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frequencies

by josh kun

Shakira Inc

BEFORE YOU EVEN open the new issue of Urban Latino magazine, you meet Shakira twice. The 24-year-old Colombian Lebanese singer-songwriter – the latest victim of the Latin music industry's English-language crossover machine – is on the cover from her leather-clad calves on up, her wavy dyed blond hair falling over a lace half-shirt that exposes a glowing brown midriff. She is also on the magazine's back cover, this time in a Pepsi ad, from her leather-clad calves on up. There is, ideologically speaking, no difference between the two: on the front she is selling the magazine, and the magazine is selling her; on the back she is selling Pepsi, and Pepsi is selling her, and both she and Pepsi are selling the magazine that is selling them both in return.

The images – the two Shakiras that really are one (they almost look like they're from the same photo shoot) – are replicas of each other in size and layout, except that in the ad there is no belly shot and her hands are not on her hips but wrapped around a tall microphone stand. The front cover announces, "Shakira unleashes herself in English." The Pepsi ad, which doesn't mention Shakira's name anywhere and is in Spanish, just commands us to "goza el sabor," to enjoy the flavor.

With the U.S. release of her first English-dominant album, Laundry Service, the alternative-leaning pop-rock innovator from the coastal carnival capital of Barranquilla, who used to perform barefoot and rock dreadlocks and headbang as hard as Univision would let her, has become a belly-dancing and ass-shaking stand-in for multinational money. Groomed by the Estefans and former Madonna and Michael Jackson manager Freddy DeMann, the once difficult to pin down style-switcher has been made into an exotic ethnic brand – a feisty Latina with a hint of the mystical East, an exotic replicant programmed to speak the global language of commerce (English).

And it's working. Laundry Service debuted at number three on the Billboard 200, and her video for "Whenever, Wherever" – where Ricky's hips and Jennifer's ass do a Moroccan table dance – became an instant Total Request Live favorite (she's like a brown Britney!). So much so that she all but reenacted the video for her live TRL and Saturday Night Live performances, right down to the belly undulations cued to the swell of Middle Eastern strings and drum slaps.

"The structure of English is difficult," Shakira told Urban Latino. "It's a very direct language; the language of advertising." Crossing into that language, then, leads to just that: the Latina artist as advertisement, the rebirth of Shakira as the franchise formerly known as the musician.

Shakira's compatriots who have rejected the English-language come-on – pop-rock fusionist Juanes, vallenato popster Carlos Vives, and alterna-faves Los Aterciopelados (whose lead singer, Andrea Echeverri, refused to perform as a new-school Latin spitfire when she played The Tonight Show with Jay Leno) – have all avoided such dilemmas regarding their own representation to U.S. audiences. "When someone asked me why I don't sing in English, I thought ... why to express myself do I have to sing in that language and cover up my own?" Vives recently told La Opinion.

The difference between the new Shakira and her fellow Colombians is – to borrow something the great Senegalese president and poet Léopold Sédar Senghor (who passed away earlier this month) once impressed upon his own people – the difference between being someone who assimilates and someone who is assimilated. Juanes, Vives, and Los Aterciopelados have all pursued the former, more postcolonial route – assimilating foreign sounds and styles into their own, rethinking a rock guitar solo through a vallenato accordion run, a sequenced breakbeat through the lulling rhythms of an old nightclub bolero. Throughout her first five albums Shakira did that too (look at the mestizo makeover she gave Alanis), but with Laundry Service she does the opposite and succumbs to how the U.S. market dictates that commercial Latino artists should look and sound.

For Senghor, one of Africa's most important anticolonial thinkers, being assimilated was a product of a colonial mentality, a viewpoint Shakira still subscribes to. In a recent interview in Latina magazine, she identified her "conquest" of the U.S. music market with the Spanish conquest of her own country. "The spirit of conquest is a trait that has survived in human beings from the beginning," she said. "I want it for the same reason the Spaniards wanted to come to America. You have to cross the oceans. To be able to sink my Colombian flag in this land, that is a motivation."

So I suppose we've gotten off easy. When the Spaniards sank their flag into Colombia at the turn of the 16th century, they enslaved Africans, converted Indians, and exploited the local corn crop. All "this land" has been left with is another blond with a toned midriff who speaks English and drinks Pepsi.

E-mail Josh Kun at jksfbg@aol.com.