Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Matisyahu Phenomenon: Good for the Jews or Bad?

It’s a moment I never thought would come. On my way to the library, I pass by a Best Buy that advertises its musical selection with three draping banners of today’s hottest stars: a half-naked Latin woman, a make-up caked goth…
And a black-hatter with a rabbinical beard.
The last face is hard to escape these days. Open up a newspaper, a magazine, a web browser, or just take a walk down the commercial streets of Manhattan: Matisyahu is everywhere. He’s on TRL, singing about Hashem and Mashiach and rachamim min shamayim. His name is on the cover of this month’s Spin. Wisconsin hicks who thought Jews were some kind of horned fairies last month are explaining the term ‘Yeshivish’ to their parents, as defined by Rolling Stone.
And for those of you too frum for Rolling Stone, never fear: you can still hear his music at Eichler’s.
I have a confession to make.
I am confused.
Part of me wants to feel proud. Growing up in a relatively small Jewish community, it never occurred to me that Jewish music could compete in the same arena as radio fodder. Let’s face it, what are we, two percent of the population? It’s weird, it’s alien to be a Jew outside of New York; we couldn’t keep a pizza shop open, let alone put a music star on MTV! Television, radio, papers—they weren’t aimed at an audience like me. I wasn’t who they were talking to, I was eavesdropping on American culture, and so I never expected to see a reflection of anything familiar on a Best Buy poster. That’s why you sort of want to root for him, don’t you? It’s like having a Jewish athlete at the Olympics: you’re cheering because he’s one of yours, in a competition where no one else is like you.
Yet as sweet and cockle-warming as that idea might be, I’m not sure that we are the team Matisyahu is batting for.
There are a few questions I think need consideration when you talk about pop culture fame for an Orthodox Jew, or rather, pop culture fame for being an Orthodox Jew. Plenty of religious Jews have done noteworthy things: written books, produced movies, almost anything you can imagine. However, the focus of their fame is not their religion, but their art. Matisyahu, on the other hand, seems to draw as much attention to his affiliation as his music. His instantly recognizable Chabad style—suit, beard, tzizis, hat—functions as a gimmick, and if he doesn’t consciously intend for it to do so, his advertisers certainly do. This is because unlike any other album of Jewish music to date, the main purchasers of Matisyahu’s cd—and I think, to a certain extent, the people who attend his concerts—are not Jewish.
That changes quite a bit. Suddenly, it’s not ourselves we’re singing to; it’s the rest of the world. These people can’t tell the subtle difference between one type of Orthodox and another, they don’t even understand Matisyahu’s lyrics, and as his fame grows, chances are that when someone mentions ‘Orthodox’ to them, or even just ‘Jew’, Matisyahu is going to be the first image more and more people conjure up. Like it or not, Matisyahu’s our representative to the world. How should we feel about that? Is he an accurate reflection of who we are?
It’s not a simple question. I’m not sure Matisyahu even accurately reflects Chabad, let alone most of the Orthodox world. You may argue that it isn’t fair to burden Matisyahu with the impossible task of representing the Orthodox, but by making religion his gimmick, he has signed himself up for the job.
Furthermore, both Matisyahu and his music are so ubiquitous these days that they draw a considerable amount of attention to the Orthodox community. That prompts another question: do we want this attention? Is it good or bad?
I am torn. I’ve heard people say that the attention is good, because it will reach and inspire more secular Jews in a way that no Chevra album ever stands a chance of accomplishing. Some think that Matisyahu can pique the interest of Jews who have no other connection to their religion and bring them closer to Judaism. I think that probably could happen; if it’s ‘cool’ to like Matisyahu, and by correlation, ‘cool’ to be Jewish, some good may definitely be accomplished. But despite the hype, I seriously doubt Jewish reggae is going to be the next rock n’ roll. What happens when Matisyahu becomes suddenly and terribly out of vogue? Do the new kipah and tzizis go with it?
Let’s consider that for a moment. What does happen when Matisyahu gets old? What happens when tabloids start digging for dirt? That, too, reflects on us. The superstar treatment—or even just the fad of the moment—includes microscopic scrutiny of every action and word. If Matisyahu slips up, if he cracks under pressure or is caught in any compromising situation, suddenly it’s a commentary on the Orthodox community. These are issues that were debated way back in 2000 when Joe Lieberman made it to the ballot. I remember being angry then that many Jews spoke about deliberately not voting for Gore to prevent such a situation from taking place, but while I still support Lieberman, I’m not so sure that I need an Orthodox reggae singer on TRL to worry about.
It is my last question, however, which disturbs me the most.
I put all the questions I mentioned here to an Orthodox musician, wondering if he had any insight into the Matisyahu phenomenon. For the most part, his answers echoed my questions, as well as opinions I’d heard from other people who discussed this. The last question, though, prompted a different response. It talked about my perception of the two worlds—the sphere of Jewish music and the people MTV was talking to—as being separate, a perception apparently held by many Orthodox artists up to this point. My question was: were we wrong all along? Is it in fact possible for these two worlds to mix—for a religious Jew to have a music video on TRL?
At this point the musician corrected me, framing the question in a different light: “Is it possible for a religious Jew to put himself in the many questionable situations it takes to get TRL to play his video?”
There is, he said, no inherent problem with having a video on MTV, just as there is no inherent problem with having a non-Jew buy your album or come to your concert. But getting the video there takes work, and you’ve got to interact with some problematic things. Perhaps the reason why no Orthodox Jew has ever ‘broken out’ before is not because none have ever been as musically adventurous as Matisyahu—which is not all that much—but because they chose not to deal with these things. They preferred to stick to the cleaner waters and play for the people they were singing to in the first place.
It is very nice to cheer on Jewish athletes at the Olympics, but all pride and team spirit aside, I think perhaps the last way is the better way to go. To mangle a popular saying, non-Jews need Jewish music like a fish needs a bicycle. It’s the same as Madonna’s Kabbalah. Don’t get me wrong: if the music is good enough, maybe non-Jews will like it, and good for them. But to specifically target non-Jewish audiences does not sit well with me. Forget about all the complicating risks—I think it just misses the point.
Still, I am unsure. And the question lingers: how should we feel about Matisyahu?


