moments before the wind.

October 29, 2006

ain’t no one going to turn me ’round

Filed under: authenticity, business, folk, music, news — alimarcus @ 11:14 am

This article in today’s paper – in the Style section, strangely enough – is about Jewface and pop culture assimilation. Interscope’s Courtney Holt, Warner’s David Katznelson, the Annenberg School’s Josh Kun, and Slate‘s Jody Rosen are attempting to emerge as the leaders of the popular culture rebirth of Jewish vaudeville music. I saw Rosen speak about Jewish assimilation and Tin Pan Alley at this past year’s EMP Pop Conference, was intrigued by some of the ideas he brought to the table, and am still more intrigued by his continuing pursuit of a nostalgic Jewish identity. As in, maybe it’s not so nostalgic after all.

After Rosen’s talk last spring, I wondered how applicable the idea of marginalization really was to later-generation Jews, young adults (or regular adults) who’s grandparents were born in America. Alex Williams, in today’s article (Is this the same Alex Williams I went to school with? I’d believe it) makes a lot of the obvious points, that this dialect music was a way for immigrants to feel like citizens, and resurfacing now in things like Heeb magazine and hipster-ifying the Jewish culture for the disaffected secular Jewish youths who in the end are still looking for a Nice Jewish Girl/Boy to marry, but on their own, far hipper, terms.

But here’s an interesting, and to me, entirely new, idea:
But to [Rosen], Jewish dialect music played a role similar to that which gangsta rap plays among African-Americans today. Vulgar and, to some, culturally debasing, it nevertheless managed to smuggle a subculture’s distinct idiom into mainstream popular culture, while creating jobs for entertainers, managers, theater owners and music publishing houses from the same culture.
“To some extent, people like to see themselves represented,” Mr. Rosen said, “even if they are badly represented.”

Food for thought, to think about levels of tolerance and how they may vary from one genre of music to another. And how it’s possible that even though they don’t come from the same roots, they have similar work to do.

My question about marginalization, though, is not yet answered. If you compare gangsta rap to the original form of this dialect, sure, the parallels are pretty crystal clear. But what about the revival of the form, 60-100 years later? What does this say about the generation of Americans that respond to it on a cultural level? I guess it’s possible that it’s just another kind of post-modern ironic situation, in line with things like retro-vintage fashion and other kinds of cyclical, nostalgic reproductions of the Warhol flavor.

I don’t particularly feel that Jews are really marginalized, or threatened because of their culture or religion. I recently read Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America, and it was a fantastic book, and a fitting allegory for today’s cultural/political climate; but in the end, that’s what it is – an allegory. Any kind of marginalization that I’ve ever felt as a Jew has never been threatening, harmful, or anything that compares to, say, the kind of marginalization I’ve felt as a woman.

So when people take note of a revival of interest in a kind of music that recalls an era where it had much cultural significance, I wonder how that significance translates to these times, when much of the world’s injustice is constantly in front of our eyes to see, and none of it, save some celebrity gossip, has anything to do with Jews.

Am I reading too much into pop music? Maybe. But this article didn’t belong in the Style section.

[10/30/06: I have to amend that last statement because it’s not clear that I meant American Jews, specifically. Obviously there are plenty of global issues with Judaism, Israel, etc…sorry for any confusion.]


1 Comment »

  1. Hey Ali:

    Jody Rosen here. Thanks for your thoughtful response to the Times piece. On a bit of a deadline, so I’ll just throw up a couple of quick thoughts of my own.

    I agree with you that American Jews aren’t marginalized in the least. Our intention — or at least my intention — in “reviving” this music is simply to point out that it’s historically significant stuff: music that throws light on overlooked aspects of both Jewish-American history and pop history. What’s more, many of the songs charming, and funny, and even musically compelling. I certainly wasn’t trying to make some statement about contemporary identity politics. If the record holds a lesson about contemporary American Jews, its that we’ve attained a level of psychic and material comfort that permits such an unexpurgated investigation of the Jewish past: the fact that we’re a group of youngish (emphasis on “ish”) Jews reviving mildly anti-Semitic songs without fear or guilt speaks volumes.

    As for the gangsta rap comparison — that was really Alex Williams’ theory, not mine. One thing I do point out in my liner notes and other essays I’ve written on these songs is that they smuggled bits of Yiddishkeit into mainstream American pop culture: the “Jewish tinge” that you hear in the standards of Gershwin and Arlen and Cole Porter first trickled into American pop in these dialect novelty songs.

    You can read my Jewface liner notes here:

    Comment by Jody — November 1, 2006 @ 10:27 am

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