I was having a conversation with a friend of mine the other day about the differences between the way American music treats relationships and the way Israeli music does. My basic thesis is that Israeli music and culture are comfortable with the messiness and imperfection of relationships, whereas American music that deals with love lurches between euphoria and depression (with the occasional song of rage thrown into the mix). My references are a bit dated, but I think this thesis holds true for newer music too.
Let’s start with breakup songs. When I think about American breakup songs they seem to fall into two basic types: the Now I’m Devastated song (a.k.a. the Blues) and the I’ll Get Over You song (which includes the I’m Breaking Up With You song). There’s a lot of struggle in these breakup songs, and a lot of justification. You’ll find some nuance here and there, but you have to really look for it. Now let me introduce you to one of my favorite Israeli breakup songs, Zmanim Ktanim (the translation’s got some errors in it, but nothing major). This song treats the breakup as an opportunity for reminiscence, because you know, we had some good times. No struggle is evident – these things just happen sometimes, and nobody is being blamed. If you can think of any American songs anything like it, let me know. I’m not sure they exist.
Another of my Israeli favorites is Milim Yafot Me’eleh, a song about lovers’ quarrels that, again, refuses to catastrophize the drama of its subjects. When I think of such quarrels in American music, my mind immediately goes to oldies Return to Sender and Red Roses for a Blue Lady (I know, I know, because I work in a nursing home). The former is about a girlfriend ghosting on Elvis (in an adorable old-fashioned way) after an argument. No nuance, just a cute song. The latter is pretty outrageous, a dude buying flowers for his girlfriend after an argument and expecting that if they succeed in making her happy, it will inevitably lead to her agreeing to marry him. Talk about borderline personality! Either she’ll be mad forever, or everything will suddenly be perfect. I figured I should find some more contemporary music about fights within a relationship, so I googled it, and you know what popped up first? This. A song by P!nk about being tired of all this fighting, let’s get a divorce.
One place where the thesis falls apart a little is in songs about loving someone despite all sorts of imperfections (not just the perfect ones). American music has plenty of these. Just to name a couple that we sang in my college a cappella group, there’s Rilo Kiley’s Portions for Foxes and Joan Osborne’s Crazy Baby. (Israel has You’re No Good For Me But I Love You Anyway songs too.) But there’s still such an amazing amount of What Makes You Beautiful and All Of Me out there (the John Legend song, not the 1931 classic) that it’s frankly absurd. And I can’t think of any Israeli analogs.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that Israel Does Love Better or anything silly like that. I’m just saying that Israeli music seems to have a lower-stakes attitude about relationship issues, in a good way.
N.S. Dolkart is the author of Silent Hall, available for pre-order at any bookstore in the US, UK, Canada, South Africa, Australia, or New Zealand. It’s coming out in June, and it’s really good. You should buy it.