The cross-back-over success of Shakira

Times Staff Writer

EVERYBODY knows Shakira is a success at crossing over. Nobody knew the hip-thrusting Colombian songstress would be so good at crossing back.

Shakira was already a major star in Latin America in 2001 when she became a pop sensation in the U.S. with her first English-language album, the multiplatinum “Laundry Service.” And her dominance heading into the Latin Grammy Awards on Thursday night in New York City with a field-leading five nominations -- including best song, record and album -- confirms that she hasn’t lost any ground in the Spanish-language market either. It’s a remarkable achievement, considering that her crossover predecessors -- Ricky Martin, for example -- struggled when they tried to return to their original fan base.

What’s most notable, though, is that Shakira has managed to work both sides of the border with such ease, bouncing back and forth across the cultural divide with no apparent compromise or change in her identity. (Singer Gloria Estefan, Shakira’s onetime mentor, also pursued a successful bilingual career, but always from a base in Miami.)


How Shakira accomplished such a feat may lie less with the artist than with the cultures she straddles.Musically, Latin America and the U.S. have been morphing together, for better or worse. It’s a phenomenon that has little to do with contemporary globalization, which Shakira herself once cited to explain her cross-cultural appeal. This is all about rock ‘n’ roll.

Shakira is the first artist of the rock en espanol generation to become a star in the U.S. So for her, crossing over meant a linguistic, but not stylistic, switch. This allowed her to preserve a creative continuity regardless of language. Latin fans never felt that she left them when she switched to English -- and when she switched back, she was the same Shakira they had always known and loved.

Shakira was born in Barranquilla, Colombia’s tropical port town. But when it comes to her musical tastes, the singer had a lot in common with teenagers from Boston, Belfast or Birmingham who entered puberty in the early ‘90s. Listen to her rave about the rock band Nirvana, in a quote from the IMDb website:

“I remember the first time I saw the ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ video. I will never forget that day. I just wanted to see Kurt Cobain’s face.”

Her other favorite bands, regularly cited in interviews, include Led Zeppelin, the Cure, the Police and the Beatles. She never fails to mention her love for Colombia and her Middle Eastern roots, legacy of her Lebanese father. But it’s hard to find any reference to specific Latin or Middle Eastern artists she admired.

Still, her music has always had native touches. There were the Andean pan pipes of “Whenever, Wherever” from “Laundry Service.” And the restrained reggaeton beats of “La Tortura,” from last year’s “Fijacion Oral Vol. 1,” which earned Shakira nominations for female pop vocal and short-form video.

That fusion has been the signature of rock en espanol from the very beginning. This genre was conceived to combine a rock foundation with elements of roots music from Spanish-language cultures. Shakira is the daughter of this egalitarian cultural confluence. That’s why her music seems so natural, in either language. Sure, her English lyrics may be awkward at times, but her musical essence seems second nature.

The result, of course, is a double-barreled marketing bonanza. Both the Spanish-language “Fijacion Oral” and its English-language follow-up, “Oral Fixation Vol. 2,” hit the top 10 on the U.S. mainstream album charts. Executives at Epic Records treated both albums equally, pitching “La Tortura” to English radio stations. It became the first Spanish-language number to be featured on MTV’s “Making of the Video,” which aired with English subtitles. And the Spanish album became a simultaneous hit on the Latin and mainstream charts.

“We didn’t see the audience as being divided,” says Lee Stimmel, senior vice president of marketing for Epic Records, which released both albums last year. “We said, ‘This music is too important and too fantastic just to be marginalized.’ ”

Now compare Shakira’s experience to that of Spanish singer Julio Iglesias, one of the biggest crossover stars of all time. Iglesias was the premier pop singer in the Spanish-speaking world when he wooed English-speaking fans with his suave style on his 1984 breakthrough smash, “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” an unlikely duet with country star Willie Nelson.

In Los Angeles, there was such a rage over the dapper divo that he set a box-office record with 10 consecutive nights at Universal Amphitheatre, a run that remains unbeaten.

When loyal Latin fans at one of those concerts shouted requests for their old favorites, Iglesias bluntly told them to “shut up,” explaining to his new admirers that that was another new term he had picked up in English.

The Spaniard had committed the No. 1 crossover crime: He had dissed his former fans while appearing to pander to his new ones, even donning a red bandana for his country-tinged duet. For the Latin psyche, the destructive dynamic is as old as colonialism: He thinks he’s better than us because he’s now with them.

Keeping it real

SHAKIRA, by contrast, was never suspected of changing herself to please anybody. In fact, her success rested in persuading new fans to like her for who she was. She even insisted on learning English so she could write her own songs, rather than let others speak for her or reshape her. That was seen as bringing honor, not disgrace, to her original fans and their home countries, which by then had absorbed aspects of rock culture.

Martin and Marc Anthony had a different dilemma when they tried to cross back. They were trapped by their genres: Anthony in salsa and Martin in club music, both stuck in the ‘90s. When they attempted to reconnect with Latin fans, they were out of step.

“That sort of dance pop moment has passed, in either language,” notes Jordan Levin, an arts writer who covers dance and Latin music for the Miami Herald. “I think the culture changed for a lot of reasons, 9/11 is one of them. Marc Anthony was doing a kind of tropical version of that dance pop.... In English and Spanish, it’s been really formulaic and un-hip.”

Did someone say hip?

That leads to a final point about Shakira’s success. She is the first Latin crossover artist who has also gained critical acclaim from the English-language rock press. She has managed to sell millions and still seem genuine, a prerequisite for rock respect.

Hips don’t lie -- in any language.