The rambling thoughts of a Modern Orthodox Chassid (whatever that means). Contact me at emansouth @

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Shiny Shoe Music: Popular, Yes; Jewish, Maybe; Soulful, No.

Cookie offers her two cents on Jewish Music. She asks two questions:

1. Is the genre (Shiny Shoe music) popular, and

2. Is it Jewish

I don't really understand her first question. I haven't seen anyone dispute the fact that Shiny Shoe music is popular. That is self-evident from record sales, concert attendance, etc. The fact that it is popular, howver, means very little. As Velvel said recently (I can't find the link), most music (secular and otherwise) stinks. I don't remember whether he said most popular music stinks. But if he didn't I will. Most popular music davka stinks.

In answering her second question, Cookie seems to equate the 'Jewishness' of music with its 'soulfulness'. She goes on to disagree with the Hassidic Musician and Jewish Fringe who have written that Shiny Shoe music lacks soul. Cookie feels that each record and each artist must be judged individually. She cites Avraham Fried as a shiny shoe artist whose music moves her. She points out that there are songs that are very popular and supposedly soulful (Mama Rochel) that don't do much for her. She thinks that each of our souls is effected differently and we should leave it at that.

This is what my soul says:

I agree with Dm and Jewish Fringe that the overwhelming majority (not all) of Shiny Shoe music lacks soul. There are many reasons for this. Headed by MBD, the self-proclaimed "King of Jewish Music", and MBD wanna-bes, it is, generally speaking, derivative, secular music put to pasukim and disguised as 'Chassidic music". It has as much to do with real, authentic Chassidic niggunim as Maddona (excuse me, Esther) and Back Street Boys. It is dominated by a small number of 'composers', arrangers and producers whose goal is to sell as many CDs as possible.

Standard Shiny Shoe music usually features a guy with a good voice wearing a dark suit and shiny black shoes belting out songs that are hard to distinguish one from the other. The fast songs are completely formulaic pop songs put to pasukim, feature the same beat and are unbelievably overproduced, with ridiculous numbers of horns and violins. The slow songs are equally formulaic. Every once in a while someone actually writes a nice slow song. (If that happens, it is usually played non-stop on the JM radio stations until you want to jump out of a window if you hear it again). The songs have no soul because they are written almost entirely for the sole purpose of making money.

Equally bad is that the advertising and promotion for this music is very often dishonest, misleading and over the top. Producers actually pay many of the JM newspapers and magazines to plant good reviews. People with vested interests send emails to Jewish Music emails groups extolling the virtues of this or that performer without disclosing their interests. (BloginDm and Velvel have been at the forefront of exposing this possible g'naivas ha'daas).

Shiny Shoe concerts have become spectacles as well. In the increasingly heated competition for audiences, the producers go to ever more silly lengths to distinguish themselves. The performers are now required to do certain hand motions, dance like fools, wear head mics like boy bands, skate around on roller skates, let loose smoke and fireworks, etc. So-called 'audience-request' concerts contain plants who yell out songs that the performer has prepared. There is no modesty and no shame. (Perhaps this is why the Chareidi rabbanim have recently begun to publicly attack these concerts).

And, just when you thought it couldn't get worse, three relatively new phenomenon have become popular. Eli Gerstner's vile techno/digitized sound (as exemplified by Chevra and Menucha), acapella 'Sefira' albums, and the crossover of Carlebach into the Shiny Shoe world.

The techno sound is a rip off of the boy bands from the secular world. The voices are digitally manipulated and distorted and there is even more overproduction than on standard stuff. The sefira albums are halachically dubious attempts to sell albums when regular music with instruments are prohibitted. Most of these albums are horrid. Finally, now that he is niftar (Achrei Mos - Kedoshim) many Shiny Shoe musicians (including the King himself) are covering (and mostly ruining) Reb Shlomo's niggunim. Just as the pop sound shiny shoe tunes lower the holiness of pasukim, so do their over-the-top productions lower the holiness of Reb Shlomo's niggunim.

Peggy Noonan had a great insight in her column about the Reagan funeral in today's OpinionJournal.

One of the things not sufficiently remarked upon the past week: The music, from California to Washington and back to California again, was old music, old American music, and it was beautiful. We have abandoned so much of the core of American music. And then a state funeral comes and the death of a president, and suddenly we are allowed to hear the old songs....

This music is part of our patrimony, every bit as much as the trees and mountains. Our children, in our civic life, have for a generation been denied these songs. The moral and artistic equivalent of river polluters have decided we need to hear--I don't know, what songs do they play now in school, at events? "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head"?

We need a new environmental movement--a musical conservation movement aimed at saving and preserving the old songs. The rivers and mountains and plains are so beautiful and need saving. But what have you lost if you lose the sound of your ancestors' souls singing? Even more, I think. (emphasis added)
These words could just as easily be applied to Jewish Music today. I'm not suggesting that we only listen to old Modzitz niggunim. I'm suggesting that we listen to music that is written for the same reason that the heiliga Modzitzer Rebbe, zt'l, wrote his niggunim. Music that was written with a sense of overwhelming d'veykus to Hashem that could not be contained in his heart.

With the exception of a minority of people who are writing and producing music from their hearts rather than for the money, we have lost the sound of our ancestor's souls singing.


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