In yesterday's Salon, writer David Marchese linked to an Ann Powers piece in the L.A. Times regarding the new Joss Stone album. The issue of racial appropriation came up (read the Salon piece and Powers' piece and you'll see what I mean), an issue I find completely tiresome. So I fired off a somewhat nasty email to Ann Powers about the piece, and she wrote me back. The original email is at the bottom and then goes up.
Thanks for YOUR reply. I really appreciate it. Certainly all of the questions you raise below are crucial. It's truly the challenge of the critic to try to answer those very elusive and often seriously subjective questions!! One thing that has always fascinated me is that some people can be affected by things I think are utter pap, while others may feel nothing at what deeply moves me. I'm not against quality judgements but it's fun and interesting to try to unpack them, too.
The issue of Dylan and identity is utterly fascinating. For sure, he saw/sees himself as a channel through which the culture blows (pardon the reference!). I've read early interviews with him where he's described his songwriting process as "vomiting," that it just comes out -- he is oracular, at least according to him. Yet it's interesting too how late Dylan plays a LOT with images and even sounds of minstrelsy -- this happens in "Masked and Anonymous," in "Love and Theft," (named after a book on minstrelsy) and in the new album. It's almost as if he's trying to take a hard look at his own process. Perhaps that's the prerogative of an old bard!
thanks again for writing!
From: Ben Lazar [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: Wed 3/28/2007 1:05 PM
To: Powers, Ann
Subject: Re: Joss Stone
Thank you for your reply.
I would never deny that such matters of identity have been debated throughout the history of popular music - of course they have (and especially since post-modernism took over the academy in the 80's.) It's just that for me, that issue has become exhaustingly dull. (The issue of race isn't dull, but as a continual reference point from which to evaluate art, I'm a little exhausted by it.) For me, the issues are: Are the songs great? Is is there anything emotionally affective on the record? How's the groove? Melody? Rhythm section? Is this person really communicating something resonant?
I went to metacritic.com last week to check out the reviews, and yes, I too saw the references that you did, but perhaps those references were there because most of the writers there are better at writing from a sociological rather than musical perspective. (Greil Marcus was/is great at that, but in the hands of lesser mortals, ugh.)
Perhaps the issue of authenticity is at the center of popular culture. But for me, it's about emotional authenticity rather than from the vantage point of identity politics. In the Scorcese Dylan documentary, one of the Staples Singers wonders aloud how could have written "Blowin' In The Wind" when he was a white kid. Perhaps it's because Dylan's imagination was so boundless that he saw himself as a human being, rather than a middle-class Jewish being from Minnesota. Maybe when people realize that our similarities far outweigh our differences, we'll be able to address fundamentally important issues together, instead of dealing with what occurs for me as the ephemera of a lamentably post-modern era.
On Mar 28, 2007, at 3:40 PM, Powers, Ann wrote:
Dear Mr. Lazar,
Well, that's a frustrating reading of the piece. Upon receiving your letter, I reread the piece, and I remain surprised that you would read what you have read into it. I think you have misinterpreted the views of others, which I note in the piece, as my own views.
I wasn't advocating the idea that performers can't take on identities different from the ones they "own" on the surface. Why would I do that, given that my number one record of last year was by Justin Timberlake?
I was trying to point out that Stone's taken a lot of flak for doing it. Reading the many mixed to negative reviews of her new album, I noticed that there's a ton of skepticism about her right or ability to perform in the style she performs, precisely because she is an upper-class white woman. You can look on metacritic.com and see how often that very point is either implied or directly mentioned. Perhaps this seems like an old debate, but when it comes to this artist, it still rages.
I chose to tackle that issue directly in the piece and let Stone address it, which she did, as did her producer Raphael Saadiq.
While I agree with you that "identity is a construct," (I went to graduate school in English, and as I'm sure you are aware, in academia, THAT idea is a cliche as much as any idea of authenticity), it seems strange to deny that such matters have been debated throughout the history of popular music, and still are today. Have we really moved beyond issues of identity completely? That would be a fascinating world, perhaps a utopian one. But is it really the world we live in?
I'm sorry you feel you must insult me as well as argue with my point of view. As I see it, the debate over authenticity is one that is at the center of understanding popular music and popular culture. In fact, there's a new book on this subject -- "Faking It," by Yuval Taylor and Hugh Barker. Just bringing that up to note that I'm not the only one thinking about these matters.
At any rate, I guess I'll say, thanks for reading. I appreciate your opinions and your perspective. I'm sorry you didn't appreciate mine.
From: Ben Lazar [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Wed 3/28/2007 12:19 PM
Subject: Joss Stone
Dear Miss Powers,
I can't say I've ever been much of a fan of your writing, but I thought your recent piece on Joss Stone was an awful article, revealing a perspective that occurs for me as tired, leftist, post-modernist drivel suffused with the worst kind of obsession with identity politics. When you write that her identity is "artificial" and that her seeing herself as part of a tradition that extends to rock earliest days of white singers in love with black music "isn't so easily claimed now, since the civil rights movement and identity politics have laid bare the realities of white privilege," I think you miss the whole point, and for me, with that sentence, you reveal yourself to be a second class writer and thinker. There is no such thing as "authentic" identity; it's ALL a construct that we choose as we develop, based on our past, our environment and decisions we make. Great artists recreate themselves into who they want to be; Elvis did it, Little Richard did it, Phil Spector did it, Dylan did it, James Brown did it, the Beastie Boys did it (as have a host of others).
I don't even care for Joss Stone's music; I find her current album soulless; but that's not because of her background - it's because her music rings to me as hollow. However, I love parts of the Amy Winehouse album; and is her identity any more or less "authentic" than Joss Stone's? I don't think so. Perhaps if you examined what works and what doesn't work about Joss Stone's album, rather than come from the perspective of addressing her "authenticity," (the tired obsession of indie-rock thinkers everywhere and actually the ultimate inautheticity) you might have written an interesting piece.