November 8, 2007

Noses Up: Between Politics and Poses: Israeli Rock

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Usually coming up with a topic for these columns involves two weeks of stress, followed by about an hour of frustration. This time, however, the same day that my last column was in the paper, I went to a very striking musical event, and so I apologize if these words seem a little after the fact. On October 25th, a famous Israeli band called Teapacks played at Noyes Community Center. They brought an entertaining, and in many ways very typical, rock ’n roll concert, complete with silly between-song banter, outlandish appeals for crowd participation and a lead singer named Kobi Oz, who couldn’t have been over 5’5”, but nevertheless radiated with Bono-esque charisma.
At the same time, however, I found myself slightly bothered by small aspects of Teapacks’ presence. Oz’s plaid pants and pirate shirt looked a little too much like fashion statements purchased from Hot Topic I remember from 8th grade. The guitar harmonies, while slickly “Middle Eastern,” were a little too reminiscent of ’80’s hair metal.
The keyboardist’s military hat and faux-formal t-shirt (with images of frills and a necktie) was a little too anachronistically Linkin Park, and the ska rhythms seemed right out of the early ’90s. Teapacks entertained everyone there (who I believe were mostly Israeli or deeply Hillel-involved), and I danced and cheered as much as anyone, but looking back I found myself almost condescending to these little aspects of their image.
Teapacks recently garnered a lot of international attention for issues that couldn’t have been farther from their subtleties of dress and guitar tones. One of their hit singles, “Push the Button,” was nominated in the Eurovision contest (a European equivalent of American Idol in which the “song” is the primary thing judged). Their entry, called “Push the Button,” deals with political themes fairly directly, as the lyrics express fear about “crazy rulers … with demonic, technologic willingness to harm.” The lyrics unambigously suggest the current political situation with Ahmadinejad and Iranian nuclear capactiy, and this made people uncomfortable.
Honestly, the song is kind of repetitive and hardly measures up to their usual catchy songwriting, but nevertheless it garnered a huge debate about whether overt politics were acceptable in this kind of contest.
A band from Israel’s inclusion in the contest is kind of strange considering its location outside of Europe, but nevertheless I think the controversy points to an interesting judgement about music that comes up often in criticism. A lot of people seem to be against the idea of politicized music, choosing instead the escapism of bubblegum pop and heady classical music. The problem with this is that the same people will similarly support that music should reflect the identity of the person who makes it. Music and identity are inextricably linked, and to try to pull them apart seems unfair to most musicians and listeners, many of whom use music to confirm their identity.
For proof of this, look no further than the deeply personal confessions of urban hip-hop and country music. While it may be one of the hardest constructs to academically pin down, identity shapes both the music people make and the music people listen to, which is why most fans say they “identify” with the bands and artists they love to listen to.
Furthermore, some identities are deeply related to politics and some are not. My problems with Teapacks’ show had to do with how anachronistic their identity seemed, and my usual musical choices, like those of most Americans or Europeans, are not really overtly political (look at the lyrics in Sufjan Stevens or Wilco). Had I been an American in the 1960s, this may have been very different, and my politicized ’60s identity may have led me to connect with the political music of Dylan or Baez. As a college student in 2007, I don’t live a life heavily influenced by politics, and my taste in music reflects that.
Many in Israel, including Teapacks, who are from Sderot, a town often targeted by rockets from the Gaza Strip, live a highly politicized life, and so of course their music reflects this. I may find it annoying and Eurovision may find it controversial, but that is no reason to deny the band out of any kind of artistic right. Music is rarely the “escapist” art form that some look for to forget about their worldly cares. Usually, this kind of music is in reality replete with political meaning and political identity, albeit in a less overt way.
In fact, many of Teapacks’ songs were not about politics at all. Some of their identity might be heavily politiziced, but like members of any highly economically developed country, they have other cares as well. Israel is on the cusp in this regard. For much more politicized music, you can look at their myspace-friend DAM (, a Palestinian rap group, whose name means blood in Arabic and Hebrew. They are the epitome of music inescapably related to politics, and I imagine they wouldn’t fair well on Eurovision.