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American Idol


Britain has made some positive contributions to world culture over the years. But all this counts for very little compared to the impact of Britain’s rude, bad-tempered export, Simon Cowell, and his show Pop Idol, now transformed into American Idol. A whopping 34 million Americans watch American Idol weekly on television and (don’t ask me how or why), casting as many as 60 million votes by telephone for those competitors they want to win. Of these, apparently 35% believed their vote was more important than voting for the President of the United States. So is this the greatest exercise in democracy, or the sign of the Fall of the Roman (American) Empire?

On the other hand Matisyahu, the Orthodox nouveau Chasidic rapper from Brooklyn who sounds like the reincarnation of Bob Marley (shame on you if the name means nothing to you, brother), has an album called Youth that reached number 4 in the American hit charts and is selling millions. (He is, tell it not in Gat, outselling The Tanya.) In the words of the Times’ review of his sell-out Manchester concert:

His show breathes new life into the reggae formula. . .He expresses unequivocal support for the aspirations of the Israeli people. . .He won’t be the first pop “messiah” whose fans have been swept along by the star’s commitment to his cause while not necessarily signing up for the full manifesto.

Is Mattisyahu a pop idol? And what exactly is his audience focusing on? Is it the music or the way he lives his life and his values?

The very word “idol” gives the game away. Idolatry in Biblical terms is the total abandon to licentious, lascivious self-indulgence as the primary “good” required by the gods of Canaan and Egypt. The more you indulge, the happier you make them. Jewish opposition was predicated on the fact that there was no general ethical, judicial system to protect the weak and disadvantaged. In the words of the Book of Judges, “Each man did whatever was right in his own eyes.” (Shoftim/Judges 17:6) By the time of the Romans, idolatry was no longer a matter of whether there was a legal system, but rather whether wealth and power allowed you to flout it, and whether one exercised any kind of sexual restraint at all. Worship of House Idols was the superstitious expectation of receiving preferential treatment.

An idol, as we know, is an object that humans worship. It has no intrinsic value other than that it is worshipped for quite baseless and spurious reasons. So a pop idol is someone worshipped unreasonably for no inherent talent, unlike a hero who is, in theory, worshipped or admired for some heroic deed or persona. I accept that to call it worshipping sounds a little extreme. But not having “other gods” means not allowing one’s life to be dominated by spurious things. What could be more spurious than the fact that someone should command a salary of millions for the ability to hit a ball with an implement occasionally during the course of the year, whereas a nurse, social worker or teacher (forget rabbis) should only get a few thousand? This can only mean that “market forces” reflect the idolatry of our material values.

Indeed being led astray by gods of gold is not new. The Children of Israel worshipped the Golden Calf. They knew it was only made out of the gold they had contributed. They invested it with imagined powers and used it as the authority for having an orgy. After Solomon’s son Rehoboam was unable to keep control of all the twelve tribes, ten split off as the new Kingdom of Israel with Jeroboam as their king. He wasn’t going to have his people all traipse up to Jerusalem, in enemy territory, three times a year and spend their tourist bucks in Judea. So he set up two competing Temples in Dan and Bethel. And guess what–he put two golden calves in them. The belief in the Golden Calf must have persisted long after Moses ground the first one in to dust. Unless of course you are a Da Vinci Code fan, in which case the original Golden Calf was really sequestered and hidden until Jeroboam’s sleuths deciphered the clues and reinstated one and made a copy to confuse treasure hunters! Shame about the best-seller!

But why were they so easily fooled? It’s because it was easier to believe in a Golden Calf than to make the effort to try to understand a non-physical untouchable force (or a concept for that matter).

Why even the Archbishop of Canterbury, who should know something about idol worshipping, this week protested at the popular preoccupation with “personalities” who are treated as such simply because they made idiots of themselves on the Big Brother television series or I”m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. Once upon time a personality or a celebrity was someone who achieved a degree of distinction for some contribution he or she made to society, culture even religion. Nowadays notoriety in itself is enough. In part this is because most people’s lives are so empty they crave anything instant that will enhance their pathetic existence. The dumbing down of society is a myth. The mass of humanity was always dumb. In the past their excitement came from religion and wars. You see it still in the sadder parts of our globe. Nowadays it comes from television, popular music, drugs and Hello Magazine. Humans always gravitate to the lowest common denominator and the easiest fix. That’s human nature. Only a few work hard. The majority skive or do the minimum to get by on.

