleties aside, the English cut was the fourth fastest-rising single in its second week on the Radio & Records pop chart, while the video was the third most played on MTV. "For her foray into the mainstream pop market," said Kevin McCabe, the publication's director of charts, "she's off to a roaring start, with California leading the charge."
Shakira says she insisted on her own concept for the video, producing a scribbled list of conditions when she first met director Francis Lawrence. It should be a journey, she said. The scenes should be natural and outdoors, not confined and cybernetic. The star should stick to one outfit, because "I didn't want the video to be all about clothes."
As it turns out, the video was shot on a Universal Studios sound stage, with a fake, snowcapped volcano. Shakira, who did her own bungee-jumping stunts, still likes it better than previous videos, which she feels didn't capture the strength of her performance.
She allowed one other compromise, however. There are no shots of musicians playing the native Andean instruments heard briefly on the pop-rock tune dominated by electric guitars. Shakira wanted viewers to see the quena (pan flute) and charango (small guitar), which give the album one of its few authentic Latin touches.
But the scene didn't fit "nicely" with the flow, so Shakira let it go.
"The worst thing artists can do is repeat themselves," she says, "or try to fit an image people have of them."
Valentine: For the American audience that doesn't know much about you yet, for some people who are coming to you for the first time, like myself and many others, tell us something about you so we can come to you more?
Shakira: I think my music says it all.
Agustin Gurza is a Times staff writer.