November 30, 2006
Cute, menschy boy bands make traditional tunes cool
In June 2005, the Backstreet Boys released "Never Gone," an album filled not with the teeth-rotting pop confections of the group's youth, but with songs of a more adult contemporary style. To date, the disc has sold some 3 million copies -- huge numbers for most bands, but a far cry from the 30 million copies of "Millennium" that the group moved easily in its heyday. The album's relative failure marked a turning point in mainstream music -- Backstreet wasn't selling, *NSYNC had disbanded and nobody ever really cared what happened to 98 Degrees. The era of the boy band was officially over.
In the pop world, that is. In the Orthodox world, it had only just begun. Male performers have always dominated the Jewish music scene -- the kol isha prohibition against men hearing a woman sing saw to that. Adult male-dominated groups, like Schlock Rock and the Neginah and Neshoma orchestras, have been mainstays at weddings and bar mitzvahs for decades. But recently the popularity of such ensembles has fizzled out, and Jewish audiences have warmed to a new sound, the sound of boy bands.
In the past five years alone, such bands as Six13, Chai 5, Shalsheles, Bsamim and The Chevra all have achieved varying degrees of fame. Each band is composed of between three and six young, cute guys who sing songs about God, dance as well as anyone can expect Jewish boys to dance and harmonize their way into the hearts of yeshiva girls everywhere.
But why such popularity?
Simple, said Nachum Segal, host of "Jewish Moments in the Morning," a radio show airing on Jersey City, N.J.'s independent station WFMU. "The Orthodox community likes the traditional stuff. Even the kids are buying only slightly more contemporized versions of the traditional stuff."
And nothing says traditional and slightly contemporary like a quartet of freshly scrubbed, yarmulke-topped singers praising Hashem in perfect harmony.
At a recent Six13 concert at Makor, a performance space in New York City, the band members, dressed identically in blue jeans, white shirts and blazers, sang songs from their eponymous debut album, periodically peppering their scripture-heavy a cappella arrangements with more mainstream hits, like Matisyahu's "King Without a Crown."
"I hate to admit it," said Six13 musical director and founding member Mike Boxer, "but we're six young males standing on a stage with microphones, and though our choreography isn't that extensive yet, we do dance. We are indeed a boy band."
Although Boxer doesn't like the term, he also doesn't feel that the image hinders the group in any way.
"Typical boy bands are all about putting their voices on top of canned music," he said, noting that if Six13 had any vocal weak spots, they would not be masked easily by some smooth dance moves. "We're an a cappella group. We are the music."
Unlike Six13, some groups readily embrace the oft-detested moniker. On its Web site, Chai 5 actually promotes itself as "The Jewish Boy Band."
"The term was popular a couple of years ago," said Chai 5 producer and manager Benji Rafaeli, a crafty businessman who brings to mind Lou Pearlman, a well-known Svengali who created Trans Continental Records and managed *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys, among other boy band sensations. Rafaeli formed Chai 5 by placing ads in Jewish newspapers to seek out young male performers.
"Now I usually just say 'Jewish band,'" he said.
Rafaeli explained how he "noticed that the Jewish market was in need of some good, soulful music and some happy songs." He found four 20-something men, taught them a few melodies and quickly sent them out to find fame on the "day school and shul circuit."
Rafaeli writes and produces all the band's music, and even occasionally appears onstage alongside the members to bask in the spotlight and hear some teenage girls scream.
Yes, many a religious girl has been known to make a fool of herself at a boy band concert, screeching her favorite guy's name at the top of her lungs, getting overwhelmed at the very sight of the group or being 100 percent positive that the lead singer made eye contact specifically with her while performing the big hit of the night.
"If I was single, I'd probably enjoy that aspect of this a lot more," Six13's Boxer joked.
Whatever the reason for the proliferation of Jewish boy bands, one thing's for sure -- we won't be saying bye, bye, bye to them for quite some time.
This article originally appeared in the Forward and is reprinted with permission.
Leah Hochbaum is a freelance writer living in New York.
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