So many teenagers and adults I know long for the lottery ticket, the big deal, the talent competition victory, as paths to an easy life. Idol and idle sound very similar. In the famous Peter Sellers sketch, Cyril the rock star is asked if being a teenage idol has changed him. “Naa,” he replies “I was idle before I was a teenager.”

I used to believe that if you had a religious pop singer he’d convert thousands, millions to Judaism. But it doesn’t work that way. Will Matisyahu change people’s attitude to Judaism? We’ve got our religious “personalities,” our pop kabbalists, our “tele-preachers” and our rappers, but everyone’s just interested in the surface, the superficial, the idol, not the manifesto. “I’ll vote for something that’s easy, not for something that makes me think!” Or “I’ll vote if I can do it on my phone, so long as I don’t have to make the effort to get up and go to a polling station.”

You might think religion has failed. Indeed, it has in the way it presents itself and has come to be identified with all the wrong causes and attitudes. But the religious message has not failed. It’s just that once upon a time religion, religious music, religious art or oratory was the only diversion for the masses. So of course they turned up in their hordes to be entertained. Nowadays they’ve all got digital TV, mp3 player, phone camera, and DVD’s at home. It’s all so easy and so much less demanding.

That’s why idolatry is back in a big way and 35 million idol worshippers are worshipping golden calves all over again.

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13 thoughts on “American Idol

  1. To add to your interesting blog:

    “American Idol” can be idolotry for some people but it can also something else.

    What you call idolotry might be for many people:
    1. Appreciation of a Game (i.e. the thrill of watching a Gladiator race in Roman times and what makes us want to engage in games in this world) In “American Idol”, it is very much about an audience’s involvement. The “American Idol” is chosen based on talent, appearance, etc. Very often the final two are the “everyday men”, the people who you wouldn’t pick right away for stardom. Like skinny, scrawny, ackward Clay or overweight Ruben. The audience wants to see the “everyday man or woman” triumph and reach the top.
    This aspect of the show is not Idolotry! This is the desire in life to have a winner and a loser and the desire of the “everyday hero” to make it to the top. When users see that everyday man with an amazing talent make it to the top, they think “That could be me”.

    2. Admiration of Talent. What do people admire about “American Idols”? Have you heard their amazing G-d given gifts. Many of the contestants on the show thank G-d for their abilities and attribute their success to G-d. That beautiful black woman (I believe her name was Francesca) was an amazing singer who was very spiritual and praised G-d on occasion. An audience love’s to watch people user their G-d given talent.

    Why it Might be Idolotry:
    1. Why it might be considered idolotry?
    The game process. People like to select who will be the winner and when the winner wins, they “worship” that winner. It’s like building an idol and worshipping your creation. Because an audience took part in the stars success, they contributed to building an idol.

    2. People value as you said, superficial things, rather than the “inner soul” (However this point is week because if you actually look at the winners, most are the “everyday men and women” who have come from poverty to fame. Winners are more selected by the desire of people to see justice (the Cinderella story) People want the underdog to get up on top)

  2. Music is a very spiritual tool.
    Music can influence many people.
    People can become religious through music (the repetition and the strong energy that is like a high)(The Chassidic masters knew what they were doing!) and I love Carlebach. It’s through songs that I feel very connected to a greater energy and I love going to Yakar on Shabbat.

    However, I have a balance. I realize the effect that music has because I’m succeptible to that effect. I met one former Herraidi man who tried to convince me that all Midrasha’s were designed to brainwash people. I realized that a lot of what he said came from an incident (his divorce) which provoked him to distance himself from his religious community. However, there was some truth to what he was saying.

    “When you put 50 grown men into a room and they are all jumping about singing Niggun’s and singing Carlebach tunes and Hassidic tunes, it’s Hypnotic, someone who is succeptible can easily become brainwashed. It becomes like a drug”

    People can take things to extreme.
    There are some people who watch AI for the thrill of the game while others watch it to “build an idol” (I think this fraction is rare)

    Hollywood music is influenced by idolotry where people worship image more than talent however I think AI is different because it’s the skinny guys, the fatsos, the African Americans, the everyday men who reach the top.

