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Next Gen Favorites: the Alicia Keys Tiny Desk concert

Looking for the thrill of live music during lockdown, I turned to NPR

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Illustration by Ari Liloan for The Verge

Life is weird: one minute I’m dancing in a concert mosh pit, happily crammed among strangers like a sardine in a can, and then bam — pandemic. The can tilts, the music stops, and I’m flopping around without the thrill and connection of live music at a packed venue, my favorite place on Earth.

But since lockdown, I’ve managed to find one important substitute: NPR’s Tiny Desk concerts. 

Tiny Desk concerts are exactly what they sound like: an artist performs while residing behind, well, a rather tiny desk. The series has been running since 2008, starting with indie acts like Dr. Dog and the Avett Brothers, and moving to huge names like Taylor Swift and Megan Thee Stallion in recent years. The setting is casual, the performance is laid-back — it can be as basic as an artist and an instrument — and the songs are often stripped to their core.

Big deal, right? Actually, I’m so glad you asked. It’s a huge deal, even if it doesn’t seem like much at first glance. Though I appreciate the in-your-face experience of a concert (it’s hard to forget your boyfriend dragging you from a mosh pit after getting hit in the face), the magic of Tiny Desk is in its simplicity. It’s just music and people in a room, a pairing very much missed for the past year and a half.

Many of my favorite Tiny Desk concerts were released toward the beginning of the pandemic. There’s King Princess’ gentle serenade, and Harry Styles’ playful laughter as he cracks jokes with the audience — two videos that fill me with an incomparable warmth, time and time again. 

But the one that’s stuck with me for the longest time is a performance by Alicia Keys. Recorded in February of 2020 and published the following June, the video begins with Keys telling the audience that she “just wanted to vibe out” with them. And vibe out she does. Everything about this performance — from her invitation for the audience to join her as she sings, to her unwavering smile as she plays along with her band — is exactly what music is about: coexisting with the ones around you. 

As she plays the introductory chords to her song “Show Me Love,” Keys speaks about needing love “more than ever before” because “that’s really what links us.” I remember getting chills despite the unbearable summer heat, thinking how heart-wrenching it was that her call for unity had been recorded a month before the world went into lockdown.

I think that’s what I cherish most about this performance. It was uploaded during a time when the world was in desperate need of love, and Alicia Keys gave me an awful lot to cling to. It wasn’t just the wisdom and mindfulness she demonstrated through the duration of the show, but the way she poured her soul into the music and how she embraced the audience before her, praising them for their voices, offering everyone in the room — the audience, her band — a collective sense of belonging and purpose. The natural chemistry between the individuals in that room made me forget about the drudgery I had been stuck on and instead consider the value of human connection that I once took for granted. Even through a screen, music can connect. 

As I’ve watched the world revert to something resembling the normalcy of life before the year 2020, the Alicia Keys Tiny Desk concert has remained a consistent source of comfort that I’ve often turned to. It’s been the accompaniment to my happiest and saddest days, but each time, it has been exactly what I need: a gentle reminder that life is not everlasting but we will always have these humbling tidbits of humanity. This Tiny Desk concert is my treasured digital artifact. It’s my reminder that music is boundless, and that despite the ever-changing world we exist in, it is the universal constant — the one thing that helps us make sense of our existence.

And if nothing else, Tiny Desk confirmed that “Fallin’” is a damn masterpiece. It’s not mosh-pit material, but I would still do anything to be a sardine in that crowd.

Andrea Plascencia is an 18-year-old writer and first year student at Rice University. If she’s not pacing around anxiously, you can probably find her rewatching Gilmore girls.