Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Matisyahu Is My Eminem

(image from http://myspace.com/matisyahu)

Matisyahu is my Eminem. Like his raunchier Motown predecessor, Matisyahu is a walking contradiction of a white boy reclaiming his masculinity through a pop culture patriarchal pose.

And despite this, I love his music. It’s like a guilty pleasure.

I love his earnestness. I admire the discipline of orthodox people who reject technology and consumerism every Saturday, pray often, and eat well. A post-reggae Jew who makes me think of the Jedi, Matisyahu waves his mic like a light saber over the massive crowds that come to his shows, invoking a future of mysticism that erases all boundaries, even those included in his carefully articulated image.

A few years back, I was astounded to find so many of my friends digging Eminem. Even my parents went to see Eight Mile and suggested I’d like it. It’s in the “to rent” corner of my mind even though I doubt it will do much for me except as a homesick-for-Detroit memento. Before that movie and his anti-Bush postures more recently, some writing students of mine traded essays as debate over the meaning of the Marshall Mathers LP. I found his emasculated misogyny so unsettling that I wrote an anti-Eminem rap-poem and performed it at a few campus poetry slams.

And I still didn’t get it when I went to parties and found all my friends dancing to his music.

What is it about taking pleasure in music where we know the mood of the lyrics is offensive? I know that conservative and religious kids all over the south love to get nasty with their hip-hop and dance to all kinds of devious things. Musically, the latter day bawdy bump and grind never got me hot and bothered, probably because I am already sexually tolerant to the extreme. (Or perhaps it’s because I can’t dance).

But frankly, there’s no scandal in the sexually explicit for me. With Matisyahu, repressed masculinity gets channeled into religion, beat-boxed into a flawed yet utopian sense of the divine, and shared with the mass markets via a reggae meets hip-hop meets jam band audiolage. Frankly, for the sexually dissident or defiantly secular, this kind of religion is the real nasty, a forbidden pleasure. The whole hybrid makes categories themselves messy, a sociocultural mashup that reflects the ridiculously confused, hauntingly millenarian, and recursively messianic times in which we live.

But it’s musically compelling on the records and even more charged-up when performed live—where Matisyahu reaches for Bono-like gestures of frontman gravity. For those who don’t like the music, I certainly wouldn’t suggest you go there for the religious poetry unless religious poetry is already your thing. But the music has merit on its own terms as marked by the excellent production of Bill Laswell.

And for those who just reject his message and how it’s being frontloaded as the flavor of month, I hear that. One writer expressed the concern like this: "I'm troubled by the continued lifting up of antiquated militaristic images and patriarchal roles." From all that I can garner, the spiritual politics of the rapping rabbi from White Plains are repugnant to the principles of inclusion. Any path to God that puts a penis on the prophetic (at the exclusion of the feminine) and places women in a subordinate role deserves our scorn. And though he claims to be for “peace,” his voluntary association with the theological right- wing of Judaism doesn’t bode well for his position in support of the people of Palestine.

But for what it’s worth, I am still listening to and loving Youth, which I’ve had in high rotation since it was released. His Sunday set at Bonnaroo buzzed across the Manchester fields with that magical sense of unity that makes us crave live music as a form of social communion.

I am going to give his set a real chance this Sunday at Langerado. And since I decided not to get tickets to the after-festival late-night shows in Fort Lauderdale, I will probably visit his late Friday Shabbat service. Check this blog later this weekend for the complete download on doing the campground-as-synagogue thing with the ‘Yahu.

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