The Wonderfully Weird Sexiness Of Shakira

The Colombian singer was the first pop star I could call my own after years of finding my favorite artists through other people.

Larry Busacca / Getty Images

There are two kinds of non-Hispanic Spanish teachers: those that approximate Hispanic accents (to varying degrees of success), and those that do not even try. Señora Andersen was of the latter camp. She introduced my eighth-grade Spanish 1 class and me to classroom and food vocabulary (“el sock-ah-POON-tas,” pencil sharpener, “la mon-SAUNA,” apple) and, more importantly, to the Colombian pop star Shakira, who was mostly unknown in America at the time.

It was 2000 then, so Pies Descalzos was five years old, and Dónde Están los Ladrones?, two. These were the two albums that played in Señora Andersen’s classroom before school started, so that when I showed up for homeroom twenty minutes early (because I was not cool), Shakira was usually singing mid-record tracks like the reggaeton-esque “Quiero,” or, my favorite, the power ballad “Inevitable.”

With babysitting money, I bought both albums, as well as the MTV Unplugged video (seen in part above) released earlier that year. Shakira looked punkish then, with leather pants and streaks of bright red through her naturally black hair. She was just 23 at the time, with softer curves and no sign of the shredded, animalistic outfits she’d favor in coming years. Though not overtly sexual — no crawling, yet — the video was tinged with that weird sexiness that would come to define her performance style and make her, for me, an irresistible star. See, for instance, the opening minute of “Ojos Así”:

Those kicks, the way she flings her arms left and right: these are strange dance moves. Dorky, almost. But the 70-second belly dancing intermission at 3:33: there is nothing nerdy there. For someone forbidden to watch MTV, for someone who had managed to make it to the year 2000 without seeing a single Britney Spears video, the hip-swerving, thick-eyeliner-wearing Shakira was the height of young female sexuality. I was a little scandalized, but I was mostly jealous.

That first year, I had her to myself. Shakira was still pretty obscure, and my friends just couldn’t get into her, no matter how many times in a row I played “Estoy Aquí” for them in my bedroom. “No, listen to THIS part,” I said. “She sings so fast!” (I have always been inordinately impressed both with singers who can sing quickly, and with myself when I finally learn to mimic them. It was, and is, embarrassing.) They were never swayed, which was always disappointing.

I’ve never had any problem admitting my true and honest loves in TV or movies or books, but with music it’s always been different. I was always picking up my favorite groups from other people: Hanson (via everyone) in the sixth grade, after a year of refusal; Queen, Led Zeppelin, and Rush (via my dad) in the seventh grade, thirty years too late; The All-American Rejects (via my popular friend) sophomore year, when I said I’d heard of them but was lying; The Strokes (via a crush) in senior year, two full years after Room On Fire came out. Of course, where else are we supposed to hear about new music if not from other people? There is no music well from which certain, edgier people draw up brand-new artists like water. But I thought there might be, back then.

So in 2001, when I was a freshman in high school, when Laundry Service came out and “Whenever, Wherever” became popular enough for the radio and TV and references made in the hallways, I was a bit smug about it. I didn’t tell anyone “I told you so,” because my friendships were delicate enough at that point without me introducing guilt. But I thought it. Shakira was perfect – had always been perfect – and now, finally, other people were starting to understand that.

With blonde ringlets, a more glossily made up face, and an exposed abdomen, English-singing Shakira’s sexiness was more direct, or at least more familiar to American audiences. I hesitate to use the word “undulating,” because it is gross, but how else to describe what she does in that mud? Still, it never felt showy. It never felt like objectification – no slow, zoom-in shots on open mouths or butts or breasts. It was just Shakira, belly dancing atop a frozen peak, where she seemingly materialized of her own cunning.

And she was still weird. She professed gratitude that her breasts were not likely to be confused with mountains. People have often criticized Shakira’s English songs, suggesting that her grasp of the language is weak and that her writing in it is “downright silly.” Maybe so. Who else uses office coffee machines as a metaphor for emotional abuse? But if you watch any English-speaking interview with her since 2000, Shakira’s English is great. She is, after all, reported to be a genius. I don’t think it’s about proficiency. It’s about sheer, charming oddness.

Shaki (as her fans call her) has faded in and out of view in the United States, granting me shared, widespread fandom for only weeks at a time. She had a few other charted singles with Laundry Service, but none so popular as “Whenever, Wherever.” In 2005, “La Tortura” only reached number 23, which is criminal. The song’s video (and especially the “Shaketon Remix” version) is THE hottest video to ever incorporate motor oil.

In 2006, Shakira had a number one hit with “Hips Don’t Lie” — a song’s title never expressing a singer’s essence so succinctly before or since. In 2009, her fantastically strange “She Wolf” peaked at number nine. (Again: those moves.)

If the list of collaborating producers and artists is any indication (Tiesto, RedOne, LMFAO, Sia, The Runners, Skrillex, etc.), Shakira’s eighth studio album is going to be bananas, and with any luck, she’ll again be at the top, where she deserves to be.

Two years ago this guy I was sort of seeing gave me a test: Shakira, or Beyoncé. (He did this a lot. “Wolf, or lion,” “Neptune, or Venus.” It was one of those things that seems cute at a certain time, but is later irritating. What were these stupid, false dichotomies??) I said Shakira, of course, but he acted like that was the wrong answer. He sneered. I assume many people would. Because I liked him, and because quitting that self-induced music shaming can be hard even to this day, I backpedaled. “Beyoncé is amazing too, obviously.” (She is.) “It’s too close to call.”

Here is where I take all that back. Here is the truth: Shakira, without question, always and forever.

Just look at her.

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