Saturday, April 07, 2007

Singing Black

Over at the L.A. Times, the great music critic Ann Powers has written an interesting examination of the ways that Joss Stone has been criticized for her "black" style of singing. For those of you who don't know, Stone was born in Dover, England, is 19, white, and sings like the second coming of Gladys Knight. After two albums of slavishly faithful attempts to re-create the sound and vibe of classic soul, Stone's new album, "Introducing Joss Stone," was meant to herald the arrival of "the real" Joss Stone, as she took a more hands-on approach to writing and recording the music. The so-so album sounds a lot like her older work (a funny thing to say about someone so young), but it's already on the verge of being deemed a failure in England due to it's low chart placing. As the always insightful Powers explains, part of the album's problem is the way that, even on an album designed to represent her, Stone seems incapable of transcending the soul tradition she's so strongly influenced by: "If there's one fault on 'Introducing,'" writes Powers, "it's that Stone's comfort level with that tradition remains too high. Throughout the album, she sings in a voice she learned from those soul albums; the lilt of coastal England never surfaces."

Powers goes on to write that Stone's "refusal to see [her] identity as artificial" has singled her out for criticism regarding the "right to sing in a black style." It's a great point: Stone's unwillingness to pay fealty to the idea that she's some sort of cultural culprit makes her a target for certain critics -- some of whom have even gone so far as to label her a "freakshow." But isn't the argument that only certain types of people have the "right" to sing certain types of music hopelessly reductive? Should only poor white people play punk music? Do Northern-born blacks have less purchase on the blues than those born in the South? Can someone from California honestly play bluegrass? The truth may be distasteful, but scholars and critics like Nick Tosches, Eric Lott and Greil Marcus have shown that, for better or worse (and I firmly say it's the former), popular culture is one long story of cultural alchemy. Call it exchange, call it theft, call it what you will, but without the interplay between cultures, our world would be radically different.

This kind of cultural appropriation conversation gets kicked up every couple of years -- Eminem and "The White Rapper Show" being recent examples -- but it never seems to come closer to a resolution. As Powers points out, the facts of white privilege and the unequal economy of cultural exchange will always render Stone's blatantly appropriative style of music-making an intellectually and emotionally fraught proposition. I'm just not sure how the right-to-sing conversation can ever be resolved in a constructive or satisfactory way. Am I being too glib or pessimistic? Let me know your take on Stone specifically and cultural appropriation more generally. Post your answers in the comments section.

-- David Marchese

7 comments:

browneyedsoul06 said...

As an advocate of Stone’s first two records, I was pleasantly surprised to see an article on the blog that related to this young phenom, despite whatever the context may have been. In terms of Powers’ article and the review of the album, I can concede a few points: Stone has yet to carve a distinct personality (aside from “that British girl who sings older sounding music”), the whole “this is the real me” vibe of the promotion for her current album contradicts supposed stories of her record label wanting to introduce her on her first album as a Britney/Christina kind of teen pop diva and the fact that her growing up in the spotlight has caused a few cringe-worthy moments.

But, I believe that she shouldn’t have to face judgments about the style of music that she sings and the way in which she sings, especially since her rivals (in particular, critical darling Amy Winehouse, who I’m also a fan of) use the soul/Motown influence on a much grander scheme than Stone does.

Why does it matter that Stone is a white girl from England who sings soul music? She brings variety and spice to the industry; if every single punk band was comprised of snotty poor white kids, if every rapper was a grilled-out African-American male, if every country artist was a ten-gallon hat wearing good ol’ boy, what fun would there be in music? What would the point be in even listening to music anymore, when everything would be cut from the same cloth?

With time, Stone will master her chops and form an identity (seeing as how this is her third album in four years, she really hasn’t had the time to grow up), so let’s hope that people get over her skin tone by then.

Anonymous said...

DancingChef said. . .

