Tuesday, April 17, 2007

[Continued from yesterday]

Chris Carrabba of Dashboard Confessional goes to beaches and, hence, is so not Jewish.

When I was younger, I would sometimes fantasize about being a rock star but it felt even more implausible than being an astronaut. Rock stars were reckless, confrontational personalities. Rock stars drank and did drugs and slept with many women. Rock stars said things in interviews that would upset their mothers. During my adolescence, I found it difficult to connect with any deviant behavior (which may explain why my first musical obsession was the safety found in Billy Joel, Elton John, Sting, and Don Henley). I also discovered that many musicians looked to disassociate themselves from their Jewish heritage: Robert Zimmerman changed his name to Bob Dylan. Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley both changed their names from Chaim Witz and Stanley Harvey Eisen, respectively. Scott Ian Rosenfeld became just Scott Ian of Anthrax and Leonard Cohen became a Buddhist. The list went on and on.

Perhaps I was over thinking it but I concluded that the only true way for a Jewish musician to become a rock star was to hide his Judaism. A sad revelation but only one that would be authenticated, in retrospect, with the introduction of Matisyahu (no doubt a talented young man, but as rock star as a yeshiva high school rebbe, albeit the cool one that told you stories about how he once smoked weed and listened to Zeppelin).

The most admirable aspect of emo is the encouragement of true, unrepentant expression. Emo asks that you hide nothing and express everything. Every girl that broke your heart—well, write a song about her. All the pain you’re feeling inside—share it with us so we can say, right on. I so know what you mean, man. But if there’s one self-perpetuating stereotype (out of many) that the Jews want to escape, it’s their propensity to complain.

I once went on tour with the now-defunct Gainesville, Florida punk band Hot Water Music for a Punk Planet profile. Gainesville, Florida isn’t exactly bursting with Jews, so our three-day interview sometimes transitioned into a Judaism for Dummies. The band proceeded to ask me all the questions that uninformed non-Jews love to ask like, the myth about sex through a hole in the sheet (not true), and explain to us the concept of kosher (no, a rabbi doesn’t just bless it). But one night while I was complaining about the difficulties of traveling on the road and sleeping on floors, one of the band members told me that I reminded him of Seinfeld.
And I thought about this for a while.
I had been complaining.
Seinfeld is a Jew.
He complains often.
Therefore, complaining is an inherent Jewish characteristic.

When most Jewish musicians make the decision to rebel against their heritage and religion and become debauched rock stars, they want to dissociate themselves completely from matzah and gefilte fish. This could either mean changing your Hebrew name, sometimes converting to a foreign religion, or, more often than not, stop being so goddamn whiney. Sure, that unattractive Judeo-quality works so well for Phillip Roth’s books and Ben Stiller’s movies but would you want to buy their records? And if I asked you who seems to be have had more fun throughout his career, would you pick Barry Manilow, who is unabashedly Jewish, or would you pick Lou Reed, who has broken just about every one of the 613 commandments (yes, even threshing on the Sabbath)? Now, stereotypically, being emo is too close to being Jewish and this is one reason why there are very few Jews in emo.

Getting back to Hopper’s essay, the journalist asserts that emo boys never grow up and, well, this time she’s right. “[Emo] is a genre made by and for adolescent and post-adolescent boys, who make evident, in their lyrics and dominant aesthetic, that their knowledge of actual living…is tiny enough to fit in a shoe box,” Hopper writers. Elsewhere, she calls the respective members of the scene “Peter Pan.” The guys I hung out with in my emo years rarely had jobs, drank a lot, woke up late, had no long-term plan, but were incredibly talented when it came to wasting time. It was almost an art I admired. It should have been on display in a performance art gallery somewhere entitled “Untitled (Too Lazy To Come Up With A Title)”. I became anxious by association, also envying their lasses faire attitude. How could they not know what they were going to do with the rest of their lives? How could they not want to get married and start a family today? Or yesterday? Their life style made no sense to me. Ever since I was a little boy, my father told me to be “a rich Talmud chuchim (wise man).” My school instilled in me an ambition to achieve and succeed and I should never be satisfied with complacency. I grew up believing that I would eventually have a job as a) an accountant b) a doctor c) a lawyer d) a psychologist or e) a rabbi (my older sister is C and my middle sister is D. Two-out-of-three ain’t bad).

