Mortality And Music: Popular Music And The Awareness Of Death by Christopher Partridge

A memorial plaque at the site where T-Rex frontman Marc Bolan was killed in an automobile accident

“[A]ffective space . . . refers to music’s prosthetic ability to manipulate emotion and, thereby, to create internal worlds within which meaning is constructed. . . . In other words, music often contextualizes and gives meaning to situations because of what might be thought of as its “intertexutal” relationship to compositional compositions.” – Christopher Partridge, Mortality And Music: Popular Music And The Awareness Of Death, p.65

In 2015, singer-songwriter Steven Wilson released his fourth studio album, Hand. Cannot. EraseA song-cycle revolving around issues of death and mourning, the album was inspired in part by the story of Joyce Carol Vincent.

Joyce Carol Vincent was only 38 years old when she apparently passed away, and 41 years old when her remains were finally found laying on her living room sofa.  Her body was so badly decomposed that the reason of death could not be determined. She was identified from dental records.

And yet no one checked on her for three whole years.

As the author of the above-linked article asks: “How does a person die without anybody noticing for three years?”

Wilson had already composed albums with his band Porcupine Tree that dealt with death – Deadwing and The Incident – and another dealing with teenage angst, Fear Of A Blank Planet, that concludes with a song about suicide, “Let’s Sleep Together”. This was familiar territory for Wilson, and Hand. Cannot. Erase. is powerful and emotionally moving, the issues central to the album’s concept treated with care and a depth of feeling that isn’t always present in popular music.*

While many might consider the idea of creating music around death, especially one such as Ms. Vincent’s, not just morbid but downright depressing, the truth is popular music has always dealt with matters of death and dying, with suicide and murder, even with decay and decompositiion. While the peculiar circumstances of our emerging post-modern sensibilities offer opportunities to understand such music in new and interesting ways, we should always be careful when we judge the often youthful creators of such music, whether it’s Jimi Hendrix performing the murder ballad, “Hey Joe” or Carcass’s “Exhume To Consume“. We aren’t living in some particularly odd time where (some) musicians find ruminations on death fascinating. ‘Twas ever thus.

If Christopher Partridge’s previous major work, The Lyre of Orpheus: Popular Music, The Sacred, and The Profane, set forth a large theoretical framework within which popular music can be understood, as he says many times, as creating affective spaces within which meaning can be created. then Mortality And Music: Popular Music And The Awareness Of Death is the application of this theory to a particular set of musical and lyrical conventions in contemporary popular music concerning themselves with matters of the uncanny, the Gothic (generalized rather than specifically the Goth scene, although including those), suicide, decay and decomposition. I was glad I reread his previous work before reading this newly released volume, offering me the opportunity to revisit the major themes of liminal communities and communitas, the impure sacred, and other concepts that are at the heart of any study of the treatment of death in popular music.

Partridge uses a combination of a sociology of knowledge and cultural criticism to offer the reader opportunities to understand not just the music that inhabits this set of borderline themes but those who find within such music meaning, the book highlights the many layers of meaning within such disparate genres as early post-punk (Joy Division, PIL), folk (Nick Cave), Industrial, Death and Black Metal (Carcass, Cannibal Corpse), and hip-hop (Tupac Shakur, 50 Cent). Never shying away from the equivocal nature of even the best such musics, he nevertheless treats his subject and those involved with respect and understanding. In many ways, his treatment of the subject matter specifically regarding Death Metal is an improvement upon Michelle Phillipov’s Death Metal And Music Criticism: Analysis At The Limits, which is far more an apologia for some of the lyrical excesses of bands like Cannibal Corpse and Carcass. Limiting understanding to such extremes to an aesthetic of playfulness not only offers more meaning to such excesses than they probably deserve, using Partridge’s theoretical framework situates such extremes within the reality of the intertextuality within which all culture should be understood (although I do wish Partridge had included the fact that some of Carcass’s early lyrical excessiveness was rooted in the band’s militant vegetarianism; their wading knee deep in gore did have a socio-political raison d’ete, although it was certainly aided and abetted by youthful willingness to revel in bad taste).

