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Singing as an Israeli Woman: Musical Personae in a Cosmopolitan Society


Israel in the 21st century is an intensely multicultural society where several types of cosmopolitanism vie with regional and ethnic forms of expression, a phenomenon that plays out in musical life. I propose that such a society offers a variety of possibilities for what a woman is, what she can do, and how she can work. This dissertation is an ethnographic study of four female singer-songwriters that examines the ways they negotiate and sometimes challenge socio-cultural norms in creating their careers and constructing their artistic personae, or the version of themselves that they present as musicians.

The artists I focus on straddle four major rifts in Israeli society, between Arabs and Jews, Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, Russian-speaking immigrants and native Israelis, and Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities. In using their ethnic heritage as cultural capital to corner a unique market niche, these artists become enmeshed in social politics that include tensions between ethnic and religious groups, conflicting gender roles, and struggles over belonging. I argue that as they create legible personae to meet the demands of the music industry, their liminality between mainstream society and a minority sector challenges the discourse around those identities. The success of their careers thus depends both on how their particular ethnicity is positioned in relation to more powerful models of Israeliness that are reproduced by public discourses, the state media and the entertainment industry, as well as how they meet commercial criteria for mainstream pop music. In working to satisfy this dual set of demands they engage with the canon of Israeli music, revealing and expanding its boundaries.

To illuminate how the artists define and challenge discourses of Israeliness, I analyze their songs, how they perform them, and what people say about them. The radio airtime their music receives and the venues where they perform further reveal how they are positioned within Israeli culture. Thus while the strategies they use in marking themselves as foreign are common to artists cross-culturally, the challenges they encounter offer a window onto changing social patterns in contemporary Israeli society.

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