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On Alicia Keys’ mediocre, confusing presidential serenade

On Alicia Keys’ mediocre, confusing presidential serenade
Alicia Keys performs at the Public Inaugural Ball in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 21, 2013.
(Mario Tama / Getty Images)
Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic

Sometimes casual assuredness can be a good thing: President Obama and  First Lady Michelle Obama walking down Pennsylvania Avenue after the second inauguration in Washington, D.C., for example, was an exercise in such confidence. But other times, ill-advised casualness can go wrong, as it did during Alicia Keys’ much discussed performance at the Public Inaugural Ball at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, one of two official inaugural balls on Monday night.

The first mistake she made was to opt for a medley, as ungratifying a maneuver as can be done onstage. Beginning by tossing off a loose version of “New Day,” Keys traced out a minimal keyboard melody while singing an aspirational song about rebirth and renewal. Halfway through, though, and before she’d developed any sort of momentum, Keys switched to “Girl on Fire,"  except with new lyrics she seemed to have banged out with little regard for meaning.

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“He’s president and he’s on fire/Hotter than a fantasy, longer like a highway,” she sang, turning the autobiographical song of determination into an increasingly awkward presidential ode. “He’s living in a world and it’s on fire/Filled with catastrophe but he knows he can fly away,” she went on to sing, and to my ears the suggestion here is that the president just may cut and run when the going gets tough.

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“He’s got both feet on the ground,” she continued, “and he’s burning it down/Got his head in the clouds/As he’s not backing down.” Did anyone else interpret that to mean he’s out of touch and stubborn? And how can anyone burn down the ground? She then went into a recast version of the song’s chorus: “Obama’s on fire! Obama’s on fire! He’s walking on fire! Obama’s on fire!”

Perhaps he’s the devil? No? Then, why in the following line did Keys sing, “Everyone stands as he goes by/They can see the flames that’s in his eyes/Watch him as he’s lighting up the night.” OK, maybe I misread it. She was just saying he’s a charismatic guy.

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Then Keys acknowledged that the president, hot though he may be, is taken -- “Everyone knows Michelle is his girl/And together they run the world -- and we’re gonna let it burn, let it burn,” and in these lyrics she seemingly confirmed the fear of many right-wing conspiracy theorists.

“Obama’s on fire,” concluded Keys. Good to know. Maybe Hank Williams Jr. could cover the song next.

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Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit

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