Saturday, August 04, 2007

Our Music and the Nature of Truth

So, this is something Nemo brought up in the comments in my previous post. (Ha! I love doing that! Thank you again, Halfnutcase, for teaching me how.) And the timing is interesting, considering all the controversy surrounding this particular issue.

I know a lot of people in the Jewish community object to secular music. It's a distraction from Torah; it comes from places of tumaah that encourages values contrary to what we believe in; it lures us with its glamour and its glory into the dangers of the non-Jewish world, etc etc etc. Further, and a separate point; people even object to Jewish music that's been influenced by the stylings of non-Jewish music. Jewish "rock" is too close to the edge of the secular world that lies so temptingly close to us. Once you start listening to Jewish "rock," a gateway drug, you'll soon be led to listen to non-Jewish rock; and from there it's only one step away from drugs, promiscuity, and breaking the holy Sabbath .

(I'm exaggerating slightly for effect. I do hope that's clear.)

These two points of mine- the objection to secular music itself, and the objection to its siamese twin, "Jewish Rock," are separate but closely intertwined. First, let's deal with the issue of Jewish "rock."

Art is mainly about communication, in whatever form it happens to find itself. Even if the communication is only between the artist and himself (ie, brings the artist to a greater understanding of himself or the world around him) this still counts. If something communicates to no one, expresses no form of truth at all, it is invalid as a piece of art; and if it does, then it is a valid piece of art. At least, in my humble opinion.

Now, no good art, just like man, can exist in a vaccum. It comes in a context, complete with conscious and unconscious influences, commentaries, bits and pieces of the artist and people or things the artist knows, loves, and hates. This is true of all and every art form, for all and every artist.

And as much as we'd love for it to be true that Jews are capable of inventing a completely unique style of music, we have to admit that it's just not so. It' never has been. Niggunim? Old Russian bar songs. Whiny saxaphone-murdering over-sentimentalized whining? Lounge music and bad 80s pop songs. (That's how no one recognizes them.) I mean, let's not even get into Schlock Rock, whose selling point is parodies; or the Beach Boys' version of Dror Yikrah, aka Sloop John B. I mean, it's just never been true. Even Israeli pop music -it's influences are either western pop, or middle-eastern stylings reminiscent of desert wanderers and Mulsim prayers.

That said, exactly what do you expect from us? To not listen to music at all? Not that there aren't halachik opinions to support that view, but try implementing it. No don't. It'll only frustrate everyone and end in blood and ugliness. So that's point 1 - if you want music, it's derivative of some form of non-Jewish music. Period.

Point 2- Why are people so violently afraid of non-Jewish music? Why should you immediately negate anything in G-d's world, if it has potential to teach you something true? Why do we assume that everything secular is the devil? Why do we think that G-d wants us to be so closed off and sheltered and ignorant? Our G-d that loves information, so much so that He created His world out of it? Our G-d that loves the search, that hides from us to drive us farther forward? Our G-d that wants us to advance, to actively create truth and beauty? Is that not why He created us to begin with? To discover and create truth and beauty? Why then do we try so hard to live in a world that is stifling and narrow and ugly? Why do we try so hard to make life as unpleasant and difficult for ourselves as possible? Did not G-d say that it is forbidden to cause ourselves to suffer deliberately? How can we justify suffocating our people, at a time when it is more necessary than ever that we breathe and bloom and expand?

It's vitally important to be culturally fluent, (ie, be aware and informed of as much pop culture past and present, and actual culture, as is relevant) for several reasons. 1) So people don't think you're an ignoramus. 2) So you have some sense of context. Where, when, and why you are; what came before, what is, what might be, and why. Without some sense of where you are in the chain, you're completely ineffectual at having an impact on history. Without context, we miss the big picture completely, and to be completely unaware of one's context robs a person of at least half the truth he's capable of seeing and implementing towards making the world a better place and himself a better Jew.

The fact of the matter is, there's vast amounts of truth in art. That's what makes it art, if you'll remember; if it communicates some idea that people can relate to, that brings anyone to a greater understanding of themselves, others, or the world at large. There's a lot of that in non-Jewish music, because it's something non-Jewish artists understand. To a certain extent.

