The Internet instantly exploded with reactions to the unexpected ululation and its accompanying tongue action. Some viewers were perplexed. Others ridiculed the 43-year-old singer, creating countless memes that likened her to a gleeful turkey, a petulant toddler and characters from Nickelodeon’s “SpongeBob SquarePants” cartoon, among a host of other unflattering comparisons.
It didn’t take long, however, for many to point out that the mocking images and commentary were in poor taste.
Like much of Shakira’s widely heralded performance, which was full of nods to her Colombian and Lebanese heritage, the seemingly random trill actually carried deep cultural significance. To those familiar with Middle Eastern culture, the sound was akin to a traditional Arabic expression of joy and celebration called a zaghrouta. It was also interpreted as a reference to the world-famous Carnaval de Barranquilla, which is held in Shakira’s hometown in Colombia.
Fans tuning into Sunday’s game between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers probably knew they would be in for a treat at halftime. In September, Shakira and singer-actress Jennifer Lopez were announced as the show’s headliners, marking the first time two Latina singers would be performing at the event together. Ahead of Sunday, the pair promised to deliver an “empowering” show, and they didn’t disappoint.
Beyond the spectacle of glittery costumes, laser lights and high-energy dancing, the show was an impactful 15-minute-long homage to the singers’ roots. Shakira peppered her performance with Middle Eastern music and belly dancing while also incorporating elements of Latin American culture. Lopez, born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents, sang her chart-topping anthem “Jenny From the Block” and later donned the U.S. territory’s flag as a reversible cape.
But as the night went on and the Chiefs came away with a dramatic 31-20 victory over the 49ers, it appeared that many had become obsessed with one moment from the halftime show: Shakira’s “tongue thing,” as a number of viewers described it.
Soon, the reactions took on another form: derision.
“Shakira doing the tongue thing should be a meme in 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 …,” tweeted musician Kevin Skaff.
People with knowledge of Arabic and Colombian culture quickly pushed back. They rushed to provide context to Shakira’s performance and by late Sunday, their explanations had become a trending moment on Twitter.
“I really did not plan to wade into Super Bowl Twitter but this is Shakira’s very tongue-y attempt at zaghrouta or a helhoola,” Seattle Times reporter Dahlia Bazzaz tweeted. “It’s not a turkey call.”
Hatem Bazian, a senior lecturer in Near Eastern and ethnic studies at the University of California at Berkeley, told The Washington Post that he immediately recognized the unusual noise as a zaghrouta.
The expression has a “long-standing cultural presence” in countries such as Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, Bazian said. It is most commonly used by women at weddings in call-and-response form, but it has variations that make appearances at graduations and birthdays.
“It definitely has a long history without putting a particular date to it,” he said. “So much so that no wedding or celebration would be complete without having a zaghrouta expression taking place.”
Shakira’s usage can be most closely compared to an American cowboy shouting “yee-haw!” in celebration, Bazian said.
On social media, viewers who understood the sound’s meaning were ecstatic, interpreting it as both a zaghrouta and a reference to one of the traditional dances performed during Carnaval de Barranquilla.
“Shakira was all we had for the longest time,” one person tweeted. “Every Middle Eastern American, especially Lebanese, pointed to Shakira as the one entertainer with massive global appeal and popularity. To have our culture and our rhythms represented up there, even in the smallest way, is massive.”
Various interpretations aside, Bazian praised Shakira’s decision to feature the expression so prominently in her performance, calling it “a very significant nod to cultural diversity.”
“I’m hoping that these conversations will result in a better opportunity to understand and relate to the diversities of cultures that have made America what it is and continue to shape the diversity that we have in our society,” he said.
Teo Armus contributed to this report.