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20 Years After She Unplugged For MTV, Shakira Taught Me To See Myself

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Shakira onstage during her <em>MTV Unplugged</em> performance, recorded in New York in 1999 and released as a live album in early 2000.
Ignacio Gurruchaga, Courtesy of Sony Music

Shakira onstage during her MTV Unplugged performance, recorded in New York in 1999 and released as a live album in early 2000.

A year ago, my first real relationship came to an end. On what would have been my first Valentine's Day alone in years, I decided to stop moping and take myself to the newly opened Hattie B's Hot Chicken, a Nashville chain whose business had spread to Georgia. For support, I asked an old friend to come along.

Lizzie and I grew up together in a suburb outside Atlanta: She lived down the street from my cousins and we went to the same middle and high school. We'd drifted apart shortly before college, but now we were both looking to reconnect. She'd just moved downtown and didn't have many friends in the area, and my social calendar was suddenly wide open. Sitting across from her, a giant plate of mac and cheese and chicken tenders between us, I told her my big news. She joked, "So ... I'm your boyfriend now."

Soon, we were together every day. While I finished my last semester as a journalism major, I became an unofficial roommate at the apartment she shared with her boyfriend, spending all my time outside of class on their couch. In a lot of ways, it was just like we were 14 again: We watched scary movies, took her dog on long walks, spent hours and hours digging through sweaters at Value Village. But in time, we discovered our friendship had changed in one important way, one we'd never had the language to describe before.

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Lizzie and I both come from immigrant families. Her parents are from Mexico, and took her and her sisters on frequent visits to their hometown in Jalisco. I lived in Venezuela until I was 7, when my family moved to the U.S. Looking back, it makes sense that as preteens in a predominantly white school, being Latinx brought us together — but it was never something we felt comfortable talking about.

By the time we reconnected in our early 20s, we'd both grown into our identities on our own, and suddenly, all the common ground we'd never explored came into focus. Lizzie told me about her internship advocating for Latinx reproductive rights at the State Capitol. I showed her my series of interviews with Latina creatives in the South. For the first time in our years of knowing each other, we talked openly about our parents' upbringings, our sibling dynamics, the family we both had in our respective home countries.

More than anything else, we talked about music. We blasted old Daddy Yankee albums in her car, reminiscing on childhoods spent falling asleep in a random bedroom at a party while our parents got down to "Lo Que Pasó, Pasó" with their friends in the living room. And we made our own versions of their rituals, learning every word to Ozuna's new singles and analyzing the political messaging in Bad Bunny's music videos.

As often as we could, we went on sacred missions to La Choloteca, the best queer Latinx dance party in Atlanta. La Choloteca is a revolutionary space of joy and community for Latinx folks in the South — it blends traditional salsa with psychedelic cumbia remixes, nostalgic Juan Luis Guerra tracks with Tomasa del Real. It transcends generations of cultural touchpoints, putting middle-aged couples flawlessly dancing merengue alongside wide-eyed college kids just dipping their toes into their heritage.

Every night, without fail, the DJ played Shakira's 90s bop "Ciega, Sordomuda." As soon as that first "ay, ay, ay" blared through the venue, Lizzie and I ran straight to the middle of the dance floor.

Shakira's pop prowess requires no explanation at this point: Her career spans over two decades, with enough Grammys, reinventions and A-list collaborations to earn her place onstage at this year's Super Bowl halftime show. But "Ciega, Sordomuda" marks a turning point in her stardom. Following two early '90s albums that underperformed, the Colombian teenager splashed into the Latin rock scene with 1995's Pies Descalzos, gaining fans across Latin America. For her 1998 follow-up, she enlisted the help of producer and industry legend Emilio Estefan to create the career-defining Dónde Están los Ladrones? — an odyssey of romance and heartbreak, rage and self-awareness that launched her into the international spotlight. She released "Ciega, Sordomuda" as the first single, a ranchera-tinged pop track about a love so strong it's left her blind and stupefied. The song stayed at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Latin Tracks chart for weeks and became an instant anthem for lovesick Latinxs everywhere.

The success of Ladrones led her to her next big break. Throughout the '90s, MTV's Unplugged series of stripped-down, intimate concerts had produced a handful of monumental live albums, with performances by Nirvana, Eric Clapton and Mariah Carey that fans would come to embrace as definitive. Shakira's MTV Unplugged special taped in August 1999 in New York City, and was released as an album on Feb. 29, 2000. It was the first time a Latina solo act had headlined the series, and it served as a major introduction to the English-speaking world, despite being performed entirely in Spanish.

