Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit Shakira’s big crossover record that revealed her fascinating, idiosyncratic songwriting and created a rift among her fans.
In early 2001, Shakira was holed up on a farm in Uruguay, surrounded by her close family and a herd of cows. She’d just spent the last three years touring and performing across Latin America, establishing herself as a pop goddess with a rockera edge. Now she was convalescing in a quieter place, trying to write an album for an English-speaking audience that would somehow preserve the spirit of her trenchant pop-rock—all without forsaking the legion of Latin American fans that made her a pop luminary. It seemed to be an impossible task.
Over the next year, Shakira would confront this challenge head-on, embracing the totality of transition. The video for “Underneath Your Clothes” was the Colombian singer’s self-aware introduction to Anglo audiences. In the opening scene, a thirsty journalist chases after her through the Palace Theater in Los Angeles, her newly blonde—but still tousled—braids silhouetted under an oversized Brixton cap. He asks, “Shakira, Shakira: What’s it like to crossover and sing in English?” The rockera launches into a breathless monologue in Spanish about music’s ability to create a spiritual connection between spectators and performers, about the poetry of music beyond the artificial borders of language. As she walks away, the reporter begs, “Oh, but in English!”
It’s unlikely that such a calculated, performative exchange would appear in a Latinx artist’s English-language debut today. But back then, industry conventions dictated that Shakira be explicit in her approach. As she told MTV’s Making the Video, “I wanted that scene so badly in the video, because it’s something that is daily bread in my life lately.” Today, listeners around the globe are a bit smarter, less receptive to such overt maneuvers when artists are navigating new audiences. But we have only begun to challenge these stale tropes—and question the fantasy of “boom” narratives, where Latinx artists appear and disappear every few years based on their legibility to Anglo audiences.
That clear-eyed intentionality at the beginning of “Underneath Your Clothes” was the crux for her metamorphosis into an international supernova. Long before the Beyoncé collaboration, the World Cup anthem, and the forays into watered-down reggaetón, Shakira Mebarak Ripoll proudly used her versatility in her favor. As she told Colombian daily El Tiempo in 2001, “Fusion offers me the opportunity to remove any type of label people want to place on me. It gives me freedom…I don’t want to be tied to a specific style and become the architect of my own prison.”
She’d learned those lessons the hard way. Her first two albums, recorded as a young teenager and released only in Colombia, were comprised of lackluster, forgettable pop ballads. The records flopped, the former selling less than a thousand copies. At 15, Shaki moved from her hometown of Barranquilla to the capital of Bogotá, enduring an ill-fated stint on a telenovela. While her acting career didn’t pan out, she immersed herself in a wide range of U.S. and British rock styles, like the Cure, Led Zeppelin, and Aerosmith, all while maintaining her childhood love for belly dancing, a product of her Lebanese roots. In 1994, it seemed she’d finally found her calling. She recorded the original song “¿Dónde Estás Corazón??” for the Colombian rock compilation Nuestro Rock; the track’s success led her original record label Sony to allow her to write an entire rock album, which would become Pies Descalzos, released in 1995, followed by ¿Dónde Están Los Ladrones? in 1998. Pies Descalzos sold nearly 4 million copies worldwide, while ¿Dónde Están Los Ladrones? went multi-platinum. Both records spawned international tours and hit singles, securing Shakira’s future as a Latin American pop diva.
The albums also served as harbingers of the mutability of Shakira’s pop identity. On ¿Dónde Están Los Ladrones? executive-produced by her then-manager Emilio Estefan, Shakira smashed up mariachi horns and traditional doumbek drums, developing a reputation as the irreverent leader of Latin American rockeras, one who paraded her trumpeting yodel over songs about heartbreak and allusions to government corruption. Through intimate, rhapsodic lyrics, Shakira captured the attention of clever sadgirls across Latin America and its diaspora. But it was only a matter of time until she’d have to accommodate two legions of fans—one that worshipped her for her candid, political introspection, and another that demanded she conform.
