Sunday, May 11, 2008

This Year's Amy, Part 2

      Following my Sunday, May 4 post on Jamie Lidell, titled "This Year’s Amy," I received a few emails asking what I meant when I wrote, “… he’s nudged his blue-eyed soulisms into the realm of a kind of ‘drag,’ that profitable stylin’ of retro soul / old-school black shit.” Well, rather than go into a long drawn out thing, I think the melody on the box can explain. Here’s an excerpt from my essay Cross Dressers: Bjork and Ryan Shaw Go Genre Bending:

      Genre is drag. Embedded in musical genres are all sorts of projected, culturally inscribed rules and expectations about race, gender, sexuality… about authenticity. Musicians fucking with genre, working across their established or expected boundaries, is a form of cross-dressing, assuming the power and privilege encrypted in gear/grooves. That’s partly why a dope female rapper or rocker strums viscera, stokes frisson. For all our evolved consciousness, for all the femme energy/creativity that has fed rap and rock, there’s still lingering reflex to view them as masculine avenues of expression. So even an inarguable rock icon like Chrissie Hynde or as flawless an MC as Bahamadia triggers the thrill of subversion by being herself, re-tooling “masculine” prerogative and staking claim. That’s also why, despite the root of blackness in American punk (see: Bad Brains) Negro practitioners still get side-eye glances. And so on…
       Drag, conscious and unconscious, is used to unleash some inner self (the real or the desired). It’s used to funnel inner truths, to shape perspective. That’s how Bjork uses her unclassifiable genre hopping. Amy Winehouse seized that power on her debut CD Frank (where she absorbed and recreated iconic Negro jazz divas, as well as Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill to tell her tales) and then refocused her shtick on her wonderful sophomore album Back to Black, where she took Lauryn’s “Doo Wop” (concept and vocal steez) to album-length and pulled art from girl-group artifice. But she was also wading in turbulent waters of appropriation and mimicry, stepping into a complex history of Jewish performers “doing black” in order to reveal something of themselves. Though her vocal affectations (especially on Frank) can skirt the edge of appalling – if not infuriating – racial karaoke, Winehouse was liberated. (It helps considerably that her songwriting skills are so unimpeachably dope.) She still has no artistic center of her own in terms of her singing style, but she finds much white-girl freedom (and the accompanying riches and white media coronation) in donning the patented garb of black-girl vocal styles.

The rest of this essay can be found in my book, Blood Beats 2: The Bootleg Joints

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