Random oddity: Madonna in Israel

All respect to Madonna for her groundbreaking stuff in the 1980s, but I’m kind of sick of hearing about her now.  And I’m also wondering why she is meeting with top Israeli politicians…she’s on tour there and everything, and has visited some Jewish sites (presumably as part of her dubious “kabbalah study” interest) but I don’t see what she and Tzipi Livni could really have to talk about that’s of import.

What’s under Lady Gaga’s leotard?

The internets have been buzzing with news that Lady Gaga is possibly a hermaphrodite (or is “intersex” more appropriate? please enlighten me if you know), as video footage from one of her concerts shows her getting off a moped-like thing and pulling a Britney Spears in the audience’s direction.  If you look real hard at ~1:10 and squint your eyes, it kind of looks like there might be more going on down there than we had previously thought.

So of course lots of people are talking about how crazy/gross/maybe kinda hot this is, and whether she really has the parts she’s now purported to have or whether this is just a stunt.  I frankly don’t really care; she is who she is.  What I do hope is that this provokes meaningful conversation about the interplay between (biological) sex and gender, and the complex ways in which we choose to go about presenting our sexual identity to the rest of the world.

Because Lady Gaga is, without a doubt, the current mainstream artist most able to provoke those kinds of conversations.  She’s aware that she is as much performance artist as singer and she fully intends to provoke discussion about sex, sexuality and gender.  Let’s roll with it then, and talk about body parts, etc. regardless of the kind(s) that Gaga was born with.

Also, if this is true, it leads to endless possibilities for jokes about how her muffin is bluffin’.  Just saying.

On another note: here’s an interesting take on her unconventional fashion choices–that she’s doing it to emulate avant-garde architecture and design.

Update on our favorite hot mess

I’m going to beef with Jezebel on this one:

[Lady Gaga's] right, though: her sexuality doesn’t distract from her music.  Her Rainbow Brite wig?  Maybe slightly.

Lady Gaga’s sexuality IS her music.  Her role model is Madonna, for heaven’s sake.  She has made a career largely on the basis of not wearing pants, wearing fetishy stuff, and bluffin’ with her muffin (the first definition on that list, btw).  The only reason it is not possible for her sexuality to distract from her music is that the two are mysteriously one and the same in much the same way that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are one and the same.

Now I’m wondering what would be the third part of the Trinity of Lady Gaga…

“I have an endless muse-like vision of monsters and playgirls”

In case you weren’t aware, Lady Gaga is a hot mess:

I find it bitterly ironic that a woman whose complex persona would be impossible without the advances of the feminist movement–and a woman who is clearly very savvy about how her career fits into the trajectory of American pop music–is so simplistic in her thinking as to say that she can’t be a feminist because she loves men.

To quote my friend David’s earlier commentary on her:

WHAT.

La Gaga walks a very, very fine line between absurd profundity (or perhaps profound absurdity) and utter ridiculousness on the best of days.  Today she’s definitively fallen off the tightrope and crashed in a heap on the circus-arena floor…

“Poker Face” ad nauseam

An email that my good friend David sent yesterday:

WHAT.

Yeah, what.  Why on earth would this be considered a suitable orchestral piece?  It’s DANCE MUSIC for heaven’s sake–I don’t really see orchestra subscribers getting nasty in the aisles of the Kimmel to this soundtrack (or any other soundtrack, really).

When I first heard “Poker Face,” it really grated on me as I usually don’t like music that is quite so electronically processed (and it was being played EVERYWHERE too).  Also, I thought the latex leggings and Dalmatians were creepy.  At the time I was more aware of the fact that Lady Gaga wears pants as infrequently as possible, and figured that if that was her main claim to fame, she couldn’t put out very good music.

Then I read the Rolling Stone profile (to which unfortunately I can’t find a good link) of her in May, which portrayed her as an interesting person trying to be the next Madonna by revolutionizing how sex is discussed/used/portrayed in pop music.  I don’t know if I buy that she’s on that path yet–the rhetoric around her sexuality and that of her music seems to be “OMG wear pants”/”Wait, she’s bi?” as opposed to anything really fresh–but it’s nice to see someone with a grander project in mind.

But I did run across this acoustic version of “Poker Face,” which shows that Lady Gaga actually has quite a good voice and a command of phrasing that’s better than many people’s.

Interesting what different versions of the same song can reveal.

Torture music

No, I’m not talking about the endless loop of Journey coming from the frat across the street again.  While music is usually a positive thing, unfortunately our military and intelligence agencies have decided to use it against “enemy combatants” in the war on terror.  The Society for Ethnomusicology, the professional association of ethnomusicologists, condemned this practice in 2007.  It took the American Musicological Society (the equivalent for musicologists) until 2008 to get around to taking a stand but hey, better late than never.

It’s been known for a while that American pop music has been projected into battlefields and used in torture chambers to get suspects to crack–both by offending their morals and/or aesthetic taste.  It’s usually part of a more sinister and well-honed torture method (laid out in chilling detail in Naomi Klein’s 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, which I’m only now getting around to reading), in which our spooks (or, you know, other countries’ spooks that we subcontract) first deprive prisoners of any sensory input and then flood them with stimulus in the form of strobe lights, electroshocks and loud music.  This causes prisoners to regress to a childlike state, lose aspects of their memories and become extremely vulnerable to the power of suggestion–which is how torturers get confessions out of these guys.

