Yesterday I noticed that elsewhere at PopMatters was a review of Adorno’s Philosophy of Music, which, as the author of the review, Patrick Schabe notes, has nothing to do with “new music” as anyone outside of academic music programs would understand it. Those interested in mounting an Adornoesque critique of contemporary pop music would be better served by reading “Perennial Fashion—Jazz,” from Prisms. The essay, which isn’t about jazz so much as it is about whatever musical product is being manufactured and marketed for the masses, features this immortal observation:
The aim of jazz is the mechanical reproduction of a regressive moment, a castration symbolism. ‘Give up your masculinity, let yourself be castrated,’ the eunuchlike sound of the jazz band both mocks and proclaims, ‘and you will be rewarded, accepted into a fraternity which shares the mystery of impotence with you, a mystery revealed at the moment of the initiation rite.
I think of this whenever the need to concentrate on what I’m listening to makes me feel peevish and disgruntled. Isn’t music supposed to make me relax? Then I know for sure I’m in the illustrious fraternity. When I start to write a record review and I try to conjure criteria by which to judge it, I feel a bit haunted by Adorno’s words; I know nothing I will say will dispel the notion that I’m pounding out my own castrated, syncopated rhythm on my keyboard. In “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” (anthologized by Routledge The Culture Industry), Adorno suggests that with the advent of commercialized music, “the concept of taste is outmoded” because “the subject who could verify such taste has become as questionable as has the right to a freedom of choice which empirically, in any case, no one any longer exercises.” Taste may survive as a necessary fiction, more necessary for those who attempt to codify subjective judgments and share them as music writers, people who won’t surrender to the idea that cultural product is just product whose significance lies merely in how sellable it is. Adorno notes “the golden age of taste has dawned at the very moment in which taste no longer exists.” Adorno’s often criticized for his rampant elitism, which consists mainly of insisting that collectively our ability to even hear music has regressed to the point where authentic music has become 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 later pop culture theorists have had in the ability of consumers to subvert culture industry brainwashing and find liberating, creative use for Justin Timberlake or episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. 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. As far as Adorno is concerned, popular music is never about active engagement but 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.)
Critics try to invent standards that will insulate themselves from the consequences of music commercialization, from the reality of exchange value, which levels off all other forms of value and slowly but surely introjects itself into the populace so that top-sales lists are popularly held to be synonymous with best lists. “If one seeks to find out who ‘likes’ a commercial piece, one cannot avoid the suspicion that liking and disliking are inappropriate to the situation, even if the person questioned clothes his reactions in those words.” I can pretend to subjective opinions based on criteria of my own devising, but my own ability to hear has already been too compromised to make these criteria anything but postures of resistance to the market, or collaboration with it—I can either condemn sell-outs (or laud bands for “authenticity”) or hype bands and build their PR image; that is what is left to the music reviewer. Adorno has this cutting comment for my delusion: As a pop-music critic, I am like “The couple out driving who spends their time identifying every passing car and being happy if they recognize the trademarks speeding by, the girl whose satisfaction consists solely in the fact that she and her boyfriend ‘look good,’ the jazz enthusiast who legitimizes himself by having knowledge about what is in any case inescapable.” As for the masses? “Where they react at all, it no longer makes any difference whether it is to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony or a bikini.”
The general idea is that the standardization that comes with preparing a piece of music for the market makes whatever difference may exist between products superficial. Such works cease to be “autonomous” and thereby forfeit aesthetics. “An approach in terms of value judgments has become a fiction for the person who finds himself hemmed in by standardized musical goods. He can neither escape impotence nor decide between the offerings where everything is so completely identical that preference in fact depends merely on biographical details or on the situation in which things are heard.” In other words, we choose favorite bands the way we choose favorite sports teams, when really they all play the same game by the same rules and are ultimately exchangable for one another. We celebrate bands or singers for the cult of personality built up around them, or because we heard the music in conjunction with certain epochs in our own lives.
This relates to what neuroscientist Daniel Levitin found—in This Is Your Brain on Music (reviewed here) he argues that the cerebellum, the lizard part of the brain that synchronizes movement, is as involved in music listening as the frontal lobe, the cognitive part. Adorno would probably argue that now the cerebellum works at the expense of the frontal lobes, so that we have a mechanical, rhythmic response to music that is pleasurable without ever having out intellect engaged. Levitin also suggests that at times of emotional tumult—teenage years, etc.—our brains are more likely to tag certain pieces of music with emotion and have them serve as emotional cues for the rest of our lives. Then as our brain wiring hardens, this tagging ability diminishes, and it becomes harder to become emotionally attached to new music. We recur to the stuff that is “nostalgic”—the only music we’re wired to instinctively appreciate. If Adorno’s right, and we’ve let our intellectual means for appreciating music atrophy, and we’ve instead become reliant on these emotional/instinctive methods for assimilating music, at a certain point we become frozen; without the intellectual basis upon which to enjoy music we haven’t heard before, we’re incapable of taking pleasure in anything new. This lost ability is serious stuff to Adorno, because real music, like all real art, when heard with the intellect, offers listeners a means by which to criticize a given reality, to synthesize alternatives. Without it, we’re trapped in the status quo, and worse, self-deluded into enjoying it as plentitude.