The Grammys And The Jewish Condition

Partly because my daughter had asked me to, but also because I enjoy live performances of music, I watched the Grammy Awards last Sunday night. In all honesty, I should say I watched the Grammys until I nodded off in my very comfortable chair, but I saw a good deal.

I am one of those boomers who remain addicted to the music that I grew up to. There’s a wonderful line in the classic movie “The Big Chill” in which Kevin Kline’s character is accused of playing only the music from his college years. He replies, “there is no other music.” Largely, I agree. I’m not quite that exclusive in my tastes, which are actually eclectic, and incorporate choral, classical, and country in addition to classic rock. But still… give me some good Crosby, Stills and Nash, or the Beatles, and I’m good to go.

In that vein, it was nice to see Paul McCartney singing with Ringo. But really, who wanted to hear them sing a new song that no one knows? As long as they were singing together, and you the only two surviving members of the Beatles were making music, couldn’t they have done something that they recorded together all those years ago? But I digress…

What struck me most of all about the Grammys program was the degree to which it wasn’t at all about the music as much as it was about the production. This is not particularly a new insight. With the advent of music videos more than twenty years ago, it became nearly impossible for an artist to release a song without an accompanying video. Some, of course, became classics, like Michael Jackson’s. But whether they were memorable or not, they represented a major transition point for rock music. It was no longer about the song per se; it was about a different kind of art form. A video could make or break a song, regardless of whether the song was outstanding on its own, or totally forgettable. (See Miley Cyrus, among others…).

So at these Grammy, you had P!nk singing while impersonating a Cirque du Soleil performer, and enough artists performing to explosions of fire and smoke to satisfy the hardest core pyromaniac. And oh yes… plenty of provocatively dressed back-up dancers, another newly indispensable component of any live rock performance these days (see Robin Thicke).

By and large, with a few notable exceptions, the one thing the Grammys weren’t about was– drum role– the music. Melody, lyrics, virtuosity on instruments… there was so much production on most of the live performances that it completely overwhelmed the music, which, I believe, is what the Grammys are supposed to celebrate. James Taylor didn’t need a video for “Fire and Rain.” The haunting melody and lyrics sold themselves. And Dylan didn’t need a video for “Blowin’In the Wind.” Same thing; the power of the message, combined with the plain beauty of the melody, was much more than enough. To paraphrase the late Pete Seeger, whose death is such a great loss, where has all the music gone? Long time passing…

I can only imagine some of my younger friends, not to mention my children, reading this and wincing. “God, he sounds so old!” And I admit, it sounds to me a bit too much like my parents complaining about the music of my generation when I was younger. But it is what it is, and I can’t help but feel that there’s so much talent that’s being obscured behind the pyrotechnics and ridiculous outfits.

All of which got me thinking about today’s Jewish world, and my work as a rabbi. I think that what I miss most about the Judaism of my youth is the plain, unvarnished simplicity of it. The Jewish practice with which I grew up was rooted in prayer, study, and “living the life.” It required no external embellishment to be attractive, because the gratification came from within. Plain Jane that I am, I liked it like that. I was comfortable with my siddur, with my little shtiebel, with the quiet Shabbatot with my family. It worked for me, without any externally imposed embellishments.

In the late 60’s, the Havurah movement began to change that balance, in a way that ultimately enhanced the prayer experience for many Jews. A greater emphasis on making one’s prayer more spiritual, incorporating some Eastern religious motifs that became so popular then, impacted all of our prayer services in a lasting way. Meditation, more niggunim (wordless melodies), a lessened dependence on formality and decorum, smaller prayer groups of like-minded people… these changes were, in retrospect, a much-needed corrective of a religious world that was in danger of falling asleep from its routines.

But when you look around today, so much of what we have to do to promote Judaism and its study, prayer and practice is not about Judaism itself, but about packaging and marketing. I can’t help but think that, to some degree, we’re doing to Judaism what was done to music. Without the programmatic equivalents of dancers, pyrotechnics and videos, Judaism is just seen as too ordinary and boring to be appealing to anyone. If you’re not dancing in the aisles, or singing endless niggunim or Carlebach melodies, or meditating or doing yoga, it’s hard to be noticed. It’s less about the internal gratification and more about the externally enhanced bells and whistles…

I know, “get with the times, Skolnik.” I know. But the old times weren’t so bad…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.