Monday, February 23, 2015

American popular music, for better or worse

This book has a somewhat drab title (The B-Side) and a slightly misleading subtitle (The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song), and has Frank Sinatra on the front, but don't judge this book by its cover. If I used star ratings on this blog, I would have no qualms giving this book 5 stars--it is a fabulous read! Nothing in the title is indicative of the pleasures of the book, which is basically a history of American pop music from the 30s to the 60s, focusing on the songs and songwriters rather than the performers.

Yagoda's thesis is that the flow of great songs of the 30s and 40s (the songs with fairly sophisticated melodies and clever lyrics that we know now as "standards" by writers like George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, Carolyn Leigh, etc.) was stopped by the frivolous, unsophisticated, childlike music of the 50s ("How Much is that Doggie in the Window" is the subject of a lot of venom here), and the villain of this piece winds up being Mitch Miller, a powerful music executive at Columbia Records who was instrumental in influencing public taste in music. But obviously it wasn't just Miller. Yogoda notes that the run of Broadway musicals that produced so many great hits dried up--not that musicals vanished, but after Oklahoma, the musical from changed; the songs that could stand alone outside the context of the musicals (almost all of the Gershwin songs, for example) became songs that were plot-driven or dependent on context, and so did not stand alone so well. The author also explains the importance of the song publishing licensee ASCAP and the later upstart BMI better than any other writer I've read on the subject.

The rebirth Yagoda writes about involves both the appreciation of the standards that singers like Ella Fitzgerald helped establish in the late 1950s, and the emergence of the new "Tin Pan Alley-ish" writers of the 60s like Burt Bacharach and Carole King. The book ends in the mid-60s with Brian Wilson and the Beatles about the change the course of pop music again, and the last 5 pages build beautifully almost like the climax of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life". Yagoda presents information that is not necessarily new, but the lens with which he views and interprets it is new, and that makes this is a fascinating and well-written read.