Jews, Race and Popular Music. Jon Stratton. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009. 238 pp. ISBN 978-0-7546-6804-6
In Jews, Race and Popular Music, Jon Stratton attempts to stage an intervention at the fulcrum of the peculiar relationship between Jews and popular music. The historical coincidence of Jewish people and African American musical styles—from Al Jolson to Amy Winehouse—has become something of a cottage industry both in and beyond the university (Stratton includes a comprehensive listing of titles in his introduction). In this work, Stratton is trying to reframe this well-documented yet still vexing area of research through the lenses of race and performance. The trouble is that he offers an argument that tries so hard to deconstruct Jewishness that he ends up reifying it.
At various points, the book turns Jewishness into a kind of floating signifier. Being Jewish can make one black (192), it can mediate between white and black (106), and it can establish one’s whiteness (29). At the same time, and in each of the above cases, the book maintains that each articulation of Jewishness somehow also amplifies the marginality of the Jewish performers. As a result, Stratton argues that Jewishness consciously calls established notions of race into question within the context of popular music.
The problem with the book, and one of the main problems with his argument, is that, despite his best efforts, Stratton falls pray to the logic of the “Jewish question.” Namely: in any situation any Jewish actor’s behavior is governed first and foremost by his or her Jewishness. Jews, asserts the “Jewish question,” can never act like anything other than Jews. Stratton defines the performances of the book’s central figures—Fanny Brice, Bob Dylan, The Beastie Boys, Carole King, Helen Shapiro—by their Jewishness. No matter what they do, Stratton argues, they do so primarily as Jews.
This is an acceptable, if essentialist, line of inquiry, but only if one is able to establish that Dylan’s decision to play electric in Newport in 1965, or Amy Winehouse’s penchant for singing soul, or Libby Holman’s skills as a torch singer each somehow grew out of historically contextualized notions of Jewishness, as offered by critics, fans, or even the performer him or her self. Stratton does not succeed in making these critical connections here. He provides few to no primary sources that connect performers to either their Jewishness or their performances.
As a result, and despite his claim to do the opposite, Stratton focuses on Jewish people, not Jewish social or cultural constructions. Stratton’s characters are all Jewish because they were born that way, and as a result Jewishness somehow ends up being an irreducible fact of identity instead of something more subtle, performative, or historically contingent. In his section on Janis Joplin, who he argues is a singer of “Jewish torch songs,” Stratton could have argued for her Jewishness. Instead he falls back on essentialism, identifying her as “white rather than Jewish” (74).
For a book that avows itself to be about deconstructing the relationship between Jews, race and popular music, it is obsessed with identifying Jews by birth, which Stratton does in a few different places (75, 83, 37-42). These passages evidence a peculiarly parochial strain of filiopietism, not critical inquiry.
Paradoxically, but importantly in this regard, Stratton does not identify all of the Jews in his book as Jews. Sometimes he uses the formulation “who happens to be Jewish,” to describe characters whose Jewishness, for whatever reason, Stratton deems less important to the story. He describes both Malcolm McLaren and members of Jay and the Americans in that fashion (112, 50). For Stratton, their Jewishness is incidental, whereas the Jewishness of, say, Phil Spector or the Shangri-Las is essential. But why? Why is Stratton picking and choosing who “is” Jewish and who “happens to be Jewish”? And how does he make that determination? The difference is more than grammatical. It highlights a central tension in the book that Stratton fails to explore fully: why and under what circumstances does Jewishness manifest itself? Or, in other words, how is Jewishness socially constructed?
Listening for Jewishness through the layers of Spector’s Wall of Sound or the scratchy recordings of Jewish “coon shouters” is no easy task, especially when attending to the presence of Jewishness means learning to hear cultural and political discord where the artists intended harmonies. Stratton aims to tease out the various strains of race, identity, and sound; but ultimately, his study fails to amplify these relationships. Instead, Stratton reverts to selective (and essential) attributions of Jewishness.
Stratton’s peculiar mobilizations of Jewishness are echoed in his pervasive use of passive voice. Passive voice is the grammatical analog to essentialism because it obscures the mechanisms by which meaning is socially constructed. To take one example: when outlining the book’s argument, Stratton writes, “I have wanted to think about how being constructed as Jews has affected the kind of music that people have played and composed” (8-9). If artists are “constructed” as Jews, then who is doing the constructing? Audiences? Critics? Non-Jewish fans? Jewish fans? The musicians themselves? Their management? This passive grammatical form presents a telling rhetorical strategy that highlights the problem at the heart of this book.
These issues represent not (only) a critique of style, but a critique of the book’s underlying logic. If Jews, Race and Popular Music is trying to argue about the social construction of Jewishness, then it could do better than to point to essential Jewishness on the one hand, and to a passive process of social construction on the other. In both cases, Stratton essentializes identity and abdicates responsibility (either his own or that of his subjects) for making claims about how Jewishness is performed, circulated, read or otherwise rendered meaningful. For a book about music, the voices in it are too passive to make much noise.
Ari Y. Kelman, American Studies Program, University of California at Davis