Is Shakira a Sell-Out?

Four years ago, Shakira was Latin alternative's greatest crossover hope. She had just released ¿Donde Están los Ladrones?—an album with the perfect mix of Latin American rhythms, rock and world beats that could make Latin alternative the planet's greatest musical genre. And then, looking for a new challenge, the chanteuse announced that her next album would be in English. Fans greeted this news with glee. They hailed her as the Latina Alanis Morissette, an alluring mestizaje of angst, anger, Arabia, amor and assuredness unmatched by any female in the world. Finally, went the Latin American sentiment at the time, one of our own would show those pinche americanos exactly how Latin America could rock.

But 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. Though her Tuesday Arrowhead Pond performance should be a sellout, the audience is likely to be composed primarily of those who became converts through KIIS-FM—not the acolytes who preached the gospel of Shakira until this year.

Accusations of selling out, of course, plague musicians from Rachmaninoff to Raffi, but nowhere are such allegations more onerous than the world of Latin alternative. 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.

That last is the biggest sin going in Latin America—worse than blaspheming the Virgin Mary even. That's why all Latin alternativists brandish their anti-American credentials at every opportunity. Artists proudly proclaim they'd never assimilate into the capitalistic, imperialistic monster of the north (never mind that most found personal liberation by devouring American music), and if you ask them if they'll ever record in English, they'll shoot you the same look they use when the guys from the local death squad come knocking.

And because Shakira didn't follow the rules, according to the faithful, she is now the biggest vendida on the planet. They'll quickly point out that the 24-year-old recorded her album in English (judging by her lyrics, painfully not her master tongue) and relinquished her alterna-leanings in favor of a more accessible—or “American”—sound. Most egregiously, the singer/songwriter dyed her hair blond. How dare Shakira assimilate into the Yankee Empire!

But these indictments ignore crucial facts. Though it's true that producers severely tempered her often-dizzying musical influences on Laundry Service for American ears, the resulting noise isn't so radically different from the “real” Shakira: poppy, head-nodding pleasantries that play well at any club. Her ululating, almost-hyperventilating voice is still there, sure to wring every droplet of emotion from each word. And—clamoring for release from the heavy hand of producer Emilio Estefan—is the smart, sassy songwriting that drew so many people to Shakira in the first place.

Her former fans don't care about the facts: she's now singing in English and therefore must be ignored. But to revile her for choosing to sing in another language is jingoistic at best and stupid at worst. Despite a shaky debut, Shakira has limitless talent and will likely be as groundbreaking in English as she was in Spanish. Maybe she didn't switch to English simply to make more money (her Pepsi sponsorship, on the other hand . . .). She deserves the benefit of our doubt: that her career can only improve by singing in English.

So calling Shakira a sell-out has nothing to do with her music. Instead, it's telling that Shakira's detractors' biggest problem with her is her physical appearance. On top of the bleached-blond hair, Shakira also has to confront accusations that she perpetuates hot señorita stereotypes with her revealing clothes and bedroom-athlete dance moves. But when she had burgundy hair and was shaking her ass exclusively for us Latinos, we called it postmodern feminism and regarded her as an audacious artist. Now that she does the same things but devotes her career to non-Spanish speakers, she's suddenly prostituting herself for American acceptance? That's a collective possessiveness that creeps toward the psychotic. With obnoxious, narrow-minded fans like this, no wonder she's looking for new fans—and no wonder non-Latinos eschew Latin alternative.


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