Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Eminem and Commercial Jewish Music

On my long Sunday evening drive, I listened to a 60 Minutes interview with Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem. It was interesting to hear him talk about how he thinks about words all day, playing with rhymes and rhythm. I was fascinated by his take on pairing words with "orange" – he denied the standard view that nothing rhymes with orange, and when challenged he proved the point, such as by dragging the first syllable so that the ‘n’ was almost inaudible (awwridge, practically), such that you could easily hear how it could rhyme with any number of words.

Most of all, I felt some measure of nachas (pride and satisfaction) in hearing the man talk about where he is now, his new strength, his role as a father. He’s clearly still angry, hurt, dealing with pain and mistrust, but he seems to have learned to use it as fuel, and this may be an early step toward getting past it. No surprise, I like his recent “I’m not afraid”, although I can’t link to it because the laws prohibiting ניבול פה still apply…

In any case: Listening to Eminem talk, I was reminded of why I’ve always been drawn to angry music – think Shinedown, Linkin Park, Three Days Grace. On some level their anger resonates with anger inside me, and that’s one associaton, but on a deeper level it’s the passion the songs express. It’s authentic, less entertaining and more personal, less of a performance and more the embodiment of a soul, and so it has a beauty I don’t find in songs sung for the sake of selling CDs.

This is my frustration with much of the Jewish music being marketed today: To me, the music lacks passion.

As a people and as individuals, Jews have plenty of reasons to feel anger, as well as love and fear and pain and joy. The words of our music often carry these themes beautifully. But the feeling seems to be that of a synthesizer rather than a human being.

Many of today’s artists do have catchy rhythms and artful voices and meaningful words and dance-friendly tunes, but I just don’t sense that the singers are emotionally “into” the songs. With the exception of Shlomo Carlebach, and perhaps the Piamentas in their live work, I can’t remember ever hearing a Jewish singer have what seemed to be an authentic passionate, religious experience while singing. Mordechai ben David’s אנחנו מאמינים בני מאמינים is a great song when people sing it live – but the commercially recorded versions seem canned to me.

Have I been listening to the wrong Jewish singers – have you heard some who are like that?


  1. Chazzanut is authentic Jewish music if not of the type produced by Eminem. You want to hear real emotion coming through, inspired by the words and the occasion for singing those words, listen to any of the great elder statesmen chazzanim, whose works are available even today thanks to our modern technology. And yes, even those who are our more modern chazzanim produce that emotion.

  2. I think you have to listen to Jewish musicians who write their own songs. There's a huge difference in terms of how a band or a singer will connect to a song they've written as opposed to one that's been written for them.

    As for an example of authentic, uncanned Jewish music - SAFAM.

  3. Gershon Veroba has a variety of songs; some are easy-listening, some are soul-searching: "Reach out and find me, I need to know You're there ..."

  4. Woops. "Sh" was me.

  5. RH:

    great post.
    most jewish music stinks. it's unoriginal, unemotional and simply boring.

    "I’ve always been drawn to angry music"

    i also like angry music, but never thought about the way you put it. for me, i just like the raw energy that comes through.

    "although I can’t link to it because the laws prohibiting ניבול פה still apply"

    when i was in fifth grade i went to see crocodile dundee and lo behold rabbi k., my teacher, and his wife were in the theater. i was shocked and my father said, "why are you surprised, you think he doesn't have a personal life and doesn't want to have a good time once in a while?"

    but as someone who has a very public role in jewish education and ministry, how do you reconcile that you like to do something which it would seem you don't really think is appropriate to do. (just curious, not criticizing)?

  6. RH:

    i also remember being shocked once when in a seminar i took with prof. haim soloveitchik he spoke about a scene in the godfather.

    i never heard "i'm not afraid" until now, but wow, there really is some nivul peh in it

    one of my favorite songs is eminem's "lose yourelf," which i like as a carpe diem anthem. i'd warn you that it has a bit of nivul peh, but nothing like what's in "i'm not afraid"


    i think it's fair to say some modern hazzanim and baale tefila don't really even understand the words they are supposedly offering on our behalf, so i take their "emotion" with a grain of salt. aside from having met and spoken with some of them, their ignorance become evident from the tunes they use, how they break up sentences and the words/phrases they choose to emphasize by repeating. and if they really aren't as ignorant as i suspect, then they need some intruction on emotive music

    what do you think?

