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.
One thing I like to stress when I’m co-teaching music history workshops to girls is that anything can be an instrument. Furthermore, anyone can be in a band. I think band geeks in particular should be in bands. After all, your friends probably need your musical expertise. So don’t be discouraged if you can’t shred on guitar, especially if you can wail on a saxophone. And before you throw Kenny G. in my face, let’s remember that Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen clearly believe that the sax is a rock instrument.
But few people made the saxophone as punk as Lora Logic (born Susan Whitby). Have you ever listened to X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”? Can’t call that easy listening.
When people talk about X-Ray Spex, they tend to focus on Poly Styrene, the band’s lead singer. And, to be fair, there’s a lot to talk about. Marian Said is of Somalian descent, the daughter of a diplomat, and later became a Krishna. When she fronted this band, she was a girl who still had baby fat, wore braces, and screeched songs about environmentalism, consumerism, conformity, and turning plastic and day-glo. Believe the hype.
But Logic deserves praise too. Though she wasn’t in the band for very long — she was out of the group before their debut, Germ Free Adolescents was released — she helped define their sound. Rather than shaping her instrument’s tone into lite jazz’s smooth lines, she squealed and skronked with it, breaking melodies apart with destructive glee. In my book, you can’t get more punk than turning unexpected instrumentation into something seemingly unmusical, then turning that into music.
Of course, other musicians of this period were approaching the saxophone in this manner — no wave pioneer James Chance of The Contortions chief among them. Many of these musicians were also influenced by free jazz legend Ornette Coleman, who began revolutionizing the genre during the 1950s. But there’s something distinct about Logic’s sound — reckless, bright, unpredictable, and pleasantly surprised by and content with the mess she’s making. This sensibility is evident in the work she did with Essential Logic, the group she formed with Phil Legg after leaving X-Ray Spex. It’s a sensibility I hope gets passed on to future generations of girls hoping to make a horrible, beautiful noise.
Hello everyone! I’m coming back from a holiday-related hiatus after a few days at my partner’s parents’ house where I ate, missed Gloria Gaynor and Cyndi Lauper kill it at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, drank wassail, met up with some old friends, gave and received gifts, and beat the entire family at Wii boxing, the last activity leaving my arms and torso surprisingly sore. Oh, and I spent the past few hours belting Neko Case and pre-1986 Billy Joel tunes at full volume on the car ride home. So, I’m a little tired and hungry for leftovers. But to limber up and get back into the swing, I thought I’d offer up a quick post.
Driving back to Austin, I also listened to Smog’s A River Ain’t Too Much to Love. As Bill Callahan is a long-time resident of my fair city, I intended for the album to get my partner and me excited about our return home. But then I remembered a music video off this album that got me thinking about female actors acting in clips for songs by male musicians. What does their presence contribute to a music video and how might it change or deepen a song’s meaning? To be clear, I’m referring to protagonists — not creepy playthings like Kim Basinger’s corpse in Keir McFarlane’s music video for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”
That said, having a female character serve as the lead to a male musical act’s music video doesn’t guarantee a progressive narrative, though does create interesting sites of discourse. She can be problematic as a result of how she’s characterized, what she might suggest about the song’s meaning, or how the director has chosen to frame her. And of course an actress offers her own on- and off-screen personae to the proceedings, often complicating matters when she crosses entertainment mediums.
Click on the song titles below to access the music videos and consider how these actresses’ presences might make meaning. Also, feel free to offer up any other suggestions as well, particularly if you can come up with more representations of actresses of color or any examples of female actors serving as protagonists in hip-hop music videos for songs by male artists.
The Black Crowes
The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion
Directed by Stéphane Sednaoui
“Just Like Anyone“
Let Your Dim Light Shine
Directed by P.J. Hogan
The Chemical Brothers
Dig Your Own Hole
Directed by Spike Jonze
(Aside: I wonder if any Godfather III detractors are at all resentful of me considering the director to be an actress and to spotlight her presence in multiple music videos)
The Chemical Brothers
“Out of Control“
Directed by W.I.Z.
(Aside: I wonder how electronic artists, whose often non-descript physical presences are obscured from packaging, open up the possibilities of who or what can be featured in their music videos)
“I Feel Like the Mother of the World“
A River Ain’t Too Much to Love
Directed by Bryce Kass