To Praise Music is to Express a Value System, or How Tin Pan Alley Gave Birth to (Those Who Gave Birth to) Punk Rock :: Play Listen Repeat :: Vol. 44

sid_v_my_way.jpgThe Best Music EVER
In the comments to my previous post, a commenter wrote (in a long and very well-reasoned comment) that the craft of popular music from Tin Pan Alley and the American songbook “remains unquestionably the model to which all future song writing must be compared.”
Believe it or not, this made me think about punk rock. Here’s how.
Let’s Not Talk About Forever
The idea that any kind of song writing will ever be “unquestionably the model to which all future song writing must be compared” is hyperbolic. Forever is a long time, and to say that people in 200 years, or 2,000 years, or 12,000 years will look ONLY to Tin Pan Alley for the ultimate in song writing standards is at best impossible to confirm.
At worst, it projects our beliefs onto the people of the future, presuming that they will not only understand everything better than we do, but that they will select what we value and confirm its ultimate superiority. In other words, it’s a fantasy.
Rowdy Grandkids


But never mind forever. It didn’t even take 40 years for the classic American Songbook to be lustily rejected, first by rock and roll artists, and then more completely by punk rockers like The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, and later by Minor Threat.
The clear musical differences between Tin Pan Alley songs and punk rock songs should not lead us to conclude that that there is no connection to be made. The story of how music went from Tin Pan Alley to CBGB’s is a story about the fundamental connection between peoples’ values and the music they admire, and between music and philosophy.
rodgers-hammerstein1.jpg
There’s More to Music than the Music
When the punk rockers considered the world in which they came of age, they were appalled and angry; and, fairly or not, they blamed the bleakness of their world on the values that created it. As they took aim at the orthodoxy of Post-WWII American values, they did so in terms of the popular music of that time, believing that in attacking the values of the music (expertise, division of labor, graceful individual conformity to social mores and roles, and the fetishization of musicality itself), they would expose the failures of American values at large.
But punk’s attack didn’t use musical excellence as its main weapon, it did the opposite, using musical impoverishment to dramatize an idea: the idea that pretty music can cover up some pretty ugly things. The musical excellence of the American Songbook was never something that punk music questioned or even criticized.
Punk questioned the value of Tin Pan Alley’s embrace of form and beauty, in light of the world as it was in the mid-70′s. By doing so, punk music insisted that the most important dimensions of music were not its formal and expressive ones (the craft, so highly valued by Tin Pan Alley); they were the ethical and ritual ones.
My Way
Punk music’s emphasis on the ethical dimension of music and Tin Pan Alley’s expression of music as a craft are both valid as aspects of a musical style; but to exclusive fans of one genre or the other, both genres cannot be considered good music.
If you really believe, as the listener above does, that the American Songbook is the standard by which all future songs will be judged, then punk rock’s abandonment of musicality makes its excellence as music impossible. And yet, to many, punk rock is the real music, and American standards are fake, silly, elitist, authoritarian, and so on.
So it seems that to really like a style of music is to believe something, to make a philosophical claim, to make the unavoidable connection between a music’s characteristics, and the values which those characteristics represent.
As a listener and as someone who makes records, I can’t say that I know how this happens, or why, but I for one am glad it does. This is a part of the strange force that music, the mysterious art, brings to bear.
—Michael
(music curator)
ps – I love both of these kinds of music.

Pandora

The Pandora Team http://www.pandora.com/

7 thoughts on “To Praise Music is to Express a Value System, or How Tin Pan Alley Gave Birth to (Those Who Gave Birth to) Punk Rock :: Play Listen Repeat :: Vol. 44

  1. What you’re really discussing here is the age-old debate over art in general: craft vs. concept. Which is more important, and are they mutually exclusive? One beautiful development in this discussion is, I think, the development of atonal, free and experimental music. These are of course highly general and far reaching labels, but I think they in their own ways each have something in common with punk in that they represent a rejection of certain allegedly unchanging musical standards. They also differ in that they are less a conceptual revolt against social norms then they are a question posed to musical norms. I think to really consider the person’s comment about how we will judge music “forever”, we have to consider that there are lots of things happening that many audiences still don’t consider to be music, much less good music. This goes far beyond punk and Tin Pan Alley, and it’s still a vibrant debate!