    Underneath all that, it comes down to music is hypnotic. Music influences people. This desire of people to have influence doesn’t stem from idolotry. It stems from the human desire of wanting to be seen and wanting to impact the world. Music elevates the mundance and the non-Jewish world sees this. Many of those non-Jew’s aren’t so much worshipping an idol. There desire is to connect to something spiritual. Isn’t that what idolotry is all about? Yes, in a way. People are looking for an intermediary and music might be that intermediary. However, when a person realizes that there is a G-d and can enjoy music with the realization that there is a G-d, than watching a show like AI can be a learning experience.

    Why might watching a show like AI be a learning experience?
    1. To greater understand psychology and how to effect the masses.
    2. What influences the masses?

    You can’t ignore that superficiality effects the masses!
    The masses are effected by the physical.

    It is through unifying that physical influence with the spiritual that can be really good.

    Maybe this is what AI seeks to do and maybe this is what viewers of the show secretly want to do.

    I just read something that said that in the time of Noah (or before Noah)(I can’t remember exactly what I read), there were many spiritual leaders but G-d still wanted to destroy the world. Why? Because people were concerned with the spiritual but didn’t connect it to the phsyical. Noah on the other hand was a “man of the earth” who connected the spiritual with the physical.

    Yes, AI might have bad things to it, namely it might emphasize superficiality but it is through connecting it the spiritual that the physical is elevated. A song can do just that and many times it does. Francesca on AI did just that! And so did Carrie Underword with her rendition of “Alone” by Heart.

    But you are right, a lot of people do worship the heights of fame which is unhealthy and can be considered idolotry. However, some people just like to watch the underdog rise to the top.

    But AI can be a powerful learning experience. The Rambam said something along the lines of in every good there is a grain of evil and in every evil there is a grain of good.

    Watching AI can be a learning guide for people on how to best influence the masses and what connects to the non-Jewish world.
    AI can be a very good show to watch if one has the realization that G-d gives people talent and skills to use in this world and that AI represents the desire of the “everyday man” to use the talents that they have to their fullest.

  3. I agree that we can learn from every experience, if we observe with the right set of “eyes”. We can especially learn much from whatever is very powerful in this world.

    Aside from that, everyone has their diversions, non-demanding entertainment for decompression time. American Idol is really relatively harmless, compared with so much of what goes on in this culture. I’d rather have people watching American Idol than drinking on street corners or vandalizing my car!

  4. In the minds of children though, such a show could be bad. I mean, if you watch a show like that and think that ‘winning is everything’, you loose sight of the bigger picture. However, there are a lot of contestants on that show who have the talent and who are the audience’s favourites who get voted off and do not win. In retrospect, I think this might teach children that ‘winning is not everything’ as you can still be someone’s favourite and not win. I don’t think kids or anybody should watch television or listen to music if they aren’t raised in a household which values Judaism and believes in G-d. Because something might be harmless to some people but harmful to others. If all you have is secular culture to tell you how to act (even if it is infused with some Jewish values), it is not the healthiest. The soul craves something more. If you have an understanding that there is more to physicallity and Hollywood is not G-d and that there is one higher power that controls everything than such a show might not be harmful.
    It’s like astrology in a way. A person can think the stars are the highest but if you don’t go higher and connect the power in them to their source than what you have is idolotry. ‘American Idol’ might be a good show to watch for some who can handle such a show but might also be destructive to others who haven’t yet found themselves.

  5. BTW, I love this comment:

    >I don’t think kids or anybody should watch television or listen to music if they aren’t raised in a household which values Judaism and believes in G-d.

    Since most rabbis seem to be telling us the opposite–you shouldn’t watch tv or listen to popular music if you ARE raised in a household with Jewish values! 🙂

  6. 🙂
    In reply, I wrote that because from my experience, I don’t think it would be healthy for me to avoid that world. I think I can see the good in it and for me to “avoid it” would be an easy way out. From my perspective, I think religious Jews should engage in the world and not be afraid of the media as the big bad. There is much good to the media and from secular stories. However, it might not be for everyone. Each of us, I believe has a unique mission. For some it might be to live in a Religious community isolate from the West. However, I read recently in a book called ‘Be Within Stay Above’ (Meditations from the Lubovich Rebbe) by Tzvi Freeman that before the great flood there was a man called Methuselah and he was a very spiritual man who recieved wisom “directly from Adam and Seth” and taught it to his disciples. It says,
    “Before the Flood, the Creator reflected upon the world he had made and how its soul had been reipped out of it. He saw these people who prayed and meditated and transcended the bounds of body and earth. And He said, “You people are not the solution. You are part of the problem. When I created the earth, I saw it was very good. My masterpiece of beauty, of awesome peaks and fathomless oceans, of raging conflict and exquisite resolution, of wisdom no microscope will ever exhaust, no mind will ever fully grasp. A world where infinite life hides in every grain of soil, in every drop of water, in every breath of air. And I placed you people within it to make a holy union of that life and the infinite within. But you have abandoned the eart rather than enriching it. You have divorced heaven and eart rather than marrying them. And so you have allowed the earth to become desolate and filled with corruption. Noah, however was not just a spiritual man. He was as the Torah says, “A Man of the Earth”. According to tradition Noah invented the plow to soften the earth so that it could recieve rain from the heavens” (p. 167 of “Be Within Stay Above: More Mediations from the Wisdom of the Rebbe by Tzvi Freeman)