Emo is a self-deprecating and self-defeating genre and its lack of ambition was preposterous to me. I had this one friend that could play guitar and I said, dude, why don’t you start a band?
He said, I dunno.
“I dunno,” he said. It blew my mind.
But this reason satisfied him. Would this boy ever be able to blossom into a breadwinner? Unlikely. Would he potentially wake up one day and decide that he had to sell-out to the man and get a corporate job because, gosh, Hebrew school and summer camp is so expensive? And never mind kosher—do you have any idea how much a rib roast is (like, $35 a pound)? Emo focuses so hard on the pain and the effects of bad things that it rarely seeks out a solution. The genre is so un-Jewish because it’s so unambitious (incidentally, you may have also noticed very few Asians in emo. But again, that’s another article).

Which brings me to my final points. When I say that it’s an inherent Jewish quality to be ambitious, I don’t mean that all Jews are driven to be rich. But, I can divide all the friends I currently have into two camps: the intellectuals and the businessmen (I do have one friend that works in non-profit but that’s a disappointment to everyone). Both are equally determined to succeed in their chosen profession but only one seeks a stimulation that won’t buy you a house in the Hamptons.

For the sake of this argument, I will only focus on the music industry. The intellectuals will be represented by Bob Dylan and the businessmen will be represented by Kiss. Bob Dylan, if you remember, disassociated himself from Judaism and even "converted" to Christianity therein recording three Christ-heavy albums, which, not coincidentally, all sucked. While truly deviating from Judaism, Dylan still truly succeeded in an intellectual sense. Scholars interpreted his lyrics. Politicians feared his rebel-rousing words. And women LOVED him even though he was unarguably not very good looking.

Kiss, on the other hand, is so preposterous and also as far from intellectual as possible. But admirably, Kiss is made up of businessmen. Like an Israeli car salesman, everything Kiss does is to make a buck. They sold everything from Kiss action figures to an actual Kiss coffin. If they tour again, they will be on their third "farewell tour." So as inherently unbrainy and sophomoriphic as Kiss is, they've earned enough cash to justify their deviant behavior. For every dollar that their sons made, Mrs. Witz and Mrs. Eisen could ignore the silly things like bursting blood capsules dripping from the mouth.

Now don’t get me wrong—there are intellectuals and businessmen in the emo movement but being identified publicly as one or the other is discouraged. When Death Cab For Cutie signed to Atlantic Records, a major label, fans cried, “sell-out.” When emo institution Vagrant Record (home of Dashboard Confessional, Alkaline Trio and the Get Up Kids) signed a distribution deal with Interscope, savvy kids smelled the suits from miles away. Misery and discomfort is this scene’s bread-and-butter and the second the kids don’t relate, well, time’s up. When My Chemical Romance, a then-relatively unknown band from New Jersey, sang “I’m not okay,” we believed them. But after they sold, 1.5 million records, you’re like, um, dude, trust me. You’re okay.

It’s probably not fair of me to dismiss a whole scene as anti-intellectual but if one were to sample the content of most emo songs, he or she would discover that my assessment is actually an understatement:

“Your best friend is not your girlfriend/ It hurts/ It hurts/ It hurts” – Angels & Airwaves’ “It Hurts”

“Well let me tell you this, I am shamelessly self-involved/ I spend hours in front of the mirror making my hair elegantly disheveled/ I worry about how this album will sell because I believe it will determine the amount of sex I will have in the future/ I self-medicate with drugs and alcohol to help treat my extreme social anxiety problem.” – Say Anything’s “Admit It”

“They call kids like us vicious and carved out of stone/ But for what we've become, we just feel more alone/ Always weigh what I've got against what I left/ So progress report: I am missing you to death.” – Fall Out Boy’s “I Slept With Someone In Fall Out Boy And All I Got Was This Stupid Song Written About Me”

Or, to put it more succinctly, as New Found Glory’s 1997 album title declares It’s All About The Girls.

After I read Hopper’s article, I started following her writing a bit more and even developed a small crush on her Punk Planet contributor’s photo. And in an odd and spontaneous move on my part, I wrote her a silly fan email introducing myself. Whatever. Like you never did that. Anyway, I waited a couple of days and slowly realized that Hopper would never write back. Granted, I was a complete random but I was also a fellow journalist. Surely that warranted a short response with the words “thank” and “you” included somewhere in the text. And had this been during my emo phase, I probably would have written a song about this detailing the pain of anonymous rejection and the harsh and cold detachment of strangers. But instead, I just picked up a book and read.


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