After the release of a Grammy-winning MTV Unplugged album in 2000, Shakira was ready for something new. In early 2000, Freddy DeMann, the force behind Madonna and Michael Jackson’s careers, took over her management. Sony suggested she recruit Gloria Estefan—the pop powerhouse and wife of her ex-manager—to translate the lyrics of ¿Dónde Están Los Ladrones? into an English album for her U.S. debut. All of these maneuvers fell squarely into the pop crossover formula of the early 2000s: appoint a well-known manager in the Anglo world, hire the Estefans to be involved somehow, and record English versions of already wildly popular songs.
But after some tutoring, Shaki grew more comfortable with English, and she called off the translated version of ¿Dónde Están Los Ladrones? to write a brand new collection of songs instead. Though she knew how to speak conversational English, Shakira wanted to cultivate a more literary approach to composition, so she studied the work of Walt Whitman and Leonard Cohen. She spent a year writing at the farm in Uruguay, as well as a rented house in the Bahamas, creating new material that would eventually make its way to Laundry Service.
In the fall of 2001, the album finally saw the light of day. Opener “Objection” is a plea for the collapse of a love triangle, blending B-52’s guitar licks with Argentine tango’s bandoneón. The anti-drug hymn “Poem to a Horse” weaves a fervid horn section with riffs seemingly lifted from a Nirvana B-side. “Te Dejo Madrid” features a gnarly harmonica solo alongside Shakira’s trembling vibrato, which was once described as the “bleating of a goat” by her second-grade classmates. This brand of musical pastiche has garnered Shaki acclaim, but it’s also made her the target of satire. Tracks like “Ready for the Good Times” demonstrate the pitfalls of such collage—a feel-good hook like “I’m ready for the good times/Now that I’m not alone” isn’t enough to redeem the uninspired, disco-laced beat or the sticky chorus.
It is in her meditations on erotic power that Shakira excels. “The One,” “Fool,” and “Underneath Your Clothes” put her diaristic sensibilities on full display. She draws on her own romantic torment, crafting raw paeans to her lover, or heartfelt reflections on surrendering herself to intimacy. Through power ballads and post-grunge vengeance, Shakira empties her body, harnessing anguish and devotion and tracing a blueprint for so many young people’s journeys of femme self-discovery. And while many of these songs iterated on similar ideas, her inimitable warble threaded all of these musical endeavors together, often leaving an even greater imprint in English. Between these album cuts and her hits, Laundry Service is a formidable compendium of Shakira’s sonic and corporeal world.
But it was “Whenever, Wherever” that transformed Shaki. An ode to her then-partner Antonio de la Rúa, the son of the deposed Argentine president, “Whenever, Whenever” immortalized her capacity to appeal to pop and rock audiences alike. The song incorporated Andean instruments like the quena pan flute and charango strings into the pop world, foreshadowing her career as a perennial shapeshifter. The video seemed to air on a loop on MTV; in it, Shakira belly-danced in an earthy halter top, sporting blonde tresses and writhing in the mud—prompting all of us to replicate her moves in our own bedroom mirrors.
The Anglo press had no idea how to parse an artist like Shakira. They drew endless, flimsy comparisons to both Britney Spears and Alanis Morrissette, which confused even Shakira at the time. Her name—Arabic for “full of grace” or “full of gratitude”—produced tongue-in-cheek but abhorrent one-liners. “Shakira, not to be confused with Shaquille O’Neal, ‘Shock the Monkey’ or anything involving your moneymaker or the shaking thereof…” went one Rolling Stone piece; Entertainment Weekly claimed the album was “enough to incite another anti-WTO rally.”
Many publications were preoccupied with Shaki’s lyrical idiosyncrasies. Reviewers described her English-language lyrics as “imponderable,” “odd,” and “curious,” and were disapproving of her eccentric “non sequiturs” and “lyrical clunkers.” Of particular frustration among critics was the couplet, “Lucky that my breasts are small and humble/So you don’t confuse them with mountains” from “Whenever, Wherever.” A 2001 Rolling Stone review stated she sounded “downright silly” in English, claiming that her magic was “lost in translation.”
