Willow Smith on “Ellen”: This Little Girl Is For Real, and Yet…
As I watched this performance the day before yesterday afternoon, I thought I was watching a baby genius, the equivalent of Judy Garland, Janet Jackson or Shirley Temple, because of the surprise and wonderment she has engendered in a lot of people and fans. Especially because of her age; she has only turned ten years old. That voice is more than just disarming. It’s a grown woman’s voice coming out of a little one’s body.
At the same time, I wanted to protect her. The entertainment business can chew you up; even her parents–well meaning as they could be–could put her through a wringer. Ten-year-olds are now going through changes between their childhood and their teenage years.
I know the summer that I got my first radio and switched to rock and soul stations in San Francisco that music and love and growing up all came together for me. Or rather, it collided. That was when I was nine or ten. I began to develop early and my clothes became tighter. Suddenly, I was watching Where the Action Is, and Lloyd Thaxton, and Shindig! and Hullabaloo and Hollywood-a-Go-Go , but I still watched Saturday morning cartoons with Mighty Mouse and Bugs Bunny.
When everyone was gone from the house, I took advantage of the respite to pose and style in front of my mother’s mirror, trying on her high heels (my feet were too big by then), and putting on bits of the few cool clothes that I had, and repeating dance moves that I’d seen, and finger-popping and bopping to the beat in my head. I wanted to be grown, but I wasn’t. I was still using crayolas on coloring books, and having to bring ID for movie theater because the ticket cashiers wanted to charge me as an adult.
Once I began to develop early, however, my mother was particularly watchful–perhaps too watchful in retrospect–because I was actually younger than what my physical attributes suggested.
The people on these shows, however, were essentially grown. That is, they were at least eighteen or twenty-one, which seemed old to me at that age, but it was an exciting prospect to be grown and taken seriously. There were very few little girls singing adult songs on TV, and that did not include the Lennon Sisters on Lawrence Welk, or Patty Duke. There was still a kind of taboo about it, because it would have given some other people ideas. I remember reading that some people were convinced that Shirley Temple was an adult midget, and not a little girl, because she seemed so knowledgeable and believable and eager to please adults, and thus seemed an easy mark.
Temple also stoked the sexual fantasies of men, and of men in power, who should have known better. I learned that there were as many filthy jokes about Temple as there was about Doris Day, an actress-singer who played virginal but who really wasn’t. This may have been the reason why Temple, who had earlier and successfully fought off these powerful men, was later raped on a train at 14 by the producer of The Wizard of Oz, according to her autobiography, Child Star. (Scroll down to read Bookloversfriend’s review of her book.)
That’s the reason why I feel protective towards Willow Smith. Young girl performers, as well as young boy performers, are singing these adult-sounding songs and are being taken seriously by ‘tweens as well as by adults. The taboo has long been broken, possibly since the early days of Michael Jackson when he was fronting for the Jackson Five. I mean, Smith’s not singing classical crossover like another ten-year-old, Jackie Evancho, who nearly won the America’s Got Talent competition. Because of what she sings, Evancho seems more spiritual and ethereal; she does not necessarily call attention to her sexuality, if at all.
Willow Smith, on the other hand, is working in the hip hop genre, and that means that Smith’s voice is compelling, mature, and sexy, beyond the electronic enhancements. She also dances incredibly well without being too suggestive. She propels that voice out of her little body, and it’s impressive even live. It’s not her fault that she chose hip hop as her genre, it’s still what is cool, and it’s her proximity: her father is an actor and sometime singer. He was, after all, The Fresh Prince. Imitation is still the highest form of flattery–if not self-aggrandizement. I can well imagine the kind of successful career Smith might have if it is carefully managed, and if the girl is not pushed too far or exploited even by people Will and Jada know.
When Smith wept after receiving an award a couple of weeks back, I think that her tears were misunderstood. She really needed a hug; she really needed to be held. It was all too much to take in at her age. People around her should be cognizant of this disconnect between age and maturity, and not blame her for her feelings.
If Smith continues going down this route, it will not be easy, even as she is the daughter of a famous name. The attention span of the American contemporary music audience is quite fickle. She and her parents are going to have to stay on their toes. However, if Beyoncé has ended up relatively well, so to speak and so far, there is no reason why Willow cannot walk it, and walk it proudly as well. I’d like to see how Smith turns out in five or six years–whether she will be jaded, tired, or hopeful, anticipatory, creative. I just hope that she will be happy.