Jews, Race and Popular Music by Jon Stratton (2009)


I was recently asked to review Jews, Race and Popular Music by Jon Stratton for the journal Popular Music. The book is an interesting case-by-case study of the Jewish input into musical performance, from torch singing to Amy Winehouse. Stratton suggests that dominant WASP culture has positioned Jews as neither black nor fully white, but oscillating in a kind of cultural transit somewhere in between the two. The argument neatly avoids issues of essentialism and self-definition by focussing on how Jewish performers have then manipulated their role to act as racial go-betweens: privileged interpreters of black identity for a white audience. One of the pleasures of the book is simply the roll call of Jews in the music industry: some obvious, some obscure, and some whose Jewish identity was never a big part of their image (Malcolm McLaren, for example).

Covering Australia, the UK and the USA, Stratton’s ambitious volume defly combines gender and racial analysis to explore the predicaments of several crucial artists, including Bob Dylan, Bette Midler and the Beastie Boys. In a sense, by positioning their play with identity as a function of white hegemony, Stratton is really contributing to whiteness studies. His book is a worthy addition to the literature.