    Shutting oneself off from the secular world is in my opinion avoiding dealing with the world. Not everyone has the same path but if you have the strength to deal with the secular world and it interests you than why not watch a good t.v. show once in awhile, one like ‘House’ or watch a show like ‘My So Called Life’ or watch a movie like ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ or listen to secular music like Moby that makes you happy and that can enrich your Torah study.

  7. Very beautiful, and I’m with you on that!

    From a non-Jewish source, there is a Hindu story in which a king instructs a man to take a tour of his palace, while carrying a full goblet on each hand. He is to see everything, but not spill a drop. The man is so very worried about not spilling anything that although he visits every room, he doesn’t notice the contents. So when he returns to the king and the king asks how he liked what he saw, he is unable to respond adequately. So the the king sends him back again with the goblets, this time to really SEE what’s in the rooms.

    Obviously, it’s a metaphor for our dual mission on Earth.

  8. That’s a beautiful story! Thank-You!
    It reminds me of my first Shabbaton that I held this year in Jerusalem. I worked so hard to prepare the food and make everything beautiful that when I sat down to eat, I was so nervous that everything tasted bland to me. Everyone complimented me on my cooking but I tasted very little.
    I worked so hard to secure the details in physicality that I didn’t focus on the spiritual envirnoment or conveying a spiritual message. I went to another house afterwards and this was a family that didn’t have the best cooking or the best table settings but they generated this warmth that everyone felt. My Shabbat had good food and was filled with physical beauty. We had heated intellectual arguments but what was lacking was the warmth of Shabbat. Oh Well! Hopefully I’ll be given more opportunities to have better Shabbatons and then I can focus on the things that are just as important if not more.

  9. There is a big difference between shutting oneself off from the secular or the outside world and, on the other hand, wasting time on its idiocies and vanities. I love music, even some pop music, but to spend hours and money on AI is, in my opinion, a terrible waste and a descent to the lowest common denominator. Everything in moderation.

  10. I agree. Wasted time is not good. However, there are some incredible performances on that show and you really watch how the contestants grow which could be interesting to some. You also hear a bit about the contestants background and see the hard work they put into improving their performances. It’s interesting to people who are interested in the nuts and bolts of creating “a star” and performances. Maybe even AI takes away from the idolotrous aspect of pop stardom, ironically because it shows the nuts and bolts and the unglamorous bits of competing in the music industry. You really see some nasty stuff go on behind the scene for people who want to rise to the top and you see how the “winners” of the show are usually the people who don’t participate in such nasty tactics. The ego-centrics are often the first to go and they go out screaming and crying. And then the people who have nerves and are the sensitive type often go next because they can’t take the pressure. Who are you left with? Some egocentrics and some people with real talent who want to win the show but often care more about sharing their talent with the world like that black woman from last season who was amazing! (I can’t remember her name). AI shows the nitty gritty and shows people who rise above the nitty gritty, work through tremendous pressure and criticism and triumph in the face of it all.

    There are better reality shows to watch though namely for this, like
    ‘The Apprentice’. That’s a good show. It really teaches a person about group dynamics and how to lead a group and succeed in the business world and the business of dealing with people.

  11. They did set him up to fall but he probably knew this going in. It’s about entertainment. Putting different people in a room together and having a competition. I agree with you, it is fake.

    Trump is not a role model in the classic sense but he is a good businessman when it comes to making money. He gives really good business advice on the show on how to deal with people.
    He’s not the perfect role model. Ofcourse not! In one way he can be a role model even though he likely does a lot of things that you wouldn’t want to model.

    Melissa B.

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