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Shakira didn't just 'cross over' — she created a new multicultural pop stardom

Shakira at the 2023 MTV Video Music Awards.
Dia Dipasupil
Getty Images
Shakira at the 2023 MTV Video Music Awards.

As the lights flashed on and off during the 2023 Video Music Awards, Shakira started shapeshifting. Quite literally, she contorted and jerked her body in different directions — a reminder of just how corporal her artistry has always been — before howling her way into "She Wolf." But for the next 10 minutes, which included her recent reggaeton collaboration with Karol G and a heartfelt nod at her first-ever VMAs performance in 2002 (a samba-turned-rock rendition of "Objection (Tango)"), Shakira gracefully demonstrated that she's been rewriting and redefining her sound for the better part of three decades. Her Video Vanguard Award, long overdue, is a testament to the U.S. finally recognizing what the rest of the world has long known: Shakira is one of our most transformative, A-list pop stars, with an eccentricism and unpredictability that has long made her singular.

Her stardom occupies a particular place in pop music, one that arguably no longer exists: the Spanish-to-Anglo crossover. She was by no means the first Latin superstar to climb the ranks of the American pop market. Artists like Julio Iglesias, Gloria Estefan, Ricky Martin and Selena had all, in one way or another, built "a foot in both worlds" career model for the rising Colombian rocker to replicate. But there is a case to be made that Shakira was the last Latin artist to successfully maneuver an English-language transformation of her music and image, one which propelled her into her own lane of multicultural mainstream pop.

After two sappy pop albums that failed commercially while she was still in her early teens, Shakira broke out as a new kind of pop-rock icon for Latin American audiences in the mid-1990s. Wearing slick, black hair, toting an acoustic guitar and writing lyrics that commented on class politics and abortion just as easily as they recounted the specifics of a breakup, Pies Descalzos framed Shakira as a sad girl with a grungy edge, like an Alanis Morrissette-Hope Sandoval hybrid from Barranquilla, Colombia, making references to Fernando Botero paintings in her lyrics.

Her follow-up, the 1998 international breakout Dónde Están los Ladrones?, packed a heavy punch of pan-Latin influences and high-low cultural touchpoints. Co-produced by Emilio Estefan and kicked off by mariachi horns, the record catapulted Shakira into the global spotlight and earned her her first Grammy nomination. The last track, "Ojos Así," placed Shakira's Lebanese heritage on full display: a melange of Middle Eastern instruments, complete with an Arabic verse and a music video showcasing the 21-year-old's belly dancing skills. The song and video would become emblematic of Shakira's place in pop: a true fusion of influences, rhythms and identities.

But the debut of her blonde locks and her first English-language songs on 2001's Laundry Service proved a tough pill to swallow for Latin audiences and critics alike. Many fans saw the red-maned, leather pants-cled Shakira who'd just rocked out on MTV Unplugged as the epitome of who she was as an artist and performer, rather than just an early phase of a decades-long career. "When Laundry Service came out last year, many longtime fans accused the Colombian-Lebanese woman of betraying the very scene that made her a success," Gustavo Arellano wrote in a 2002 column for OC Weekly. "Here, being labeled a sell-out — a vendido — is a career death warrant, implying that not only has the artist changed their aural aesthetic, but they've also disavowed their Latin American heritage to embrace los Estados Unidos," he went on.

In an era of Britney and Christina, Shakira's new look and sound was largely misunderstood as a weak attempt to fit in as yet another radio-ready pop princess. "Shakira's first English-language album, Laundry Service, is the ultimate in crossover nightmares," wrote David Browne in Entertainment Weekly at the time. "Its wan ska-pop, faux-country ballads, and generic rock barely betray a Spanish accent or any musical heritage. (She can't decide if she wants to sound like Alanis or Shania.)"

In reality, Laundry Service picked up right where Ladrones left off. With encouragement from Gloria Estefan herself — who insisted the artist needed to record a predominantly English album rather than a few tracks on a Spanish project — Shakira threw herself into mastering the English language, studying Walt Whitman and Leonard Cohen so she could write songs the way she wanted to. Arriving in American pop with the lead single "Whenever, Wherever," Shakira literally and sonically rooted herself in a transnational pursuit. The Andean panpipes and charango, paired with her signature yodel, immediately signaled a new kind of Hot 100 hit. The song perfectly captured Shakira's uncategorizable stardom: the way nobody could sing or move quite like her, managing to be both seductive and delightfully weird at the same time, proudly declaring her breasts "small and humble so you don't confuse them with mountains."

