Inspired in part by all the Rolling Stone Jewish artists listing of the 500 greatest songs, The Forward decided it was time to rank the best Jewish pop songs of all time. You can find the full list and accompanying essays here.
How did a song written by a West Coast hip-hop group, a Catholic pop star and a French DJ become a Jewish anthem after the hora?
In 2009, at the height of the Black Eyed Peas’ Fergie era, “I Gotta Feeling” was the song of the new century. An uptempo dance song produced by David Guetta, the anthem was revered almost as soon as it was released. The Grammy Award winner for Pop Performance of the Year and Longest Running Single of 2009 has been featured in countless commercials and, as of 2019, holds the record for the most downloaded song on the iTunes history at 9 million. In a word, it was massive. It has been 13 years since; new artists brought new hits. Yet at Tenafly’s bar mitzvahs in Tel Aviv, “I Gotta Feeling” is the cheeseball hit that continues to rock the house.
For starters, “I Gotta Feeling” references the language of our people in the most celebratory Jewish lyrics of all time: “Fill my cup (drink)!” Mazel tov (the chaim)! When I first heard those words, I was confused – my upper-middle-class suburban upbringing, my Hebrew school upbringing, and my deep love for Seinfeld were all in conflict. It was the dumbest thing I could imagine, but this once-cool hip-hop group was referencing our rites of passage? I did not understand. Cynically, I wondered, was will.i.am making fun of us?
Singing in a group has been scientifically proven to increase “feel-good chemicals” like dopamine and oxytocin. It is an example of collective effervescence, a sociological concept that describes the feeling when a group comes together and simultaneously communicates the same thought by participating in the same action. If you’ve seen this song played in its natural habitat (a Long Island bar mitzvah, immediately after the hora, before sitting down for the motzi), then you’ve experienced the ecstasy of Jews young and old shouting “MAZEL TOV!” with the song. Did the Peas have the foresight to predict this? Did Will.i.am have a seventh grade experience filled with Jasons and Joshuas in 1990s basketball suits and Rebeccas and Rachels in baggy socks?
How a corny pop song from 2009 became the biggest Bar Mitzvah hit of all time
The real magic, however, of “I Gotta Feeling” is how it starts: a stripped-down beat followed by a powerful hook, “I gotta feel tonight’s gonna be a good night, tonight’s gonna be a good night, that tonight is going to be a good good night. Never since “Start Me Up” has there been such a direct opening line. In fact, the message of this song is so simple and clear that the bridge is a literal repetition of the phrase “let’s do it” 24 times in a row Anyone, at any age, at any stage of life, with an understanding of the English language, can clearly understand what is expected of them. DO IT – with your family, on the dance floor, right now. Will.i.am was speaking cross-generationally to a room of descendants of immigrants dressed in off the shoulder sequin dresses?
As you grow older and move from the children’s table to the wedding table to the wedding table with children, you may gain life experience, perspective and knowledge of history. . Maybe you realize that when you’re Jewish and there are great-grandparents in the room, there’s also been a lot of trauma, which we don’t talk about openly. Perhaps you recognize that day that being Jewish and being alive is in itself a challenge that not everyone can achieve.
What a feeling then to see your grandson or great-grandson alive, dancing happily at a bar mitzvah. What a feeling, to sing, to see the fruits of your dreams of survival, together, celebrating in the same room. Did Will.i.am have a deep understanding of it, so deeply tied to our experience that he was moved to write a holiday song in the language of the Jews?
Today we stand at another pivotal moment in history. Auschwitz was liberated 75 years ago. In 2020, every living survivor of the Holocaust is at least 75 years old; more than half will be at least 85 years old. How many years before this trauma becomes invisible? Until it leaves the dance floor and lives only in our DNA?
In our memoirs, we see four generations of Jews together lighting candles, lifting chairs, their eyes shining. We smell the perfume, taste the sweet bitterness of wine, feel arms around our shoulders, laughing, dancing, spinning. Because I love songwriters, I like to think I’m going to anticipate what else we might need. A soundtrack. A song. A good night.
Julie Potash Slavin aka Hesta Prynn is an A-list DJ, licensed clinical therapist and host on SiriusXM radio, where she explores music as a means of human connection.