Blogger Ezzie said...

Excellent post, some questions that occur to me whenever I hear a song of his come on myself.

I can't really add much other than give the thought that often pops into my head... as long as Matisyahu continues to stay above the garbage and maintains what he has, I think it reflects very well. It definitely does resonate with secular Jews around the country to see that someone can be Orthodox and still be on MTV, much as it resonated with many other secular Jews when Lieberman was a VP candidate. (ooo, great line a friend's dad had to Senator Joe at another friend's wedding I was at, but that's for another time...)

He's definitely toeing a tricky line: Being in RollingStone and FHM and on MTV are not your typical frum activities, but (for example) for FHM* he was interviewed by one guy who played him a game of basketball on videotape, which is perfectly kosher. (Matisyahu killed him - he's got a nice shot.) Even when he'll eventually fade, as long as he does so because people simply aren't into his music, it will still have an overall positive impact, IMO. People don't expect anyone to remain in the limelight forever.

As a side note, I think he does a pretty good job of emphasizing that he's of a certain type of Orthodox Jew, Chabad. I'm sure many people will still have this as their mental OJ picture, but most people realize that there are different types of Orthodox, even if they don't know the difference.

* No, I don't read FHM - someone linked to the video. :)

12:49 AM  
Blogger Dovid said...

Matisyahu is a Lubavitcher. So telling him about the dangers of "getting out there" would probably bring a smile to his face as he'd tripple his determination. He is a man with a mission. He will sing about G-d and mitzvot until G-d and His Glory will shine forth for the whole entire world. When baruch Hashem bexomes a common phrase in American english, I think Matisyahu will feel pretty accomplished.

9:52 AM  
Blogger MJS said...

My question is: Is Matisyahu himself doing all this aggressive marketing and hyping, or do the execs at JDub records see this as an unprecedented opportunity to make back some of their grant money and turn a profit? Are they the ones driving the Matisyahu machine? Who's benefiting?

