In Defense of Awful Holiday Videos
Democracy in Jewish America!
The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur guarantee that Jewish-themed videos—of the sort frequently referred to as “viral” by people who understand neither the word’s literal meaning nor its application to contemporary technology—fall into my inbox like October’s leaves. Without exception, they contain the following elements: young Orthodox vocalists, a group with a punning name, an attempt at sounding hip, a video shot on a shoestring, and lyrics that contain at least four Hebrew words, preferably ones relating to holidays.
And as we’re encouraged, around this time of the year, to repent for our sins, I’ll share one of mine: I used to mock these videos mercilessly. As someone who parses Pitchfork with the same zeal some reserve for liturgy, and who cheerfully believes in the sophomoric idea that the bands you listen to somehow shape the contours of your soul (I reverse the Hornby-ism: it’s not what you’re like, it is indeed what you like), I was dismissive of these awkward amateurs. Did they really think they were cool? Could they not tell that they were embarrassing themselves with limp lyrics and tawdry tunes? Were they not aware that they were barely half a step above the Star Wars kid in the Internet’s endless parade of self-deluded, exhibitionist geeks?
I mocked with no mercy or end. And then I saw the light.
It happened when I watched the video for a song called “Dip Your Apple” by a group named Fountainheads. There’s little use saying much about the song, except to note that it meets all the aforementioned criteria of utter, irredeemable schlock. But something in the singers’ faces wouldn’t let me continue with my usual course of contempt: these guys just looked too happy.
I watched the video many times over. I rushed to YouTube and watched previous Torah Raps hits by, yes, the Maccabeats, and any other entry in the genre I could find. Again and again, I came to the same conclusion: the music was terrible, the lyrics worse, but these videos are hard to match in terms of sheer enthusiasm and pure joy.
But that’s not the only reason I found myself digging them. To the extent we can still speak of a monolithic culture, such a culture exists largely to keep people like the Maccabeats and the Fountainheads out. Even when producing junk, our culture pays a premium for cool, which means that any act enumerating the shofar’s various sounds—even if said enumeration is accompanied by jolly world beats and pleasant-sounding backup singers—is immediately doomed to oblivion. Enter YouTube. Here, the tragically unhip can come and sing about whatever they want as poorly as they please, and know that like-minded people will respond. They can have their own subculture, sometimes with hundreds of thousands of dedicated followers. They can just be.
I’m sorry, then, for mocking them. I’m very happy they’re doing their thing. And I promise to continue forwarding their videos around, but this time without the nasty comments.