21st November, 1998

And the last piece of millennial-era Latin Pop falls into place. Here we enter the modern world.

Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll had been a child prodigy, writing songs at eight years old and releasing her first album at thirteen; but it wasn't until her third album, Pies Descalzos, that she came into her own: a combination of rock energy, dance rhythms, and pan-global sonics unified by her unmistakable, sweet-and-sour voice and a real brilliance in lyric writing that pushed past conventional expressions of love or self to incorporate bizarre imagery, extravagant hyperbole and unusually rhythmic uses of language. The gospel-tinged "Estoy Aquí", her first mature hit, and the first to do business outside of Colombia, turns the chorus into a breathless rush of syllables imitating the intense everything-at-once emotional whirlwind of the adolescence she was still emerging from.

But that was three years ago, in 1995. And because this travelogue only skims along the surface of the Latin Chart, we have been unable to track her progress. Very few (non-Iglesias) performers begin their careers at the top of any chart; the slow and patient building of a coalition of fanbases, of proving that you make solid work and that listeners can trust you with their ears, hips, and heart, of inculcating enough of an image that it's a surprise and a scandal when you subvert or expand it, is a longer, more arduous, and perhaps more honest task. Shakira in the 90s was not unlike Madonna in the 80s: a bolt of lightning, as ambitious as she was talented, and hard-working enough to compensate for any deficiencies either way. Although I'd say that Shakira was more purely talented than Madonna ever was  as a singer, songwriter, and dancer, and on more or less the same level as an applied theorist of popular music; "Estoy Aquí," in that comparison, would be her early, "Holiday"-era light dance material. "Ojos Así" would be her imperial-era, "Like A Prayer"/"Express Yourself" material. And "Ciega, Sordomuda" would be, oh, say "Into the Groove."

Comparisons can only carry you so far, however: real understanding requires the thing itself. And "Ciega, Sordomuda" is very much a product of the late 90s: the light house beat touches on Swedish pop of the era (the Cardigans, Yaki-Da, Robyn), the mariachi trumpet and guitar were accenting everything from No Doubt to Cake, and even her voice could be similar enough to Alanis Morissette's pained yowl that comparisons litter many of the early English-language introductions to the new Colombian pop/rock starlet. But the sonics of the song, however pleasurable, are only part of what makes it so masterful a piece of pop music: the lyrics, the structure, and Shakira's performance do the rest.

"Ciega, Sordomuda" means "blind, deaf and mute," and are part of an extensive catalog of adjectives she applies to herself as the result of her lover's proximity. (The full list: bruta, ciega, sordomuda, torpe, traste, y testaruda; ojerosa, flaca, fea, desgreñada, torpe, tonta, lenta, nécia, desquiciada, completamente descontrolada. Or: crude, blind, deaf, mute, awkward, clumsy and mulish; haggard, skinny, ugly, unkempt, awkward, foolish, slow, stupid, unhinged, completely out of control ― all of them, naturally, cast in the feminine.) This kind of self-abasement would be unthinkable in English-language pop, especially from such an extremely attractive and self-possessed woman, but it's undoubtedly a faithful report of the kinds of things many of us have felt in the presence of someone who pushes our buttons.

Even her ability with hooks serves the emotional content of the song: apart from the chanting chorus, the swooning "ai, yai yai, yai yai"s that follow the chorus and make space for emotion entirely separate from words are beautiful, sentimental, silly, and sad. Then there's the middle eight, with angry guitars and the bulk of the adjective assault, in which she spits "y no me eschuchas lo que te digo" (and you don't listen to what I'm telling you), admitting that not only is it an incapacitating love, but a hopeless one as well. Shakira's privileging of the contrary and grandly silly vacillations of the human heart over being cool or even making sense has been one of her greatest and most consistent features as a writer over the years.

We'll have plenty of further opportunities to see this in practice: now that she's finally here, Shakira will be a frequent return visitor to the top spot, and indeed the next decade-plus in Latin Pop might well be considered the Shakira Era. Although the chart is getting too busy and diverse for it to be dominated by any one voice, if any voice deserved to dominate, it would be hers.

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