The right-to-sing argument is one that I feel will never ever in a million years go away. This issue will always be talked about in the news and newspapers and it will never be resolved. Everyone in this day and will be offended by what style someone is singing because that person who is offended feels the singer has taken something from them or that the singer doesn’t have the right to sing that type of music. In the blog it talks about the controversy that Joss Stone is facing because of her “black” style of singing because she is a 19 year old white girl from England. So many people do not think she has the right-to-sing that style of music, people say that because “she doesn’t get that style of music, she hasn’t lived that style of music”. Which that is very true but who is to say she doesn’t feel that type of music inside herself. The white rapper Eminem faced this very same issue and he is now he is a respected rapper and has sold millions of dollars in cd sells. So that proves. . . . who can really say who has the right-to-sing any style of music. That yes, there are stereotypes of the type of people who sing/listen to various type of music. But that is just what they are, stereotypes; there might be truth in those stereotypes but not completely. That is why there are white rappers, white girls who can sing a “black” style of music, and rich children who enjoy listening to puck music (which most people think the type of people who listen to that music to be angry and poor). That is why the artist who get into these conflicts over weather they have the right-to-sing a certain type of music should and must fight harder to show the public that “yes I do have the right!” Because that is that they must do if they want people to respect and listen to their music. Last time I checked music is a form of self-expression and this was a free country.

Tara said...

I think that it is ridiculous that they are criticizing this young lady for the way she sings. So what if she is a white girl from England and when she sings she has a soulful vibe that make people think of other great black singers like Gladys Knight. I don’t think that it is fair for people to say that she doesn’t “have the right to sing in a black style”. I think that she should be able to embrace her uniqueness and not be judged for being different. I have listened to some of her music and I personally think that she have a wonderful voice. People should just look at the fact that she has a talent and is willing to share it with others and quit being so cruel and judgmentally and just take time to stop and appreciate the music for what it is not for who is singing it.

Sheena said...

Is this all people have to think about: Who gets to sound like whom? I think that if Joss Stone wants to sing like soul singer, even though she’s from England, then let her do it and leave her alone. I really enjoyed the part about people from California playing bluegrass music. Did they do this to Keith Urban? He’s a country singer from Australia. That doesn’t make sense to me, but I didn’t hear people freaking out about that one. Shania Twain is a country singer from Canada. Who cares! I am under the impression that it’s a race issue. I think that it comes down to people trying to put things into racial categories. I think that if Joss Stone were singing country music instead of something soul-inspired, she wouldn’t be catching as much crap about it. I can’t help but feel like people are living inside such a small box that they can’t just let people who choose to be entertainers, be entertainers. I just don’t think that its that important of an issue.

Lindsay said...

Giving people claim on a type of music this way is ridiculous. As is the statement "her refusal to see her identity as artificial." This is first assuming that her identity is determined by the style of music she performs, and second assumes that because she is not black, that she cannot have "soul." To place a claim on a type of music is illegitimate. No group of people can own or claim an idea, and exclude others from sharing it. The mere fact that Stone performs her music so well should be testament to the fact that background should have no bearing on what kind of music a person is able to perform. This effort to draw the line between "black and white" music is startling, and frankly disappointing. That a talented young musician should be singled out for critisism simply because she was influenced by great musicians of a supposed "black" style is disheartening.

Joe Gray said...

I think people can sing what you want, if your black, white or invisible. Though people shouldn’t criticize some one on such an unimportant category on what race deserves what music. People seem more unfriendly against Eminem than Stone because Eminem sing actually good at music performance though white and maybe people think hey he’s a white rapper, he shouldn’t be able to sing better than me!” But for Josh Stone who is terrible artist who reaches into old soul singing which people don’t seem too thrill about it so they think “oh, she’s just a white girl, she cant sing like us” but I bet if she was talented and appeal to the masses then there would be more racism toward her music than there is right now.

Anonymous said...

Every ethnic community has a culture by which they define themselves. As a society we commit to cultural appropriation, and this is how we give a voice to others culture, religion, and/or heritage. Who are we to judge someone for wanting to cross over and express themselves in different ways, and explore the ideas and traditions of other ethnic communities? Like the article says, “without the interplay between cultures, our world would be radically different.” Who wants our world to be radically different? I like the thought of other people who do not have the same background as I do listening and learning about my life and culture through music, or art. For someone to patronize one for being different and criticize them for adopting traditions of another ethnicity is ridiculous. Our freedoms should preserve the right to act out and speak how you want and about what you want. There is no theft involved in cultural appropriation, I would be delighted at the fact that someone has interest and wants to learn my way of life.