Around the concert's midpoint, Shakira introduces "Ciega, Sordomuda" to a cheering audience. Then comes a surprise, as she invites mariachi band Los Mora Arriaga onstage, and together they launch into a completely new arrangement of the song. She discards the steady disco tempo of the original, sliding slowly into the trumpet trills of the intro before picking up pace. She enters a sort of zapateado dance with the band members, emphasizing the ranchera-inspired rhythm as she finally sings the opening lines:

Se me acaba el argumento
Y la metodología
Cada vez que se aparece frente a mí tu anatomía

From the start of the song, she declares that she loses her grasp on argument and methodology anytime her lover is before her. The drawn-out instrumentals emphasize the romanticism of the words, the helplessness she feels over her emotions. The band howls in the background, encouraging her long-winded revelation. Then there's a triumphant chorus, in which she's clumsy and stubborn around this person and yet can't escape their grip over her.

Bruta, ciega, sordomuda
Torpe, traste y testaruda
Es todo lo que he sido
Por ti me he convertido

The breakdown brings the dizzying spell to a climax. She rapidly lists off all the ways she's spiraling — she's got eyebags, she's lost weight, she's completely disheveled. And yet, underneath all this, she's still pleading: I love you. I'm at your mercy. Will you please just love me back? In place of the studio version's prominent electric guitar, the accordion leads the charge.

As Lizzie has poetically explained to me, in Mexico, mariachi music serves the highest purpose of getting girls and getting wasted. Serenading a potential lover with a mariachi band is the ultimate move to winning their heart — and onstage, Shakira seems clear on that intent. I'd had vague memories of watching her MTV Unplugged as a child in Venezuela, and later on DVD at my aunt's house in Georgia. But it wasn't until I began regularly bopping to it with Lizzie that I rediscovered the performance on YouTube, and it became my preferred way of listening to the song, in honor of my baile-loving Mexican best friend.

The beauty of "Ciega, Sordomuda" is that it isn't a song about the sparkly, rose-tinted parts of being in love, but almost the antithesis: an admission of just how dumb, illogical and reckless you can become when you find someone who shakes the ground you walk on. Hearing the two versions back to back only deepens that dichotomy. The studio version sounds like the polished relationship recap you give your friends at brunch, when you're willing to admit you're in deep but you pretend you've got it under control; it's consistent and upbeat in spite of its message. The mariachi serenade is the late-night party version — the filterless, weepy confession that you're an absolute mess and don't know what to do, and yet you can't walk away from the hope that something good is waiting on the other side of this torture.

MTV Unplugged would win Shakira a Grammy for best Latin pop album. Barely a year later, she would complete her crossover, trading in her black and red braids for blonde curls, and her punk-chick attitude for her first English-language record, Laundry Service. But Unplugged was the statement that cemented her status as a Latin rock icon, the last time she truly belonged to us. In the video of the performance, after "Ciega, Sordomuda '' concludes, she shouts, "Que viva Mexico! Que viva Colombia! Que viva nuestra Latinidad!" The moment — the use of that platform to celebrate our culture and experiences, even when she was still unknown to many of the people watching at home — feels huge, even now.

Twenty years later, when the song rang out at La Choloteca and sent me and Lizzie running to the center of the room, I could hear the phases of our relationship in its words. There are the surface-level niceties of catching up with an old friend, someone who's seen you through your awkward scene phase and first kiss and senior prom. There is the conscious vulnerability of really opening up — of letting someone into the darkest parts of yourself, when you're heartbroken or angry or lonely — and choosing to love one another even in that very worst state, at our most torpe, traste y testaruda. And there is joy in the face of it all — the joy of finally feeling proud to speak to each other in Spanish with your best friend, of telling her the whole truth about yourself when you're hopeless and sad and can't untangle the mess in your own head, of being supported and understood and held in her arms for the four minutes it takes your favorite Shakira song to play.

Love can warp the senses, skew your perception; it can narrow your vision and shut out all reason. Or it can do the opposite. Sometimes love opens you up to something you didn't realize you needed but was there all along. It can just take a failed relationship, a dance party in a dive bar, or a song about being blinded by your emotions, to see it.

Isabella Gomez Sarmiento is a 2019 NPR Kroc Fellow.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
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