I’m not quite sure when it was that I last listened to a straight-up pop album in its entirety. Actually, that’s not true, my new flatmate is blasting Taylor Swift’s 1989 through the hi-fi system as I write this, and I’ve got used to hearing Lady Gaga and Ed Sheeran coming from the kitchen for much the same reason. But I’ve never entirely shaken off the prejudices I grew up with. Pop bands are not album bands. Chart pop music isn’t really for anyone over the age of 12. Most of it’s just machine-tooled rubbish. Et cetera, et cetera.
I think the last pop album I deliberately listened to all the way through might have been A-Ha’s 1986 sophomore effort, Scoundrel Days – and when I went back and revisited it, I couldn’t help thinking that even it doesn’t quite qualify: that it sounds like the work of an obscure electro-synth goth band who more or less accidentally fell into stardom by virtue of one single and a singer who appealed to teenage girls.
And the sum-total of my knowledge of Shakira?: Approximate contemporary of Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears; An elderly Gabriel Garcia Marquez had a thing for her and wrote a long piece in the Guardian about her (I wondered if this was a product of my imagination, but the internet more or less confirms my memory); Huge hit with Hips Don’t Lie (clavicles, on the other hand are sneaky, underhand buggers and not to be trusted.) And that’s about it, so this is a bit of a dive into unfamiliar territory, a record that, but for this project, I don’t think it would ever have occurred to me to give the time of day.
The opening track, Objection (Tango) reminds me a little of The Gotan Project, a Brazilian electronica influenced dance group I got into for a while, and in itself makes a pretty good case for more South American dance music in contemporary pop. As someone who was born with two left feet, the chances of my actually dancing the tango are pretty close to zero, but this song sort of makes the idea appealing.
It’s followed by Underneath Your Clothes which brings back memories of 80s girl-group the Bangles’ Eternal Flame. And if I’m prepared to overlook the cringeworthy lyrics – “Underneath your clothes, there’s an endless story” Which is either a bad metaphor or a worse tattoo – and the awkward fact that the best parts appear to have been pinched from another song, it’s really rather good in an 80s power ballad sort of a way – and right at the end, there’s just a hint of Tori Amos in her vocals. Which wasn’t quite what I was expecting.
By the time I get to the third track, her breakthrough hit, Wherever, Whenever, I’m starting to think that I’ve mentally miscategorised Shakira. I’d had her filed alongside graduates of the Mickey Mouse Club, the Britneys and Katy Perries of this world, when actually she fits more neatly into the tradition of 80s adult-oriented rock. Pat Benatar without quite the vocal range, and a more ‘world music’ influenced sound. There are bits of this record that remind me more than a little of later-period U2. So perhaps this isn’t the first pure pop record I’ve sat down to listen to in thirty years for the simple reason that this isn’t quite what it is.
I wasn’t entirely surprised to discover that Glen Ballard (Alanis Morrisette’s songwriting partner) is amongst those with a writing credit on this record. And I was struck by the mischievous thought that Jagged Little Pill would have been a much less irritating record if it had been sung entirely in Spanish (although, in truth, give me Shakira’s generic power balladeer’s vocals over Alanis’s grating voice, too) All the same, I was much more taken with the Spanish versions of the album’s two biggest hits that are thrown in to round off the album, Suerte (Whenever, Wherever) and Te Aviso, Te Anuncio than with their English-language counterparts. Maybe it’s just because it helps persuade me that I’m not just listening to Roxette with a splash of Latin-American rhythm thrown in. Que Me Quedes Tu is a really rather pretty ballad, and quite probably all the better for the fact I’ve no idea what she’s saying. Whereas Fool ends up being a bit of an irritant precisely because I can make out the lyrics.
I expect it’s probably not a record I’m ever going to actively seek out again (though who knows, if on a whim I felt the urge to go back to Scoundrel Days, maybe when I’m in the old people’s home I’ll find myself suddenly wanting to hear Laundry Service) but on the other hand, I wouldn’t object if it came on in the background in the launderette, or wherever, whenever.
Highlights: Que Me Quedes Tu, Te Aviso, Te Anuncio (Tango), Underneath Your Clothes