6:39 AM  
Blogger fudge said...

i think matisyahu definitely supports it, i can't imagine how he would be obliviously taken advantage of...

7:30 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

He scares me since he seems to be at least someone mishichist.

6:28 PM  
Blogger drumbumJ said...


he is def. NOT meshichist - he spoke about that openly in the beginning of his career. and i don't think that he's one of the scheming, closet-meshichists who's just being diplomatic.


i have a lot i wanna say on this topic but gotta get my thoughts together 1st (and don't have time now). but in a nutshell, i couldn't disagree more with some of the conclusions you reached.

11:12 PM  
Blogger Ezzie said...

LifeofRubin (a huge Matisyahu fan) had a post tonight about him actually singing Yechi, so he's got to be at least a bit 'meshichist'. Ah well.

1:08 AM  
Blogger tuesdaywishes said...

I don't go for reggae; I've never heard Matisyauhu's music. I guess I feel about him like I do about the two orthodox guy apparently on "The Apprentice". He doesn't speak for me, but since the rest of the world will assume he does, I hope he doesn't screw up.

11:54 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Forget Matisyahu —

Your radio show is so much cooler than i could've imagined!

4:53 PM  
Blogger PsychoToddler said...

dead air

6:53 AM  
Blogger PsychoToddler said...

I think a lot of the intrigue in the non-Jewish world about Matis is "How does this Hassidic guy somehow end up in the reggae world." But what a lot of them don't realize is that he was in the reggae world first and later got into Chassidus as a BT.

The comparison to Madonna getting into Kabbalah is not as far off as you'd think.

As to whether it's more interesting for a Hassid to get into Reggae than for a Raggae mon to get into Hassidus...who knows?

8:28 AM  
Blogger shmutzy said...

I agree with Ezzie that if he keeps a clean slate then it bodes well for the Jewish people.

Also, here in the secular world most people don't know or don't care about what an Orthodox Jew is, and if they do, their image is already shaped by Lubavitchers, because they are the ones doing the outreach, as well as the fact that in passing modern Orthodox Jews are less likely to stand out as "different."

As for Jewish music for the non-Jews, you have to realize that most don't care about what the words to ANY song is (certainly the reason for rap's prevalance). They care about the sound - and you can't argue that Matisyahu's is a pretty unique one. Still, I'm not sure if that's OK for me either though.

You ask a lot of good questions though. I'm glad to see that you've really thought about the reprecussions instead of some who bash Matisyahu simply because his sound is different from typical Jewish stuff and therefore not "real" Jewish music. They are hard questions to take a stance on - he really is walking such a fine line.

Anyways, I've been reading you for awhile. You're a very interesting person and it's good to see someone my own age with the ability (or moreso, the desire) to think intelligently.

9:21 PM  
Blogger fudge said...

i think the clean-slate theory seems to be the consensus. everyone i've talked to is waiting to see how he will handle the next few years before they make any final judgements. who knows; it should be interesting.
shmutzy: thank you. this inspires my pathetic but upbeat living campaign, desire-is-two-thirds-of-the-wisdom-battle. amateurs, you know.

5:20 AM  
Blogger Sean Sirrine said...

As a non-Jew, I have to say I'm surprised at this discussion. I just discovered Matisyahu yesterday and instantly fell in love with his music.

Not only is this man musically talented, you can tell from the way he sings that he truly believes in what he saying.

I think it is clear, (even for someone who has to look many of the words he uses up), that he is not singing to the Jewish community nor to the secular one. He is singing to G-d.

How anyone could fing fault with that is beyond me.

1 Chronicles 16:8 Give thanks unto the LORD, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the people.
9 Sing unto him, sing psalms unto him, talk ye of all his wondrous works.

1 Chronicles 16:23 Sing unto the LORD, all the earth; shew forth from day to day his salvation.

Psalms 9:11 Sing praises to the LORD, which dwelleth in Zion: declare among the people his doings.

