In the belly of the Nokia Theatre a week ago Saturday, the hours were ticking down toward the American Music Awards telecast amid the usual frenzy of sound checks and lighting cues. Harried technicians scampered to and fro while VIPs in color-coded wristbands sat sipping bottled water on the sidelines.
Everyone was waiting for the petite woman with the pre-Raphaelite blond curls to emerge with her entourage. And from the moment Shakira stepped onstage in stiletto boots, skin-tight pants and jacket and a long gray muffler, it was clear who was running the show. For the next hour or so, the Colombian pop star sorted out the paces of her performance, issuing detailed instructions to her music crew, demonstrating moves to the young female dancers in her retinue and conferring in low voices with her manager and choreographer.
Then she whipped through a rehearsal of “Give It Up to Me,” the compulsively limb-shaking electronic dance tune that she shares with rapper Lil Wayne on her just-released album “She Wolf,” all the while chewing gum and exuding artfully casual glamour. For the evident workaholic and self-admitted control freak, it was all in a morning’s labors.
A few minutes later, seated in her dressing room, makeup removed, looking relaxed and munching candy, she spoke of the need in the music business for always “being on top of your game and making sure that the perception is coherent with what you want to express” creatively. For the 32-year-old Shakira, who has been in the spotlight since puberty, that means “being in survival mode all the time"-- and sweating the details.
“I read once that Alexander the Great would’ve not been great, that great, if he would’ve not traveled with the historians who documented his multiple battles and his victories,” she mused. “So documenting your work is important, making sure that the work, if it’s well done, if you put many hours and effort and energy into that, that it does its job, that it’s presented the right way.
“And that’s when you make sure that you’re surrounded by intelligent people who can also contribute to your career in great ways . . .,” she continued. “You can’t win a battle if you don’t have the right army behind you.”
Like many of Shakira’s pronouncements, the comparison to the Macedonian world conqueror was offered in a manner both playful and earnestly pensive. This, after all, is a performer who according to family legend launched her career as a child by jumping up on a table at a Middle Eastern restaurant and belly-dancing (a vestige of her mixed Lebanese-European ancestry), yet possesses sufficient gravitas to have crooned at Barack Obama’s inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial.
Conquering the media
There’s something about Shakira’s Arabic-Latinate mezcla of brains, looks, cooing voice and bilingual charm that causes writers to get gushy. One recent magazine report declared that her giggles were “so cute they could come from a baby unicorn.” Without adding to the journalistic overkill, let’s just say that face to face she registers as extremely sharp and engaging and matches her pin-up girl image as far as it’s possible for a mortal to equal a Photoshop’d fantasy.
Shakira’s ambition has been obvious since, after a fumbling fledgling recording effort, she seized control of producing her discs and swept onto the world’s pop-culture radar with her 1996 studio release “Pies Descalzos” (Bare Feet), which has sold more than 6 million copies.
To extend the singer’s military metaphor, that was merely the opening salvo setting up the blitzkrieg of “Laundry Service,” Shakira’s debut assault on the English-speaking pop market, and her 2005 two-record project, “Oral Fixation” (in Spanish, Fijación Oral) Volumes 1 and 2.
During that span, she established herself as one of the most successful Latina and female artists going, with some 50 million albums sold in total. She also engineered a reputation as a kinetic live attraction and one of the savviest appraisers of gotta-dance grooves this side of Madonna. She displays her connoisseurship in synthetic beats and carefully sampled collaborators on “She Wolf,” from Sony Music, which includes duets with Wyclef Jean and Kid Cudi.
“I wanted to explore electronica and to dive into the world of synthesizers but at the same time keep the fusion of elements that come from different cultures and different countries,” she said. “So you’re going to find in this album a lot of influences, from India, the Middle East, Jamaica, Colombia, all within this electronic context.”
Wherever touring takes her, Shakira said, she tries to carve out time to ingest the local culture. “Last time I was in L.A., I remember, I went to an Indian performance in Venice Beach, a classical Indian play. It was a very beautiful play, with professional, classical Indian dancers, classical Indian musicians. And all of that sort of feeds me.”
Critically, the English-language disc on Sony has earned positive if mildly puzzled stateside reviews. The New York Times called it “credible, self-possessed, a whole lot more American than her records have sounded in the past, but kind of dull.”
Judging by website comments, some of her fans initially found Shakira’s forays in electronica on “She Wolf” a bit jolting but warmed to the sound after repeat listenings. Shakira agrees that swooning, melodic-driven Latin American pop, steeped in romantic yearning, was at first slow to assimilate electronica’s cooler, harder-edged palette. But through the advocacy of such influential pan-Latin artists as mega producer-artist Gustavo Santaloalla, musicians in the Western Hemisphere’s southern half lately have been diving into synth-beat pop.
“Electronica has many interesting possibilities to offer today to musicians,” Shakira said. “I wanted an album that was dance-y and uplifting, and I wanted to have fun with the music, and I wanted people to be able to have fun with it and forget about their troubles. And I feel that if in the middle of the economy and the world crisis, if music can have a little bit of a therapeutic power, if that premise is true, then I would love my music to contribute in some kind of way.”
Coming from most pop stars other than Bono or Peter Gabriel, those sentiments might sound highfalutin. But practically from the moment she entered show business, Shakira has used her fame, time and personal checkbook to underwrite charitable projects, setting up a foundation when she was 18. Her work mainly has been directed at helping children rise from impoverished backgrounds through education (her charity has built five schools in Colombia and is working on a sixth), and she regularly jets around the world to meet with billionaire philanthropists such as Mexico’s Carlos Slim, World Bank officials and aspiring do-gooders.
On hard times
In her own case, Shakira explained, the impulse behind her political activism was unequivocally personal. When she was 8, her jeweler father went bankrupt. Her family was obliged to sell off most of the furniture in their Barranquilla home, along with the air conditioner and both cars.
“I couldn’t believe my parents! I thought they were the most incompetent business people in the world! And I was so upset. And my dad and my mom took me to the park that day, where all the kids who were orphans are sniffing glue to deal with the tragedy of their own lives and hunger and the solitude of their lives. Little kids, like my age, sniffing glue and barefoot. They just wanted to show me another reality that was much worse than mine. . . . Those images of those kids left a huge impression.”
Shakira’s relentless work ethic is the other legacy of that traumatic episode, and she acknowledges that she still has trouble locating her personal on/off switch. She was taken aback while making “She Wolf” whenever her detail-sweating collaborator, producer-artist Pharrell Williams, had to remind her that it was 11 at night and time to call it a day.
“He would look at the watch every night at 11 o’clock, he would say, ‘Uh, Shak, I have a baby at home, I gotta go.’ And I’m like, ‘What, are you kidding me? We just started like a few hours ago!’ ”
There’ve been published reports that Latin pop’s reigning bilingual princess is pondering putting aside her career for a while to move into that parental state herself, with her longtime boyfriend, Antonio de la Rúa, whose father is the former president of Argentina. Asked if that’s true, Shakira utters a swift, emphatic reply.
“Well, now I can’t think of breaks. You know, all my energy is so adrenalized, I can’t think of anything else but putting together my next world tour, and the ideas are flowing and the wheels are in motion. I’m like a train who can’t stop right now. But I think that when it does stop, the next station will be baby station!”
She laughed at herself, something that, for all his undoubted accomplishments, it’s hard to imagine Alexander the Great ever doing.
“But I wouldn’t stop for long,” she noted. “I need to continue being creative. It’s my nature.”