Review: Willow Smith, ‘I Am Me’
‘I Am Me’
Island Def Jam/Universal
Andrew and Dan disdained me for this at the time, but I picked Willow Smith’s ‘Whip My Hair’ as one of my favourite songs of 2010. I still love it. Just the other day I tried to whip my hair, but my glasses fell off.
Admired for its fierceness and pre-emptive hater-repellant qualities, the song was also loathed for its novelty value and for the perceived indulgence of allowing a nine-year-old celebrity scion to record a pop single.
How much of ‘Willow Smith’ was Willow herself, and how much was her fond, cashed-up Hollywood parents? These are, after all, the same people who founded a private primary school run along the principles of Scientology’s dubiously educational Study Technology.
It didn’t help that Smith’s heavily promoted follow-up singles ’21st Century Girl’ and ‘Fireball’ barely made an impression on the charts. ‘Fireball’, especially, was an abject failure, despite the fact it sounded like Santigold, featured Nicki Minaj and had a pretty nifty video shot by Hype Williams.
Leaving aside Willow Smith the person for a minute, Willow Smith the performer is about the intersection between self-determination and age-appropriateness. The former is the individual’s ability to assert their ideas about themselves and their relationship with the world. On the other is the community’s worries about children ‘growing up too fast’ and being unable to fend for themselves in an adult world.
Smith’s public image has never been especially grown-up or sexual, and her songs have dealt with fairly innocuous themes, although her videos have depicted her in a range of glamorous costumes with elaborate makeup. Yet Smith’s self-possession, her ability to be bold and cocky in front of a camera, is enough to give people an impression of something uncannily precocious, and to suspect manipulation behind the scenes. It’s the same thing we worry about when we watch stony-faced prodigy pianists and violinists and imagine their tiger moms lurking backstage.
Her new song was released on YouTube immediately after the 2012 BET Awards (in which Smith was nominated for the YoungStar Award). It’s striking how ordinary – even ostentatiously so – Smith looks, wandering in a city as if she is anonymous when her life so far has been the complete opposite. She has no more hair to whip, literally shearing away that part of her persona, and she wears an oversized shirt that makes her look even more childlike, draping rather than adorning her body.
A commenter at Buzzfeed said, “What does an eleven year old know about being their self?” Funnily enough, I’ve just finished watching Genevieve Bailey’s excellent documentary I Am Eleven, in which Bailey interviewed 23 11-year-old children in 15 countries and 12 languages, over a period of five years, revisiting some interviewees years later. It’s testament to Bailey’s rapport with her subjects that she can reveal just how much an 11-year-old knows about being him- or herself.
It’s fascinating to see how the adults around Bailey’s interviewees regard these kids fondly as evidence of their own achievements, or as hopeful symbols of the future, whereas the kids themselves live in the present, coping with everyday dramas and only thinking of the future in a vague, dreamy way.
So yeah, Willow Smith is entitled to self-determination. But the immediate irony of a song fiercely entitled ‘I Am Me’ is how much Smith resembles her famous father Will. Some of their facial expressions and mannerisms are uncannily alike, leading some observers to liken her to a ‘clone’ of her dad.
More immediately intriguing are the lyrics, in which Smith repeatedly insists “I’m free, and that’s all I can be”, adding “your validation is just not that important to me”. She ends this affirmation with a call to listeners: “Do what you do/Hold your head up high/Everything is gonna be all right/You’re you and I am me/Let’s live in harmony”.
Look, it’s hardly original or earth-shattering stuff, but hey, at her age I wrote a song that went: “Everything’s lonely when you’re not around/The world can’t go round without love”. Everyone has to have a formative encounter with these ideas, and Smith should be defended, not criticised, for recording a song like this, especially when it ends, “You know – YOLO.”
The trouble is that Smith is no Michael Jackson; no child prodigy whose voice is preternaturally mature. There’s a certain rawness to her tone that’s definitely appealing, but it’s still AutoTuned as fuck. Still, the AutoTune operates in a mode I could call ‘electronic intimacy’, where the distinctive bleeps and pitch-bends retain a crunchy electronic echo of the singer’s natural vocal grain, as if they’re being sung right in your ear over the phone. (A great example of this is the breakdown section of David Guetta’s ‘Who’s That Chick’.)
But more importantly: the repetitive melody, the simple piano, the lack of electronics and drums, are a deliberate method to situate ‘I Am Me’ in the terrain of ‘self-help ballads’ – as a pre-teen version of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘True Colors’, Christina Aguilera’s ‘Beautiful’ or Mariah Carey’s ‘Hero’. (Despite its exhortation to show children “all the beauty they possess inside”, Whitney Houston’s ‘Greatest Love of All’ is too grand and panoramic to really be put in this category.)
I just wish I found it as catchy as ‘Whip My Hair’. However, on the bright side, its simplicity does cry out for a dance remix – a challenge I hope gets answered if people are okay with letting Willow Smith be her.