  2. great points @Jon, and well put – this sort of comparison would probably work with lots of modern forms vs earlier ones. one thing you mention that I especially like is the idea that experimental musics are:
    “less a conceptual revolt against social norms then they are a question posed to musical norms.”
    the point, or question perhaps, at the center of my post is: to what extent are those the same thing?
    to question a musical norm, or to employ one, seems to have a conceptual component, as if the shape of a music is the shape of a thought.
    great points,
    mz

  3. Michael, excellent and insightful article. i would just like to say to the person who said that “Tin Pan Alley and American Songbook are the models for all of future songwriting.” Isn’t that a little bit of a culturally elitist view? Do you think songwriters from Finland, Malaysia, New Zealand, or Argentina were so affected or influenced by United States music at the time? Did Tin Pan Alley bands spring up in these countries within a few short years of its creation and offer a bond to other Tin Pan Alley bands around the world that transcended nationality and race?
    Truthfully i’d have to say i don’t know. i would have to research it before stating that nothing like that happened. My percieved belief however is that it did not.
    Punk rock did exactly that. It was a worldwide phenomenon and it was achieved without any financial, media or entertainment industry support. Those things only appeared after Punk had fought its way from being a reviled and despised class of people and music to the unfortunatley all encompassing overbloated thing it is today.
    If that can happen, who knows what might be created in the future or what from country it may originate.
    Thanks.

  4. Great philosophical discussion. But still the whole site seems to be overwhelming geared toward western music. Couldn’t find any Middle Eastern, no African, very little if any Asian. Ho hum. I guess the genome still needs some real soul, in addition to breadth and depth. I guess the people that are in charge might try thinking outside of Pandora’s box, musically.

  5. hey @pangkat – we couldn’t agree more, and couldn’t be more eager to add those genres to Pandora.
    because of the way we add music, we have to do a great deal of setup and training and musicological analysis before we can add new genres, especially genres as complex as African music, or Asian or Middle Eastern. We also have to have full collections of those kinds of music in order to make good stations. we need to have enough matches.
    at this point, the genres you mention are not available on pandora, not because we don’t value them, but because we do. we won’t add new genres, especially those of other cultures, until we are certain that we can do them justice.
    We are currently analyzing African genres in preparation for making that available, and we look forward to having all of these kinds of music available.
    thanks for the comment,
    —Michael
    (music curator)

  6. “At worst, it projects our beliefs onto the people of the future, presuming that they will not only understand everything better than we do, but that they will select what we value and confirm its ultimate superiority. In other words, it’s a fantasy.”
    Some still have an interest in the music of the 12th ot 14th Century and likely the same things were said of the music of that time….. Imagine the popular trubodor of the day singing romatic songs of far away. Well where all all those songs now? Some remains, the best, as will some of the punk rock songs of the 70′s.
    Thanks and Best Regards

  7. I’m not finding a blog post on this, and this is the closest article, so I’m posting here.
    I noticed recently that I can show my stations by “type”. My stations got lumped as: “Classical”, “tween”, “dance/electronica”, “rock” and “christian”.
    I also noticed that one of my stations started playing different songs than it did a few months ago when I created it. I was tweaking until I realized that it was lumped in with “christian” instead of “rock”!?!
    Probably because one of the 5 seed bands is “christian”. Ugh, now I’m getting all kinds of crappy Contemporary Christian Music hits on that station. Thumbs down after thumbs down.
    I’m guessing you guys have a music gene that is “christian”.
    Could we change how that works?
    Either make it an option (like explicit lyrics ONLY on a per station basis, not global).
    Or make it a very weak connection.
    4 out of the 5 bands on my station are NOT christian. The common link is female vocals, heavy metal, harmonic heavy guitars. I shouldn’t be getting Chris Tomlin on this station. Nothing about his music is related except “christian” and that’s only to one band of 5.
    Personally, I wouldn’t mind throwing that out completely since it has NOTHING to do with the sound of the music, but I’m sure many people out there like it so they can listen to “Jesus” music.
    GRRRRRRRRRRRR, now I get Bethany Dillon at least it has a female vocalist, but sheez, I don’t want POP on my metal station.

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