Psalms 30:4 Sing unto the LORD, O ye saints of his, and give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness.

Psalms 33:2 Praise the LORD with harp: sing unto him with the psaltery and an instrument of ten strings.
3 Sing unto him a new song; play skilfully with a loud noise.

Psalms 47:6 Sing praises to God, sing praises: sing praises unto our King, sing praises.
7 For God is the King of all the earth: sing ye praises with understanding.

Psalms 66:1 Make a joyful noise unto God, all ye lands:
2 Sing forth the honour of his name: make his praise glorious.

Psalms 67:4 O let the nations be glad and sing for joy: for thou shalt judge the people righteously, and govern the nations upon earth. Selah.

Psalms 68:4 Sing unto God, sing praises to his name: extol him that rideth upon the heavens by his name JAH, and rejoice before him.

Psalms 68:32 Sing unto God, ye kingdoms of the earth; O sing praises unto the Lord; Selah:
33 To him that rideth upon the heavens of heavens, which were of old; lo, he doth send out his voice, and that a mighty voice.

Psalms 81:1 Sing aloud unto God our strength: make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob.

Psalms 92:1 It is a good thing to give thanks unto the LORD, and to sing praises unto thy name, O most High:
2 To shew forth thy lovingkindness in the morning, and thy faithfulness every night,
3 Upon an instrument of ten strings, and upon the psaltery; upon the harp with a solemn sound.

Psalms 95:1 O come, let us sing unto the LORD: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.
2 Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms.

Psalms 96:1 O sing unto the LORD a new song: sing unto the LORD, all the earth.
2 Sing unto the LORD, bless his name; shew forth his salvation from day to day.

Psalms 98:1 O sing unto the LORD a new song; for he hath done marvellous things: his right hand, and his holy arm, hath gotten him the victory.

Psalms 98:4 Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.
5 Sing unto the LORD with the harp; with the harp, and the voice of a psalm.

Psalms 100:2 Serve the LORD with gladness: come before his presence with singing.

Psalms 105:1 O give thanks unto the LORD; call upon his name: make known his deeds among the people.
2 Sing unto him, sing psalms unto him: talk ye of all his wondrous works.

Psalms 135:3 Praise the LORD; for the LORD is good: sing praises unto his name; for it is pleasant.

Psalms 147:1 Praise ye the LORD: for it is good to sing praises unto our God; for it is pleasant; and praise is comely.

Psalms 149:1 Praise ye the LORD. Sing unto the LORD a new song, and his praise in the congregation of saints.

Psalms 149:3 Let them praise his name in the dance: let them sing praises unto him with the timbrel and harp.

Psalms 149:5 Let the saints be joyful in glory: let them sing aloud upon their beds.

Isaiah 12:5 Sing unto the LORD; for he hath done excellent things: this is known in all the earth.

Isaiah 42:10 Sing unto the LORD a new song, and his praise from the end of the earth, ye that go down to the sea, and all that is therein; the isles, and the inhabitants thereof.
11 Let the wilderness and the cities thereof lift up their voice, the villages that Kedar doth inhabit: let the inhabitants of the rock sing, let them shout from the top of the mountains.

Jeremiah 20:13 Sing unto the LORD, praise ye the LORD: for he hath delivered the soul of the poor from the hand of evildoers.

Zephaniah 3:14 Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem.

Zechariah 2:10 Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion: for, lo, I come, and I will dwell in the midst of thee, saith the LORD.

10:10 PM  
Blogger parcequilfaut said...

OK, the Gentile Heathen from Nashville is going to weigh in on Matisyahu for a minute.

I like reggae generally. And part of what I like about it is that, unlike a lot of other music, those guys spend a lot of time praising G-d and abhorring evil. (All ye shall witness when Babylon fall.) Bob Marley's version of "This Train" is one of my favorite songs because when I was a little girl in a conservative Christian church, I used to sing that song at devotional.

Admittedly, as Bob and the rest were by and large Rastafarian, I don't necessarily agree with their entire religious picture of the universe, but G-d is G-d. I feel closer to G-d listening to Bob than I do, say, Ludacris.

