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  • Tin Pan Allegory
  • Keir Keightley (bio)

From the first the European music critics . . . took all of this new American music a lot more seriously than we did at home and wrote a great deal about it—we just liked it without thinking so much about it. And it is right to say they heard the very best of our bands and of our recordings and didn’t have to listen to so much of the tin-panny kind of trash music that has made a lot of our home folks sick of any kind of jazz music—and I don’t blame them much either.

—Louis Armstrong, 19361

One and the same civilization produces simultaneously two such different things as a poem by T. S. Eliot and a Tin Pan Alley song…

—Clement Greenberg, “Avant Garde and Kitsch,” 19392

Why should two so distant in social space—Louis Armstrong and Clement Greenberg—wield tin pans against bad taste? Each arrogates authenticity to his respective art by othering and dismissing forms of culture that, it turns out, have much in common. While Armstrong parses mass culture, distinguishing his real jazz from the “tin-panny kind,” such a distinction is unthinkable to Greenberg, who instead underscores the unbridgeable gap between mass and modernist, between the many and the few. We should not assume that Armstrong is emulating the highbrow, however; his use of the tin pan against “trash” echoes its long history as a tool of working-class resistance to the alienations of modernity. So how is it that the same, mass-produced, disposable item—a tin pan—can so easily serve two masters, resonating across high and low and signifying alterity for “two such different” positions? [End Page 717]

For more than half a century before Armstrong and Greenberg’s invocations, the tin pan figured various forms of otherness as inferiority, signaling widespread anxieties about modernity, social change, and the industrialization of culture. Tracing usages across the semantic longue durée reveals a complex history of derogation and critique hiding inside this humble object. If we listen carefully, we will hear the tin pan reverberating across the late nineteenth century, spawning a series of keywords used to critique sound and songs, but also, marginalized groups, public comportment and mass produced goods: “tin panning,” “tin-panny,” “to pan a performance”, and, most prominently, “Tin Pan Alley”—that very model of a modern cultural industry and the subject of this article.

Today, most consider “Tin Pan Alley” a quaint, even charming, name. It summons up warm memories of the classic American popular songs that flowed out of New York sheet-music publishers during the first third of the twentieth century. Yet the initial usages of “Tin Pan Alley” proposed something else entirely. At the turn of the century, “Tin Pan Alley” was a highly critical designation, a phrase that amplified the disdain discernable in the sound of the tin pan. A 1903 article acknowledged that “‘Tin Pan Alley’ is considered a term of reproach by the Tin Pan Alleyites.”3 Moreover, its subsequent circulation was consistently associated with attacks on industrialized music.4 These endured for decades and helped shape the field of cultural critique by linking modes of manufacture (of songs and of popularity) with forms of fraud (such as plagiarism or manipulation of audiences). Long before the Frankfurt School or the New York Intellectuals indicted the industrialization of culture, popular press writing was insistent that Tin Pan Alley represented a conjoined social and aesthetic problem. While the usage history of the phrase after 1903 is fascinating, I want to focus here on its coinage. Exploring how it resonated at the moment of its earliest dissemination will help account for Tin Pan Alley’s rapid acceptance as the name for one of the most prototypical of cultural industries, if not the very first. This may then help us detect tin-panny echoes in critiques of mass culture more generally.

But before turning to the nineteenth century, we should note that Greenberg’s choice for Eliot’s antithesis is not arbitrary, and not simply because tinned food signified mass culture for the poet.5 “Tin” acted as a metonymy of modernity...


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