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This is the title track and first single from Alicia Keys' fifth studio album. Said the singer: "Before making this record, in some ways I felt like a lion locked in a cage. I felt like a girl misunderstood that no one really knew, I felt like it was time to stop making excuses for any part of my life that I wanted to change. Once I made that choice I became a Girl on Fire, the lion broke free!!" The song was made available on iTunes and radio on September 4, 2012.
The phrase "The girl on fire" is familiar to fans of the Hunger Games novels and movie as a description of its protagonist Katniss Everdeen. Keys told Entertainment Weekly: "I wrote this way before The Hunger Games came out, but they did approach me to do a song for it - the timing just didn't work out."
A remixed version of the single was released on September 6, 2012. "Girl On Fire (Inferno)" features an opening verse by Nicki Minaj in which she rhymes of being haunted by the ghost of Marilyn Monroe. The female rapper previously sung about the film icon on her Pink Friday Roman Unloaded
track, "Marilyn Monroe
." Minaj goes on to proclaim, "I got 'em aggy, cause I win the gold like Gabby," referencing the teenage gold-winning Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas. Minaj also delivers a second verse toward the end of the track, in which she shouts out to her Barbz fans.
At the 2012 MTV Video Music awards, Douglas and her Olympic teammates introduced Keys when she performed this song. After Minaj appeared and rapped her verse, Douglas came on stage and did a few backflips.
Asked by Billboard magazine about Minaj's inclusion on the Inferno remix, Keys said: "Well Nicki's a girl on fire. Nicki and I are maybe what seems like from two different worlds but in actuality, girls on fire are from everywhere.
It doesn't matter who you are," she continued, "how you are, in what way you express it - that's what's important about it. I think the rhyme that she did on the Inferno version of 'Girl On Fire' is really special. I think it's really a very raw, honest Nicki that I really love."
The song and album title was inspired by an Essence article Keys read about herself in which senior writer Jeannine Amber used "girl on fire" to describe the songstress. Keys recalled to Entertainment Weekly: "When I read that line, it was so crazy impactful to me, and I carried that title around for months. I knew that I was going to name the album that."
The Sophie Muller directed music video features Keys as a super mom performing a number of household tasks, including using magic to clean her house and tidying her kids toys away with a click of her fingers. "We spent weeks thinking about this music video to explain how every woman is a #girlonfire!" she tweeted from the video set.
This samples the drum track from Billy Squier's 1980 song "The Big Beat." Having come up with the lyrical concept, Keys then asked herself what does a tune called 'Girl on Fire' sound like? She decided to listen to some of the songs that inspire her. "I'd come in and listen to music," Keys told The Observer. "I was listening to some Frank Ocean, definitely some old stuff, like Nina Simone. Just whatever I thought on the day – an easy vibe, not to put too much pressure on it. And then maybe I had a rough idea, maybe something I'd started, or I'd write a little bit, or if I had an idea, I'd put the idea down. Maybe it was just piano and I'd sing some vocals for it; just see if I liked it."
Keys shared the Girl on Fire concept when she was in the studio with the producers Jeff Bhasker and Salaam Remi. After the trio tried different chords and melodies without success, Remi moved to the computer. "He started going through his sample library and all these different crazy drums," the songstress recalled to The Observer. "And there were these loud, obnoxious, just destructive drums, and I was like, yeah! A girl on fire is loud and obnoxious and destructive and totally unrelenting and she's free, you know what I mean?" She'd found her sound; now she could start her song. "That's what a girl on fire sounds like."
The song appears to borrow a couplet from the Leon Carr and Earl Shuman penned song "Hey There Lonely Boy," which was released by Ruby and the Romantics in 1963. It became a chart hit in 1970 when Eddie Holman recorded the tune as "Hey There Lonely Girl
." The similarity was first noticed by blogger Roger Friedman at Showbiz 411
. After reading the post, Shuman contacted Friedman, writing, "Hi Roger, I am the co-writer of 'Hey There Lonely Girl' and I appreciate your recognizing an important part of 'Lonely Girl' in Alicia Keys' new recording." He then filed a copyright infringement lawsuit in a California federal court accusing Keys of using parts of song without permission.
Keys reworked some words when she performed a unique version of the song at the inauguration ball to celebrate the start of Barak Obama's second term in office. "He's living in a world and it's on fire," she sang, to honor the occasion. "That was just me being silly because I like to have fun like that and also it was just me on the piano so I wanted to do something kind of special, unique and just have a good time," Keys told UK radio station Capital FM. "I mean, it's a festive environment, it's a really incredible moment so I just figured this would be cute."
Maroon 5 performed this with Keys at the 2013 Grammy Awards, where they also played Maroon 5's "Daylight
The song's crossover appeal was demonstrated by it becoming the first tune in five years to land in the top 10 of both Billboard
's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and Adult Pop Songs airplay charts. So what was the previous hit to land in the top 10 of both tallies? It was Keys' own "No One
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