The Status Report of an Independent Woman: Alicia Keys, Girl on Fire

By Daniel Garrett

Alicia Keys, Girl on Fire
Conceptualized and produced by Alicia Keys
RCA, 2012

When Alicia Keys sings of feeling beleaguered by, and freed from, a great force or presence, is that a lover, a parent, an industry, or society? The sum of all? Alicia Keys’ passion for creativity, self-respect, personal acceptance, and independence—her passion for power—is one that any sensitive or thoughtful person can identify with. The acceptance by others of one’s ambitions and emotions is not assured, and is not enough: one needs to be able to protect and sustain oneself, and make positive plans for change, or implement penalty, when circumstances and relationships are not as one desires. Alicia Keys, in interviews and songs, has made freedom a principal subject. She is an artist I like and respect, but I find her consistent concern with independence worrying, and not because I do not understand or respect that mission, but because, despite her affirmations, some aspect of that desired state seems to elude her. Is it that no matter how conscious we are, and no matter how free, there are things always beyond our knowledge and control? Some of Alicia Keys’ songs on Girl on Fire, intended as a document of inspiration and integrity, are strong—with a focused clarity and an appealing groove—but some of the songs seem meandering: is it that they are spiritually searching, or not sure about what would define significance? The album Girl on Fire contains the songs “Brand New Me,” “Fire We Make,” “Not Even the King,” and “101.” It is worth a listen, but I do not think it is the great work toward which she is moving.

What does it mean to be free in a world in which old establishment institutions—in government, finance, academia, media, and most of civil society—still cross-ratify each other and throw up personnel who become public authorities whether or not their perspectives have originality, insight, or valuable use? What does it mean to be free in a world in which many ordinary people are not comfortable with the serious, the sincere, the singular, or the sophisticated, but prefer the sexual, the silly, the sinister, the superstitious, and the stupid? It is enough to drive a poet to mad alliteration. What are the things that a singer-songwriter sings about when she feels free? Does she, engaging in the study, thinking, discipline, and effort required for art, sing about the importance of freedom, or let her mind and heart range more widely? Are there songs about ancestors, books, children, clouds, compassion, cooking, corruption, death, dogs, drugs, family, feminism, films, fishing, flowers, folklore, friendships, history, hunting, illness, imagination, jealousy, joy, justice, lakes, letters, lust, machines, meditation, myths, paintings, and old people? Songs about dreams and regrets? Songs about the betrayals and delusions of the self? Alicia Keys’ Girl on Firedoes not take on new subjects but it is not a repeat of old melodies and rhythms, and that means that the listener has to pay attention to identify what is really there to discern its value. Effort is not a strange requirement for anything that matters, but it can be a dangerous thing for popular culture, for which ease is expected. The live instrumentation and raucous sound, the sense of live music and improvisation, are charming for the spontaneous atmosphere, but there is also a possible lack of refinement, of a polished quality, that can be troubling. Is the work here as good as it could be? “When It’s All Over” has a loose improvised feel—and ends with a few words from Alicia Keys’ baby boy (a la Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely?”). It is more like the vamp at the end of a song rather than a finished song—it is not pretty, not prepossessing. On the title song “Girl on Fire” is rapper Nicky Minaj, a comic presence rather than an intellectual or musical presence; and her participation is similar to most rappers in relation to singers (slight, crude, not significant). The sentiment of “Not Even the King” is admirable—love is greater than material things—and the basic groove attractive but there is no new creative or emotional breakthrough in the song. Not every thought, even if inspired by life, is an actual insight. Documentation is not automatically art: art is what is added to life, the beauty and craft and illumination. Inspiration does not happen just because you pay a collaborator for it either.

The self-assertion of an intelligent, strong, successful young woman is not difficult to feel empathy or respect for, but it is up to the individual listener to conclude if a singer’s declarations of independence are necessary or the self-indulgence of fame. Who has not felt the same, thought the same: I want to be myself, and pursue my own goals? Yet, how often is expressing that of concern or worth to others, to any but our closest friends and associates? One listens and listens again. The piano introduction that opens the collection is a Keys motif, a reflexive trait. “I found a brand new kind of free,” she sings in the song “Brand New Me,” feeling strengthened. “I don’t need your opinion,” she asserts. A funky, percussive rumble begins “When It’s All Over,” a song about what the narrator expects to recount at life’s end—love (this is the tune with her baby son heard at its end). “Listen to Your Heart” seems rhythm-and-blues with jazz accents. “New Day” is brassily rhythmic, almost martial—an enthusiastic piece, but I wish it were stronger on melody, and I feel the same about the song “Girl on Fire,” which has the willed theatricality of an old-fashion musical stage show (I would not have expected that last song to be popular but it is). An erotic soul ballad, “Fire We Make,” with the singer Maxwell, is the best of the first seven songs on the album, evoking a compelling mood: direct, earthy, lingering, sensual, and tender. “Tears Always Win,” a song about loneliness with a relaxed rhythm, harkens back to an old soul sound too, with a male chorus. “I found the world in you,” sings Keys in “Not Even the King,” comparing love to wealth, the sound of her voice strong. The songs that emphasize her voice and have more controlled music please me more than the busy, instrumentally frantic songs. The musical support in “That’s When I Know,” a song with expressive singing, sounds like acoustic guitar. Yet, I am somewhat ambivalent about the emphatic rhetoric of some of the songs, such as “Limitless,” about growth and infinite love. (Have you, dear reader, seen evidence of infinite love lately? It may be as rare as absolute freedom—and unicorns.) The purpose of art is complex: that is, to exercise discipline, and to create a craft of beauty that survives time, and to give vision and voice to experiences and emotions, and to dignify and illuminate thought. Yet the focus and force of an artist can inspire skepticism too. Is the work we are given a revelation or willful self-delusion? The song “One Thing” allows the narrator the consideration of doubt and sadness, as does “101,” and both are more believable for that.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader