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Shakira has domination in mind

The driven Colombian singer, who names Alexander the Great among her heroes, has the album sales and tour grosses to prove that her global appeal makes her a force to be reckoned with.

November 29, 2009|By Reed Johnson
  • TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS: Shakira says she'll start a family when the time is right. That's not now.
TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS: Shakira says she'll start a family when the… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

In the belly of the Nokia Theatre a week ago Saturday, the hours were ticking down toward the American Music Awards telecast amid the usual frenzy of sound checks and lighting cues. Harried technicians scampered to and fro while VIPs in color-coded wristbands sat sipping bottled water on the sidelines.

Everyone was waiting for the petite woman with the pre-Raphaelite blond curls to emerge with her entourage. And from the moment Shakira stepped onstage in stiletto boots, skin-tight pants and jacket and a long gray muffler, it was clear who was running the show. For the next hour or so, the Colombian pop star sorted out the paces of her performance, issuing detailed instructions to her music crew, demonstrating moves to the young female dancers in her retinue and conferring in low voices with her manager and choreographer.

Then she whipped through a rehearsal of "Give It Up to Me," the compulsively limb-shaking electronic dance tune that she shares with rapper Lil Wayne on her just-released album "She Wolf," all the while chewing gum and exuding artfully casual glamour. For the evident workaholic and self-admitted control freak, it was all in a morning's labors.

A few minutes later, seated in her dressing room, makeup removed, looking relaxed and munching candy, she spoke of the need in the music business for always "being on top of your game and making sure that the perception is coherent with what you want to express" creatively. For the 32-year-old Shakira, who has been in the spotlight since puberty, that means "being in survival mode all the time"-- and sweating the details.

"I read once that Alexander the Great would've not been great, that great, if he would've not traveled with the historians who documented his multiple battles and his victories," she mused. "So documenting your work is important, making sure that the work, if it's well done, if you put many hours and effort and energy into that, that it does its job, that it's presented the right way.

"And that's when you make sure that you're surrounded by intelligent people who can also contribute to your career in great ways . . .," she continued. "You can't win a battle if you don't have the right army behind you."

Like many of Shakira's pronouncements, the comparison to the Macedonian world conqueror was offered in a manner both playful and earnestly pensive. This, after all, is a performer who according to family legend launched her career as a child by jumping up on a table at a Middle Eastern restaurant and belly-dancing (a vestige of her mixed Lebanese-European ancestry), yet possesses sufficient gravitas to have crooned at Barack Obama's inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial.

Conquering the media

There's something about Shakira's Arabic-Latinate mezcla of brains, looks, cooing voice and bilingual charm that causes writers to get gushy. One recent magazine report declared that her giggles were "so cute they could come from a baby unicorn." Without adding to the journalistic overkill, let's just say that face to face she registers as extremely sharp and engaging and matches her pin-up girl image as far as it's possible for a mortal to equal a Photoshop'd fantasy.

Shakira's ambition has been obvious since, after a fumbling fledgling recording effort, she seized control of producing her discs and swept onto the world's pop-culture radar with her 1996 studio release "Pies Descalzos" (Bare Feet), which has sold more than 6 million copies.

To extend the singer's military metaphor, that was merely the opening salvo setting up the blitzkrieg of "Laundry Service," Shakira's debut assault on the English-speaking pop market, and her 2005 two-record project, "Oral Fixation" (in Spanish, FijaciĆ³n Oral) Volumes 1 and 2.

During that span, she established herself as one of the most successful Latina and female artists going, with some 50 million albums sold in total. She also engineered a reputation as a kinetic live attraction and one of the savviest appraisers of gotta-dance grooves this side of Madonna. She displays her connoisseurship in synthetic beats and carefully sampled collaborators on "She Wolf," from Sony Music, which includes duets with Wyclef Jean and Kid Cudi.

"I wanted to explore electronica and to dive into the world of synthesizers but at the same time keep the fusion of elements that come from different cultures and different countries," she said. "So you're going to find in this album a lot of influences, from India, the Middle East, Jamaica, Colombia, all within this electronic context."

Wherever touring takes her, Shakira said, she tries to carve out time to ingest the local culture. "Last time I was in L.A., I remember, I went to an Indian performance in Venice Beach, a classical Indian play. It was a very beautiful play, with professional, classical Indian dancers, classical Indian musicians. And all of that sort of feeds me."

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