Although an album may bear the name of your favorite singer or band, it usually comes as no surprise that a team of songwriters and producers wrote the songs. This isn’t anything new in poplar music; in fact, songwriting for hire is a celebrated bit of popular music history. Our hearts brim with nostalgia as we imagine Carole King and Gerry Coffin huddled over a piano, composing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Aretha Franklin made that song a hit, but had no part in writing the music or lyrics. It doesn't matter, however. That song is hers.
Songwriters gave us the biggest hits of a generation and the artists in the spotlight imparted their unique personality on the tracks. The tradition continues today, albeit in a different form. Songwriters are mostly producers now, tinkering away in their studios and presenting artists with full-fledged productions. Given that artists have always relied on other people to write their hits for them, I’m unsure why Alicia Keys’ latest album, Girl On Fire, bothers me so much. But it does.
I’ve been an Alicia fan since her second album, The Diary of Alicia Keys. I heard the lead single “If I Ain’t Got You” when I was living in South Korea and I immediately headed to the nearest music store to pick up the double CD (the overseas version came with a bonus DVD in one of those beefed up packages. Ah, the days of $18.99 CD prices). The song was a monster hit and rightly so; it showcased her unique blend of pop and R&B, blue notes and soaring anthems that have drawn millions of fans to love her. She followed with another full-length album in 2007, As I Am, which spawned an even bigger hit, “No One.”
But by the time Ms. Keys released her album, Element of Freedom, in 2009, something wasn’t sitting right with me. Obviously, she can sing and play her ass off. The hooks are monstrous, the beats are well produced, and the ballads always smolder just right. It took me a few listens to get a handle on it, but I realized that I felt no personal connection to Alicia. Four albums in and I had no sense of what made her special or different from any other number of popular singers. I realized that I listen to Alicia’s albums to hear the great hooks and superb production, but her lyrics leave me with no idea of what she cares about or values beside the power of cliché and not-so-clever turns of phrase.
There’s a direct line between her lyrical emptiness and the fact that each album boasts a seemingly infinite number of co-producers, collaborators, and co-writers. Girl On Fire is no different. The writers are a veritable who’s who in the R&B world: John Legend, Babyface, Frank Ocean, Bruno Mars, Emile Sande, and a few behind-the-scenes guys who have worked with everyone from Rihanna to Trey Songz. Girl On Fire limps along — a safe, generic album that doesn’t give us any sense of who Alicia is or what she believes in.
What makes me sad about the trajectory of her career is that it doesn’t have to be this way. I follow Alicia on Twitter and she’s passionate about a number of causes. She shares her life — the mundane stuff and the glitz — via Instagram and Facebook with her fans. Why can’t she connect with us by writing her own songs and telling us what she’s passionate about? Instead of delivering lyrics and songwriting full of inspiration and fire, we get a team of all-star co-writers trying to usher in the next top 40 hit. It pains me to say it, but I get more sense of personality from Taylor Swift than Alicia Keys.
Perhaps I’m trying to lump Alicia in with confessional R&B singer-songwriters (Frank Ocean, Maxwell, etc.) when she really belongs with the Rihannas and Ke$has of the world. She’s employing some of the same songwriters after all. I’m really curious about the back-story behind how her albums get made. Does she fight for more control over the songwriting? Does her label push all these folks on her? Do they have doubts that she can write by herself? I think she can. She’s been touted as a musical prodigy versed in classical music and I would be shocked if she didn’t have the chops to write a tune alone.
There’s a larger issue at play when an artist like Alicia Keys makes an album by committee: the commoditization of music. The poplar music world has always been inhabited by manufactured teen sensations and one hit wonders, but artists like Ms. Keys are supposed to be above that. She was never presented as a Psy or Bieber, a passing fad that won’t connect with fans after a few big single or two. Clive Davis pitched her as a unique voice, one of the artists of her generation, and a standard bearer of the great R&B tradition. She sang at Whitney Houston’s funeral for crying out loud. It’s hard to say who is driving the train here — her management? her label? — but there’s clearly an attempt to score Alicia hits at the expense of her art. This approach may net her a top ten single, but it certainly doesn’t bode well for the rest of her career.
Fans don’t want uniform pop stars that sound like everyone else, despite what the label heads may think. The big success stories of the last few years — namely Adele eclipsing the 10 million mark in the US and Mumford & Sons’ second album, Babel, debuting with huge numbers — illustrate that. It’s important to note that both Adele and Mumford had big numbers with their second albums. Listeners wanted to hear Adele sing about the desperation and heartbreak she suffered in her real life. Fans responded in droves to the earnest and straightforward songs from Mumford. There are still music fans out there that want to buy albums that make them feel something.
So my personal plea to Alicia Keys is this: Drop the co-writers and multitude of producers. Hole up in your studio and follow your muse. Listen to Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska. Take chances with your art and strive to bring something transformative and unique. Show us what makes you special. Make us feel something.