Oh man, today’s random single has once again transported me all the way back to my childhood. Apparently this song didn’t make any dent on any US charts whatsoever, which absolutely baffles me, because it seemed like it was on constant rotation on VH1 when I was eleven, the peak period of my watching the channel for its music videos and countdown specials. This was also the year that I started taking choir classes and I was determined to become a pop star by the time I was sixteen, which is how old Joss Stone was when this single was released. Needless to say, my life aspirations have since evolved to goals a little more reachable, but looking back now it’s pretty clear that Stone was an important figure in my love and appreciation for ladies in pop at such an early age.
I guess it might be important to include a brief bio on Stone here, even though her career in the industry pretty much begins with this single. She was born in Kent and spent the majority of her teenage years living in a small English village with her parents and siblings. Her musical background is highlighted by an abundance of soul and R&B artists from the 1960s and 1970s, including Aretha Franklin, Jackie Wilson, and Gladys Knight. This seasoned background developed her singing style into something more inherently soulful than many of her contemporaries, which struck a chord with the producers of the BBC show Star For a Night, a singing competition that she won at the age of thirteen. She eventually got signed to the label S-Curve Records, which enabled her to cut an album produced by soul legend Betty Wright, among others. This debut album, The Soul Sessions, consists mostly of 60s/70s cover songs from soul artists like Franklin, Carla Thomas, The Isley Brothers, and others.
Unusual to this setup is the lead single “Fell in Love With a Boy”, a gender-swapped cover of the White Stripes’ single “Fell in Love With a Girl”, which was a hit on the US Alternative charts only two years earlier. Listening to the two songs side-by-side, apart from the lyrics and basic melody, they couldn’t be any more different. While the White Stripes’ original in a less-than-two-minute fuzz-rock jam led by Jack White’s erratic vocals and loud guitar production, Stone’s cover is slower, slinkier, cleaner, and produced by Questlove, giving it an attractively funky edge. I’m generally opposed to the trope of covers by performers of a different gender than the original artist taking liberties by switching the parts of the song that indicates whether the speaker is male or female. It just comes off as unnecessary and coddling to the “gay panic” fringe of the audience, and in this song’s case, it’s just so clumsy. “Fell in love with a boy… He’s in love with the world” just doesn’t have the same kind of ring to it. Still, it’s clear that 2003 was a weird time for LGBT representation in general (Queer Eye For the Straight Guy) and I guess the last thing the public needed was a young woman who declares that she “can’t get away from the girl”… or whatever.
It is painfully clear, though, that the decision to make this the lead single of the album was, more than anything, a marketing move, driven by the distrust of the public to latch on strongly to obscure soul covers by the power of Stone’s vocal ability alone. And it should come as no surprise that Stone’s performance here is… well, it’s fine. Better than fine, actually – it’s forever mind-boggling that she was only sixteen here, as she possesses the vocal control and wine-soaked quality that I’d expect from older, more seasoned performers. I wouldn’t blame anyone for being blown away by her ability demonstrated in this recording alone; however, when you compare it to the rest of the tracks on The Soul Sessions, it’s obvious that this isn’t her strongest. Even though I’m not familiar with most of the originals, her straight soul covers are definitely what demonstrates her strengths the most. After listening to these tracks, and then giving another go at “Fell in Love With a Boy”, the producer’s fingertips seem almost louder than Stone herself.
I hate to be one of the boring music elitists who believe that old-school soul is superior to modern pop, because that’s completely not true. I even really super, duper dig her poppy cover of Sugar Billy’s “Super Duper Love”, which absolutely trumps the original. I just think that Stone deserves more creative freedom than to have her name forever associated with that one White Stripes cover and little else. I haven’t listened to many of her releases from the past ten years, but judging that she’s been out of the public eye for a while, I could only hopefully predict that she’s been at work on material that is more comfortable to work with and exciting overall. “Fell in Love With a Boy” has too much going for it and means too much to me and my nostalgic sensibilities for me to ever really call it a bad cover or even a bad recording, but I would only mildly recommend it as an introduction to Joss Stone. I listened to a bit of her 2011 release LP1 while writing this and it seems that her career has taken on a much more interesting direction in recent years, so maybe listen to that one instead.