  8. ProfK-
    I hear that. We've discussed my chazzan-cynicism elsewhere, but I hear it.

    1. Makes sense.
    2. I last heard Safam in 1983 or so; are they still around?

    Shalom, Anonymous 1 and 2-
    I'll have to try him.

    Abba's Rantings-
    I actually don't listen to it much, if at all, both for practical reasons (no time) and for the fact that I am ambivalent about it. I know that music - themes as well as language - can influence my sensitivities, and influences can be as assur as anything listed in Yoreh Deah. I probably hear the music in the car for 15-30 minutes per week, on average.
    But in terms of my pedagogic role: I would never tell someone flat that such music is assur. I try to avoid hypocrisy...

  9. I haven't heard any music in 8 months, and I can tell you, when I hear anything with passion, like in the grocery store, believe it or not, or on NPR, it really moves me. Jewish music can be so soulful, but then there's so much that's derivative, like in any genre, right?

  10. I relate to what you're saying about angry music, and i've been hearing a lot of Eminem on the radio lately. Maybe spirituality is an emotion that can only be recognized live? Although that's probably just a cop-out answer.

  11. When I hear Yosef Karduner singing Tehillim or sayings or R' Nachman, I get the sense that he means it.

  12. Btw rav if you pronounce "orange" in your dialect with an initial _aw_ and not an initial _ah_, it rhymes with "door-hinge"

  13. Echoing ProfK, I'd recommend certain types of hazzanut -specifically Yossele Rosenblatt, who is known for really meaning what he says. In fact, any professional voice teacher will tell you that part of the art of singing is actually believing and feeling the words you're saying - if not, the music itself suffers. This is part of the problem with contemporary Jewish music, which speaks to a public that simply likes beat, not sophisticated and artful melody that comes from the soul. The appeal of certain rap artists is that they actually do speak from the soul and care that the rhyme scheme is clever and sophisticated, which makes their music a lot more meaningful. I'd also higly recommend some of the klezmer groups out there - they're professional and have some really heartfelt music (Klezmatics & Yitzhak Pearlman, Metropolitan Klezmer, etc.).
    re: self-expression, it's too bad the Ashkenazi religious world doesn't recognize the great poets of Sepharad (Yehuda al-Harizi, Shmuel ha-Nagid): while certain things they write is problematic, I do have the feeling that other elements (fiction, satire, and certain general expression of feelings) should be considered part of Torah literature. In that way, religious Jewish artists can actually be encouraged to express themselves and make traditional Jewish art more meaningful.

  14. three comments up, I meant "sayings of R' Nachman."

  15. these are a nice place to start with Shuli Rand:

  16. I should add that the Israeli right has some "angry" rap - but I don't now if you'd consider that Jewish or not.

  17. Joseph-
    I hear re: Sepharad.
    But re: the Jewish listening public, I don't think it's a matter of simply liking beat, etc. I can't think people's souls are that easily satisfied.

  18. As a friend (who is a musician) pointed out, people don't know what they're missing. I suspect that most people are too busy with jobs and family to think about whether contemporary music is lacking and [think they] are satisfied with the quick fix. Also, it may be that not everyone is interested in hearing "angry" critique because it disturbs them; but like you I think spirituality needs to challenge people, not only make them feel good. I'm often surprised at what people like because I can't always imagine another person's perspective.

  19. Great post and I agree 100% (and I've blog about it, as well).

    The closest thing to passion that I've found is:
    Piamenta's Mitzvah album (their first studio album)
    Yitzhak HaLevi's sefl titled album

    In fact, "Mitzvah" will probably be the first album I listen to when my "year" of aveilus is up (17 Cheshvon). Followed by Yosef Karduner, and a few select tracks from Bad Relgion's "30 Years Live" CD.

  20. Anonymous-
    Started on the Shuli Rand; I like it, thank you. Definite feeling there. I suspect, as Jenny noted in general, that he writes his own songs.

  21. In general, I don't find enough variety in modern Jewish music. There is one group, though, that I can listen to again and again and get joy and/or comfort at each listen - Kol Achai. Unfortunately, as far as I know, they haven't done anything recently. But their first 4 albums are a great listen.

  22. Was going to suggest Shuli Rand but I see iv'e been beaten to it. Yes, he does write his own lyrics.
    although you should also hear his version of Shirat Ha'asavim

  23. There are many here is one

    Eliezer blumen .
    Here is a recent clip of him playing