April 10, 2007

Shakira became more Latin, more boring, after coming to America

One of the major menaces the United States faces is the refusal to assimilate among recent, mostly illegal, immigrants from Latin America (mainly the Mexican underclass). Steve covers this topic pretty well, and as I assume most of the readers here follow his blog at least occasionally, I won't dwell further on the reasons why this is a scary thing. As the typical open borders enthusiast ignores the impact that the importation of a new lumpenproletariat will have on crime, education, health care, transportation, and so on, they are left to effuse about how our high and popular culture will become revived, curing it of its lack of "diversity." However, a second's reflection shows that massive illegal immigration will only serve to dull the taste of our culture, for at least two reasons:

1) As the well-to-do use ethnic diversity mostly as a status symbol -- "I can afford to live in a diverse neighborhood because my non-Eurasian neighbors are ambassadors and professors" -- the central criterion of cultural value will be that the product be composed of elements from many different regions, and the devil with whether the result is pleasing or not. Yuppies will gladly patronize a Mongolian-Yemeni fusion restaurant, even if you wouldn't call the stuff food, just to show off their cosmopolitanism to their less refined peers. So, quality will likely decline.

2) There is a real appeal of the exotic, although we are relentlessly bombarded by dazzling new concoctions of the exotic, which change at such a quick pace. As a result, our palette will either become numbed through habituation, or else never be fully satisfied because we are only given a quick tease of one dish before it falls out of fashion and is replaced by another. Again, the arms race for status will accelerate this process.

As a case-in-point, consider the career trajectory of Shakira. Returning to a previous post on what an old fogey I am, I doubt most of the high schoolers I tutor (even the Latin American ones) would recognize any of Shakira's songs from before Laundry Service, her cross-over release, if only the music were played, or if the another singer covered them. As hard as it may be to believe, once upon time (about 10 years ago) Shakira was an alterna-rocker chick with a dark waterfall of hair; and where her lyrics before were more wistful and effortless, they are now more jaded and affected. Her music has lost its somewhat heavy edge and become more Latin-y and pop-y.

So, let's take a walk down memory lane. I wanted to find live performances, even if the sound isn't quite as good as in a music video, to show just how popular she was (packing any house she played with roaring fans), how little she tried to play up her exotic appeal, and how enticingly attractive she was (in addition to her sex appeal, she had girlfriend appeal to boot -- a rare combination). In order, we have: "Pies Descalzos, SueƱos Blancos" (probably from 1996 or '97), "Inevitable" (probably from 1998), and "Ciega, Sordomuda" (from 1998).

If you have the time, or want the music videos with better sound, just search YouTube for "Shakira" and the name of any song from Pies Descalzos or Donde estan los ladrones? (but make sure they're from her brunette days).

You can clearly see that her legions of loyal fans from the '90s were mostly non-white or mestizo and working-class or poorer, and yet she didn't pander to underclass culture the way she has done during her Oral Fixation albums, in which she incorporates hip-hop and reggaeton music, along with lyrics that mostly discuss how beastly men are -- how they lie to and cheat on their girlfriends. She has dialed up the Latin sound and namedrops the land she comes from, again mostly so that her multiculti gringo audience can pride themselves on how diverse their musical tastes are. ("Hips Don't Lie" features the colorless line "Let me see you move like you come from Colombia," and another that translates as "This is how they dance in Barranquilla!")

And yet, how cosmopolitan can such an audience be if they never knew who Shakira was until she bleached her hair and sang in English? It's not as if she was an obscure figure before 2001; anyone who had a remote interest in Latin American music would have been told that she was the hot star sweeping Central and South America by storm. Her new audience is the type that loves to bemoan the Puritanical current in American culture, but it's hard to escape the conclusion that they themselves are mortified by their pale, exposed nakedness, struggling to conceal their shame with colorful decorations. And since her new audience's primary (and probably only) goal is to merely camoflauge the fact that they're just another "Aryan from Darien", any old slapdash bunch of foliage will do the job, in contrast to a truly eclectic approach whereby an expert gardener or florist agonizes over how best to arrange the disparate elements into a harmonious whole, discriminating ruthlessly along the way.

This is the bright cultural future that we have to look forward to, if current immigration trends continue: genres being phased out due to lack of sufficient diversity value, and the rise of a flavorless melange that caters to the lowest common denominator of all cultures -- fucking and tribal boosterism. Of course, that's a pretty big "if."

On a final constructive note, there are at least two ways for different groups to produce interesting new cultural combinations: 1) borrow the best from another culture (say, the way The Pogues successfully blended Irish folk and Anglo-American punk idioms), and 2) intermarriage that results in new genetic combinations -- these halfies might have a unique combination of traits relevant to cultural production, enabling them to see or do things that individuals from their parents' culture might not (for example, a half-Ashknazi Jewish / half-Chinese group might be unusually gifted in both verbal and visuospatial modalities). Unfortunately, lack of assimilation retards both of these processes, the first by disallowing the very notion that you should judge the culture of another and keep only what you like (survival of the fittest), and the second by giving plenty of opportunities for immigrants to mate within their own group rather than outbreed. So, while eclecticism can yield much new worthy material, we return to the importance of reversing current immigration trends (mainly by restricting access to a small cognitive / cultural elite from the rest of the world) if we want to realize that potential.


