Shakira Remembers Her Mammoth Crossover Moment as ‘Laundry Service’ Turns 20

·7-min read

Shakira’s U.S. debut was a pop culture event. Arriving in a blaze of pan pipes and charango, she hypnotized the “TRL” generation with “Whenever, Wherever.” The irresistible pop oddity, with its lyrics about humble breasts and strong legs, peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, laying the groundwork for her highly influential “Laundry Service” era. In retrospect, the video feels prophetic — particularly the opening scene, where Shakira emerges from the ocean like a mythical being. After all, “Whenever, Wherever” heralded the arrival of a global pop icon with almost otherworldly staying power.

With the 20th anniversary of “Laundry Service” on the horizon, the hitmaker is in a reflective mood. “I always knew I was going to try for a crossover,” the Colombian superstar, now 44, tells Variety. “My goal was for my music to be able to reach as many people as possible.” A rather large hurdle stood in her way: she needed to master a new language. “It was such a Herculean challenge,” she remembers. “When I think about [writing an album] with the amount of English I knew at the time, even I’m surprised at how fearless I was!

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“I’m telling you, ignorance is bliss,” she continues. “If you don’t know how challenging it’s going to be, you’re not afraid. I dove in headfirst without thinking about it too much.” Shakira puts her bravery down to youth. “Being in your early 20s has its disadvantages; I was probably more insecure, in a lot of ways, compared to now,” the Super Bowl LIV headliner reflects. “It also has its advantages, like impulsivity, ambition and drive. I was introduced to rejection and failure very young, so I already had a thick skin.”

Crossing over changed the trajectory of her career. “‘Laundry Service’ was 100 percent a before-and-after moment,” Shakira says. “My life wouldn’t be remotely the same had I never taken that leap.” She also points out how the music industry has changed over the last two decades. “It’s true that now Spanish has become mainstream, but breaking through that barrier at the time was so important, not only for me as an individual but also [for] the culture I was representing.”

When asked if the challenge would have been easier today, she pauses. “It would have been nice to have the immediacy of social media back then,” Shakira says. “It’s done absolute wonders when it comes to reaching global audiences simultaneously. It has changed the whole musical landscape.” At the turn of the millennium, however, reaching a wider audience meant one thing — making music that top 40 radio would play.

By 2001, Shakira was already a huge star in the Spanish-speaking world thanks to chart-conquering albums like “¿Dónde Están los Ladrones?” and “Pies Descalzos.” The diminutive artist had more than enough clout to work with the hottest American producers, but rather opted to reunite with regular collaborators Luis Ochoa and Lester Mendez on her English-language debut. As for the lyrics? She wrote them herself with the assistance of rhyming dictionaries and her favorite works of poetry.

Instead of being lost in translation, Shakira’s vision became clearer. She concocted a mix of pop, rock and traditional Latin elements that didn’t so much rewrite the rulebook as destroy it. Take the traditional instruments that give “Whenever, Wherever” its trademark flavor. “In the lyrical content I mention scaling the Andes to go see my lover — pan pipes and the charango are a nod to creating that landscape as the backdrop for a song,” the Grammy winner explains.

There was another reason for including those instruments. “I also loved that it was a bold choice for the Anglo market — it wasn’t like other things on the radio,” Shakira says. “You might love or hate the sound, but either way you’ll remember it.” Recording the pan pipes is one of Shakira’s strongest memories from the “Laundry Service” sessions. “It took hours of dictating the melody,” she reveals. “When we finally got it, I was so happy. It turned out exactly as I heard it in my head.”

If pan pipes were foreign to U.S. audiences, belly-dancing — on top of mountains, no less — was positively alien. “I knew the hyperbole in ‘Whenever, Wherever’ would be ripe for fun visuals,” Shakira says. “That was my first intro to the American market and belly-dancing was not something anyone had ever taken to mainstream pop before. I knew at the time it was something special and different, but I don’t think even I could have imagined how much it ended up taking on a life of its own, even now so many years later.”

Shakira at the first annual Latin Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2000. - Credit: AP
Shakira at the first annual Latin Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2000. - Credit: AP

AP

Revisiting “Laundry Service” is an emotional experience for the singer-songwriter. “This is one that will always be particularly special to me because it was such a vivid time in my life,” Shakira remembers. “My career was at a turning point and I was newly in love. Everything about that writing process was different because it was so new and I was very aware that I was at the beginning of a new era that was going to be really significant for me.”

Significant is something of an understatement. A breathtakingly ambitious collection of pop-rock anthems that placed tango-inflected tunes next to sparse, guitar-driven ballads, Shakira’s English-language debut was a worldwide phenomenon from the moment it arrived on November 13, 2001. “Laundry Service” would go on to sell 13 million copies worldwide and earn a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of the “200 Definitive Albums of All Time.”

The album’s quality is partially due to the pop icon’s rigorous editing process. The “Laundry Service” sessions produced dozens of songs that were never released. “Every album has tracks that don’t make the cut; on an album that has 12 songs, I might have written 60,” Shakira says. “Editing down is a hugely important part of the creative process. I always try to do the exercise of writing as much as possible, before distilling it down to what I think is the absolute best of what I have. I wouldn’t want to do anything less.”

I mention my fondness for deep cuts like “Fool,” “Ready For The Good Times” and “Poem To A Horse,” which tickles her. “Really? I love hearing about which songs people connect to on an album besides the singles. The truth is, the B-sides are often my favorites,” Shakira says. “They’re usually the songs that were written with the most creative freedom and every now and then it’s nice to revisit them. I’m truthfully just as proud of them.”

After writing and recording the songs, Shakira still needed an album title. Ultimately, she went with “Laundry Service” because it evoked the feeling of renewal. “The title was inspired by that fresh clean feeling you have when you newly fall in love again — you have a clean slate, and everything is fresh and new,” she reveals. “It’s such a warm and cozy feeling.” It’s a testament to her talent that the album still sounds as inviting as it did in 2001.

In the two decades that have passed since the arrival of “Laundry Service,” Shakira’s star has never waned. She thrived in the physical and digital eras, and is still going strong in the age of streaming. What advice would Colombia’s greatest pop export give herself if she could go back in time to 2001? “I’d tell her to try to enjoy the ride a little more,” she ponders. “I did know at the time something special was happening and it was an amazing moment in my life but I was still so focused on what to conquer next — I definitely could have soaked it in a bit more.”

In her defense, it’s hard to enjoy the moment when you’re in the middle of an era that would become the blueprint of pop crossover. The fact that it hasn’t been replicated with similar success since underlines the magnitude of the achievement. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of “Laundry Service,” Shakira is releasing an expanded digital edition dubbed “Washed and Dried.” The album contains four bonus tracks including a live version of “Whenever, Wherever” recorded at the Super Bowl. The album is finally being issued on vinyl, as well, on Dec. 17.

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