Monday, December 19, 2011

On Matisyahu, British singers and authenticity

Like many other Jews, I was tickled by the success of Matisyahu, the Hasidic reggae performer who just shaved his beard. I was amused that a Hasidic Jew with a full beard and peyes (sidecurls) had achieved mainstream success, that words like "moshiach" could be heard on Top 40 radio stations around the country instead of merely in the songs of Jewish boy bands (think Menudo but with velvet yarmulkes and even sillier dance moves) that I had grown up listening to.

But that didn't mean I was a fan of his music. First of all, I'm not a fan of reggae in general. Perhaps I started smoking weed too late in life and wasn't properly stoned during those important and formative "reggae years." In addition, I disliked the simplistic Utopian vision laid out in several of his songs.

And finally, I wasn't too thrilled with his music from a gender perspective. I might be oversensitive when it comes to these issues (wouldn't be the first time) but when I listened to radio hits like "Youth," I found myself getting annoyed at the chorus, which contained lyrics like, "Young man/control in your hands/slam your first on the table/and make your demands."  While I know it is not unusual for an artist--writer, singer, filmmaker--to create for versions of themselves, which means that if they're male, they address men in their work, and women have others of their gender in mind. Yet when it came to Matisyahu, I thought that the maleness of his music had as much to do with the singer's gender as it did with the Orthodox Jewish thought he adopted. And whether or not my assumption was true, it still rubbed me the wrong way.

From other quarters, the criticism that I most often heard in regards to Matisyahu centered around issues of authenticity. On the one hand, many thought that his mainstream success was in large part due to the novelty of him being a Hasidic Jew who sings reggae and beat boxes. (A side note: I can't tell you how many times I get asked how my beat boxing is going. Before this, I never thought that breaking or break dancing would be so easily confused with beat boxing.) Implicit in this criticism is that Matisyahu is somehow inauthentic. Either he isn't authentically Hasidic if he's into and/or good at reggae or he isn't truly a reggae performer, that his Judaism somehow negates that. (You know, the whole "Jews don't do that" argument, which makes every successful hip hop artist and athlete who happens to be Jewish worthy of a headline.)

Add to all of that reggae, in particular, seems to lend itself to accusations of phoniness. In a review of Matisyahu's last album, Light, Brian Howe over at Paste wrote:

"The biggest hurdle for white, Western reggae singers to overcome is phoniness: How to make reggae without faking patois (which sounds silly and condescending) and how to embrace its themes without reducing a racially and politically charged genre to mere shtick."

Howe seems to think that Matisyahu fails on all counts--from the patois (which is sprinkled with a heavy dose of Ashkenazis expressions) to the message of his music.

I don't think he should be harshly criticized for adopting the Jamaican patois since that seems to be something of the norm. The accent, lilt and cadence of the patois is expected by listeners of the music genre. (At least according to my limited knowledge of reggae.)

While thinking about that particular criticism, I was reminded of a conversation I had with someone much smarter than I am--a professor of ethnomusicology (though he primarily writes about hip hop and is pretty intelligent and articulate about popular culture). We were discussing Amy Winehouse and "blue-eyed soul" back when I was working on a profile about the late singer last year. What he wondered aloud about is--why do British singers record in American accents? To his knowledge, very few British acts sing in their native accent. He offered the Clash as an example of a band that sings in its natural accent. (To that, I added Lily Allen, though she seems to speak on her records as much as she talks. I'm sure there are others.) In his opinion, artists chose to sing this way because soul, rock, etc. are musical styles created in America and they acknowledge the tradition by singing the songs as American artists would, especially since many like the Rolling Stones were deeply influenced by the blues. Is Matisyahu acting in a similar fashion by adopting a patois?

Upon a little digging, I found an additional explanation for "un" accented British singing English that has less to do with respecting a culture and genre and more to do with physiological factors (from the National Center of Voice and Speech)

"When people speak with an accent, they produce the vowel sounds differently than the person identifying them as having an accent. When singing, the vowels are prolonged and those differences are minimized. In short: because singing isn't the same as talking from physiological standpoint."

Well, so much for that. (Though I still agree with my friend that at least some of the singing style is conscious on the part of the singer if not to honor the cultural roots of the music then at least to sound like singers who have been commercially successful.)

Anyway, what brings Matisyahu and all of this to mind is his very recent shave and his announcement that he no longer wished to be considered a "Hasidic reggae superstar." This was big news within the Jewish community, with everyone guessing as to what this shave meant philosophically, religiously and commercially. Was he still Orthodox? What would this mean to his record sales if he can no longer heuristically be referred to as the "Hasidic reggae singer"? Also, if he can merely shave off his beard and announce that he isn't Hasidic anymore, how "authentic" had that identity been?

I don't really have any answers to these questions. I saw him in his first post-beard concert on Thursday night and as far as I can tell, his fans didn't seem to mind all that much. Having never attended a Matisyahu show before and having listened to little of his music, I have no basis for comparison, no "before" to understand the "after." From an aesthetic perspective, I think his new look is an improvement though an even bigger improvement would be a handlebar mustache because those are simply awesome.

But please, Matisyahu, whatever you end up doing musically and religiously--don't grow a soul patch.

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