Theodor W. Adorno (With George Simpson), “On Popular Music”

The composition hears for the listener. – Theodor W. Adorno, “On Popular Music”, in Richard Leppert, ed., Theodor W. Adorno: Essays On Music, p.442

For the most part, what I have learned at the feet of Adorno is that music performs a social function.  I have learned this social function is dialectical, and an open, what he calls “negative” dialectic.  I have learned that, at its best, music confronts the listener with the antinomies of this present age (to note Kierkegaard), and offers not so much an answer as clarity of expression of the question.  I have learned that late capitalist society needs to develop an aesthetics of ugliness to appreciate the truth-value of that with which we, the listeners, are presented.  I have also learned that precisely because we live in an age of monopoly capitalism, use-value has become synonymous with exchange-value; that the market, i.e. the producers, determine the value of a product and create demand for it.  When confronted by a music that presents only use-value, the market insists is has no exchange value.  The public, taught to listen under conditions of monopolistic control, are not only denied the opportunity to hear music that presents the modern age in its contradictions and horror; it is told before hand the music, being ugly and unlistenable, has no value (meaning exchange value) and therefore the public is not offered the opportunity to hear and make a decision for itself.  Instead, it is offered the illusion of choice through a system of production, standardization, and pseudo-individuality from a Culture Industry whose only concern is profit.  It strips whatever aesthetic and social value the music might have in order to maximize profits, offering what amounts to little more than re-arrangements of the same set  of musical pieces which never add up to a whole.

Much of the first part of what I’ve learned I accept.  While I accept, to an extent, the description of popular music industry at the time Adorno wrote this piece – 1941 – I neither accept the description of the listening public, nor do I accept the description of popular music itself, even in the 1930’s and 1940’s, as an undifferentiated mass, interchangeable and therefore meaningless in and for themselves.  I certainly do not believe the music had no truth value; nor would I – nor should anyone – deride the entertainment aspect of music, whether popular or not.  What else is aesthetics but an understanding of the pleasure human beings receive from objects we create for our pleasure and, yes, entertainment?

As Leppert notes in his introductory commentary to this section, one of the many failures of this particular essay is the lack of examples of popular music that embody the categories he assigns.  He does spend time describing how the parts and the whole of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony work together in a way Adorno claim no popular music (or, he admits, bad orchestral, or “serious” music) can.  Yet, he actually says there is no difference, musically, between Benny Goodman and Guy Lombardo, the former a swing band, the latter a “sweet” band.

This exemplifies “swing”, the contrast between the steady rhythms of the drums and bass, while the horns push the melody in to syncopated territory, keep the tension of the music alive through call and response, changes in dynamics, alterations of the basic theme that keep the piece moving until the very end.

This is epitome of “sweet” dance music.  It uses the same instrumentation as swing.  There is even syncopation, although in this particular song the rhythm section is limited to bass and piano.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a song like this.  It isn’t “bad”.  It is, rather, unexceptional, a kind of archetype of mediocrity that provides neither tension, nor really any other emotional cathartic moments except, perhaps, three minutes of faux-intimacy for couples to enjoy on a darkened dance floor.

Not being able to hear the differences between these two orchestras, between the material they offer the public presents the knowledgeable reader with a serious problem.  It is all well and good to be able to describe in detail the structure and construction of the sonata form; to be able to tell the difference, with very little introduction, between a Beethoven Symphony and a Brahms Symphony.  This is a matter both of taste as well as musical training.  To dismiss out of hand, however, two very different styles of music, presented to the public in two very different set of social and, I would argue, political contexts, and claim that neither has any aesthetic value but rather are merely standardized products dropped at the feet of a public unable to discern the sameness in the superficial differences; all this not only displays a tin ear for what was then popular music.  It also calls in to question a certain ability to make judgments both about music qua music, as well as to understand the social and historical context in which such popular music is presented.

He dismisses the improvisation in jazz as limited both by the superficiality of the music as well as the external constraints of standardization as pseudo-individualism, the very essence of the illusion foisted on the public by monopoly capitalism.  Yet not two years before this essay was written, saxophonist Coleman Hawkins recorded what may well be the most interesting piece of jazz improvisation ever.  Other than quoting the melody for the first four bars, Hawkins violates every tenet of jazz, from the length of the verse/chorus, to the number of choruses played, to the refusal to return not only to the initial chord, but to ignore the melody completely.  One gets the sense when listening to Hawkins roll out his ideas that the only reason the record is three minutes long is because that was a technical restriction of the time; Hawkins could have riffed on that song all night.

Finally, Adorno’s description of a listening public both supine and apathetic enough not to care they are being force-fed drivel, while secretly enraged about the entire situation – a social psychology that relies upon the word “jitterbug” for its entre without ever once considering how dehumanizing accepting this self-description may well be, or how ironic it might be used – is rooted not only in a kind of snobbish superficiality.  It also accepts certain givens of the time that one would assume Adorno, of all people, would call in to question in the first place.  The most important of these is the racism and white supremacy in a nation that couldn’t even pass a law making lynching of African-Americans a federal crime; black musicians were denied play on white radio; black and white musicians could not, except in special circumstances and through the strength of character of the (white) artists, play together in public; much of the most important, most interesting, and most provocative innovations in jazz were happening in small clubs in New York City, carried out by African-American musicians outside the spotlight or even notice of white society.

That Adorno dismisses the African-American roots of jazz; that he can’t seem to see how African-American musical styles – from instrumentation to orchestration to arrangements – have so permeated that racist society that the very existence both of jazz as an art form as well as the basis for popular music in the 1930’s and 1940’s was, in fact, an act of aesthetic subversion of the social and political dynamics of the time.

While Adorno’s description of “plugging” is still true – some celebrity-centered magazines have rules about rotating certain personalities on their cover  – it is neither ubiquitous nor as invisible to the public as he insists.  There will always be those for whom all music, any music, is little more than background noise, an accompaniment to life that neither challenges nor uplifts.  Those who do little more than follow whatever trend or fashion is popular – and his description of the way fashions move in and out of style, using the jazz term “corny” as a way to describe the public’s attitude toward what is considered outmoded and out of fashion is, I believe both insightful and interesting – usually have other interests.  The listening public, the discerning listening public, however, has always, and will always understand the ways they are manipulated, and use the very tools of the recording and distributing industry to subvert their attempts at control for the sake of profit.

In other words, Adorno settles for a superficial description of the listening public without once considering levels of irony, resistance, and discrimination within that public.  He takes the complexities of a country like the United States and reduces it to a formula, not only displaying a galling ignorance of the popular music of the time, but an insulting, dismissive attitude toward the listening public as well.  Precisely because the United States is not a homogeneous public, despite the best efforts even today to make it so, the subversion of mediocre, interchangeable music – which has always existed – through irony, resistance, and the subversive self-production and self-promotion of artists existing outside the control of the music industry is as important a part of the story of popular music as the actions of that industry itself; indeed, in the post-World War II era, that story would only accelerate, and continues today with the music industry basically unable to move vast amounts of single products precisely because it has been undermined by a system of alternative production and distribution efforts aimed at providing a rich and varied tapestry of various musical styles – popular and otherwise – to a diverse audience.  That Adorno, dedicated Marxist that he is, could neither see this happening at the time, nor understand the aesthetic, social, and political value and potential of such resistance is a blind spot, rooted I believe in his estrangement from American society and history.  “On Popular Music” is an important essay, if for no other reason than it demonstrates how the clearest thinkers can stop thinking yet continue speaking when they are at sea in a subject matter about which they know little, in a context that is foreign to them, literally and figuratively.