Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sara Bareilles, Amanda Palmer and the Rabbis

Warning: This post includes strong language and refers to graphic images

SARA BAREILLES AND AMANDA PALMER HAVE A FEW things in common. Aside from their instruments, their sex, their talents, and their records produced by Ben Folds, both have recently released some provocative works about their less pleasant sides.

In “Sweet As Whole,” from Bareilles’ recent Once Upon Another Time EP, the singer puts it this way:

Sometimes I can be perfectly sweet,
Got this sugary me stuffed up in my sleeve…

But, like most creatures down here on the ground,
I’m composed of the elements moving around,
And I grow and change, and I shift, and I switch,
And it turns out I’m actually kind of a bitch.

What ensues is Sara then cussing out everyone around her over an oom-pa-pa dainty ditty. Just a few days ago, Amanda Palmer released the bloody violent music video to “The Killing Type.” Her song is mostly a stream of consciousness about how she really is ”not the killing type,” and she lists scenarios where she would dare not kill a person (in war, to restore a relationship, to save a life).



But then things turn around for Palmer when she says, “I would kill to make you feel.” But she takes a step back, “I don’t mean kill someone for real… / But I can say it in a song.” Thusly, she revels, “I just can’t explain how good it feels.” Over and over. And after shouting “Die!” several times, Palmer concludes: I’m not the killing type.

She might only say it in a song, but her acting is convincing and I do worry for her husband Neil Gaiman. After all, the performer Amanda Palmer plays a stage personality named Amanda Palmer. But art is art–even when Theatre Is Evil.

If Palmer’s song must make sense, the best I can make of it is that the song is so realistic in its anger because it represents an outlet for a violent urge (an urge that hopefully exists only in the imaginary side of Amanda Palmer).

Although Palmer tends to be overall scarier thanSara Bareilles, Sara’s song tries to explain the nasty side of her that emerges in her own work:

That only happens when I get provoked
By some piece of shit asshole we all sadly know,
And I sit, and I write while reminding you all
That mean songs are still better than going postal.

While subverting the inclination to do something bad by doing something else might sound obvious to people who choose not to take that third doughnut or not to scream at the unhelpful tech support person, many people end up taking the third doughnut or screaming at an unhelpful tech support person.

And some people do things that are far worse.

In the world of the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud, there was very little art, so art was an unlikely emotional outlet. For the sages Reysh Lakish and Rabbi Levi bar Hama, there were three suggestions (Berakhot 5a) of how to get their yetzer ha-tov (“good inclination”) to override their yetzer ha-ra (“bad inclination”):

Study Torah.
If that doesn’t work, read the passages of the Jewish declaration of faith,the Shema.
If that doesn’t works either, think about your eventual death. (That ought to spookthe devil out of you.)
But I don’t know how wise these are as outlets.

When you’re angry, and you make a painting, the result you paint is likely to be an angry painting. But when you’re angry and you study Torah, the result you paint is likely to be angry Torah.

Here’s the math:

I have never considered any religion to be inherently angry, but plenty of religions have been victim to the hijacking of angry people. (Judaism is no exception to this.) Angry words in the Talmud have led to misogyny, xenophobia, and homophobia that have been canonized and lasted generations. Every word is preserved for later generations to read and to incorporate into their journey of reliving the religion of their ancestors.

When it comes to outlets for negative energy, Amanda Palmer and Sara Bareilles are far luckier than the rabbis could have imagined. Amanda and Sara have temporary non-doctrinal outlets. On the other hand, the least refined words of the rabbis get eternally engraved all too often. But if we can see Judaism as an art stemming from different emotional states, perhaps we can weed out the teachings unbecoming of a rational mind and a compassionate heart.

When we can see Judaism’s ugliest thoughts as a mirror of the most distraught Jews, perhaps we can tell when the sage–like the singer–is not the killing type.