Kosher punk

heeb’n’vegan posted a review of several Jewish punk concerts back in August and I am now finally getting around to discussing it.

This trend isn’t surprising to me at all, besides the fact that it’s surfacing in the late 2000′s as opposed to the 80′s or 90′s (but I could be wrong, seeing as I was but a wee child back in that day and was primarily listening to Paul Simon, Mahalia Jackson and Raffi on LP and cassette tape, and not Jewish music).

I’m writing a chapter for my thesis right now on why explicitly-Jewish hip hop makes sense in the context of the klezmer revival (and why the klezmer revival makes sense in the context of the folk movement of the mid-20th century).  There have been two broad trends in Jewish-American music in the 20th and 21st centuries (basically since mass numbers of Ashkenazi Jews came to the US): 1) less-observant Jews making music that is a hybrid between whatever music they were making before, i.e. traditional secular music from their home in Europe, and American popular styles; and 2) Orthodox Jews (mainly since the 60′s) making kosherized versions of popular styles so that the kids don’t go off the derech–i.e., regular pop music has lyrics that the Orthodox community considers objectionable, so they make music that sounds just like regular pop music, but has “Torah-approved” lyrics.

This seems to be primarily an example of the latter.  The band Moshiach Oi! (Messiah Hey!, more or less) has songs like “I Wanna Learn Torah” and “Shabbos,” which have straight-up Orthodox lyrics and straight-up punk aesthetics.  Their song “Am Yisroel Chai” (the people Israel live, which is the title of a folk song that they reinterpreted) has lyrics that to my mind showcase the worse side of Orthodox ideology:

We stand for life, they stand for war

We stand for peace, they stand for more

We stand for G-d, they stand for death

We’ll scream “Am Yisroel Chai!” with our last breath

Right, because all the goyim clearly have no morals.  Moving on.

The band CAN!!CAN seems to be doing a bit better, viewing the use of punk as within the evolving, innovative aspect of Jewish tradition–and using punk to welcome people who might be otherwise alienated from the Jewish community back in.  I won’t argue with that.

Jewish punk seems to be in the stage Jewish hip hop was in back in the 80′s: some Jewish musicians are playing non-overtly-Jewish punk, and there are some Jewish punk bands that are overtly Jewish, often parody mainstream punk bands (like the band Shabbos Bloody Shabbos) and don’t incorporate Jewish aesthetics, though their lyrics are almost exclusively “Jewish.”

Back in the 80′s, we saw hip hop bands like 2 Live Jews making songs with titles like “Kosher as We Wanna Be” and “Wash This Way” (a takeoff on “Walk This Way” referencing netilat yadayim).

Now we have much better-sounding stuff from Jews exploring Jewish identity while using hip hop and traditional Jewish music (however that’s defined) as a more fluent vernacular:

Give Jewish punk 10 years and I expect great things.

Quick hit: decorating advice can be silly sometimes

As the inhabitant of a very tiny apartment, one of my favorite blogs is Apartment Therapy.  Many props for its massive help on making my space fit all my stuff neatly while remaining functional and maybe even cute.

But today it went a step too far with the suggestion that if your piano is “dominat[ing] a room’s aesthetics,” you should totally, like, just paint it!  It’s a quick DIY!

I grew up with family members who (meaning very well and trying to make our house look nice) liked decorating the piano with tchotchkes and houseplants, and I got annoyed every time I tried to do a tremolo in the left hand and flowerpots would rattle vigorously.  Treating a piano as furniture annoys me a lot.

Yes, pianos are big.  Yes, they might not necessarily fit your aesthetic vision.  But you know what?  They’re instruments, not furniture, even if they are large and wooden.  They are functional. They are primarily supposed to sound good and if they look good, it’s a bonus.  I’m not advocating that you go out and get an ugly piano.  But seriously, I wouldn’t dress my viola in doll clothes, why on earth would I paint a piano?

Hasn’t anyone around here seen The Red Violin? Instrument varnish is very important, folks.