While the book is insightful and will leave the reader both a greater understanding of the “how” and “why” of such musics and the communities who find meaning and communitas within these extremes, there are two issues that I wish to address. First is an editorial matter. Partridge is a lover both of beginning sentences either with adverbs or long adverbial phrases as well as the passive voice. The repeated appearance of “as has been shown”, sentences beginning with “Hence” or “Indeed” (and yes, I’m guilty of this myself; I, however, only have myself as an editor) started to yank me out of the flow of reading. I suppose this is a minor quibble, in the end, as much a matter of a particular reader’s preferences as anything else.

Second, and far more distracting, was his treatment of hip-hop. Treating it solely within a subsection of the chapter, “Morbidity, Violence, and Suicide”, I found “Living on Death Row” to be surprisingly conventional in both its view of such topics within hip-hop and his agreement with many critics who see the political potential of the genre wasting away with the influx of money and increased commercialization. All musics, as Theodor Adorno reminds us, exist under the shadow of capitalist exploitation; even the most boundary-pushing musical style is available to the general public precisely because it makes money. To criticize hip-hop for being commercially successful makes little sense. While Partridge does speak somewhat of the murders of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., he doesn’t spend overtime considering the mythologization of both within hip-hop (his last chapter deals with the deification of dead musical performers and only mentions Shakur’s name; in fact, Shakur is the subject of much mythologization, including, like Jim Morrison, the myth that Shakur faked his own death. Finally, his treatment of hip-hop is far too generalized, making generalizations and sweeping statements about the genre that seem not to recognize the varieties of subgenres and subcultures within hip-hop.

And while I’m writing this, it occurs to me that the fascist and anti-Semitic politics of some of Black Metal, both musicians and fans, should be discussed in any consideration of matters of death and popular music. While Partridge does talk about one of the murders, that of Euronymous by his friend and bandmate Varg Vikernes, and the epidemic of church-burnings in Norway when Black Metal first emerged in that country, he doesn’t speak at all of the murders committed by members of other bands (Emperor’s drummer murdered a man who was trying to solicit sex; one serial killer in Germany and the United States found his identity within both Black Metal and German neo-Nazism) as well as the anti-Semitism of Vikernes (who has spoken and written at length of Norway’s WWII-era occupation leader Vidkun Quisling), Gaahl of Gorgoroth, and others. If the misogyny expressed in hip-hop and some death metal is to be taken seriously as being socially and culturally problematic, then the overt associations with violent, reactionary political movements and the many corpses that lay at the feet of Black Metal should be treated with far more seriousness than I found them to be in this volume.

Having said all that, I still found this book an excellent treatment of a subject too often parodied or ignored or treated with a kind of superficial contempt it doesn’t warrant. Like it’s predecessor (which I would strongly advise reading before reading this volume), Mortality and Music is an important contribution to the exploding discussion of popular music and contemporary society and culture. It has much to say that needs to be said, and it says it well. Whether you’re interested in the religious, cultural, social, or even political meaning of the vast catalog of contemporary popular music’s songs of death, this book will speak to readers in a fresh and interesting light, and within a theoretical framework that demands the subject matter be treated with all the seriousness it deserves.

*I think that’s in part because at the time he wrote and recorded the album, Wilson was 48 years old. Age does offer the opportunity for thoughtfulness.


Theodor W. Adorno, “On The Fetish-Character In Music And Regression In Listening”

[Georges] Duhamel calls the movie “a pastime for helots, a diversion for uneducated, wretched, worn-out creatures who are consumed by their worries. . ., a spectacle which requires no concentration and presupposes not intelligence . . ., which kindles no light in the heart and awakens no hope other than the ridiculous one of someday becoming a “star” in Los Angeles.”  Clearly, this is at bottom the same ancient lament that the masses seek distraction whereas art demands concentration from the spectator.  That is a commonplace. . . . Distraction and concentration form polar opposites which may be stated as follows: A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it.  He enters into this work of art the way legend tells of the Chinese painter when he viewed his finished painting.  In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art.  This is most obvious with regard to buildings.  Architecture has always represented the prototype of a work of art the reception of which is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction. – Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, in Hannah Arendt, ed., Walter Benjamin: Illuminations, p. 239

