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Shakira Declares Her Territory

Though MTV and VH1 have worked hard to transform Shakira into just another blonde pop star, the Colombian icon is actually quite well read and politically aware.
 
 
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Shakira won me over when she complained about her killer spike-heeled boots. All dressed up to shoot the video for "Underneath Your Clothes," she sat down as lunch was announced -- a 1/2 hour break at 7:46 p.m. Tossing her gorgeously tangled bleached-blond mane, Shakira looked straight at the Making the Video camera and announced, "My feet hurt!" As proof, she held up a frighteningly stylish boot, spanning what looked like five-inch heels with her perfectly manicured fingers, and asked, "Pretty high, no?"

High indeed. Actually, it looked like a weapon. But, she added, smiling, "It's fun. It's been very fun ... so far." So, OK, she sounds like she's trying to convince herself of how much fun she's having. But this is what passes for candor in the superstar business: Everyone knows the job involves pressures and expectations, emotional ups and downs.

Shakira's been thinking about all this lately. Asked to describe her inspiration for the new video's visual concept, she put it this way: "I think in every artist's life, when, right after a performance, we get to feel a certain loneliness and solitude; after receiving so much attention and love from your fans, suddenly everything stops."

For Shakira, however, everything at the moment is pretty much non-stop. An overnight sensation who has been years in the making, she's possessed of obvious commercial appeal, with serious pipes, considerable talents as producer and songwriter (taking into account the rather seductive peculiarity of her English lyrics), and remarkably swiveling hips, not to mention a name that seems destined for stardom. Indeed, Madonna may be the only other first-name-only star who has come so spectacularly equipped. And while Shakira's emergence as part of the "Latin Explosion" -- along with J. Lo, Marc Anthony, Enrique Iglesias and Mr. La Vida Loca himself -- might seem at once too calculated and too predictable, well, calculation is the name of this particular game.

At the same time, Shakira has better reason than most to be playing said game. Where, for instance, Christina reclaimed her roots just in time to jump on the Spanish-language record bandwagon with 2000's Mi reflejo, Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll has been working across cultures and languages since she was a child, born and raised in Barranquilla, Colombia (her father is American born, of Lebanese descent, her mother Colombian). Impressing everyone with her youthful talents, Shakira -- whose name means "woman full of grace" in Arabic -- signed with Sony Discos and released her first album, Magia (Magic), in 1990, when she was only 13, followed by Peligro (Danger) at 16.

From the start, however, she felt frustrated by attempts to frame her as "Latin pop," insisting on her rock inclinations (she lists Iggy Pop, Led Zeppelin, The Cure, the Police and Nirvana as favorites, and composes on the guitar). She's did some acting (on the Colombian soap opera El Oasis between 1994 and 1997), but ended up focusing most of her energy on making two more records, Pies Descalsos (Bare Feet) (1996) and The Remixes (1997). Under the auspices of manager Emilio Estefan, she recorded her last Spanish-language studio album, Dónde Están Los Ladrones? (1998), as well as 2000's MTV Unplugged, winner of that year's Grammy for Best Latin Pop Album.

She also became a favorite cover girl for Latin and Spanish language magazines, including Latin American Time back in August 1999, when, still dark-haired, she was heralded as part of the new "Era of the Rockera," or more recently, the Latina magazine that asked whether the newly blonde performer would be the "next Madonna." Shakira, on the other hand, sees herself as distinctive, telling the English language magazine Blender, "I don't feel that I'm artistically similar to anybody right now. I have a unique musical proposal."

Her self-confidence is surely admirable, but imagine how difficult it is to remain "unique." According to professional publicists and the labeled bins at Tower Records, Shakira has to fit into a saleable category, whether "Latina songbird" or pop princess. And so, while pre-blonde, she was compared repeatedly to Alanis, she of the resonant vocals and spiritual sensibility. Since the switch to blonde-tressness, Shakira has been serially compared to Britney, Beyonce and Christina (it's probably also worth mentioning that grabby Pepsi signed Shakira for its Spanish-language campaign).

