The Shakira Effect

I have at times noticed a pattern where pop music artists, after having achieved fame and fortune, at some point attempt to record an album that is, at least in their minds, more driven by artistic rather than commercial concerns.  Many times the reaction of their fans is less than positive (with a notable exception being, of course, The Beatles).    However, I have also noticed the reverse trend in a few artists where upon achieving stardom with more honest and artistic work, go on to release increasingly market-driven and less innovative albums.

In this article I’m calling it the Shakira Effect, named after the Colombian pop singer who was famous in South America in her late teens when she released a number of popular albums.  Her first release in the international market was 1995’s Pies Descalzos (English: Barefoot) which, as its title suggests, was largely subdued and minimalist, mainly relying on her strong voice to carry it.  Next came 1998’s ¿Dónde Están los Ladrones? (English: Where are the thieves?) which had everything a great album should have: heartfelt lyrics, likable music, and a meaningful point of view.  Then came her highly polished entry in the crossover market, 2001’s Laundry Service.  Before listening to a single note, the buyer of the album was greeted by an entirely different Shakira, one who was seemingly shirtless with a tattoo of the album’s title and, most noticeable, was now blond.  Her many albums since have been increasingly commercial and the videos and promotion of them have been more sexualized.  While I still enjoy this music for the shallow enjoyment it creates, it is much more polished, artificial, and ultimately disposable: words that would never be used for her earlier work.

I used to reason that this trend was just a fluke and perhaps Shakira just wanted to make more “fun” music after having made more serious music for years. Then I saw the same pattern occur with Canadian artist Nelly Furtado, whose debut Whoa Nelly! led to several radio hits in the U.S. in 2000.  She had a similarly-styled follow-up in 2003 called Folklore.  Then, in an even more abrupt change than Shakira, Furtado released a mostly club album called Loose in 2006.  At the time, I was puzzled by the album.  It seemed to have been recorded by a totally different person than her earlier work.  Songs like “Promiscuous Girl” featured misogynist lyrics and included collaborations with the rappers du jour of that era.  I refused to even give it a chance for years, after having been turned off by its entire aesthetic.

Even with another example, I still viewed this pattern as almost character flaws in the artist rather than something more systemic.  It wasn’t until I recently read Living Dolls: The New Sexism by Natasha Walter that I began to realize Nelly Furtado and Shakira were merely reflective of a cultural shift rather than something isolated to their respective careers.  The fact that their early work was from the nineties and the more popular/less artistic work from the 2000s is thus not a coincidence.

In Living Dolls, Walker charts the pornographication of the public sphere (driven by the internet’s ubiquity), connecting it to the rise of so-called Glamour Modeling and the normalization of sex work like lap dance clubs.  Unlike in the past, all of this is now draped by a flag of liberated women exercising “free choice” to pursue these endeavors.  In the same way, as successful artists, Shakira and Furtado were free to record any type of music they wanted, but it seems as if the world had changed around them in the years since their first releases, and the phrase “sex sells” has taken on a more monstrous meaning today than at any time in the memory of my generation.  The triple platinum-selling Laundry Service and her subsequent belly dancing-infused videos were tremendously popular.  And even when artistic videos for introspective songs like “No” were produced, they were overshadowed by more flashy content.  The message was clear: the market wants a sexy woman doing splits in a cage, not weeping in black and white.  It should be no surprise that artists well-entrenched in the recording industry should do anything less than give their fans what they want.

At the end of the day, you might wonder why any of this matters.  Is it really fair to look toward pop music as the bringer of social change? Perhaps not.  Then again, even Michelle Obama seems to call stars like Beyonce “role models.”  But where are the genuine role models on the radio?  In the 90s, the idea of an independent female artist like Alannis Morisette was revered and rewarded.  It would hard to imagine her, or the many other artists like her, even making it on the radio these days.

Reflecting on this has been a sobering reminder for me that the idea that social progress is a linear process, ratcheting toward ideal equality in a constant way, is a fallacy.  Without willful and dedicated effort, progress is easily rewinded, or in this case co-opted and given different names like “free choice” so that its negative effects are made even more subtle and invisible.

Facebook marriage announcements have already told me what research has confirmed: women today are far more likely to take their husband’s last name than in the past.  The trend peaked in the 1990s when 23% of women kept their own name.  So it seems that progress is indeed regressing and it’s high time the ship is turned the right way round again.

Walker spends the second half of Living Dolls discussing how the popular press has over-reported on the existence of genetic reasons for observed gender differences.  Just when we are at a time when it’s critically important to raise girls to re-challenge the confining gender roles that have again become common, instead the culture at large seems to be becoming increasingly accepting of the fact that things are just the way they are, written in our chromosomes, and not the cumulative result of hundreds of tiny social interactions each day since birth.  If you have mostly been exposed to deterministic viewpoint of the popular press, it might be interesting to flip back through the history books and note that babies of both sexes used to wear white and even when sex-signified colors were introduced, it was boys who wore pink.  Baby girls wearing pink is a relatively recent “rule,” coming about during World War II.  And, like too many social realities in the U.S., was driven by the companies making the products more than anything else.

There may be hope yet.  Nelly Furtado released an album in 2012 that was more like her original work than anything I’ve heard in awhile.  Let’s hope we’re raising the next generation to appreciate it.