Guilt by Association
Why is Steve Daitch’s music embarrassing to enjoy?
I originally approached Israeli musician Steve Daitch’s album Shtikipedia as fodder for Nextbook’s Schlockford Files blog—with a title like that, I couldn’t imagine it would be anything but, well, schlocky. As happens occasionally, I listened to the album and found that I actually kind of liked it, so I settled in to write about that surprise. But as I started my first paragraph, the sentiment suddenly felt too familiar, the formula disturbingly rote: introduce a thing that seems cheesy, enumerate the reasons why it is and why it isn’t, and conclude with either my haughty renunciation or, as in this case, my admission of guilty pleasure (couched in haughty renunciation).
The truth is, I consider myself more a “music dork” than a “music snob”; my collection is peppered with music that others could (and do) mock me for enjoying, and I never experience even a tinge of mortification upon handing over my iPod for inspection”in fact, I recently made a double-disc mix of “embarrassing” songs and passed it along to anyone who would take it.
I hold nothing arbitrarily against Christian music, Buddhist music, or, for that matter, the output of American Idol winners. When it comes to some of the Jewish pop that crosses my desk, however, I begin to sneer the minute I slit open the packaging. And if, perchance, I find my head bobbing along as I listen, my face inevitably reddens. Partially, this shame stems from disappointment”—I enjoy berating things (as any critic will tell you, it’s more fun, or at least easier, to write a bad review than a good one). But I think I also suffer from some form of generational, rebellious disdain for the in-jokes of my own people, a condition sometimes harshly referred to as self-hatred (or more forgivingly as self-deprecation), and one that is inordinately common among those of us who grew up steeped in Jewish culture (my father was a rabbi, my mother is a JCC programmer). It’s a classic case of judging one’s own people more harshly than outsiders, a fear of seeming parochial in one’s tastes”humility gone haywire.
It still seems to me that many Jewish artists goad and exacerbate this reaction, wittingly or unwittingly alienating chunks of their potential audience by slathering their work with gratuitous borscht-belt signifiers (adding “shm to the beginning of words), hackneyed iconography (nerds in thick glasses, matzoh balls), or, most commonly, the rapid-fire employment of groan-inducing puns. But beyond the title, it seems that the only “shtick in Shtikipedia is that Daitch performs like a coffee-house rocker with a certain degree of geeky charm (you can listen to it here).
Album opener “Coming Up Daisies” is a cute, earnest love song from the classic perspective of a guy who had been bumbling along haplessly before finding his squeeze: “And then I met you, came into my range…Now everything’s coming up daisies/I mean roses. In “Guys Like Me he calls himself “a no good man/With a bastard plan…To get some” by acting chivalrous, but his quavery voice and the 1960s girl-group-style background vocals make this very difficult to believe.
The Irish drinking song-esque “Under the Gun” makes light of the underlying danger of living in Israel and the freewheeling party lifestyle there (“All the sheik’s camels/And all the sheik’s lambs/Can’t kill our love-of-life ways”). It opens the morning after a drunken one-night stand, and its chorus”“Under the gun/Living under the gun/It’s life as a chosen one…So we’ll party till kingdom come “does sort of make me wish I had a mug of ale to swing back and forth.”
Daitch is prone to politically conscious anthems, like “Know Hope,” his pessimistic plea for the refugees of Darfur, which sounds pleasantly, if incongruously, a bit like a lounge act. At times, as in his Birthright theme song, “Love This Land” (“The best things in life ain’t easy / Sometimes you gotta take a stand / And be a little bit crazy / To love this land”), his on-the-nose delivery, clear enunciation, harmonic backup vocals, pastiche of musical styles, and grandiose endings can seem a little reminiscent of the lesser-known numbers from the Grease soundtrack, or the watered-down jazzy show tunes that one often hears at kid-friendly street festivals (although his references to sex and violence make it unlikely that tots are his primary audience). At best his sound is more like Dan Bern than Dan Zanes, designed for campfire sing-alongs and nostalgic late-summer mix CDs.
Daitch’s website lives up to the album’s moniker a bit more—the slogan at the bottom of most pages reads, “Talk Softly and Carry Big Shtik.” Obviously, the web allows for each and every one of us to turn impromptu jokes that made our friends giggle into that magic substance called “content,” but Daitch cracks some pretty good ones. He posts a faux news article announcing that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has changed his name to Cat Stevens, and one declaring that Israel has changed the name of its language from Hebrew to “Theybrew” due to pressure from feminist groups. There’s a photo essay in which South Park’s Kyle Broflovski enjoys a Birthright trip to Israel (with his friends “Josh, Josh, and Josh”) until he’s ratted out by nemesis Eric Cartman for being underage. (For a clue as to the source of this type of half-smile-inducing inspiration, note the marijuana leaf Kyle is photographed planting in the Holy Land.) Yes, this is shtick, but in the broadest sense of the word—it’s an online comedy routine.
Although it seems relatively distinct from his music, content-wise, Daitch has seen fit to name his album, essentially, after his website. Why? First off, Daitch’s lackadaisical sentiments in the album’s press release suggest that he’s confused as to his own strengths: he describes his music as “Israel lite, if you will,” and says, “If my music and/or comedy help improve Israel’s image in the world among Jews and non-Jews alike, sweet.” Either Daitch is caught up in the current vogue for amateurism—sequestering his musical and comedic talents in a niche, via the Internet and self-released albums—or he’s made a strategic move to play to his obvious base: mainstream Jewish post-adolescents who attended Zionist summer camp. So is he wrongly relegating himself to “guilty pleasure” status, or should he consider himself lucky to have even that? Your answer probably depends how many Jack Johnson CDs you’ll admit to owning.