The Complicator Vol. 44 – To Praise Music is to Express a Value System, or How Tin Pan Alley Gave Birth to (Those Who Gave Birth to) Punk Rock

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.

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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.

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