Quick and dirty guide to cultural snobbery in the digital age

James Wolcott explored the ramifications of digital media on our ability to be cultural snobs in next month’s Vanity Fair (it’s so weird that I can use the past tense to refer to next month’s issue, but you know how magazine print schedules work)–essentially saying that, as our collections of music, film, books, etc. are digitized, we will have fewer and fewer tangible objects to show off to our friends (and potential, uh, romantic partners, as his anecdote about the early Playboy empire shows).  However are we to show our exquisite good taste if we don’t have a collection for our friends to inspect at house parties?

Wolcott suggests that “we’ll just stock up on other possessions, which will be arrayed and arranged to show off not our personal aesthetics or expensive whims but our ethics–our progressive virtues.”  Maybe we’ll do that too, but I think people will always find a way to express their superior aesthetic sensibilities.

Here’s how, at least for music (not in any particular order):

1) Curating the perfect playlist for group listening. What better way to show off your collection than by having your friends listen to it when they come over?  Instead of throwing on the typical party-type songs (if you’re the frat across the street from me, this means an endless rotation of Journey, crunk and Lady Gaga…knock it off already) certain kinds of people will be obsessive about creating mixes that not only set the right mood but also show their superiorly obscure, cutting-edge, and eclectic tastes.  This could be good (maybe the jerks across the street would play something different?) or bad (do you really want to listen to that one friend–we all have at least one of these–blathering for hours about his/her efforts?).

2) Merch. Expect an increase in the number of band t-shirts, posters and other stuff bought and ostentatiously worn/used/displayed by culture snobs.  This tendency may very well extend to strange obsessions such as not washing a concert t-shirt worn in the (tangential) presence of the artist or keeping posters in their original packaging and other weird collector-type behaviors.

3) Increased concert attendance. What better way to show you like an artist than to shell out a lot of money to listen to them live more frequently?  This is clearly not a bad thing in itself, in fact concerts are usually a lot of fun and are much more economically beneficial to the artist than buying their album, so it’s a win-win situation.  Expect the culture snob to talk a lot about each show though and frame or display tickets and/or set lists.

4) A rise in music-subculture-influenced fashion. This is clearly not a new idea, but I think absent other tangible indicators of taste in music people will want to wear it on their bodies if they want to show off what scene they belong to (or, you know, have lined up in their iTunes if nothing else–what’s up, suburban teenagers).  Perhaps styles characteristic of a particular artist or group will be more widely copied or individuals will more strictly adhere to music-genre-based dress codes.

5) Making one’s opinions publicly known via other forms of media. This will certainly include blogging (I won’t snark on this, because I’m uh, writing this on a music-oriented blog) and for the pluckier sorts could even include a column in a newspaper or magazine, or hosting a radio or TV show, including (video) podcasting.

6) Talking about one’s good/diverse/obscure/etc. taste all the time. Yikes.

7) Going old-school and buying tangible media products. Note that vinyl is the fastest-growing category of music sales.  People will do the bulk of their listening on digital, but true culture snobs will have a secondary collection of archaic but better-sounding music technology in order to impress others and hopefully heighten their personal enjoyment.

8 ) Playing music oneself. There’s no better way to appear to know things about music than to be a decently skilled musician.  Even better if you are better than decent.  Get practicing!  This is my favorite option, no sarcasm.  I think it is the best way to inculcate actual knowledge with a minimum of cultural snobbery.

Books are a whole other story.  I wouldn’t be surprised if things like reference books stopped being published in hard copy, but I’m inclined to think there will always be a market for certain types of books (fiction, interesting non-fiction), because people enjoy relaxing with something that looks good, feels nice and has something interesting between the covers, or because certain situations just call for paper books (i.e. cookbooks).

In all though, I think the digitization of media is generally a good thing.  It’s cheaper and easier to produce, faster and more efficient to transport, relatively easy on the environment, and doesn’t take up too much space.  There are clearly drawbacks, as anyone who’s ever lost all their music after a hard drive crash can attest–and more sinisterly, the fact that Amazon remotely deleted books from Kindles this past week after it realized it had mistakenly sold books it didn’t have the proper licensing for.  The technology can be good–but people have to use it the right way.

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