It all ties into the greater idea of truth being a whole lot more inclusive and complete than most religous people give it credit for. I think I've already tried to make the point that if we were to reach that one final answer we wouldn't have any reason to go on, and that therefore the answer is not the point; or rather not the ending point, because every answer only leads to further questions. If the truth is all-inclusive, then Torah is not the only source for it. Secular knowledge, secular literature, secular music, even, G-d forbid, television, movies and the internet! I just really don't think that G-d would have made us a world this wide and wonderful and full of truth everywhere you look if He didn't want us to take advantage of it. Because when you're talking about life, the universe and everything as it stands today, these other forums should be looked upon as supplementary sources, and sources, I think, that G-d put there for us to utilize, towards becoming better people, better Jews, and better able to serve Him.

This is not to say that all secular music/art is good. Of course some of it sucks. That art should be avoided, but I think it is a good idea to have the ability to be able to distinguish between that which is good and that which is bad.

Secondly, of course I don't mean people should listen to rock music or go to a museum in lieu of learning Torah. I think that it should only occupy spaces that were already blank. Remember, it's supplementary, not substitutional. So, you know, when you're driving to your chavrutah, or if you've already done all your learning for the day, and you need to unwind. I think these things are not only good to stick in those spaces but important, for all of the reasons delineated above..


Blogger Nemo said...

"It's vitally important to be culturally fluent..."

Fact or opinion?

9:58 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

Opinion, probably. But it should be fact!

3:20 AM  
Blogger Halfnutcase said...



but seriously, there are things in which it can be usefull to be culturaly fluent in and things in which it is not so usefull to be culturaly fluent in, its not all one big grab bag.

Similarly not all music is really fit for human consumption, and I think that you aught to recognize that.

4:20 AM  
Blogger Tobie said...

The fact is that a large portion of secular music, like much of culture, is icky. It glorifies sex, drugs, angst, whining, selfishness, hippy-ism, stupidity, wallowing in feelings, more sex, shallowness and objectification, and so forth. It is this fact that causes people to really enjoy going out on crusades against it. Of course there is plenty of beauty and truth in it as well- music- even without lyrics- is simply poetry and as such can capture a heck of a lot. But I'm not sure that the stance that it should be entirely avoided because of the ickiness therein is entirely invalid. It's all a question of cost-benefit analysis, and I think that a large enough percentage of secular music is icky to justify a reasonable person's making a different analysis than my own.

4:39 AM  
Blogger Tobie said...

Oh! and all of this is irrelevant of the fact that music appeals almost exclusively to the emotions rather than to the mind. I would love to hear somebody- frummie or rationalist- formulate an objection to music simply because it bypasses rationality and thus anything it says- even the valid things- is more akin to indoctrination than thought.

4:40 AM  
Blogger Halfnutcase said...

Tobie, that basicaly is my objection, and the reason why I say that one needs to be choosy about one's music. Some music is ok, some isn't, and mostly it depends on the emotional mood it gives you. Music that makes you angry is bad. Music that makes you feel other negative emotions is bad. Some music should be reserved for marriage. Some music shouldn't even be reserved for that.

Some of it is beautifull and happy. Remember even amoung famous paintings you can have smut amoung the beauty. (I'm thinking the venus de milo painting for some reason, although it is less smut today than it was when it was painted as fat women are no longer universaly in style, although there are a few traditionalists out there still.)

4:57 AM  
Blogger Halfnutcase said...

< a href="__1__">__2__< /a>

Here for your enjoyment is the formula for how to link in comments as well.

Place the website (beggining with the HTTP://) in blank number one, and place the name you want to apear in blank number two, and just delete the space after '<' before the 'a' and after the last < and that 'a' and you should have a link in the comments, as so:


or alternately a quick and dirty way to do it would be to open up your composition board for your blog and do it as I showed you earlier, and then switch over to the "edit html" tab and copy and paste it from there :-)

(can you tell I'm enjoying acknowledgement for helping you with this?)

