Adorno’s music criticism

Theodor Adorno was both a notorious music snob and a profound cultural critic. What can be salvaged from his ethnocentric elitist writings about music and be used to analyze contemporary popular culture? If he was right, then collectively our ability to even hear music has regressed to the point where much of what he has to say about authentic music (i.e. the atonal compositions of Schönberg) will be incomprehensible to our infantile ears. As Martin Jay explains it in The Dialectical Imagination, Adorno believed that one of the effects of commercialized popular music was to regress a listener to an infantile state where “like children who demand only food they have enjoyed in the past, the listener … could only respond to a repetition of what he heard before.” Such a listener’s attitude toward culture is like “that of the meaningless leisure of the unemployed.” Commercialized music, by destroying the link between performance and listening (you can hear it in an inferior reproduction with no apprehension of what’s been lost, whenever its convenient for you the listener with no attention to the work involved in creating it) also destroys the Benjaminian aura of a musical work, which destroys its critical function, its ability to comment negatively on the culture and suggest something larger. Adorno had none of the faith that some later pop culture theorists have in the ability of consumers to subvert the intentions of the culture industry and find liberating and creative uses for Madonna songs or Star Trek episodes. Adorno argued that any use of pop culture consigned one to greater conformity, betokened further submission to the nebulous, possibily decentered authorities that run monopoly capitalism. That we mistake playing with the culture industry’s toys for a kind of real freedom shows only how impotent and short-sighted we’ve become. Adorno distinguishes not between popular and classical music, between high and low culture, but between commercial and non-commercial music, the latter of which has no recognizable place in mass society. Music has become a commodity first and foremost, almost impossible to perceive independant of that context. Commodification removes genuine compositional spontaneity and “soul” from music and replaces it with empty virtuoso gestures of showmanship and flair, which amount to dictatoral impositions by the manufacturers. Because the music commodity consists mainly of these gestures, one can’t subvert them without obviating the commodity itself, removing the pretense for even using it as a launching pad for listener-creativity in the first place.

As far as Adorno is concerned, popular music (“jazz,” in his terminology; think “smooth jazz” especially, in today’s marketplace) is never about praxis and always about relaxation, of lulling to sleep the individual’s critical awareness, of wallowing in passivity. Is dancing a passive response to rhythmic music? Yes, in Adorno’s mind. It’s mimicking the martial movement of troops massed and marching past the dictator’s parade stand. The use of music as background has the effect of moving the listener to the background, dissolving him into the mass. It required no conscious thought to be “appreciated,” and thus was useless as an experience to foster individual subjectivity, which always comes as a result of meaningful work — in this case in synthesizing one’s listening skills with the compositional skill of whoever created the music.

All of this seems pretty apt to me. Popular music rarely asks a listener to engage with it at any level of complexity, it instead seems to prmise an immediate shift in status on the level of fantasy, encouraging vicarious flights of fantasy in which one harnesses the power of the status quo to please oneself rather than engage critically with it. Music is an occasion to show off one’s superficial knowledge of names and details and earn membership to subcultural groups or demonstrate cultural capital of some kind. And music production is obviously guided by recurring formulas that cater to a listener who only wants to repeat past simple pleasures — something to remember when “critics” in lifestyle magazines write things along the lines of “remember when music was fun…?”

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