Monday, July 27, 2009

Reflections on Matisyahu

The Burden of Light: Matisyahu at a Crossroads

...Once your media profile is well established, it’s hard to modify. And that problem, faced by anyone who sustains a meaningful career, is greatly magnified when you have helped to construct the box into which critics eagerly put you...It’s a long way from New York City to Boise, a distance that has as much to do with ideology as geography. For all of its diversity, vast stretches of the United States remain strongholds of a white, Christian worldview that struggles to make sense of other cultural heritages even when it is open to doing so. That Matisyahu has achieved sufficient market penetration to merit features in those hinterlands as well as in the major cities and college towns where his name first circulated testifies to his talent and dedication. But the increased exposure has also contributed to an awkward lag in the reception of his work...Whether he wants to talk about other matters or not, his interviewers relentlessly force him back to the subject of his religious convictions.

And Matisyahu, as someone who cares deeply about his faith, takes the responsibility too seriously to play the rock star who brushes off difficult topics. It’s clearly a good thing that his music is helping to educate previously oblivious Americans about what it means to practice his kind of Judaism. At the same time, though, one gets the nagging sense that he will soon weary of pieces that wrap discussions of his music inside discussions of his religion.

...The release of Matisyahu’s new album Light, now due in late August, was put off at the behest of his record label. Significantly, it’s a major label, Epic, even though the trend in the music industry has been for many long-established artists to migrate to independent labels. That confirms the commercial potential that his work is deemed to have. But the decision to expand and revise the record’s contents suggests that there may be trouble ahead. Such delays are often a warning sign, suggesting that the artist has failed to produce the sort of music that label representatives expected, that they have deviated from the form that made them a desirable commodity.

So far, Matisyahu hasn’t conveyed any displeasure at the label’s decision. Yet if we read between the lines of the interviews he has been giving on his current concert tour, originally intended to accompany the album’s release, it’s not hard to see that he has been struggling with the burden of expectations. Although he continues to confirm his religious devotion in interviews, he has parted ways with the Lubavitchers in favor of an approach more open to kabbalistic Judaism. And although the album contains plenty of reminders of his music’s reggae roots, it also takes bold steps in the direction of rock and electronica...

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