That’s where this list from Mental Floss via the WSJ comes in.  The CIA’s top choices?

1) Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the USA.” I really don’t like Springsteen either–I think it’s the terrible drum machine.  I hope that doesn’t make me a suspected terrorist.

2) Christina Aguilera, “Dirrty.” Apparently the interrogators chose this one because its sexual content would offend the moral views of some of the stricter Muslim suspects.  I hadn’t seen this video in a while–I forgot about those horrendous assless chaps she used to wear.  Remember when she came on the scene in the late 90s and she was the classy one out of all the teen pop stars (which she kind of is again given the Britney trainwreck)?  Like, my grandma bought me the album with “Genie in a Bottle” on it.

3) Nancy Sinatra, “These Boots Were Made for Walking.” I mean, it’s not the greatest song ever, but I don’t think I’d crack after listening to it for a long time (except for maybe that part where the bass line sounds like the bassist is just slowly detuning the instrument…).

4) AC/DC, “Shoot to Thrill” and “Hells Bells.” I dislike AC/DC so much that I am refusing to embed the clips.  Take that, Gitmo.

5) Barry Manilow’s oeuvre (so to speak). I will let this quote from the article speak for itself:

The New Zealand town of Christchurch recently blasted the crooner’s tunes throughout their central mall district to drive away the local punks who had been littering the area with graffiti, drinking in public and doing drugs.

I wonder how it feels to be the entire world’s punchline.

6) Barney the Dinosaur, “I Love You.” Given that 90s nostalgia is apparently au courant right now, just watch this clip and party like it’s 1993 (and you’re at preschool).  Note the dramatic half-step modulation around 0:31.

Hip-hop Shabbat?

I have decidedly mixed feelings about this combination of hip hop and the Jewish Friday night liturgy.  As an artistic project, it’s not the best hip hop or liturgical music that I’ve ever heard, but I can see it appealing to some people.  As liturgy, I’m skeptical.

First, it seems intended more as a gimmick to get people into services than anything else, as opposed to a serious attempt to update the liturgy.  That isn’t the best strategy to build a religious community over the long term; eventually the crowd that’s been there all along will get sick of the gimmick and the newbies will have to adjust to the traditional music, or leave.

People need better reasons to come to services than so-so hip hop every few weeks–they need to feel like the services are meeting their spiritual needs, and that the community is one that they want to be a part of through holidays, board meetings and lifecycle events.  Once the hip hop is gone, if the deeper stuff isn’t there, what’s the point?

Second, even people who could care less about a higher power often come to a synagogue (or any other place of worship, for that matter) to connect with their tradition and to experience the comfort of familiar ritual.  I’m all for updating the liturgy, but it has to be done in a way that has a degree of continuity with the historical tradition.  (Before you get too upset about using pop songs for liturgy, the uptempo melody of “Adon olam” that many of us are used to was originally a German drinking song.)

In the sample “Challah at a Balla” from the Hip Hop Shabbat website, there are fragments of traditional b’rachot, and a smattering of traditional themes from the Shabbat liturgy (“Bo’i kallah” rhyming with “holla,” anyone?).  But most of the track is dedicated to inanities with a faint Jewish flavor (“Don’t mess with my tribe/There’s only one G-d and he’s on our side”…what?), and the whole thing seems like a 52-card pickup of Shabbat iconography.

The final bone I have to pick with these artists is their decision not to use women performers in their upcoming album of the weekday prayer service, Modeh Ani. For my non-Jewish readers, extremely observant Jews observe a halakhic principle called “kol isha,” “voice of a woman,” which forbids a man to hear a woman singing (opinions vary on whether this applies only to solo singing, or to singing when a woman is part of a mixed-gender group) on the grounds that it causes inappropriate sexual arousal.

This clearly limits women’s role in public religious life, including forbidding them from leading religious services, among other things, and in my opinion (and the opinion of most non-Orthodox Jews) is one of the worst manifestations of the pervasive and pernicious sexism found in the Jewish right wing.

Anyway, the guys behind Hip Hop Shabbat are hoping that Modeh Ani will catch on in the observant community, defending their decision to boot women performers by saying, “We are being exclusive in order to be inclusive.”  Exclusive of half the entire Jewish community in order to accommodate  the sexist, backward opinions of the fringes?

Given that the kind of people who observe kol isha are the core group who consistently do weekday services (i.e. the core market for Modeh Ani) it’s more like “We are being exclusive in order to boost sales.”  I’ll always have a problem with kol isha and other similar restrictions on women’s full participation in the Jewish community, but I would have less of an issue with the rhetoric around this particular album if the artists were at least honest about their agenda.

My advice, on both artistic and ideological grounds: this iteration of a hip-hop liturgy isn’t worth your time.  If you’re interested in the idea in general, though, check out The Socalled Seder: A Hip Hop Haggadah.  It’s fun to listen to and is a much better-crafted update of the Passover liturgy that doesn’t take itself quite so seriously.  Or take a look at Joshua NelsonI especially like his version of “Adon olam” (gospel, not hip hop).

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