"Girl on Fire"
The phrase "girl power" seeped into pop culture's lexicon in the mid-1990s, a few years before R&B songstress Alicia Keys' multiplatinum 2001 debut, Songs in A Minor. She ran with it. And 11 years later she's still carrying the torch with "Girl on Fire," the title track from her fifth studio album.
Since last we heard from the gifted singer and pianist in 2009, she's tied the knot with producer Swizz Beatz and given birth to a son she named Egypt. "I never even saw myself getting married," she told Rolling Stone, "[but] it's made me so much lighter, so much more honest. I have a partner who encourages me to be myself. And I wasn't always encouraged to be myself." Regarding Girl on Fire, Keys recently told Billboard, "This is me stepping into my complete womanhood, my journey to becoming fearless."
Those messages of fearlessness, acceptance and affirmation permeate "Girl on Fire." Or at least they do on Keys' solo version of the song. The "Inferno Remix" that's charting on the Hot 100—a version that includes Nicki Minaj's tortured take on this subject—is more scattershot. And we'll get to that in minute. Let's start with Keys' solo version:
Against the backdrop of a booming, martial drumbeat sampled from rocker Billy Squier's 1980 song "The Big Beat," Keys sets the stage with this opening line: "She's just a girl and she's on fire." Keys doesn't waste any time defining what that fire consists of.
It begins with her smoldering sexuality—arguably the only suggestive or problematic content in the song. "Hotter than a fantasy," Keys sings. But after that, thankfully, she turns her focus to several other aspects of this young woman's fiery character. The song contrasts the sorry shape of the world in general ("She's living in a world, and it's on fire/Filled with catastrophe") with her ability to rise above tragedy ("But she knows she can fly away"). The pre-chorus tells us that this youth is both down to earth ("She's got both feet on the ground") and a passionate dreamer ("She's got her head in the clouds"). She's determined, too ("And she's not backing down").
All that adds up to a spectacularly incendiary life, which the chorus emphasizes is a beautifully positive thing.
Then there's the "Inferno Remix," which features rapper Nicki Minaj. And instead of just hearing Keys' relatively straightforward and positive take on female empowerment, something completely different gets added. I think Minaj is trying to address the same theme. But her approach to it is nothing short of bizarre:
Minaj raps—it seems—about the ghost of Marilyn Monroe coming to visit, then tormenting and tempting her to get drunk, take pills and kill herself: "Spirit of Marilyn/Callin' me audibly, bawlin' she/Said that she would never leave/Continued to torture me/Tellin' me to come with her/Underneath my comforter/And she brought a gun with her/Pills and some rum with her/Tip me on the balcony/Tellin' me to jump with her."
Minaj rejects the celebrity spirit's suggestions, spouting, "Yeah, I'm in the ghost, but I ain't doin' stunts with her/I ain't tryin' to be that/Haters want to see that." And then, piling strange onto the weird, Minaj shifts from spectral ruminations to lines about 2012 Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Gabby Douglas: "But I got 'em aggy/'Cause I win the gold like Gabby."
Right, then. The path to empowerment, Nicki Minaj-style. Rejecting tormenting iconic spirits' self-destructive whispers and trying to emulate a champion gymnast instead.
We're not done with Minaj quite yet, though. Things are similarly odd—and differently spiritual—in her second verse. "Dear God, if You're here, God/Make the fire disappear when they stare, God," she chants. "Take away my fear when they interfere, God/Do you fear God?/'Cause I fear God." That leads to a nonsensical, whiplash-inducing rap transition ("And in my backyard, that's a deer, God/And that's a horse ranch"), which leads to her asking for a bit of flattery from her fans ("And to my core fans, keep reppin' me/Do it to the death of me"), and then an interpretation-defying conclusion: "X in the box, 'cause ain't nobody checkin' me."
As for the video, the good news is that it expands upon the song's empowerment themes by featuring a woman (played by Keys) who seems to be a single mother raising three kids and tending to her own aging mother. Throughout, we see her cooking, cleaning and taking care of her family, and she obviously finds great satisfaction in doing so.
The bad news is that Keys isn't content to focus only on demonstrating her domestic capability. Throughout, she wears outfits with a plunging neckline. She pouts sensually and briefly caresses her "hot" self on a couch. The message is clear: Being a good mom and being sexy aren't mutually exclusive. Further, being sexy is apparently a must if you're aiming for fiery.
Not that said sexiness is a means to an married end. A girl on fire may be sexy, we're shown, but she can also take care of herself without a man, thank you very much.
(The "Inferno Remix" version of the video plays similarly, interspersing images of Minaj rapping in a cleavage-baring outfit.)
Keys deserves credit, of course, for delivering a mostly positive, empowering anthem praising women. It's her insistence upon wrapping sexual appeal into the empowerment mix that makes it hard to fully embrace the vision of "complete womanhood" she offers on "Girl on Fire." Oh, and it almost goes without saying that her inclusion of Minaj on the remix is hardly a wholesome thing.