Stardom in any language is old hat for Shakira.
A singer since she was a teen, the Colombia native has long been a sensation in Latin America and other Spanish-speaking countries, selling millions of records with her sultry voice, rock-tinged anthems and belly gyrations.
Yet mounting a campaign for similar success in the United States proved to be more taxing than even Shakira anticipated.
“It was definitely a challenge. My knees were shaking when I was thinking about writing and singing in a foreign language,” the blond diva told The Associated Press in heavily accented English as she recalled writing songs with a dictionary by her side.
However difficult it may have been for Shakira to make the language leap, her success translated very well: Her English-language debut, 2001’s “Laundry Service,” sold more than 3 million copies nationwide as she transfixed music fans with her alluring image and songs such as “Whenever, Wherever” and “Underneath Your Clothes.”
“She was already a stealth star by the time English radio discovered her,” Sean Ross of Edison Media Research, which tracks the radio industry, said in explaining her success. “She certainly had a very media-ready presence ... I heard her explained by a lot of people as the Spanish-language Alanis (Morissette).
But when it came time for the follow-up to “Laundry Service,” Shakira decided to return to her native tongue.
‘Singing in Spanish is such an important thing to me’This week, she released “Fijacion Oral” (“Oral Fixation”) — her first album in Spanish since 1998’s “Donde Estan Los Ladrones? (Where Are the Thieves?)”
“I know that releasing my Spanish record first is contrary to what the industry expected after the success of ‘Laundry Service,’ but really what my instincts dictated,” the 28-year-old told The Associated Press.
“It was very important that also my non-Hispanic fans understood that singing in Spanish is such an important thing to me as well, because I had a career 14 years singing in Spanish. That’s a very fundamental part of my artistic sensibilities.”
Shakira’s latest project has two parts; while a Spanish-language album was released first, “Oral Fixation Vol. 2” is slated for release in November. Although it will be all-English, it’s not a duplication of “Fijacion Oral”: The songs will be completely different.
“I found myself with the surprise that I had 60 songs, and I selected my favorite ones, which cut it down to 20, and I still thought it was too much music to put on one album, so I decided to make a double project,” she said. “Some of the songs happen to be in Spanish, some of them happen to be in English.”
While the first single, “La Tortura” with fellow Latin superstar Alejandro Sanz, has shot to the top of the Latin charts, it’s also inching its way up the U.S. pop charts. The video for the song — which features Shakira doing a torso-jiggle that would make a contortionist envious — has gotten heavy rotation on MTV. And for the first time, MTV aired a “Making of the Video” about the clip exclusively in Spanish.
‘Music is a language on its own’It’s unusual for international artists who enjoy such crossover appeal with an English-language debut to return to their native tongue — and even more unusual to then market it to a pop audience in the United States. When Ricky Martin and Marc Anthony released their Spanish-language albums after their pop successes, they were geared toward the Latin audience almost exclusively.
But Shakira thinks fans today are more open to listening to good music, whatever the language. Her album features production work from Rick Rubin, but also Gustavo Cerati of Soda Stereo fame. It has bossa nova touches, as well as rock and old-time pop influences.
“I think that little by little, the Hispanic audience can contribute to change old rules, to modify them. This is the moment for those things to happen, for music in Spanish to play on Anglo stations, or vice versa,” she said. “Music is a language on its own, when it comes from the heart and when it’s authentic.”
Shakira, who hasn’t been on the charts since 2003, joked that “people might think I’ve been scratching my belly or something like that because I’ve been out of circulation ... but in reality I was just working every day — writing, producing, making demos, creating this album, giving birth to this baby ... actually, it’s two babies, it’s twins.”
Besides, Shakira said, it was important to take time off to give her music a chance to marinate.
“The truth is that I don’t make albums like hamburgers. I have to dedicate the time that music requires,” she said. “Songs have needs, songs ask you for things, and as a producer, I have to maintain this dialogue with my own songs, to find out what they really wanted from me.”