CALL THEM the new British bitch pack: barefoot soul shouter Joss Stone and her ascendant sistren, skankin’ Lily Allen and torchy Amy Winehouse (Corinne Bailey Rae’s exempted due to being a queen of nice and hazy sentiment and, well, yes, color). The Pipettes also deliver Ronettes-Supremes paeans but have yet to splash large beyond the UK. It’s Stone and Winehouse who have made recent history on the US pop charts: the latter’s Back to Black (Republic) scored the highest ever debut for a British woman (number seven), and Stone’s Introducing Joss Stone (Virgin) followed a week later, debuting at number two.
The third release in this triumvirate, Allen’s Alright, Still (Capitol), is the least compelling, though it possesses the most diverse sonic palette: ska, Britpop jangle, punk, rocksteady, N’Awlinz funk, and English dancehall, courtesy of her fellow celebutot music maker, DJ and producer Mark Ronson. While ‘Friend of Mine’ will doubtless prove a decent summer jam, the scattershot production speaks more to Ronson’s patented retro-soul ambition than to individuality on Allen’s part. I’m already over the stunt sampling of Professor Longhair and find Allen’s spin on jaded indie affect and lyrics powered by class snobbery grating.
The aforementioned artists are part of yet another wave of British acts working in black American musical idioms: James Hunter, James Morrison, Lady Sovereign, and Alice Russell. Call them the spawn of Dusty Springfield. Blue-eyed British soul diva Springfield’s 1969 classic Dusty in Memphis (Rhino/WEA) is the obvious grail for most of these new acolytes. They’ve also benefited from the successive layers of space opened by Blighty’s trends in Northern soul, acid jazz, trip-hop, and the Yankee stand taken for retro soul by the now-defunct Desco label (which split into Soul Fire and Daptone) with black vocalists such as Lee Fields. One wants to big up Allen, Winehouse, and Stone on the sisterhood empowerment tip for their brassy attitude and scathing kiss-offs to trifling men on these recordings. And it’s interesting that they’ve emerged at a time when their male counterparts, such as Morrison — and David Gray and Chris Martin — seem to have “bitched up.” Yet this gender power–reversal is sadly trumped by glaring issues of race and authenticity.
REAL ME, REAL MIMICRY
Nowhere are these issues more clearly embodied than in Joss Stone, who’s about to hit the Yay Area. She’s been around for a minute, leading the cited alien invasion with her Miami Sound–assisted debut, The Soul Sessions (Virgin), in 2003. Missed in all the hype and scandal over Stone’s breakup with Motown scion Beau Dozier, her recent adoption of a faux-Yank accent, and the sacking of her handlers is the fact that her much-vaunted revamp has a precedent: Stone described her second CD — Mind, Body, and Soul (Virgin) — as her “real debut,” and it contained a mix of Southern soul, urban swing, and hip-hop similar to the template codified by Lauryn Hill in the late 1990s.
The 19-year-old blond Venus actually coaxed Hill out of her fog to guest on ‘Music’, but overall Introducing merely treads water instead of shifting any postmillennial soul paradigm. Stone remains trapped by the novelty factor of having been a 15-year-old girl from Devon who could mimic a middle-aged black American singer and has not figured out how to reconcile her West Country roots, accent, and affluence with the grit and honesty her ambitions require. She’s content to let producer Raphael Saadiq locate her brand-new thang somewhere between Aretha Franklin circa Sparkle and the early ’80s Isleys, with a soupçon of hip-hop flourishes — an approach that only really sparks on opener ‘Girl They Won’t Believe It’ — when underage Stone really ought to be ashamed at her affair with 41-year-old Saadiq. The specter of Dallas Austin’s banging for beats screed rears its ugly head.
Stone may be styled in psychedelic body paint, flowers, and baubles as some lost wild child of Janis Joplin, but unlike that late bad-Jewish-girl-with-a-yen-for-the-blues icon, she lacks the ovaries and independence to instigate any sonic revolt, nor does she transcend her black influences. Although she too failed to flip the rock biz’s race politics, Joplin was an original. She was also perfecting a worthy form of hybridity, whereas Stone would still do best to apprentice behind a seasoned soul singer and grow into her voice. Meanwhile, she’s an immature artist trapped within the middle-class mythos and mass fantasies of the pop star system.
RUNNING THE RACE?
