Digital Venuses - Page 2

UK pop starlets vie for America's heart of darkness
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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.

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