While primarily English-speaking critics sometimes mistook intentional oddities for mistranslated shortfalls — Rolling Stone said she sounded "downright silly" in 2001 — the new language created opportunities for Shakira to build on the off-kilter songwriting style she was already known for in Latin America, when she'd tenderly sing in Spanish about how she didn't shower on Sundays. Exclusively English lines like "I love you for free and I'm not your mother" and, later, "I'm starting to feel just a little abused like a coffee machine in an office" proved that Shakira, well-known for exerting creative control over her projects since Pies Descalzos, was more focused on using English to add dimension to her work than making new listeners comfortable.

Even as she incorporated Andean folklore, tango and rock en español into Laundry Service, Shakira's crossover wasn't meant to be a Trojan horse, sneaking in Latin rhythms to take over the American mainstream — that takeover wouldn't happen for two more decades, when Bad Bunny would finish pushing open the doors first cracked by Daddy Yankee and "Despacito," proving "Latin pop," in 2023, is just pop. The crossover was also not an exercise in assimilation, in which Shakira would stop singing in Spanish or dancing champeta once Laundry Service peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart. Shakira arrived in Western pop through the unexpected origin point of male-dominated Latin rock, and she refused to treat her American breakthrough as a final destination. "Pop always gives you the opportunity to metamorphose, but there is some kind of dignity in the world of rock 'n' roll that you can't find in pop music," she told the Guardian in 2002. "So I like to walk right in the middle and jump back and forth."

Over her next albums — Fijación Oral, Vol. 1 and the English-language counterpoint Oral Fixation, Vol. 2 — she'd jump from dancehall, reggaeton fusion to eurohouse and cumbia, scoring another No. 1 hit with the Wyclef Jean collaboration "Hips Don't Lie." The act of crossing over in multiple directions provided space for Shakira to demonstrate she could pivot and pull it off; she could jump from a power ballad like "Underneath Your Clothes," to the electropop of "She Wolf," and she could collaborate just as easily with Latin rock stars like Gustavo Cerati as with Beyoncé.

She could be a force of nature in one song and supernatural in another, changing her look and sound as only she saw fit, though it didn't hurt that it was a thin, white, blonde woman carrying this message of autonomy and authenticity. (In 2010, she became the face of globalization during the World Cup, singing "Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)" with a string of African performers behind her, despite backlash over FIFA's decision to not give that platform to an African artist.) Nor did she shy away from political statements, criticizing the Iraq War during a New York City concert a year after 9/11. "I don't think I have to hang myself a little sign that says 'Hey, I'm sexy,' and then take it off and now say, 'Hey, now I'm serious," she told the New York Times in 2005. "I can just fluctuate and oscillate from one side to the other whenever my instincts tell me to."

Redirection and reinvention is the trademark of any pop star, as is the ability to meld genres and influences from around the world in surprising ways — anyone from Madonna to Drake relies on it to move their sound forward. But throughout the 2000s, Shakira became the melting pot pop star that only she could be: a proud manifestation of her multicultural upbringing, unafraid to write songs in a newly learned language. Her Video Vanguard Award comes at a moment where she stands on the edge of a comeback era. Not that she ever really went anywhere: despite a vocal hemorrhage in 2017 that made her fear she'd never sing again, Shakira has consistently released singles over the past six years, working with artists like Carlos Vives, Black Eyed Peas and Ozuna — not to mention performing alongside J.Lo at the 2020 Super Bowl halftime show. But she told Elle last year that she'd put her career on the back burner to move to Spain and focus on her family, and she's now getting ready to release her first album since 2017.

That album will enter a world where Latin music no longer requires translation to be seen as palatable by mainstream pop audiences. It's now American artists, in an industry radically changed by global forces in streaming and social media, that must tap into non-English markets. Shakira's collaborating with reggaeton stars who will never have to write songs in English in order to perform on The "Today" Show. The English language crossover as a pop rite-of-passage may be dying, but it pushed Shakira to become something more than a Latin teen rock icon. And though the industry looks and operates much differently than when Shaki started — earlier this year, her diss track with independent producer Bizarrap broke 14 Guinness World Records — she's still one of its trailblazers, transcending borders and expectations.

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Isabella Gomez Sarmiento is a production assistant with Weekend Edition.