Masochism in hearing is not only defined by self-surrender and pseudo-pleasure through identification with power.  Underlying it is the knowledge that the security of shelter under the ruling conditions is a provisional one, that it is only a respite, and that eventually everything must collapse.  Even in self-surrender one is not good in his own eyes; in his enjoyment one feels that he is simultaneously betraying the possible and being betrayed by the existent. – Theodor W. Adorno, “On the Fetish-Character in Music and Regression in Listening,” in Richard Leppert, ed., p. 311

And to think I was going to skip over the editor’s introductory commentary to this section!  I was so intent on getting to the meat of the next set of Adorno’s essays, I argued with myself for most of a day before I decided it best to read what Leppert had to say about what followed.  “On the Fetish-Character in Music” is, at least for those who know a little bit about philosophy, an oft-heard-of essay.  This along with the earlier essay on the radio symphony were two in particular I wanted to dive in to.  Reading Leppert’s introductory commentary, however, provided abundant context for the genesis of both essays.  These contexts only increased, for this reader, the importance of what Adorno was saying.

“The Fetish-Character” was a direct response, after some correspondence back and forth, to Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.  Interestingly, Adorno’s response was published before that to which it was responding; Benjamin’s essay was only published posthumously.  Adorno, however, read an early manuscript and he and Benjamin, friends for many years, had a lively correspondence that resulted in this essay.  Learning that, I thought it a good idea to read both in order to understand precisely what each is saying, and specifically that to which Adorno is responding.

Benjamin saw in film the culmination of nearly a century of invention that began with photography, then moving pictures, then the ability to record sounds, then finally adding sound to film.  While recognizing the regressive possibilities of film, Benjamin saw in precisely what he calls “a change in apperception” brought about by film progressive possibilities.  Much of the essay is taken up with building up the history of film, contrasting it with other arts, then defending his central point that, in film, modernity has quite possibly met an art form the internal contradictions of which offer the possibility for real progress.

Anticipating some of Adorno’s concerns – perhaps an addendum that resulted from their correspondence – Benjamin adds a post-script in which he adds a long quote from the Italian Futurist/Fascist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti on the the aesthetics of what Marinetti calls “the music of war”.  Benjamin also attacks the Dadaists, the most extreme artistic movement of the 1920’s, for what were, in fact, little more than anti-aesthetic, juvenile pranks that fit far more with the rise of Fascism than any emancipatory possibilities inherent in their art.

Adorno, on the other hand, is unsparing in his criticism both of the results of the commodification and reification of music as well as its effects upon those he repeatedly calls “the masses”.

An approach in terms of value judgments has become a fiction for the person who finds himself hemmed in by standardized musical foods.  He can neither escape impotence nor escape 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.  The categories of autonomously oriented art have no applicability to the contemporary reception of music; not even for that of serious music, domesticated under the barbarous name of classical so as to enable one to turn away from it again in comfort.  If it is object that specifically light music and everything intended for consumption have in any case never been experienced in terms of those categories, that must certainly be conceded.  Nevertheless, such music is also affected by the change in the the entertainment, the pleasure, the enjoyment it promises, is given only to be simultaneously denied. (pp. 288-289)

Impulse, subjectivity, and profanation, the old adversaries of materialistic alienation, now succumb to it.  In capitalist times, the traditional anti-mythological ferments of music conspire against freedom, as whose allies they were once proscribed.  The representatives of the opposition to the authoritarian schema become witnesses to the authority of commercial  success.  The delight in the moment and the gay facade becomes an excuse for absolving the listener from the thought of the whole, whose claim is comprised in proper listening.  The listener is converted, along his line of least resistance, into the acquiescent purchaser,  No longer do the partial moments serve as a critique of that whole; instead, they suspend the critique which the successful aesthetic totality exerts against the flawed one of society.  The unitary synthesis is sacrificed to them; they no longer produce their own in a place of the reified one, but show themselves complaisant to it.(p. 291)

