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The Tragedy of Modern Music

by: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach - Last updated: 2004-07-08

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

In summer things don't move, they saunter. Life proceeds more rhythmically, more harmoniously. Perhaps this is why music is so associated with summer. Cities have large outdoor music festivals, there are concerts in the park, and big bands tour across the world.

Since summer is the season for inspiration, music is central to summer. Armies don't march to ideas, they march to music. Young people don't worship scientists; they worship rock stars.

Why does music affect us so profoundly? Why is it that visual memories can pass so quickly, but nearly all of us can still hum tunes we learned as children?

Here are several reasons.

There is a beat to the heart, and there are rhythms to life. And music, possessing both a rhythm and a beat, is the physical manifestation of our pulsating life force. Earlier this week, I watched the fast-paced tunes of wedding music help revelers manifest their physical joy in dance, just as earlier this year I watched a funeral dirge capture the solemn emptiness of the mourners' minds.

Only the different tempos of music can best capture the sunny as well as the cloudy seasons of the soul.

Life is itself gauged by a heartbeat. When we are excited, the beat accelerates. We literally feel more alive. When we are mellow, the beat slows. Every sensation, every experience, every moment of our life influences our bodily rhythm. We are beating at our core. We cease to beat only when we cease to live.

Then there are the depths of the soul that only music can reach. All the notes that are stored in the heart, all the love that is locked in our breast is set free by the vibrations of music. Sure, a song may have words, but a melody is not something that can be verbalized.

Less so is it something that we can touch or taste. It can only be experienced. When we hear music, we are affected physically – our feet naturally start tapping, our hands begin clapping, and our voice, like an engine being revved, begins humming.

It is a spontaneous response, a natural impulse that swells up in the soul and releases itself in the flesh. Music expresses that which we are unable to articulate. It is the sound of our souls.

FINALLY, MUSIC is all-inclusive. It is colorful yet color blind. It provides an outlet for those with great talent, and it still manages to enrich the lives of those of us who have none. It seeks out genius, yet it does not discriminate. It has the strength to unite all the members of the human family and provide them with the inspiration necessary for a more joyous life. If any element has the capacity to heal a fractured planet and bring pleasure to our lives, it is music.

The ancient biblical prophecy of the end of days is that it will be a time when the nations of the world will join together to sing with one tongue. And herein lies the tragedy of modern music.

I recently saw the great songwriter Barry Manilow on a TV show where he lamented the trashy content and crude tunes of today's recording artists. Perhaps the great crime of today's music is that rather than merely being overly sexual, and often misogynistic, it is also instantly forgettable.

Which explains why so many of America's music stations today succeed only by playing oldies. Indeed, a drive across America would expose you to countless Classic Rock and Seventies and Eighties radio stations that would never touch most of the garbage that came out in the 1990s and the new millennium.

Indeed, music today has become more a visual than an audio medium, with thinly talented performers relying on pyrotechnic displays or singing in their underwear to attract an audience.

We often speak of the responsibility of politicians and sports stars to set an example for the youth. And yet recording artists, who have the capacity to move humanity with such verve to inspire hearts and to uplift souls, are not held accountable when they help to bring out the worst qualities of the human heart.

A music artist is so much more than an entertainer. He or she is – above all else – a provider of human inspiration. I, for one, have decided not to wait for recording artists to become responsible. In the same way that I monitor what my children watch on TV and what they eat, I am even more careful about what they hear.

My children are not permitted to listen to modern rock or most modern music. Indeed, I am grateful that there has been, over the past two decades or so, an explosion in quality Jewish music, set to the words of haunting biblical passages and King David's soaring psalms. And I believe that by listening to voices that sing about the grandeur of God and extol the lives of the righteous, my children will pulsate to a more honorable beat and align themselves with a more eternal rhythm.