Can a white man sing black music? Well, duh, of course. Not everyone sees it that way, though:
Me (thumbing through a karaoke songbook the other night): They got a lotta Al Green . . . Marvin Gaye . . . Hey, the Stylistics . . .
My girlfriend: Um . . .
My girlfriend: I'm not saying you can't sing those songs, but wouldn't you be more, um, comfortable, with something from your own era? How about the Talking Heads?
Me (sulking): Fuck the Talking Heads.
Though music can be an issue in almost any relationship, my SO and I are basically pretty tolerant. I love her enough to listen to classic rock, and she loves me enough to listen to John Coltrane. And there's a giant swath of overlap in our tastes that takes in the Kills and Tupac. But karaoke makes musical differences public, and also introduces the danger of shared humiliation. Which is what my girlfriend wanted to stave off at the Yen Wor the other night, believing I was about to engage in some serious cultural appropriation. I disagreed:
Me: Remember, I'm from Ohio. The funkiest state in the country. Bootsy Collins, Zapp. I went to the same high school as the Ohio Players!
Girlfriend: Just because you went to school with black people doesn't make you black.
Me: Maybe it does, and maybe it doesn't.
Now, I happened to be right and she happened to be wrong. Because American music belongs to Americans, period. But love isn't about winning arguments, and I realized it's more important to stay together than to sing "Let's Stay Together." So I settled on Elton John's "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues," which is the just the kind of dopey, fondly remembered song that makes a perfect karaoke selection. It also contains the line "I simply love you more than I love life itself." As sung to my favorite Supertramp fan, that's a simple fact. And nothing could be more soulful than that.