White artists’ love and theft of black expression, as ratified by the Elvis phenomenon, remains the primary cultural battleground in the aughties — don’t get it twisted. The phenomenon of white singers who sound black is as old as minstrelsy, of course. Vaginas trouble this aesthetic guerrilla warfare — with Stone and company entrenched in the valley of sound between Joplin, Springfield, Lydia Pense, and Teena Marie on the one side and Madonna, Taylor Dayne, Britney Spears, and Fergie on the other. Yet Stone and her sister purveyors of femme funk are not truly innocents with songs in their hearts and stars in their eyes. These daughters of Al Jolson, removing their Jewish foreignness by sonically and visually blacking up as he did in The Jazz Singer, are reaping the rewards this season from the West’s most vital industry: the consumption and export of essential blackness.
Whether fucking or channeling the likes of Dinah Washington and Ronnie Spector in the studio, Allen, Stone, and Winehouse are enjoying everything but the burden of blackness. These vocalists face the dilemma of the privileges of whiteness versus the comforts of being soulful, and this will continue to dog their careers if longevity’s next. Doubtless Stone, Allen, and Winehouse don’t want to be “nappy-headed hos” — thanks, Don Imus — but desire the erotic, exotic power of sistagirls without being the mules of the world. Yet why is the old “black joy, not black pain” truism surfacing now in the UK?
Look to recent cinema from across the pond: in The Queen, Elizabeth II, the paragon of English womanhood, is asked by Tony Blair to be feely and emotional to help heal the nation in the wake of Princess Diana’s death, to restore the heart Diana represented. But Elizabeth chafes, bound by old royal models of honor and duty. The crisis of Britannia is coded even more explicitly in Children of Men. In its dystopic vision, black women are despised yet also figures of salvation. As in the film, in which only a regenerative black female can save England, these new wave British soulsters labor to recuperate the distant and unreal of classic soul, despite its distinctly American set of societal preconditions. A post–Margaret Thatcher, post-Blair return to authenticity is what these singers represent, a late moment after Rod Stewart delivered fair Albion’s best-ever approximation of soul and empire has faded, leaving postcolonial turmoil and identity flux. Black female soul brings rebirth to this turbulent world via the vocalizing of Stone et al., placing them back at center of the world — at least aesthetically.
FLIPPING BACK TO BLACK
This activity meets its zenith in the petite, pinup-tatted, beehive-burdened, anorexic form of Winehouse. Unlike Stone, who’s at pains to elide her Englishness, Winehouse’s distinctly North London Jewish accent surfaces on her critically acclaimed Back to Black, but her extreme jazz-soul mummery remains paramount, even as white critics and listeners continue to adopt a white version of black culture at the expense of young black artists of the retro-nuevo soul or urban alternative persuasion. Winehouse has yet to be anointed with a universal ghetto pass and, like Stone and Allen, has bypassed the hood and proper apprenticeship for lucrative prime time at the nation’s premier venues this spring.
Throughout Back to Black, Winehouse gets away with borderline minstrelsy, carelessly mashing up a vocal cocktail of Washington, Billie Holiday, Carla Thomas, and Phil Spector’s girl-group surrogates while not being excoriated because her Pete Doherty–rivaling tabloid exploits with drunkenness, raunchy sexuality, and public belligerence fit her admirers’ view of authentic blackness. Behind Spanish Harlem drag, Motown cocktail dresses, and Cleopatra’s black eyeliner, Winehouse is the cunning poster girl of her mid-Atlantic milieu, permitted to get away with potentially offensive lyrics such as “side from Sammy you’re my best black Jew” (‘Me and Mr. Jones’), showcasing a pair of cooning black backing vocalists and hipster-comforting insincerity.
“What kind of fuckery is this?” I’m sure to Winehouse’s equivalents across the color line — from fiftysomething Sharon Jones to 36-year-old failing freaky-deak diva Macy Gray and badass bitches in the wings such as Alice Smith — it seems like the demoralizing same old. These are black artists who, to varying degrees, can sang but whose efforts render them invisible in a field overwhelmed by white soul saviors. Why invest in these sistas’ development or even spotlight the neo–chitlin circuit movement afoot in the Southeast when the only blackness that really counts bears a stench of formaldehyde?
© Kandia Crazy Horse, San Francisco Bay Guardian, 8 May 2007