Fifty-Fifty: Alicia Keys by Sarah Jane Mulvey
Alicia Keys is one of those artists that I’ve always loved, but never really vocalized it. When I birthed the idea for this blog, I’ll admit I only had a few solid ideas, mostly involving Sad White Dudes With Guitars, and Sad White Dude Poets. When I realized Ms. Keys had published a poetry book back in 2004, after her album The Diary of Alicia Keys made her a bonafide hit, I was excited to see what her private poetry would reveal about her. Given that the book was published when she was merely twenty-three years old, the poems contained in this volume fluctuate between high school scribbles to therapeutic journal entries from a young woman finding herself in a much bigger world. It actually reminded me quite a bit of Meaghan Moraes’ collection Poems of Her 20’s (shameless Domesticated Primate plug) as I read through pieces that focused on falling in and out of love, finding self-confidence, and reveling in your feminine power.
The collection is woven with commentary from Keys, as she grounds some of her more lyrical poems to specific moments in her life. One of my favorite pieces in the book is titled, "Beckoning Green".
Nothing matters when you’re inside of me
I am of your oldest memory
That place of lives long past
I will last
Keys explains on the adjacent page that she wrote it while travelling via tour bus through Spain. The excitement and coy sexiness within the piece seem perfectly fitting for a young woman travelling alone. What trips me up is that she was in Spain touring the world with her Grammy-winning debut album. It’s a very cool glimpse into a young adulthood that is anything but average.
Some critics have condemned Keys’ writing ability as ‘average, dealing in cliches’, and a pretty sour Washington Post article calls her ‘limited’. It’s strange, because I’ve always found pop music to deal in generalities - that’s what makes it pop. Practically universally applicable sentiments about love, heartbreak and partying are the basis of the genre. Keys is not Aretha Franklin, or Janis Joplin. She is at her core an early 2000’s pop diva, and what sets her apart is the fact that she can play this game practically on her own. She is listed as the sole writing credit on two of her biggest hits, “Fallin” and “If I Ain’t Got You”. If you’re not familiar with either of these monster hits, here’s a bit of “If I Ain’t Got You”.
Hand me the world on a silver platter/ And what good would it be/ With no one to share, with no one who truly cares for me/ Some people want it all/ But I don't want nothing at all/ If it ain't you baby/ If I ain't got you baby/ Some people want diamond rings/ Some just want everything/ But everything means nothing/ If I ain't got you
Now some of you may get mad, but this song always reminds me of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”, a song that is all generalities, but is also one of the best love songs.
Why, why some people break up/ Then turn around and make up/ I just can't see/ You'd never do that to me/(would you, baby)/ Staying around you is all I see
What Keys does to perfection is set her “generic” pop writing to beautiful piano, or sultry R&B hooks, adding a depth and value to her work that can’t be ignored. Pardon my feminism getting riled up here, but the only difference I spot is the generalities that Keys focuses on come from her young, female perspective.
If you’ve enjoyed music or books or movies for any amount of time, you’ve noticed the differences in the way art is received when it’s either by a female artist, or made with a feminine fan base in mind. It’s the same reason Joanne Rowling had to publish Harry Potter under her famous pseudonym. Also why no one will admit that Taylor Swift is actually a pretty decent songwriter when you get right down to it--this last album excluded, I’m not impressed. Keys’ work is the combination of gentle creativity, and powerful business acumen.
Finding Alicia Keys’ poetry was one of the most exciting aspects of starting this series. While her music is certainly accessible, her personal life is pretty quiet. This felt like getting a peek into her notebooks, the unpolished and unedited scribbles that formed the official Diary of Alicia Keys. The creative process is complicated and differs for every artist, but sometimes I feel like I do it wrong. I took a lot of comfort learning that this award-winning, wildly successful woman also writes down her random thoughts in a drug store notebook while sitting on the bus.
Got any suggestions for me? Favorite poets that have a cool spoken word album set to music, or a musician with a less well-known poet hiding inside them? Leave your favorites in the comments, and I’ll add them to by TBR list.