I’ve never cared for Alicia Keys. “Fallin'” may be the song that launched her career and got butchered at countless American Idol auditions, but “frontin'” is the verb I associate with her. Yet articulating these feelings means checking any impulse to serve as the race police. Where does a white southern girl get off calling a New Yorker of mixed racial heritage a phony?
A few months ago, I was tipsy in my house. The Grammy nominations were announced, and I went on a rant about the Arcade Fire. Deeming them Grammy bait, this dovetailed into me yelling about Taylor Swift and then, as if the heavens parted, I announced that Alicia Keys is exactly like Swift. My reasoning was that they both project an air of authenticity that I think makes them even more artificial. They also let Grammy voters feel really progressive for championing young women and artists of color, even though both artists do very little to upset traditional notions of gender and race. Also, it don’t hurt that they’re pretty and align with conventional (re: white) beauty standards. Or something like that. You’d have to ask my partner what I actually said. He thought I had a point and should explore it in a post, but he probably also thought the drunk lady needed a nap.
Shortly thereafter, I attended a bachelorette party. Back at the hotel, one of the guests put on As I Am as we were getting ready to throw lingerie at our friend (I bought a gift card to a local fetish boutique; I’m liberated, but I’m not the friend who buys you drawers). “Superwoman” came on and one of my friends mused “I really like this song.” Given the proceedings, and that the honoree was a friend from the college feminist group I was involved in, it was somewhat in the spirit of the evening. I think I gave said friend a reassuring nod and poured myself a margarita.
In theory, I like “Superwoman.” It’s got a nice message. I thought it was cool when Keys performed it with Queen Latifah and Kathleen Battle at the American Music Awards a few years back. As a feminist, I should like it. But I just can’t get into Keys. I’m bracketing off her film career, though I do want to see Smoking Aces and The Secret Life of Bees at some point. I do like one Keys song, which is also off As I Am. “Teenage Love Affair” is pretty catchy. But my enjoyment has much to do with “(Girl) I Love You” by the Temprees, which Keys’ hit generously samples from. The strings, groove, and backing beat all inform Keys’ track and make it irresistible. Keys’ vocals fluctuate between gleeful innocence and carnal grit. The lyrics, though trite, suggest expressions of teen female sexuality too complex and conflicted for the virgin/whore binary.
But I’m not fond of the video, which repurposes Spike Lee’s School Daze. The source material is a disquieting film about the political life and troubling race and gender relations at a historically black college. The clip is a sweet love story between two college students (played by Keys and Derek Luke). Luke’s character registers as sensitive because he leads demonstrations for AIDS relief in Africa (he also lines up with Keys’ charity work). Vaughn Dunlap’s anti-aparthied efforts in School Daze didn’t suggest he was an enlightened male. Like many progressive males, his activism often engendered deeply ingrained chauvinism, misogyny, and elitism.
People treat Keys like a Serious Artist when I think she’s silly. When the press dubs certain musicians as Serious Artists, I’m automatically incredulous and looking for threads to pull (I did come around on Joanna Newsom and Antony Hegarty, though). Molly Lambert recently compared Keys to fellow New Yorker Billy Joel in a write-up on “Un-thinkable,” which placed 64th on Pitchfork’s Top 100 Tracks last year. I get the comparison–they’re piano-playing balladeers with an Empire state of mind. It’d be pretty cool if Keys had a defunct metal band in her closet, though I’ll take her Cosby Show cameo.
More than anything, Keys reminds me of world-class showboater Céline Dion, who is completely artless about how her big dumb feelings play out on stage. Keys’ scenery-chewing performance of “Adore” during the Prince medley at the BET Awards? Totally a Dion move. Actually, I’d really like to see Dion roll around on a piano. Wait, no I wouldn’t. Okay, yes I would. Keys doesn’t have Dion’s pipes, but she pumps love songs with such empty bombast that it becomes ridiculous. Maybe I just filter too many things through irony. Or maybe I think there’s something hollow about her performed earnestness. It’s probably both. Back me up, Maria Bamford.
Not that Billy Joel is above being a silly goose. What is boomer pablum like “We Didn’t Start the Fire” if not dead serious and, thus, sublimely silly. Damn you, Cola wars!
There’s also something insidious about the racial politics of Keys’ critical success. Upon arrival, I was always suspicious that the press and music industry embraced Keys in response to Lauryn Hill’s rapid artistic decline. In 1999, Hill swept the Grammys. By 2002, Hill went into hiding and Keys was the lauded newcomer. Both dropped out of Columbia, won Best New Artist, and had the burden of model minority status to deal with. But Keys was the one with a steady career. She latched on to political causes that relied on institutional reform rather than radical action. Hill made one of the best records of the 90s and then promptly got branded as crazy, in part for questioning a racist music industry. One fit in, the other dropped out. Given her status, Keys was able to assert an urban black female identity, so long as it was diluted and palateble to a white audience. She did this largely through sartorial choices and in generic identification that could accomodate a mass audience.
I would imagine the presence of Keys’ white mother eased some people’s concerns. It certainly seemed to give her allowances. When she wed Swizz Beats, who was married when they got together, few raised an eyebrow. The rumor mill was not so kind to Fantasia Barrino. But I’m not making any pronouncements that Keys plays up her blackness or projects a studied black authenticity. I will say that I think it is a performance, and one I don’t particularly care for, but will leave it at that. Stronger claims are dangerous. I have no right to assume how Keys conceptualizes her identity.
Furthermore, I don’t know how one negotiates mixed heritage and issues of passing and representing. Having seen friends work through it, I can gather that it’s a fraught ongoing process but refuse to offer judgment over something I can never experience. Nor am I intending to blame Keys for benefiting from institutional racism, as I’m sure she could tell me some stories. What I am saying is that there’s something profoundly unsettling about a music industry that treats talented black women as replaceable. I am also saying Keys has benefited from this system. As has Beyoncé, an artist I like but gave me pause after she donned blackface and performed for Hannibal Gaddafi.
I don’t have a tidy conclusion to offer. I’m still struggling with why I don’t like Alicia Keys and what racist underpinings might inform my disdain. I’m tempted to chalk it up to having little regard for a competent musician championing love one bland pop song at a time, but I know it’s never that simple.