They say music is the best medicine

Listen to this article


Shakira, the Colombian pop star, has two therapists. “I like to get a second opinion,” she explained in a recent magazine interview, though sadly she did not reveal what either analyst thinks of her latest English-language album, Oral Fixation Vol. 2, whose cover depicts her as Eve in the Garden of Eden, naked and holding an apple beside the Tree of Knowledge, in whose branches lurks a small baby determinedly reaching out for the forbidden fruit.

You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to find this pretty rum stuff, an effect heightened by the album’s lyrics, clearly written by someone for whom English is a second language. “Told you I felt lucky with my humble breasts,” Shakira enigmatically informs us at one point. Elsewhere she addresses a lover: “I love the temperature and smell of your body/The shape of your lips/The size of your nose.”

It may be clumsy but her phrasemaking is startlingly vivid too. “I’d like to be the kind of dream you’d never share,” she croons to a would-be suitor. “I’d like to be the first white hair upon your head.” And I like her teasing reminiscence of a time when “I spoke so little English/That the word ‘stress’ would sound like something odd”. You can imagine her analysts trying to puzzle that one out.

Her music is equally unpredictable, blending such wildly divergent styles as Gregorian chanting, Middle Eastern rhythms, mariachi trumpets and thumping dance-pop into a Shakira-shaped whole. This fluidity, combined with the free-
associative nature of her lyrics, gives her album a dream-like quality. It is as if we are peeking into her unconscious, a sensation rarely encountered among the rote expressions and formulaic arrangements heard so often in mainstream pop.

For all her changeability, however, Shakira’s default musical mode is basically soft-rock, which, it struck me while listening to an-other new album, Pink’s intensely self-absorbed I’m Not Dead, is the standard sound of pop therapy.

Pink is the American pop star whose biggest hit came in 2001 with her Missundaz-stood album, a feisty R&B-accented take on girl power. Since then she has matured towards rock and big ballads, the predominate styles on I’m Not Dead, in between spikier, more youthful songs. The lyrics are confessional (“I’m not scared, just changing,” she tells us on the title track, as if making a teetering crossing from teen-pop to adult-oriented rock), a tone that reaches its culmination in the song “Conversations with My 13-Year-Old Self”, which Pink has described as “a huge therapy session”, where over swelling piano chords she reaches out to her younger self while emoting lyrics such as “You’re angry, I know this” and “You’re lonely, I feel this”. It’s not so much a group hug as a self-hug.

Slick yet emotional, Pink follows in the footsteps of Alanis Morissette, who brought anger and anguish to adult-oriented rock on Jagged Little Pill (which Pink seems to allude to when she sings about a “bitter little pill” in “Long Way to Happy”). Whereas male performers such as James Blunt and Coldplay make emotional music that says little about their emotions, Pink follows a tradition of young female singers who manage to sound simultaneously overwrought, candid and polished.

Why is rousing, airbrushed rock like hers such a popular vehicle for psychodrama? Perhaps because the music, with all those surging, simple choruses and climax after climax, enacts its own resolution. Its structure and mood are upbeat and defiant, a soundtrack for us to punch the air and sing along to as our troubles melt away. It is about venting and moving on and channelling: it is the music of pop psychology.

Pop has its gloomy axis in bands such as Joy Division or The Cure. It can be feelgood in the face of adversity, as in Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” or The Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out”. But for catharsis and emotional melodrama, nothing beats a soft-rock anthem.

Shakira’s ‘Oral Fixation Vol. 2’ is out now. Pink’s ‘I’m Not Dead’ is released on April

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.