And when the new album dropped, she did the usual rounds -- TRL, Rosie O'Donnell, Today, Tonight and Mad TV. All this self-promotion can get to be a grind, of course: Think of all those hours in high heels. And that's not even counting her engagement to Antonio de la Rua, son of the ex-president of Argentina who has recently been charged with treason (undaunted, as of February she was looking forward to marriage and motherhood).

Shakira isn't really your standard pop star. Though MTV, VH1, et. al., have worked hard to make her one, she keeps maneuvering just beyond their (global) reach. Knowing well the history of U.S. (commercial and political) relations to Colombia and other South American nations, Shakira insistently performs her nationality alongside her increasingly international stardom. She makes her appearances bilingual whenever she can, and -- however consciously or unconsciously -- uses her celebrity to showcase her multi-raced background.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (the Nobel laureate) describes her as a singular wonder: "No one can sing or dance like her, with such an innocent sensuality, one that seems to be of her own invention." While you may quibble with the details of this origin myth, there's no doubt that Shakira (who learned to belly dance as a child) has a certain -- how to put it? -- intimate relationship with her own body, one that apparently titillates U.S. audiences no end.

The process of translating that relationship for her first mostly English-language album, Laundry Service, was in part a matter of changing managers, with Estefan's blessing, to Freddy DeMann (perhaps most famous for his work with Michael Jackson and Madonna). The album came to U.S. consumers' consciousness via an astounding Francis Lawrence-directed video for the first single, "Whenever, Wherever," in which she dances amid digitized horses and dust (a video that was, by the way, retired from TRL in February, meaning that it made the countdown for 65 days).

Boosted by incessant video airplay, Laundry Service -- so named, she says, because "I went through a stage when I felt cleansed, renewed, thanks to love and music, which are like soap and water" -- entered the Billboard chart at No. 3 in November 2001, and by now it's gone well past double platinum sales. And just because singing in English is necessary to secure international superstar status, it's not necessarily easy. As Shakira told the Washington Post, "To me, writing, expressing my emotions in English was an adventure. I can think in English, true, but I feel in Spanish."

The adventure continues. Shakira is the first star to appear in VH1's new series, Being, which premiered March 4, in which said star must walk around (for days, apparently) wearing a pair of sunglasses mounted with a teeny camera, so that the resulting footage allows "you, the fans" to experience what it's like to "be" said star. Much as she does in Making the Video -- only more so -- Shakira looks like an enormously good sport throughout this undertaking. In addition to the point of view camerawork, the show also involves, of course, being filmed from every which-angle, at all hours, with all her friends, stylists, and even her parents: It's MTV's Diary meets MTV's Fear. (Just kidding: It's not nearly so frantic as either show.)

In the series' first instance, you get to "be" Shakira while she and her band are appearing at the 2001 Jingle Ball in Miami: she rides in a limo from the hotel to the arena and back again, gets her hair styled (though she works with so many people, she laughs, "At the end, I'm a dictator"), and sound-checks the arena ("I love it when it sounds like this!" she exults, swaying with her hands in the air, on the floor in front of the stage, as her own music surrounds her). She insists that she is an "artist," as opposed to an "entertainer," and even though she laughs sweetly as she says this, you get the feeling that she means it.

One of the more effective sunglasses-shots has you stepping into a veritable herd of reporters, many of whom are Latino, asking her "how it feels" to "cross over." "How does it feel to conquer America?" one young man asks, mic thrust toward that camera on her sunglasses, as her blond hair falls across the lens in lovely wisps (so this is what it's like to be Shakira!).

The camera cuts from the POV shot, to show her smiling graciously, her eyes hidden behind the sunglasses. "Bueno," she says, then continues, in Spanish that's translated to English subtitles, "Little by little I am stepping on this new territory." Happily, the girl has a sense of humor. A few minutes later, she's in a backstage hallway, greeting fans and signing autographs. When one young English-speaking fan tries out his Spanish, awkwardly asking her to pose for a snapshot, she encourages him, while her voice-over (to you) observes wryly, "I'm conquering my first American fans."

