Friday, June 11, 2004

Long and perhaps dry today; I apologize to those unmoved by the concerns invoked. But, before it falls out of my head, some notes on Rose Subotnik's talk "Did Tin Pan Alley Provide Faulty "Equipment for Living"?" at UCLA last Friday.

This was, as you'd imagine, largely a response to Adorno, though Subotnik (one of the giants of 'the new musicology' -- apparently one of the first in the field to get her grad students to read theory) began by taking on some more obviously inadequate critiques of the sentimentality and musical emptiness/cheapness of pre-rock pop. (I appreciate that she was explicit about using "Tin Pan Alley" broadly, but still have some problem with lumping together, for these purposes, theater songs, Hollywood songs, free-standing pop songs [which last are really what the output of TPA, narrowly construed refers to] and even song-hits disseminated by sheet music in the decades leading up to the era of recordings.) In particular, 1954 and 1977 pieces by SI Hayakawa and Lawrence Levine respectively, which appear to conclude from lists of titles and precious little else that all these songs put forward an idiot's vision of idealized romantic love and nothing more; which she countervailed by playing clips of various performances -- the difference between Hayakawa's description of "That Old Black Magic" as a song of abject bondage and a fairly blithe Margaret Whiting recording being a fair example of Subotnik's method.

(Side note 1 -- This does bring into play the question of whether it's the composition, or a given performance of it, that is this object of dispute. This was broached later, but I did feel that the deck was loaded. If you've only heard fairly swinging versions of "That Old Black Magic," you'd be surprised to learn that it debuted in Star-Spangled Rhythm, a WWII musical with the most cheesecake I've ever seen in a Code-era film [clearly 'something for the boys'], in the soupiest rendition imaginable, as part of a sequence in which Vera Zorina dances in a GI's dreams. Incredible that salvageable songs came out of this movie [also "Hit The Road To Dreamland"], but it wasn't usual to hire, in this case, Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen, who seem to have pursued their art as best they knew how whatever the surroundings.)

(Side note 2 -- Hayakawa, of course, was the UC Berkeley administrator (president?) who took much of the credit for breaking student unrest; I'm particularly fascinated by him as he was a popularizer of Alfred Korzybski's pseudo-philosophy-of-language "General Semantics," along with SF writer/L. Ron Hubbard crony A.E. van Vogt [whose World of Null-A was based on Korzybski's non-Aristotelean --hence the title -- logical 'system'; essentially the denial of the law of non-contradiction.] I want to research the connections about student protest, GS, and Dianetics sometime in the next 20 years. Strangely, his given names are usually reproduced "SI," w/o dots.)

The main course, though, was a discussion of a brief piece by Adorno, 1929's "Schlageranalysen" (which translates as "Analysis of Hits" -- in either language, this should be the name of someone's blog). The article is apparently untranslated, though the theoretical frame is much the same as more familiar work. Adorno takes on four songs from the teens and twenties: The mock-Viennese "Ich weiss auf der Wieden ein Kleines Hotel," "I Kiss Your Hand Madame," the Spanish-exotica "Valencia" and the English "Penny Serenade." Adorno's analyses are very clever -- a number of the songs are self-referential: "Penny Serenade" finds the singer commodifying his own performance ("Si, si, si, hear my love song for a penny"), while the chorus of "Ich weiss..." is framed [by the verses] as the text of a letter dropped by a young swain in a hotel. (Structurally, this is a bit like "Return to Sender" or "Tie A Yellow Ribbon." For all I know, there's a song on the charts right this second that uses the same device -- either way, I think I may revive it.) None of the songs originated in the US, much less in Tin Pan Alley per se, but all had hit American versions ("I Kiss Your Hand" was part of one of Bing Crosby's first post-Rhythm Boys sessions, hence part of his transition from white jazzer to sentimental crooner; just looked this up in Giddins' bio.)

No surprise that Adorno finds these songs to be 'just the same' except for some surface feature that serves to distinguish each from each -- he notes some harmonic craft in one, a memorable rhythmic figure in another. Subtonik's main point of criticism is that Adorno's readings are overdetermined both musically (if you're only looking for one feature, well you can find it by ignoring others) and thematically (all the songs turn out to bespeak decadent nostalgia for a dead Europe.)

[By the way -- hardly anyone in a room full of musicologists, some of whom work extensively on pop, could identify Bing Crosby's voice!]

Third act of the paper was Subotnik's attempt to carve out a defense of TPA (as she conceives it) with respect to its utility for everyday people; the "equipment for living" phrase comes from Kenneth Burke. This seemed to rest on relative ease of performance -- anyone can whistle, as Sondheim once wrote, and the home player didn't have to be an expert pianist to make it through commercial sheet music -- and the very impersonality/inexpressivness of much of the material, which, along with what I'd call the 'thinness' of the work (melodic and harmonic material are determinate, arrangement and tempo aren't) make such songs quite malleable, in a manner Subotnik called 'post-modern,' though I find this a fairly contentious way of using that term.