As soon as I heard Matisyahu I fell in love. I was amazed and surprised to find that he will take the less-widely-attended Thursday night slots at a festival (AllGood in WV and TN Bonnaroo are the 2 I know of) to avoid playing on the Sabbath....not a careerist move, necessarily, as at least one hippie who came to the show mostly to see him was still stuck in line for his entire set. But mostly I was transported and transcended by the fact that "here is another guy who loves reggae rhythm and G-d and isn't ashamed to sing about the thing he loves most in the way he loves best." I emailed the RenReb some time ago, trying to get explanation of a parasha I never would have heard of were it not for Matisyahu.

Now I will admit that most people outside Judaism are not terribly well-educated about it. Just because I know (generally) the difference between different kinds of Orthodoxy doesn't mean everyone does. But if Matisyahu has got me -- me, who has no familial or historical connection of which I'm aware to Judaism, merely a desire to understand -- asking questions about his method of praising much more does he pose the opportunity for others to ask questions, to become interested?

There is no highly observant Jewish community in Nashville of which I'm aware, with the exception of some of the students of Vanderbilt University, which has one of three kosher restaurants in Nashville inside its JSLC. But all the established synagogues and temples are either Reform or Conservative. So for a lot of my contemporaries, yes, Matisyahu is the only image of "observant Jew" they have -- and, rather than being some kind of superreligious, and therefore inaccessible and incomprehensible, freak, he's a guy who makes great music, and is on MTV. (I talked to a girl from elsewhere in TN the other day, who was quite excited to find out that I liked Matisyahu, and ended up explaining to her what was up with his payis, pulling out The Jewish Bookof Why to assist me.) That image is much, much better than the image they may have absorbed from our culture otherwise...this is, after all, the South, and I make no bones about the fact that I live in a part of the country where a vast majority of the people are wilfully ignorant about many, many, many things.

Now, I grew up more religious (Christian) than my contemporaries in school. And I took more flak for that, overall, than just about anything else. It was "weird" that I spent all of Sunday and Wednesday nights too in church. It was weird that I talked and thought about G-d a lot. It was weird that I would challenge things my teachers taught me that contradicted what my faith had taught me, that I wasn't allowed to attend dance classes, and the cumulative of all that "weird" was that I was a social outcast for seven or eight years of schooling. (Oddly, where I grew up, it was more weird that I went to church three times a week or more than that the Jewish kids fasted on Yom Kippur...)

Had there been a Matisyahu-analog on MTV at that period whose CoC faith was one of the main things people wanted to discuss about him, would I have taken less flak, and been more comfortable in my religious skin? Almost certainly. I can see how he is doing a great service to younger people who may turn away from their faith or their observance thereof for social acceptance.

Above all, though, I really don't think it's a gimmick. I don't know, of course...only G-d knows what is in the heart. But I don't feel it. People may be trying to make it a gimmick...I was horrendously offended by the way Jimmy Kimmel talked to Matisyahu on his show (as I remember he was asking him how much $$$ it would take to get him to break Sabbath observance), but the latter kept his cool and his composure, and wasn't tricked into either apologizing for or making light of his principles. Kimmel looked like a jerk there, not Matisyahu.

I can't speak to whether or not Matisyahu is good for Judaism, because I'm not a Jew. Does he make good music? I say yes. Does he make good music from a place of what appears to be strong religious faith? I say yes, also. Does he, by so doing, make faith (in general) appear more acceptable socially than perhaps it has been? Again,I say yes. If he turns out like those guys from Creed and falls away from his message and/or ends up having indescretions made public, will it be a chillul Hashem and hurt Judaism? Possibly. But not to borrow trouble, I'd rather have someone out there whose faith becomes a hook than someone who abandons his faith because it might not do well on TRL....

I'm babbling now, I'll stop. And go listen to "Aish Tamid", because it's stuck in my head.

8:26 AM  
Blogger PsychoToddler said...

Parce: Excellent comment.

6:42 AM  

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