  1. Shakira is scarcely a typical Latin American. She's half Lebanese Christian, one-quarter Italian, and one-quarter Catalan Spanish. She has no Indian or black ancestry.

  2. Exactly. Maybe that was her "exotic appeal" when she was only known in Latin America -- just being White.

    Her dad was a Lebanese businessman, so it's funny watching her try to slum it in the "Hips Don't Lie" video as if her family was poor. She's engaged to the son of a former Argentine president, and several of her recent songs focus on how spiritually (for lack of a better word) empty the life of a superstar is. She sure used to smile a lot more, but that could be an age thing (21 vs 30).

  3. I'm kind of skeptical of your analysis here, the influence of immigration and the diversity ethos on popular culture seems to only changes the parameters of pandering to the lowest common denominator, not increase the actual level of pandering (well, perhaps if it is leading to an IQ decline but that doesn't really seem to be the approach of your post). Now in addition to the old repertoire of pop song triteness, cliches about broken hearts and anthems of badassedness and the like, we have the dimension of ethnic tribal boosterism. So what? It just seems like a new way to be boring, not necessarily any more boring than what came before.

  4. Mr. Me -- you're zooming out too much, since you care for pop-ish music: it's an atomic point of suckiness. But I'm zooming in and seeing a spectrum of pop music, some good and some bad. The expectation isn't that pop music will be Bach, so we have to ask "is it good for being popular music?"

    So when I say that things will become less diverse, I mean that foreigners will be shoehorned into a narrow range of caricatured roles rather than be themselves. Even if you think the original range wasn't so diverse, it will become much less so afterward.

    And since these roles will be mostly for show on the part of multiculti majority-culture listeners, the quality won't matter at all: you just want your friends to understand that you listen to spicy Latin music.

    In this particular case, we see Shakira's earlier good music becoming cheesier (conditioning on her music being popular).

  5. small correction. Shakira is not blanca...she is morena, due to her dark hair and fairly tan skin. This varies by country, but I can tell you for a fact in Columbia she would be called Morena.

  6. You're right. When we were saying "White," we meant where does her family come from (Southern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean), not what color is her hair and skin.

  7. In this particular case, we see Shakira's earlier good music becoming cheesier (conditioning on her music being popular).

    It's not as if there was really any other option. She has to sing in English in order to make a significant cross-over with the American pop audience, and since her English is accented she pretty much has to play up the ethnic angle. Singing alternative rock songs with a Spanish accent would just be too jarring for the majority to garner a huge pop success.

    Mr. Me -- you're zooming out too much, since you care for pop-ish music: it's an atomic point of

    I think you mean I "don't care for pop-ish music" but let me know if you meant something else. Anyway, I in fact do care for pop music quite a bit, just not at all for commercial pop music. It may be any easy out to blame the markets when criticizing popular culture, but I really think it is true as far as pandering goes. Of course you have to make your music accessible if you want a broad audience, you need a common a denominator, but the current business model guarantees it has to be the lowest common denominator. Even Steve who is usually pretty pro-market recognizes in his reviews that the quality of our popular art and entertainment would probably go up if we didn't require them to constantly appease adolescent tastes. Next to Britney Spears and boy bands of a few years back, reggaeton just seems to be a new to sound awful.

    Also I am not sure if the irritating quality of reggaeton is representative of the kind of music change illegal immigration brings. I think Alegerian Rai music in France has an authentic appeal deriving from the quality of the music, it doesn't seem to result from just catering to base tastes or self-validating one's sense of diversity.

  8. I can't say I found any of these to be good, but it's certainly not as awful as what she's making these days.

    For a flip-side to how Shakira turned out we can look at Go Betty Go. They aren't nearly as popular but they do manage to sing in English while identifying strongly as latinas without relegating themselves to an ethnic-musical-ghettoe. I'm normally the type to say that "pop punk" is an oxymoron (so Union 13 is my idea of an authentic East L.A hispanic punk band) but I've found what I've heard of them to be fairly enjoyable.

    If I had to pick out the worst example of immigration harming good music I could think of it would be the rape and murder of Mia Zapata (of Seattle alt/punk-rock band the Gits) by one the Marielitos.

  9. I wonder if this has anything to do with my virtual abandonment of most music genres in favor of embracing psychedelic trance and house - two genres that know that their audience is primarily white and asian, and don't try to embrace diversity.

    There will probably be a double standard with rap music-it won't feel pressure to embrace diversity, even after the calls for toning down the harsh and "degrading" language after the Rutgers incident.


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."