tin pan alley imitation for historical inquiry.
What does it mean to enter into the past? One thing it means is to defamiliarize the present.
In my US Popular Music History lecture course, which I will offer again in Winter Quarter of 2016, students must write a Tin Pan Alley lyric as we study the emergence of these “song factories” in the music industry of the early twentieth century.
This assignment works well not because it asks students to get creative in their understanding of the past, but rather because it asks them to get uncreative.
Of course that’s not exactly true. They have to create a new Tin Pan Alley lyric. But to do so, they must grasp the formulaic nature of popular song writing in the Tin Pan Alley mode. They must confront the industrial in the culture industries, the standardization in the standard. As Irving Berlin famously put it in his “9 Rules for Successful Songwriting” (American Magazine, 1920):
1. The melody must be within the average voice of the average singer.
2. The title must be planted throughout the song via use of repetition.
3. The idea and lyric must be appropriate for both sexes…so that both will want to sing it.
4. The song should contain ‘heart interest’ (pathos) even for a comic song.
5. The song must be original… success is not accomplished…by imitating the hit song of the moment.
6. Your lyric must deal with ideas, objects or emotions known to everyone.
7. The lyric must be euphonious: simple and pleasing to the ear.
8. Your song must be perfectly simple.
9. The songwriter must look upon his work as a business.
Or as Harry Von Tilzer puts it: “The simpler the better for a popular song hit.”
In other words, this assignment asks students to confront uncreativity creatively. This disrupts our contemporary assumptions about popular music, in which we have auteur geniuses. Instead, the effort must be made to follow a formula.
It’s actually surprisingly difficult to do something so seemingly easy. Many of my students wanted to inject a more sophisticated, original, or unusual quality into their imitation. They wanted to make their song about their own personal expression. But as Von Tilzer warned, the Tin Pan Alley song was “a commodity, a cash value, and in order to augment the value he [the song writer] must subordinate his own personal tastes to those of the music-buying public” (quoted in David Suisman, Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music, 22).
What was most fun about the assignment was that a number of my more musically-gifted students actually recorded their imitations. Quick, somebody get me a few song pluggers and M. Witmark & Sons!
Here is the assignment:
(1) Write an imitation of a Tin Pan Alley song. You will *not* be evaluated for the quality of your hit-making songwriting skills, but rather for your explanation of how and why your imitation resembles a Tin Pan Alley standard. Have fun with your imitation, try to pay attention to the themes, styles, rhymes, and tones of the quintessential Tin Pan Alley song.
(2) To accompany your Tin Pan Alley imitation, in 500 words or less, explain precisely and compellingly how your lyric relates to the content and context of the Tin Pan Alley song. You might even use the moments when your imitation does not seem accurate to you as opportunities to explain what the Tin Pan Alley song was all about in its time and historic location. Be sure to justify the choices you made *in relation* to specific examples and aspects of Tin Pan Alley songwriting and its historical context from lecture, textbook, reader, and/or playlist.
Here are a few examples of what students produced. Names have been removed to protect the guilty (but copyright claims on these can be made if any contemporary pop stars or music execs score any hits with them):
And here is the last set of lyrics as a musical recording, created by Jarod Corak and Noah Teplin:
Now that’s some pretty creative uncreativity!