The Politics of Israeli Popular Music

In Israel, even the musical is political.

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"We don't gag our artists," says Haim Shemesh, who heads the Hebrew department at NMC. "A song is judged by its quality. But we will never say to an artist: 'Don't go there.' Songs have to create discussion. We sense that there is a change going on now, which seems natural. How long can you go without reacting to what's happening?"

The writing of political songs stems not only from the immediate situation, but also from the proclivities of the artist. Astar Shamir has a past of writing politically-motivated songs, including the memorable "Middle of September," written after the massacre in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps; Chava Alberstein sang about "The Magician" back when Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister; and Shlomo Artzi wrote "New Land," whose lyrics include: "We have a land, why another one?"

"Things just piled up inside me over the past year and wanted to get out," says Shamir. "I had this sensation that I could not wallow in my own business any longer, that I had to work for the general good. I felt I was responsible, as a mother, an artist and a creator, to try to make a change. It's natural for a creative artist to connect with his surroundings, and most certainly as a mother you think about what we are leaving for the next generation."

One performer surprisingly willing to take up political material, if at a somewhat minor scale, is Kobi Oz of Tippex, a band that portrays Israeliness as a uniform whole, full of optimism and humor. "We are gradually internalizing the situation," says Oz. "Now we are undeniably dealing with a state of distress, about a hope that is growing more distant, about the loss of hope." Tippex chose to do a cover version of "The Other Days," says Oz, "because we realized that nothing had changed in Israel's situation from the '50s till now--a realization that really shook us up."

In Oz's viewpoint, artists are not disconnected from the world around them. "I think that artists have always been ahead of the politicians. In politics, they try to sell us all sorts of tag lines like peace and security, and the way I see it, it's actually the artists who try to present things in a more complex way. In "The Other Days," Tippex has updated the words as follows: "We'll see the other days again / immigrants climbing up from the valley will descend to us from the hills ... / We will go out to them again, from blasted buildings / from the shelters and from the blackened fields / We will go out on crutches, from blinding lights / from antennas of war singing like a thousand birds." Tippex's version has gotten a lot of play on the radio. "It is scandalous that this song is still relevant," says Oz, "but we are trying to present the truth."

Will songs with a statement be less well-received nowadays?

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Michal Palti is a journalist with Haaretz.