In the late ’90s and early ’00s, when the careers of artists like Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, and Marc Anthony were in full bloom, it was difficult for Anglo critics to decipher the differences between Latin Americans and U.S.-born Latinos, who grew up speaking and writing in English. Today, this obsessive focus on language feels archaic and embarrassing; the internet has since expanded the boundaries of musical consumption and helped to erode long-held myths around language barriers. But the album’s mixed reception is evocative of the pressures Latinx artists faced 20 years ago. As one reviewer from The Guardian observed, it falls on critics to open themselves up to the lyrical sensibilities of Spanish: “Ripoll is not struggling with the intricacies of English, just expressing herself in a singular and puzzling way. Good for her.” Shaki seemed in on the joke, too; in 2001, she told El Tiempo, “Sometimes I say typical phrases in Spanish in English-language songs, and for Americans, that proves novel and interesting. That makes the process entertaining.”
Despite some lukewarm critical reception, the album fared well commercially, debuting at No. 3 on the Billboard 200. But it also introduced a deeply racialized debate around Shakira’s malleability and authenticity in the pop industry, one that captured tensions and conflicting desires between Latinx, Latin American, and Anglo audiences.
Among her diehard Latin American fans, Laundry Service had its share of detractors. Many labeled her a sellout, claiming her newly blonde hair, transition to English, and new look meant she was abandoning her essence as an incisive rockera and transforming into a whiter, sexier version of herself, one palatable for Anglo audiences. A 2001 story on Shakira for the Los Angeles Times cited a message board in which a fan wrote, “She’s got to dye her hair blond and bare her body—which she said a decent woman would never do—just to succeed in the United States. She doesn’t care about what we’re going through. She just cares about conquering the Anglo market.”
At the time, Shakira dismissed the criticism, telling the Post, “Maybe people think I dyed my hair blond to meet a certain requirement of the Anglo market, but I didn’t. The first time I dyed it, I dyed it red. I just like to go to extremes.” But for the Shaki devotees, Latin America’s pop queen was no longer for the people—she was transforming into somebody else, for somebody else. Like many young women in the music industry before her, Shakira faced constant sexualization and exotification. Anglo audiences no doubt drooled at the sight of a writhing woman with an accent in the “Wherever, Whenever” video. But, as cultural critic Pier Dominguez notes, some have argued Shakira exploited these tropicalizing tropes of Latinas, buying into collective fantasies for greater visibility, even as she put her musical eclecticism on display.
These kinds of authenticity debates are inscribed in the very fabric of pop music (think Madonna and voguing, or Miley Cyrus and twerking, or countless other stars). For decades, white U.S. artists have mined black aesthetics for “creative inspiration,” obstructing their originators from the credit and visibility they deserve. Shakira may have been using the structures of white U.S. pop against itself, but that is hardly subversive—her identity as a white, blonde Latina facilitated her explosive entry into the English-language market. Her whiteness allowed her to play off and against these tropes, particularly through the mediums of movement and dance, furthering her ascent to the upper echelons of pop, where black and brown Latinas were denied access.
Still, Laundry Service helped forge a path for other Latina stars to follow—releasing a mainstream pop album with both Spanish and English-language tracks no longer seemed unthinkable. It also laid the groundwork for Shakira’s legacy as a pop chameleon; every new reinvention, whether it was the electro-pop ditties of She Wolf, the merengue-rock thumpers of Sale El Sol, or the soca-tinged “Waka Waka,” can be traced back to the hybrid vision initiated on Laundry Service.
In 2020, as conversations about equity and representation seep into new pop cultural spheres, listeners might interpret this kind of musical tourism as appropriation. Crossover stories like Shakira’s seem like a relic of the past, a transparent marketing tactic laid bare by the music industry’s ceaseless grind. Even though we exist in an increasingly globalized landscape, we’re still consumed by the same feel-good narratives of cross-cultural exchange, where the mainstream success of a Latinx artist is lauded as an antidote to political and social oppression. Look no further than the collective reception of “Despacito,” which many celebrated as a salve for Latinx communities (excuse me while my eyes roll into the back of my head) in our endlessly xenophobic political climate. Laundry Service exhorts us to rethink the utility of the crossover narrative—who it is designed for and who it liberates, if anyone.