The concept of musical fetishism cannot be psychologically derived.  That “values” are consumed and draw feelings to themselves, without their specific qualities being reached by the consciousness of the consumer, is a later expression of their commodity character.  For all contemporary musical life is dominated by the commodity form: the last pre-capitalist residues have been eliminated.  Music, with all the attributes of the ethereal and sublime which are generously accorded it, serves in America today as an advertisement for commodities which one must acquire in order to be able to hear music.(p. 295)

Nobody believes so completely in prescribed pleasure.  But the listening nevertheless remeans regressive in assenting to this situation despite all distrust and all ambivalence.  As a result of the displacement of feelings into exchange-value, no demands are really advanced in music anymore.  Substitutes satisfy their purpose as well, because the demand to which they adjust themselves has itself already been substituted.  But ears which are still only able to hear what one demands of them in what is offered, and which register the abstract charm instead of synthesizing the moments of charm, are bad ears.  Even in the “isolated” phenomenon, key aspects will escape them; that is, those which transcend its own isolation.  There is actually a neurotic mechanism of stupidity in listening, too: the arrogantly ignorant rejection of everything unfamiliar is its sure sign.  Regressive listeners behave like children.  Again and again and with stubborn malice, they demand the one dish they have once been served.(p.307)

For Adorno, the notion that any art, under the conditions of late capitalism in an era of totalitarianisms, might yet be free enough to provide real progressive potential for the masses ignores the reality that, whether capitalist, Fascist, or State Socialist, the aestheticization of politics, as well as the politicization of aesthetics, work together to strip both works of art and the people of any possibility of a living relationship with that art.  For Adorno, this is no more easy to see than in the fetishizing of music and the resulting regression of listening.

In its most simple terms, regressive listening can be summed up by that old American Bandstand chestnut, “It had a good beat and you could dance to it.”  Indeed, Adorno notes that people who like popular dance music complain that it isn’t any good for just listening.  For Adorno, music is made for listening, which for him is an active process, a dialectical process in which we encounter what music has to offer, and music offers us a truth-value that is available only through active listening.  What Adorno calls, variously, light music, popular music, and occasionally even jazz, is little more than an unending commercial not only for consumer goods, but for itself as a consumer product available as a thing to be owned, rather than something before which we should sit, listen, and consider what it has to say to us.

I would have to say there is much truth to what Adorno has to say, while his disdain for popular music – sometimes warranted for the worst mass-produced non-music that continues to flood the airwaves and the internet – misses something important about American music, jazz in particular.  These are topics, by and large, to be dealt with at a later date; all the same, it is important to remember that Adorno succumbs to what he calls “the barbarism” of classification, naming different styles of music in order to place them in definable, purchasable categories.  By refusing to take music qua music on its own terms, reserving for certain orchestral works, both from the past and the present music proper, Adorno ignores the very thing he stresses throughout this piece – the historical situatedness of music.  For Adorno, however, that only means its existing within the larger matrices of high capitalist economy, which has no less a totalitarian tendency than do Fascism and the State Socialism of Stalinism.  For Adorno, music has become understood solely for its use-value, reducible to its exchange-value, and losing all value once it has served its social function.  Thus it is that so many listeners refuse to hear anything new, rejecting it no less violently than they do the possibility that music offers the attentive listener something more than a passive experience.

Again, this is one of the most relentless, passionate critiques of the aesthetics of high capitalism I have ever read.  There is much in it that is true, although there is also much that is questionable.  The very real, very human resistance both to reduction to “neurotic” regressive listening and absorption into mass listening serving the ends of the needs of bourgeois production should never be gainsaid, set to one side either for the sake of consistency or to exaggerate a claim to make it more clear (something Leppert noted in his Introduction was common in Adorno).  We should always remember the human element in all this is evident, if for no other reason than Adorno himself, as well as Benjamin, were able to write these essays, unreflexively, in the full awareness of the limitations within which both lived and worked.  And it is precisely there – an awareness of the limitations upon a fully human life, including a full appreciation of the liberating possibilities inherent in art, including music – that our hope lies.  Even when those hopes are discounted in an essay the very existence of which belies the extreme case set forth.  This doesn’t make Adorno wrong throughout; it is only a cautionary note in going all the way with him, no matter the power of his prose.