Is Spotify Trying to Convert Me?
This Guest Post comes from Jordan Rothschild, who is a student at Swarthmore College, originally from New York City, and a passionate advocate of Jewish continuity and a two-state solution.
I listen to a lot of Jewish music, especially on Spotify. For those who are not familiar, Jewish music on Spotify consists largely of recordings of Jewish liturgy, often to pop beats. I listen to enough Jewish music that Spotify created a personalized “Daily Mix” to aggregate the Jewish music I enjoy into one playlist, plus to cycle in new music and expose me to other artists in that genre.
Since going back to college last month, bumping this Daily Mix has been a fixture in my routine, accompanying me on my way to my morning classes, and playing in the background while I read in the evening. Music has always played an outsized role in my life, but Jewish music reminds me of the summer I just had, working at a Jewish camp and spending much of my free time engaging with my Judaism, primarily through music. Tinged with the perfect balance of spirituality and nostalgia, this playlist helps me get through the long days at school. What I love most about the Spotify Daily Mix playlist is that it changes every day, and each day Spotify’s algorithm gives me more songs to connect with both Jewishly and musically.
Unfortunately, I recently noticed something that caused me to lose faith in this algorithm and question what is going on at Spotify.
Sitting on the bus on my way to a weekend off campus recently, I had a lot of time to listen to music and do homework, so of course this playlist was what kept me company. As it was a Friday afternoon, I was looking forward to spiritually experience music as I got ready for Shabbat. It was then, to my great surprise, that the Shabbat song that was playing mentioned “God’s son” in the lyrics.
I was suspicious of the song to begin with. The lyrics were almost completely in English, the liturgical references were superficial at best, and the Shema was the only part in Hebrew. The artist’s name sounded more Irish than the typical musicians on this playlist, but I gave it the benefit of the doubt. Until I heard the line about Jesus.
At first, I was puzzled and slightly amused, but I quickly became angry that my Jewish playlist had made me a target of this Messianic missionary. I shut off the music and sent a flurry of texts to my friends and family. Of course, I’ve seen advertisements and literature for Jews for Jesus, and have grown concerned by what I view as the normalization of Messianic proselytism in the mainstream American public, most notably in President Trump’s retweets of Wayne Alan Root talking about the Jews and the second coming. However, I never expected to become the target of missionaries, especially not virtual ones on a medium that I trusted. So I shrugged it off, assuming it had been a fluke.
But more songs from this artist began popping up on my playlist, to the point that I could no longer ignore it. I decided that the most logical way to tackle it was first to understand it, so I began looking through all of the artists and every song that came up through that algorithm, and found that there were a few Messianic Christian artists appearing with some degree of frequency. The music they published mimicked, in a half-hearted way, Jewish liturgy, and focused specifically on Shabbat as a way to connect their belief in Jesus to Jewish practice and effectively proselytize to their intended audience: me and other unsuspecting Jews.
I don’t necessarily blame Spotify. The company’s algorithm generates these playlists mathematically, and presumably without consideration that an unscrupulous artist might try to game the system not only to generate more listens for their music, but to preach their beliefs to an unwitting audience. Now that it knows this, Spotify needs to change the way that this music is disseminated. I told the company as much in a polite but firm message, but have yet to receive a reply.
For nearly all of my life, social media has played an outsized role in shaping how I interact with the world around me, including how I experience Judaism. For me, Facebook, Spotify, and Twitter are spaces where my Judaism has taken shape. I am not so naïve that I don’t fully understand that these services are monetizing the attention we give them. Facebook doesn’t have an interest in preserving our millennia-old culture; Twitter certainly doesn’t care about how I fill my time on Shabbat. And it’s clear that Spotify can’t differentiate between Jewish liturgical music and messianic tunes.
I want to be able to connect to the music that spiritually appeals to me — particularly, for right now, Jewish music. I sang Gospel choir in high school as well as other types of liturgical music, and I have a deep respect and appreciation for the spiritual music of other religions and cultures. I feel strongly that music can be a powerful vehicle for religious expression, and I would not want to deprive anyone of that connection, not Christians, Jews, or anyone of faith and passion for music.
That being said, Christian missionary music masquerading itself as Jewish Shabbat music robs me of the ability to connect to music for my religion, for my people, and even to listen to it for my own personal enjoyment. I don’t want my culture to be appropriated as a disguise for missionary activity or to be strategically targeted for proselytism by someone’s music. As much as Messianic Jews may want to save my soul, I just want to be left alone. I want my Jewish music to connect me, not convert me. If Spotify wants to respect my religion, it can’t be an accessory to efforts to subvert it.
For the time being, though, I’ll continue to listen to Josh Warshawsky and Ishay Ribo, scrolling past the songs that try to sell me on Jesus.