As to 'expressivness': Her climactic contrast was between --

(a) A performance clip of Lou Reed on the Charlie Rose show. Rose holds up The Raven, Lou croaks, "Yeah, I rewrote some Poe...it's really great," then plays "Who Am I?" on unaccompanied electric. It's just godawful: Both the songs, 6 minutes of dull quatrains, 'personal'-but-vague existentialism set to something like D/F#m/D/G. Reed also appears to be stuggling with the simplest possible rhythm guitar pattern as well -- I swear, Lois Maffeo has better time.

(b) a 1928 recording of Irving Caesar/Joseph Meyer/Roger Kahn's "Crazy Rhythm" (no relation to The Feelies') by Whispering Jack Smith; a very flip tune whose provenance I don't know but which wouldn't have been out of place in a Cotton Club revue --

When a highbrow meets a lowbrow
Walking along Broadway
Soon the highbrow, he has no brow
Ain't it a shame/and you're to blame --
What's the use of Prohibition?
You produce the same condition.
Crazy rhythm, I've gone crazy too.

Capped by Subotnik's exit line: "Now -- which of these is better equipment for living?"

Well: I didn't actually notice when the counterpunching to Adorno turned into the use of 'standards' (in any sense you like) to trump 'rock 'n' roll' with its romantic individuality and all that. I have no interest in defending Reed -- the song was truly bad, almost unbelievably so -- though all this may prove is that rock needs a rhythm section. More importantly, it seemed obvious that Subotnik was misunderstanding Reed's peculiar position in the pop landscape -- he's neither aiming to be, nor treated as, a mass artist at this point. Wouldn't a fairer comparison be with an actual contemporary hit -- any of the dishes at the feast Nick Hornsby's been starving at? Was also disturbed that Subotnik's research into Reed's reception was limited to quoting 5 star reviews by Amazon listeners -- isn't this a form of Hayakawa/Levine's list-of-titles error?

Bob Fink made a good point in the (lively) Q and A -- as a form of middlebrow culture, both 'sides' are fond of taking a crack at Tin Pan Alley; to the proponent of either high-culture or the avant-garde, these songs will look musically simpleminded, formally unchallenging, and so on; where as to the proponent of vernacular forms, they'll look 'cooked,' over-crafted, and generally lacking in cultural vitality. Subotnick showed her hand at one point when she commented, in praise of "Crazy Rhythm," both on the egalitarian (in later verses, quite openly melting-pot-ish -- "Their native folk songs they soon throw away/Those Harlem smoke songs, they soon learn to play") impulse of the lyrics and that "all the syllables fit." Look: I'm all over the craftsmanship of this stuff, but I'm not about to connect this narrow, and for me fascinating, aesthetic characteristic with claims about this sort of music being especially demotic or democratic.

It's much more complicated than that -- many of the era's best known writers are immigrant strivers of one kind or another, with wildly variable levels of formal musical training, with WASPy college boy Rodgers and operetta-holdover Kern being the key exceptions, and Cole Porter, rich by birth but a Midwestern arriviste hardly born into the class he cultivated and celebrated, a sort of sport of nature. (It's also false that black pop writers were systematically shut out, as is sometimes claimed; but most of the figures were involved otherwise in the NY-centric entertainment world.) But: By the time country and race musics go from regional to national, the same community saw itself as an establishment -- I think it was Arthur Schwartz who lamented "The amateurs have taken over," and this in the wake of "Tennessee Waltz" and "You Are My Sunshine," not Elvis. The mode of production that began to fall apart with ASCAP's radio boycott assumed a strict division between artists and consumers. [My own curse: i want to write like Coward and distribute like Fugazi; so far, this hasn't worked out.]

[Heavy digression: There's a similar tension (among many) in "The Work of Art...." Benjamin seems to consider it somehow empowering or progressive that anyone (a Russian peasant, say) might now be depicted in a film or widely disseminated photograph. I'm not sure what's supposed to be so great, by its nature, about this essentially passive relation to the new modes of representation: I mean, The Swan is about 'ordinary' persons, but don't they just become celebretized and further exploited by their insertion into the standing distribution and production systems? What value is the reproduction of one's image if it's meaning is tightly controlled by others? But WB doesn't imagine, as far as I can see, that the masses might eventually acquire cameras themselves; the economic and technological conditions aren't even in place yet for that possibility to be broached. (The book's not handy, but I think he claims, circa '38, that about 9 million have to see a movie for it to break even.)]

In any case: Thought-provoking, but contentious at just about every significant juncture. The last third -- and the difficulty people had framing certain questions after the talk -- further convinced me that the period of transition between pre-rock pop and rock is still largely seen as a unbridgeable historical break, and that some detailed work needs to be done to complicate that understanding.

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