For all the silliness of the glasses-gimmick, Being does suggest that Shakira has a solid and self-preserving sense of how all this celebrity stuff works. During one of several carefully intercut on-the-couch "confessional" moments, she poses perfectly, her hair arranged and the light aimed just so. "I'm hoping," she says, "at some point, I'm going to be considered like an artist and not like an alien." She makes no bones about the relentless pressures of performance: "You have to be clever, and you have to smile, and you have to, you have to, have to, have to, have to ... you must always look good!"

Shakira's current single, "Underneath Your Clothes," ponders this dilemma -- feeling like an alien, being made up to look like one -- from another direction. That is, while it is clearly a love song, the video has a different specific focus -- the difficulties of being on the road, separated from a lover. Directed by Herb Ritts, it includes grainily sincere black-and-white footage as well as playful handheld camerawork, and colorful onstage imagery, all tumbled together to emulate what Shakira calls a "documentary feel." She says that it was "destiny" that she and Ritts had a similar approach to the video, in wanting to show the "life of an artist on tour."

"Underneath Your Clothes" opens on Shakira's encounter with a "local reporter" (the meaning of this term is not entirely clear: somewhere between "smalltime" and "unsophisticated," maybe, not "in the know"). Finding her in an alley behind whatever venue she's just played (she has her guitar with her), he sticks out his microphone and asks her to comment on her "crossing over" to English language stardom. She doesn't pause, but keeps on striding while answering the question -- in Spanish, untranslated in subtitles -- as the exasperated Local Reporter follows along with his tape recorder bouncing on his hip. She says that she was especially keen to get this scene into the video, though it has little to do with the love story per se, because it sets the context for her loneliness and her desires.

And yes, poor dejected Shakira appears the very picture of loneliness, she leaves Local Reporter behind and boards the tour bus. As her band plays in the background (apparently being on the road with Shakira is all about rocking out 24/7), she gazes sadly out the window and begins to sing:

You're a song Written by the hands of God. Don't get me wrong cause This might sound to you a bit odd. But you own the place Where all my thoughts go hiding. And right under your clothes Is where I'll find them.

Granted, the translation of her "feelings" to English is an issue here, as it is throughout the album, which covers all kinds of generic and thematic ground, erratically. But in this song and others, the awkwardness makes a weird, endearing and insightful sense. OK, it's a little corny to call a lover "a song written by the hands of God," but it lays down the thematic focus on creation and material. And if the pile-on of the metaphors concerning property and territory becomes increasingly "odd," there's still something admirable about the lyrics' sheer chutzpah.

First, "you" may own this "place," but second, whatever is "underneath your clothes" is all Shakira's. For there lies "an endless story. / There's the man I chose. / There's my territory." Given traditional male attitudes toward girls' bodies, not to mention historical Euro-U.S. attitudes toward Latin resources ... Shakira's declaration of her "territory" is not a little compelling.

The video reinforces her self-affirmation by never quite showing the so-sorely missed lover's face. He's surely very pretty, but he's also 1) incidental, and 2) hers. For most of the video, Boyfriend is actually off screen altogether, alluded to when Shakira gets his phone call and joyfully rolls around on her hotel room bed, happy just to hear his voice (that you don't hear); and she looks simultaneously delicate and vital in her pink sundress, as the camera caresses her bare foot (no painful boots here). When Boyfriend does appear, gazing so prettily out the window, or embracing her so sensuously, he remains hidden, a body that longs for her and comforts her, but without an identity of his own. He is her territory, "And all the things I deserve / For being such a good girl, honey."

And she is good. As uneven as Laundry Service may be, the breakout material is fun, smart and promising. It's likely that her self-awareness, self-confidence and self-confessed "stubbornness" are as much a function of her dedicated PR team as her celebrated hips. But as commercial images go, Shakira's blend of tough-minded frankness, ambition and independence is as refreshing as it is admirable. It's surely possible, as Shakira herself notes, to read "Underneath Your Clothes" as just another sexy ballad. But look again, and you might see one of the more inventively self-assertive pop songs to come along in some time.

Cynthia Fuchs, an associate professor of English, African American studies, and film & media studies at George Mason University, is the film/TV editor for PopMatters and film reviewer for Philadelphia Citypaper.