Shakira was a child star. The Colombian-born artist released her first album Magia 25 years ago, in 1991, but she wouldn't become a big name in the English-language market until 2002, with Laundry Service and its lead single "Whenever, Wherever."
Why did it take a total of three studio albums to make mainstream U.S. publications take notice of a woman who now reigns as one of the world's biggest pop stars? We dug through LexisNexis to find some of Shakira's earliest press mentions and reviews:
The first mention of Shakira in the mainstream American music press came from John Lannert in Billboard in June 1996. It's worth noting, of course, that Shakira—by this point—had been heavily covered by Spanish-language magazines and newspapers including Reforma, El Mundo, Palabra, and El Norte. But Lannert's Shakira article, "Colombia's Shakira: I'm Here," ran on the front page of Billboard.
Lannert's piece is mainly about Sony Music's decision to sign Shakira to their label in the wake of her very popular song "Estoy Aquí" and its music video. (Get it? "I'm here," like the title of Lannert's piece.) Here's what Lannert had to say:
The 19-year-old native of Barranquilla, Colombia, is becoming a video star, as well, with "Estoy Aquí" climbing to No. 2 on MTV Latino's top 20 countdown the week of May 31… Weltzer [president of Sony Music International Latin America] recalls that Sony executives "all went berserk" upon seeing the "Estoy Aquí" video because of "the song, her voice, and her appearance. It's a striking video, and it jumps out at you."
Despite the fact that she'd already released three studio albums, Shakira was still a teen, and if you watch the "Estoy Aquí" video, it's pretty easy to see why it excited music label executives. Shakira is young, she's in charge of her image, and she looks a hell of a lot like Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, and Christina Aguilera would look five years later.
Almost a year after Lannert's Billboard piece, Shakira got her second name-check in a major U.S. publication. In March 1997, Variety published a feature titled "Latinas Making Music" by Andrew Paxman.
The feature includes Marie-Claire D'Ubaldo, Ely Guerra, Soraya, and Shakira. Paxman is sure to note that Shakira "speaks little English" before dissecting whether or not she could transition over to mainstream American pop. He quotes her saying:
"On my first two albums, my songs were rose-tinted ballads—childish romanticism," Shakira admits. By contrast, the 1.6 million-selling Descalzos dwells on real loves and losses, in arrangements from rock to reggae.
There's not a lot to Paxman's feature besides straight biography. He explains that Shakira is a child star from Colombia whose father is from Lebanon. He says she's popular. But for the most part, his article is devoid of anything but the reminder that, even though Shakira had sold 1.6 million copies of her third album, English-speaking audiences still weren't ready for her.
There was another long pause before Shakira would find more publicity. But 1999 was the year critics started to prepare America for Shakira's debut. In the January 1999 issue of The Village Voice, an article about Shakira appears immediately before one about Queens of the Stone Age.
¿Dónde están los ladrones? is ambivalent about the winners and losers in Colombia, a society that has endured a torturous legacy of corruption despite being at the root of democracy in Latin America. But if transcending her roots to become a player in Miami necessitates some concessions to not-ready-for-salsa listeners, a cleverly embedded poetry still manages to peek through in Shakira's worldview.
Ed Morales is the first English-speaking writer to take Shakira seriously as an artist, analyzing her fourth album not only for her sex appeal but for her politics and her sound. It's also worth noting that Shakira began getting more mainstream press after the release of ¿Dónde están los ladrones?, which was produced and hyped by Emilio Estefan and became Shakira's first big mainstream success.
By April 1999, covering Shakira was finally becoming a staple for most music sections. By this point, she had been nominated for a Latin Grammy and had sold more than 600,000 albums in the United States.
In April 1999, Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez wrote for the Los Angeles Times that:
If Shakira succeeds in crossing over in rock in the United States, the profits could indeed eclipse any crossover to date. Add to this the fact that Latin music sales, including Latin rock, are growing at twice the overall industry rate, and it is no wonder that one of Shakira's biggest supporters is Sony Music head Tommy Mottola, who said Shakira "is absolutely brilliant as an artist" and predicted "Latin music is the reservoir of talent that can be the crossover pop stars and the global pop stars of the future."
Back in April 1999, the New York Times included Shakira in an article titled "The Pop Life: Big Dreams and Short Shorts." In it, the "Colombian pop-rock ingenue" is filed under "other hopefuls."
Her second mention isn't much better. In August 2000, in a story all about Colombian artists, Shakira is little more than a footnote being labeled as "compared to Alanis Morissette." Larry Rohter wrote that:
At 23, this Colombian singer and songwriter has barely entered adulthood but already shows a striking talent for the polished, well-made pop tune, the most appealing of which here is probably the Arab-influenced ''Ojos Así.''
But Shakira would ultimately sell more albums and reach more fans than Alanis Morissette ever did. The next year, Shakira's Laundry Service, her first English-language album and fifth studio album, would dominate the American airwaves. The album hit number 3 on the Billboard Hot 200, and was the seventh best-selling album in the world in 2002. "Whenever, Wherever," the album's lead single, went number 1 in 21 countries and peaked at number 6 in the United States.
In spite of this lack of early coverage, Shakira became a mainstay of popular culture not only in America, but around the world.
First Reviews is a series that finds and evaluates early critiques of now-popular and well-respected artists.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.