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Blonde Venus Revisited 

Joss Stone plays in the dark

No issue in music gets us as twisted as the white guy making black music: Elvis, Eminem, the Righteous Brothers, Michael Bolton, Mick Jagger, Paul Simon -- I could go on and on. Claims that a bevy of shady record bizzers -- akin to Specialty Records' Art Rupe -- conspired to jack the mid-century dreams-deferred of a nation of millions may be legitimate. Still, it's hard not to see the whole debate as a phallus-grabbing contest among label owners, rock critics, artists and neo-race men. All continue to question who has the real imperial power within the mythic colonial state of black artistic expression. The conversation is always different when the estrogen quotient is factored in -- think Janis Joplin, Dusty Springfield, Laura Nyro, Teena Marie, Taylor Dayne (uh...maybe not), Eva Cassidy, all true devotees of soul. That is, until the topic turns to Joss Stone; then all bets are off.

When Stone dropped her debut album in 2003, The Soul Sessions, she was everybody's little secret. A white, 16-year-old British girl who sounded like she got some grown woman issues. Whether or not Stone was "authentic" was never up for debate, since she came with an old-school ghetto pass, courtesy of mentor Betty Wright and Latimore. It's the only ghetto pass that matters when you sound like a 45-year-old black woman. And give the girl her propers: Stone's remakes of "The Chokin' Kind," "I've Fallen in Love with You" and the Vandross-esque "For the Love of You" was some major soul revisited.

Then came the Entertainment Weekly and New York Times profiles, and there was the clear sense that Stone was getting away from us. By the time the Gap ads began to circulate, baby-girl was being prematurely pushed onstage with legends (opposite Smokey Robinson on "Motown 45") -- or in tribute to legends, as with an underwhelming Janis Joplin tribute during the '05 Grammys. Whatever Stone brought to the music was quickly eroding. But very few really cared, since Stone is oh-so pretty to look at.

Indeed, those who weren't privy to the sweetness of The Soul Sessions (certified Gold in 2004) were likely introduced to Stone via one of her Gap campaigns or rumors that she was dropped by that company due to shacking up at 17 with 20-something soul heir Beau Dozier (son of Motown royalty Lamont Dozier). The funky myths of miscegenation apparently played out as public spectacle, far beyond the mixing boards that made cross-cultural expression the hallmark of American pop. The aforementioned in-fighting over who could best defile the "body" of black music has now shifted to whether the music -- or the machine that owns the music -- will have control of Stone's body.

And this is perhaps where Joss Stone's legacy differs from that of her funky white girl ancestors. Dusty, Laura (who were both bisexual) and Janis (who looked butch) were never deemed pretty enough, and Teena and Taylor were simply "too black" for anxieties to arise over their "white chocolate" personas. Yet English Rose Joss is another story: She is considered a beauty and oh-so white in ways that matter to some folk. Even Britney had sense enough not to roll so publicly with a brother (ask Kevin Federline's dancin' fool predecessor Columbus Short).

In this context, it's not surprising that Stone is now opening for the Stones, a group whose music has brilliantly obscured its black influences (though to be fair, group members have not sought to distance themselves from those influences). The same can be said about Stone's follow-up Mind, Body, and Soul, which she describes as her "real debut." Thus, The Soul Sessions is reduced to a "side project," a musical safari into the dark recesses of soul. Mind, Body and Soul feels more like a pop-soul version of a Norah Jones recording. VH-1 clearly loves this girl and for a 17-year-old that might not be a bad thing. But we can now put to rest any idea that somehow Joss Stone was gonna re-write the race politics of the music industry. That miracle awaits another artist, another day.

Joss Stone opens for the Rolling Stones at the Charlotte Bobcats Arena on Friday, Oct. 21. The show is sold out.

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