Forward Thinking

Lipa Schmeltzer's Uncanny Valley

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

  • Print
  • Share Share

I think I’ve figured out why I find Lipa Schmeltzer’s anti-Internet-rally-meets-Lady Gaga music video so engrossingly weird. And it’s not just the break-dancing Hasidic robots.

Lipa’s video is weird for the same reason that Tom Hanks looks strange in Polar Express and that this android is really creepy.

That reason: Schmeltzer’s “Hang Up The Phone” video is deep in a pop-cultural Uncanny Valley.

Bear with me a minute.

Schmeltzer’s pop is poppier than any other Hasidic pop star’s pop. Compare “Hang Up The Phone” with this from Mordechai Ben-David, or this from sometime-Lipa collaborator Avraham Fried. Fried and Ben-David sing over klezmer sounds and male choruses on videos that feature colored lights and slow cross-fades. Schmeltzer’s got synthesizers and AutoTune and toys that come to life like in that N’Sync music video.

But while he’s pretty pop, he’s still a few degrees off something of you would expect see from, say, Katy Perry. (Or from Matisyahu, whose primary audience is not Orthodox, and who doesn’t count as a Hasidic act in the same sense.)

Here’s where the Uncanny Valley comes in.

Sometimes humanoid robots and CGI people look really creepy. This concept is called the Uncanny Valley, the idea that artificial things that are lifelike but not quite realistic are made spooky by virtue of the way they take the familiar and make it strange.

In other words, somewhere between Elmer Fudd - who isn’t supposed to look real - and the blue people in Avatar – who really do look real - is a Japanese robot that creeps everyone out.

I hereby posit a pop-cultural Uncanny Valley. If Avraham Fried is Elmer Fudd, vaguely nodding towards mainstream pop, Schmeltzer’s “Hang Up The Phone” is the Japanese robot, down at the valley’s spookiest depths.

Schmeltzer’s earlier videos were more Fudd-like. See, for instance, this 2009 clip, produced for the Orthodox outreach group Oorah (which has lost millions in bad investments, as I reported in January). The video, a survey of ethnic stereotypes that turns downright racist when Schmeltzer’s backup dancers don blackface, is well outside the bounds of anything an Orthodox act would ever do.

“Turn Off The Phone” is different. He’s got the synths and the AutoTune. Plus the dancing is on point, the editing is professional, and the whole thing feels expensive and relatively slick, like it wasn’t put together in someone’s basement.

Still, though: The face paint. The silver costumes. The chubby little DJ. The seemingly random slo-mo shots. Lipa’s cheesy robot steps. The apparent lack of irony.

Schmeltzer is pushing Hasidic pop towards the mainstream, but he’s not doing it quite right. He’s fallen into – or perhaps dug? – an Uncanny Valley. I can’t see him climbing out any time soon.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: lipa schmeltzer, uncanny valley, hang up the phone

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.