by Carmen Van Kerckhove
Yes, that headline is meant to be provocative. Who counts as “white”? Is there such a thing as “black” music? There are no easy answers to any of these questions, of course. But lately I’ve seen quite a bit of discussion on this topic, particularly when it comes to so-called “blue-eyed soul.”
L.A. Times music critic Ann Powers recently wrote of Joss Stone:
If there’s one fault on “Introducing,” 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. Crafting a new self from beloved popular cultural sources, Stone is very much of her generation; it’s her sincerity, her refusal to see that identity as artificial, that singles her out.
That led Salon’s music blog, Audiofile, to ask: Does Joss Stone sound too black?
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.