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There comes a time when a pop star decides that they need a change of image. Some make a grand spectacle of it, such as David Bowie, who invented alter egos such as the Thin White Duke and Ziggy Stardust, or Madonna, who brings a Darwinian “adapt or die” drive to her frequent image makeovers, as if engaged in some fierce evolutionary struggle to keep pace with the times.
Other attempts at rebranding are laughable – Sean Combs, for instance, whose stage name over the years has transmogrified from Puff Daddy to P. Diddy and now just plain Diddy.
“I felt like the ‘P’ was getting between me and my fans and now we’re closer,” the rapper explained.
Joss Stone is the latest star to hit the reinvention trail. Gone are the floaty, hippy-chick clothes and blonde tresses of old. The new Joss has purple hair and a nose-ring and wears figure-hugging mini-dresses. Her forthcoming single “Tell Me ’Bout It” indicates she “needs a little lovin’ at least twice a day”. The artwork shows her surrounded by spray paint cans, as if to suggest that the teenager from Devon has suddenly become a dab hand at graffiti.
This sultry, urban Joss is a far cry from the bubbly girl of 16 who burst on to the music scene in 2004 with a voice like a black American soul queen. Back then, Stone was an odd mix of the contrived and the artless. Her music was calculatedly retro, yet her vocals were unforced and organic. She had none of the flashy, insincere acrobatics of singers such as Mariah Carey.
However, two albums and 7m sales later, her air of naturalness has deserted her. Last winter I saw her perform a farewell concert before heading off to the studio to record her third album. It was an abysmal night. The set was mechanical, a cold pastiche of vintage soul, and her vocals sounded shrill and self-conscious. It was so stilted that even her habit of giggling between songs acquired an artificial air, as if to advertise her girlishness. The audience, mainly composed of couples much older than her, streamed out before the end.
To my surprise, her new single turns out to be unexpectedly enjoyable, tastefully updating her sound by setting her soulful warbles to a shuffling hip-hop beat. It is designed to assure us that she has grown up – one lyric finds the 19-year-old imperiously commanding “Show me you know about a woman’s soul” – while simultaneously sending out feelers for a younger audience. If the old Stone used to echo Aretha Franklin, then the new Joss has Beyoncé in her sights.
Yet, I suspect her attempt to rebrand herself as an R&B diva is doomed to meet with the same derision as Puff Daddy’s name changes. The first signs came at the Brit Awards last week, where she was ridiculed for speaking in an American accent she has somehow acquired. It was a cruel moment, but the affectedness of her performance – during which she exhorted us in her strange new accent to send “big love” to the rehabbed Robbie Williams – was embarrassing to witness. It is a wonder she has not gone the whole hog and renamed herself J-Sto.
■One reason for Joss Stone’s American accent is her success in the US. She leads a group of British women who are cracking the hard-to-impress American market. Lily Allen is in the top 20 album charts, KT Tunstall and Corinne Bailey Rae have both had hits, and Amy Winehouse, winner of the best female artist at the Brits, is being strongly hyped in advance of a sell-out concert in New York next month.
If you factor in Dido’s new album, expected later this year, then a fully fledged British invasion would appear to be underway, with scarcely a male in sight. Girls outperform boys at school in the UK, and now they are mounting a challenge in pop. Today the charts, tomorrow the world.