6th October, 2001

Wiki | Video

"Suerte que mis pechos sean pequeños / y no los confundas con montañas."

Long before scattering verbal seeds so that a thousand Twitter memes might blossom had become one of the necessary attributes of a successful pop star, Shakira's verbal flights very nearly memed her into oblivion: everyone who addressed her new English-language makeover brought up the "breasts are small and humble" line as an example of her weirdness or perhaps of her limited facility with English. (And everyone else replied that the line was the same, and just as unexpected, in the Spanish version. This conversation will never stop happening, until the end of time.) But look at her grin in the video during the line: she knows exactly what she's doing.

The fact that Shakira Mebarak Ripoll knew exactly what she was doing when she dyed her hair blonde, began writing in English, and contracted with the Estefans to produce her next album has long been a sticking point for those who had admired her '90s shaggy brown mane, her wild Spanish-language creativity, her proud Latinidad. It felt like a betrayal: no longer Latin America's signature alt-rock act, a Southern Hemispherical riposte to frozen-north icons like Björk or Radiohead, she was now just another bottle-blonde global pop star, joining the Britneys and Beyoncés in Anglophone hegemony.

While this is a valuable and necessary take, I think it overrates the importance of alt-rock and underrates the importance of pop -- Shakira may be differently beloved than she was in the 90s, but she is undeniably more, and more widely, beloved. And she has never gone fully Anglophone: her English-language songs nearly always have (often much better) Spanish-language counterparts -- "Whenever, Wherever" is only okay compared to "Suerte," one of her greatest pop songs in a career stuffed with them.

"Suerte" is very early-2000s, in that there's not a particular tradition of music it is set in. Rather, it's a mash-up of many different influences, incorporating Andean huayno and panpipes, Middle Eastern arabesque, and global dance music, including a prominent funk bassline, tribal drumming, and surf guitar: worldbeat, to use a popular if meaningless catchphrase of the era, but with a strong pop sheen. It was the era of Missy Elliott, the Neptunes, and Richard X, in which imperial pop raided global sounds, an analog globe converging into a united digital future until George W. Bush and Diplo ruined it for everyone. But it was also characteristic of the way Shakira had always worked: of Colombian and Lebanese heritage, she mixed East and West, North and South, as a matter of course, and her dancing, which seamlessly blends Afro-Latin and Eastern Mediterranean traditions, is one of the great pop marvels of the millennial era.

But while she's one of her generations's great dancers and great musical synthesists, she's also one of its greatest lyricists: "Suerte" is a fantastic love song in a style that owes as much to modern poetry -- it's romantic, and funny, and quotidian, and heavily imagistic -- as to modern pop. (Modern poetry listens to pop, of course, Frank O'Hara just as much as Warsan Shire.) "Lo que me queda de vida / quiero vivir contigo" (What is left to me of life / I want to live with you) is such a clearer and more heartfelt sentiment than "I'll be there and you'll be near / and that's the deal my dear" that -- although the latter is striking too -- it's easy to see why some observers thought English was a misstep for her. Luckily, we don't have to bother about her English here: which won't always be the case.

This is only the third time we've met Shakira on this travelogue, which feels wrong: she was and is a much bigger star than that, and some of the songs that happened not to make it to #1 include some of the best songs not only of her career but of pop music entirely. In some ways "Suerte" is a lesser rewrite of "Ojos Así", and "Objection (Tango)" is the best tango song the twenty-first century has produced. But although her presence here will continue to be infuriatingly intermittent (especially as compared to figures like the one who recorded the song that replaced this at #1), she has not yet tapped out. We are still living in the Shakira era, and that in itself is reason for hope.

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