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'The B-Side' Sings A Sad, Sad Song

The B-Side, Ben Yagoda's cultural history of Tin Pan Alley and the American Songbook, begins near the end of its story. In 1954, Arthur Schwartz, the co-writer of standards like "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan," is at the Columbia Records building in Manhattan, waiting to present Mitch Miller, Columbia's head of popular music, with some possible songs.

It's an awkward meeting, because Schwartz is also lead plaintiff in a lawsuit accusing Columbia, among others, of favoring the song-licensing organization Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) over its venerable competitor, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), which licenses songs by Schwartz, Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin, among others.

The differences between ASCAP and BMI exemplify B-Side's central juxtaposition — with ASCAP representing the sophistication of Gershwin and Berlin, the burst of creativity that produced songs like "Cheek to Cheek" and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," and BMI embodying the dumbing-down of pop music that, Yagoda argues, began in 1950.

For songwriters like Schwartz, gaining membership in ASCAP signaled that you had made it. But the organization was elitist and racist, made up largely of white, well-educated East Coasters. And in 1939, ASCAP raised its rates, prompting a boycott by broadcasters and the formation of BMI. Out of necessity, and in order to provide labels with songs, BMI approached writers outside the mainstream. So as country, rock 'n' roll and R&B became increasingly prominent, the songwriters from these genres were largely represented by BMI.

The battle between ASCAP and BMI, then, symbolized the transition away from Tin Pan Alley, big bands, show tunes and crooners like Frank Sinatra, and towards a new kind of pop music. For much of B-Side, Yagoda doesn't explicitly denounce this transition. But after quoting a number of dejected criticisms of rock 'n' roll from songwriters like Ira Gershwin, Yagoda finally puts forward his endorsement: Their gloom he writes, "was sincere, legitimate, and justifiable."

Unfortunately, Yagoda doesn't really back up his assertions about the American Songbook's supremacy. He provides copious biographical details on the Tin Pan Alley songwriters but very little analysis of their music. And when he does get specific about why he loves a particular song, he tends to take it a step too far, arguing that not only is the American Songbook great, it's the greatest.

Yagoda praises the rhyme scheme and wordplay of lyrics like "I'm sure that if I took even one sniff / it would bore me terrifically too" from "I Get a Kick Out of You." Such "inventive language," he adds, "was characteristic of the era, now long gone, when young wordsmiths vied to publish their light verse in The New Yorker." It's only because of the claim about "long gone" eras that Yagoda's failure to at least acknowledge, say, hip-hop stands out here. Nas' "I'm taking rappers to a new plateau, through rap slow / My rhymin' is a vitamin held without a capsule" surely competes with Cole Porter's lyrics if metaphors and rhyme schemes are our criteria. And whatever the fate of light verse in The New Yorker, if Lil Wayne's line, "Real G's move in silence like lasagna," doesn't count as inventive language, then what does?

Yagoda does eventually come around to offering full-hearted praise of soul, R&B and late '60s rock 'n' roll in B-Side's epilogue. But the shift feels like too much, too late, considering he's spent half the book investigating and lamenting the American Songbook's slow fade into history.

Both the focus on decline and the undue emphasis on the relative worth of the American Songbook come at the expense of properly celebrating the music. Over the course of three decades, Berlin, Gershwin, Porter and others created some of the finest compositions in American musical history. That these songs live on to this day is proof enough of their greatness. Making such lasting relevance also represent a symbolic victory for sophistication over the dark armies of insubstantial pop, as Yagoda does, indicates a failure to count one's blessings.

Tomas Hachard is an assistant editor at Guernica Magazine and a film and book critic for NPR and The LA Review of Books.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tomas Hachard