Start Bein’ Just What You Are: A Chagim 5777/2016 Playlist
There’s no other way to say it — this has been a brutal year. Tragic violence at home, horrific wars abroad, and an American election campaign that shakes faith in the prospect for much change for the better in the future.
So we come to the High Holidays (Chagim) bewildered, exhausted, and saddened. For many, the days in synagogue may come as a welcome respite from the noise and tumult of the world outside, and they will sink in to the meditative calm of the sanctuary, desperate for the chance to connect with their own selves in ways that have not been possible during this tumultuous year.
For others — like me — the time in shul will likely be restless. Striving to connect to prayers and songs that are familiar, but distant. Alone with thoughts that come and go, grabbing on to ideas, dreams, commitments, motivations, fears, regrets, and everything in between. For me, and I think for many others, what will ground me will not be another Amidah or Avinu Malkeinu, but songs from the indie rock, punk, hip-hop, and Afro-pop world that bring out these themes.
In last year’s playlist, I tied songs to specific prayers. For this year, I think that may be too formal. So rather than pair songs to moments in the services, I suggest tunes that align with the arc of self-assessment, (sometimes painful) reflection, and commitment to the future that underlies what happens over the coming weeks.
You can find the full playlist here — hope you find it meaningful listening.
Initial Reflecting: “Endless Love” by Thao and the Get Down Stay Down. For her new record, Thao Nguyen embodied the spirit of the Chagim — she took a lot of risks to find a new way forward (much bolder sound, varied song structures, etc). The bass line that underlies this song will settle you in to a nice rhythm, but then you get to the essential conflict of where many of us are right now: I have these feelings, but I don’t want them. The only lyrics to the song are “I’ve got an endless love/No one can starve/I don’t want it/Carve it on out of me.” Put another way — I want to take care of everyone else and carry them on my shoulders, but where does that leave me? Essential framing for all of us.
Questioning Why You’re Here: “To Old Friends and New” by Titus Andronicus. As you pick up Thao’s questioning, explore where you yourself are, then enter some of the initial prayers that get at our essential weaknesses, it can be easy to lose direction. From the masterpiece album “The Monitor,” this Titus Andronicus track can steady you. The song goes through a remarkable arc over 7+ minutes, exploring the entirety of a relationship, both real and felt. And as the song reaches its most desperate moment, Patrick Stickles reminds us: “There are plenty of things that are worth dying for/But you’ll never know until you open that door/And reasons for living are seldom and few/And if you see one you better stick to it like glue, yes it’s true, it is true.” Yes, it is true. Onward to the next phase.
Wondering if Anything Past is Past: “Berlin Got Blurry” by Parquet Courts. Reassured for a moment, you again go inside. The moments from the past year come back with full force. What will stay with you, and what can be worked through? Time for some good driving guitar, and a mantra that reminds you of why the work is needed: “Nothing lasts but nearly everything lingers in life.” (Also good to accompany the Tashlich ceremony of casting off sins in to a body of water, during Rosh Hashanah).
Worrying about Society: “The Blacker the Berry” by Kendrick Lamar. This year, as much as any other, those thoughts will quickly drift outside of the walls of the synagogue and into what is happening in society. Race relations, police violence, and the essence of implicit bias dominate. And to the extent you spend any time there, the only place to go is “To Pimp a Butterfly.” You can probably pick any song form this album and get a punch in the gut every time you listen. It’s not really possible to capture the intensity of this song, but these lyrics give you a sense: “You vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me/And this is more than confession/I mean I might press the button just so you know my discretion/I’m guardin’ my feelins, I know that you feel it/You sabotage my community, makin’ a killin’/You made me a killer, emancipation of a real n****” (Also good to accompany “Ashamnu,” during Yom Kippur).
Feeling Like You Need Someone Else to Get Through: “Emotions and Math” by Margaret Glaspy. Investigation of the world outside is likely to induce fear and bring you back inside shul, perhaps standing for an extra few moments during an Amidah, reading and re-reading the prayers. As you work through the prayers, your fears, your regrets, and your intentions, it’s likely you search for the person, or people, you need most to get through these few weeks, and life overall. The new album from the intriguing New York-based singer and guitarist Margaret Glaspy (who snuck in to classes in music school when she could not afford them; true dedication to her path) provides just the right note: “I was a rolling stone/Out on my own/But now that you’re here/I’m just living in fear/Of you leaving/Counting all the days til you’re back/Shivering in an ice cold bath/Of emotions and math.”
Realizing You Don’t Need Anyone Else: “Wanna Be Cool” by Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment (featuring Chance the Rapper, among others). It’s not enough to settle into the comfort of others. Ultimately we come back to ourselves, which is where the liturgy directs us throughout the Chagim. And at this point in the process, you need an anthem to keep you steady. Nothing will do that better than this pick-me-up from a project that the immensely talented Chance the Rapper contributed to extensively. The song will have you smiling throughout, with some just brilliant turns of phrase, but this is the core theme: “I don’t wanna be cool/I don’t want you to be me/You just should be you…So why don’t you just be the you that you know you are/You know, when nobody else is there?/You’ll be aware, it’s easy, and it’s so important”
Feeling Torn Again: “Bad Art and Weirdo Ideas” by Beach Slang. The name of the record from this Philadelphia-based indie band alone says it all — “The Things We Do to Find People Who Like Us.” It’s not easy enough to end the Chagim with certainty and self-confidence. The world in 5777/2016 won’t allow it. It’s a constant challenge, a forever cycle of reflecting, acting, reacting, wondering, shuttering, hiding, dreaming, and acting again. The guitar and drum will drive you forward, while the lyrics will tug you back: “I’ve always felt stuck, alone, or ashamed/The gutter’s too tough/The stars are too safe/I’m always that kid always out of place/I try to get found.”
Recommitting: “Bad Mouth” by Fugazi. In the end, you come back to the need to move forward. And live an honest and real life. How can you sum up the aim of the Chagim better? In the end, you need these lines, from perhaps the most authentic punk band there ever was: “You can’t be what you were/So you better start bein’ just what you are/The time is now/Is running out/So you better start living the life/That you’re talking about.” (Also good to accompany Neilah, to end Yom Kippur). And the live video from 1991 will provide you just the energy you need for the new year.
Settling in with Your Community: “Donsolu” by BKO Quintet. At the end of the Days of Awe, you will have the chance to settle in with friends in the Sukkah. For that, you need something inviting, chill, but somewhat mysterious that brings you back to the reflection of the previous weeks. This tune from one of Mali’s best records in the last few years, will keep you where you need to be, before you truly prepare to face the broken world we inhabit.
Shana Tovah u’Metukah.