Born Again

Something happened this week in Israeli music. The rock group Hayehudim (The Jews) appeared on a special episode of the popular TV program "A Star is Born" (Israel's version of "American Idol," now in its seventh season). Though they have not been heard on the radio for years, Hayehudim, which has put out four albums and been around for some 20 years, is the kind of band considered a success without any help from the media.

The show's host, Zvika Hadar, excitedly welcomed them on stage. Tom Petrover and Orit Shachaf, the group's soloists, showed how familiar they were with the competitors and mentioned they were particularly fond of two of them - Mei Finegold and Moran Mazuz. Despite the contestants' considerable enthusiasm, as well as Hadar's, everything seemed completely natural. "A Star is Born" has shifted from being an entertainment program many musicians preferred to ignore - if not look down on because of the phenomenon of "instant stardom" that it represents - into a totally legitimate stage for well-known artists from all streams of Israeli music. Which other prime-time program can boast of guest artists such as Idan Raichel, Ivri Lider, Shlomo Artzi, Matti Caspi and Yehudit Ravitz?

"Hayehudim [appearing] is another stage of recognition for 'A Star is Born,'" says the program's director, Yoav Tzafir. "From my perspective, it's a way in which we've come full circle. Ninet [Tayeb, the show's first winner] sang one of their songs in the first season. They weren't heard on radio, but Ninet's generation - much of it in the country's periphery - grew up on Hayehudim. Ninet put them in prime time."

The group's appearance, he says, represents a turning point for the program. "We have come a long way. At first the program was not considered legitimate in the eyes of the industry, but now people know it is respectable in the eyes of musicians and artists. Today people also understand that this is a legitimate way for the competitors to become part of the industry." Tzafir believes this is partly because the program is in its seventh season. "'A Star is Born' has become an institution. They understand it doesn't interfere with the industry, but instead contributes more and more creative forces. It uncovers additional singers and creators. When the industry gets singers who don't write, like Harel Skaat, this strengthens creators and writers."

So what do established artists gain from appearing on "A Star is Born"? Apart from respect and attention, this is also especially controlled exposure. No one on the show will mention their last album flop, or an unpleasant affair from the artist's past. This is publicity for them, and often a platform for promoting a new album or upcoming performances; and the process doesn't require the artist to be exposed.

The segments broadcast in which the artists and competitors meet can even be seen as a series of interviews with inexperienced interviewers. Sometimes the competitors have sufficient confidence to ask the artists questions, but for the most part it is the artists who interrogate the youth. Shlomo Artzi, for example, was easily able to analyze the seemingly mysterious personality of last season's winner Israel Bar-On. "You are a bastard," he concluded.

Charming moments occur when a situation most beginners would only dream about unfolds - like an invitation to sing your own original song to Artzi. And then he even joins in the refrain. Last season he suggested to Lee Biran, completely prophetically, that it's better to take second place. He advised Aviv Meshulam, who wore dark glasses, to look the audience straight in the eyes. They performed his songs alone. Yehudit Ravitz, on the other hand, sang duets with both of them.

"Shlomi Shabat told me that after he appeared on 'A Star is Born' all his performances were sold out," Tzafir says. "But it is not merely the commercial aspect. People who didn't know him fell in love with that man. It showed him in a way he had never been seen before. It was possible to get to know him. There is no artist who is not moved." Shabat was apparently so excited about his encounter with the competitors on the show that he invited eliminated contestants Paula Walshtein and Reem Cohen to be guests at his performance in Caesarea. Tzafir welcomes cooperation off-screen as well. "I'll be happy if one of the competitors sings with the Idan Raichel Project," he says.

Guest artists were already taking part in "A Star is Born" in the early seasons (including Gali Atari, Danny Sanderson, David Broza and Rami Kleinstein). In its fifth season, the program began to put emphasis on cooperating with mainstream artists in various capacities. Some of them sang with the competitors, others listened to the competitors' versions of their own songs and offered advice, and still others simply performed on the show. The guest artists have represented a wide range of Israeli mainstream music, spanning various genres. The list also includes Gidi Gov, Rita, Yitzhak Klepter, Keren Peles, Trifonas, Miri Mesika, Mosh Ben-Ari, Pablo Rozenberg, Kobi Aflalo, Danny Robas, Corinne Allal and Nurit Galron.

International stars Sean Kingston and the Pet Shop Boys, who were visiting Israel for their own concerts, have also graced the program's stage. This record has significance, says Tzafir. "When I asked Hayehudim why they were participating, they said it would put them at the top of Israeli music with Shlomo Artzi and Aviv Geffen, who will appear later this season, and why should they not be there. The artists have internalized this and the first to do so was Matti Caspi in the fifth season, in my opinion."

"I still remember the moment when they explained that songs are not good for ratings," says Ivri Lider, who participated last season. "For established artists this is a stage that has no equal, to my regret. Once upon a time there was Rivka Michaeli's program or that of Dan Shilon - programs that had a spot for music in prime time. In my opinion, that's very important. Those things have disappeared."

Lider says he was flattered by the invitation to appear on the program. "It made me feel good, it was kind of a confirmation of what I had achieved. That people like what I do. There's something nice about it." Beyond that, he says, the attraction of the program is the fact that it is solely devoted to music. "It is a program about music. That is its core. In the revolting sea of reality [shows] this is something nice. Because there is real talent here that is connected to art in some way, and goes beyond merely sitting in front of the camera and talking rubbish. I think it's very convenient for people involved in music because it takes you from point A to point B very swiftly. perhaps even too swiftly. That is something to be discussed. With Aviv Meshulam, for example, I have remained in touch with him and I'm accompanying him on his way."

Idan Raichel was also moved by the suggestion that he do a special episode devoted to his latest project. "I came to the first meeting with the competitors and I didn't know who was more excited. True, I work with a great number of performing artists, well-known and less well-known, but generally I'm the one who puts the team together. But here I went into a situation in which I had to work with what there was. To my [pleasant surprise], I came to the program with a good and worthy team." Raichel says the process of selecting the songs was done together and since the program has an adapter (Amos Ben-David), sometimes he was left merely looking in from the outside. "I learned mainly about the tremendous challenge to the singers, the musicians and the whole production, with non-stop tension over many weeks - at the end of which, what people remember is the way a song was performed for three minutes."

Lior Shlein's late-night program, which hosts musicians in the kind of format Lider is so fond of, has only one-fifth of the ratings of "A Star is Born" (which in the past two years has averaged 4.7 percent). The Music Channel, which hosts musicians all the time, has a rating of between a fraction of one percent and two percent. The last program that had ratings like "A Star is Born" and hosted musicians was Yair Lapid's program that ended two years ago. In this way, "A Star is Born" has become almost the only option for musicians looking for TV coverage that does not force them to reveal their inner feelings or answer all kinds of questions.