5:18 AM  
Blogger Halfnutcase said...



and you can use it to link people on your side bar.

5:20 AM  
Blogger Miri said...

thanks for that, although it's slightly more complicated and I'm not sure I'm going to be able to use that...but I'll try, we'll see what happens.

Tobie-while music can be used for indoctrinational purposes (national anthems, youth movement, and religous stuff) but I think most pop music and other artistic music is less about indoctrination (after all, what do I care to be convinced whether or not you really love the guy/girl?) and more about identification and communicaton; ie, I totally get that, I've totally been there. Music has a resonance with us when it has to do with something we've experienced, usually; when we recognize pieces of truth in it bc it jives with our reality. yes, some of music is icky and stupid; these tend to be the pieces that aren't legitimate art bc they're not trying to express truth, they're trying to exploit commercially viable themes as marketing tools and pass it off as "art."

6:11 AM  
Blogger Halfnutcase said...

isn't it both? I mean, you have two parts, the situation presented in the song, and then there is the perspective of the lyrics and music.

Most situations are going to be rather intermediate, neither bad nor good in terms of the influence. However, the way that the song views it could certainly be bad or good, and like tobie said, that perspecive is going to be transmitted in a way that is beyond reason's grasp.

And certainly we do not want music that causes us to view situations in a negative way, no?

6:30 AM  
Blogger Miri said...

I don't think it's quite as complicated as you make it sound. Of course there's room for interpretation, that's part of the nature of artistic expression- that it speaks to everyone differently. But why are we so afraid of seeing new perspectives, even if they're not rosy and wonderful? Why should we trash things because they acknowledge the negativity in the world? pretending it isn't there won't make it go away. It seems silly to me to ignore these things because you're afraid of how they'll influence you; it's like being afraid of new information because you're afraid it'll force you to change your opinion about something. Truth in any form should not be ignored. That's what I'm trying to say.

6:39 AM  
Blogger Halfnutcase said...

Miri, perhaps I should illustrate this with the example of the freckles song I put in my recent post

This particular song presents an interesting and quite truthfull observation: Loosing someone hurts. This it expresses in a very truthful way. once we have this observation, we can then proceed to look at it in a number of different ways:

A, I enjoyed the time I spent with him, and am going to relish the memories and the lessons and get on with my life.

B, I enjoyed the time I spent with him and want him back and will do what ever it takes to get him back

C, I enjoyed the time that I spent with him and hate him for ditching me

D, I enjoyed the time I spend with him and am going to mope around all day long now that he's gone

E, I enjoyed the time I spend with him and am now going to stalk him and threaten him with physical harm if he doesn't get back with me.


Some of these are heathly responses, some of them are clearly not. I just don't think that it is exactly healthy to encourage unhealthy responses in people and append them to heavily emotional memories or events.

Basicaly, for the same truthful observation, you have differing perspectives you can take on it, and it bodes ill for someone who choses to take a very unproductive approach to the problem, and while I do not think that such music is the primary cause of such a persons spiritual ills, I do think that it is symptomatic of deepset personality problems in this persons psyche, because this particular unhealthy perspective is what they are gravitating to, do you see what I mean?

7:04 AM  
Blogger Miri said...

Eh. Don't take this the wrong way, but I think you're overemphasizing a minor point. Yes, maybe it reflects unhealthy responses. So? If this is how the artist feels, why shouldn't they express that somehow? And if it's something other people can identify with, Why shouldn't they? I feel like it's very weak to assume that listening to a song which expresses un healthy reactions to strong emotions causes/influences unhealthy behavior and responses. And I don't think it's a valid reason for ignoring said music, especially if I wouldn't respond that way, but can now understand someone who would. Again, I can't support any argument that encourages and supports ignorance.

8:34 AM  
Blogger Halfnutcase said...

miri, I don't know about you, but I find that music has a very powerful effect on my feelings thoughts and perceptions.

but like I said, listening to problematic music is more symptom of problems than the cause. further my point is that there are many kernals of truth that a song can portray. and many ways of looking at that same kernel of truth.

(and i'm saying nothing about the artist here.)

8:46 AM  

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