Basic Assumptions & Background

Perhaps some justification is needed for an examination of popular music. So I will preface it in this article with a brief exposition and discussion of the most intelligent and thoroughgoing critique of popular music available—T. W. Adorno’s ‘On Popular Music’.footnote1

Adorno makes an overt comparison between popular and ‘serious’ music and postulates standardization of form, detail and character as the essential characteristic of the former. In popular music, there is never a dialectical relationship between form and detail. The form remains aloof, a mere container in which the details are mechanically concatenated; it gives no ulterior logic to the details, and, in turn, is not actualized in them. Form exerts a repressive influence on detail. The detail is never allowed to develop and so becomes ‘a caricature of its own potentialities’; it is presented only so that its relationship to the rigid schema is clear at all times, so that it leads one back inevitably to the predictable. Papular music can never surprise, and can never be revolutionary. Already, we can discern the crux of Adorno’s thesis—that popular music is mere ‘social cement’.

The standardization of popular music has a dual character. The standardization of forms (32-bar or 12-bar choruses, 4/4 time, etc) is undisguised, while the standardization of detail is hidden under a veil of ‘pseudo-individualizations’ (i.e. gimmicks). This duality relates to the consumer’s dual need, for stimulation and relief from boredom on the one hand, and for a continuation of the standards of mass production on the other—a response to the structuring of leisure time within capitalist society as recuperation, a necessary extension of work.

Listening to popular music does not involve the achievement of ‘musical sense’—the transition from the recognition of familiar elements to the understanding of something new. Instead, recognition of the socially sanctioned, involving an awareness of the forces of ‘plugging’ is followed by identification with the social force, so that the listener phantasises that he owns the music, patronizing it, endowing it with his own pleasure in ownership which is perceived as objective goodness, controlling it, teasing it into insignificance and finally doing it to death. In the furious rejection of previous fashions in popular music, Adorno sees a response to feelings of guilt at previous self-deception, for response to popular music is an intentional act, even though the listener may exclude some of the component manoeuvres from his awareness, or attempt to elude conclusive consideration of his position with cynicism, humour and disavowals. Enthusiasm for popular music is manic, and idealizing, and it is sustained only by an act of will. The word ‘jitterbug’ expresses the intention to turn oneself into an insect, suppressing one’s creative and critical potential and imagining oneself to be part of an illusory group mind. Thus, the social cementing that results from popular music is not a straightforward oppression of the consumer by the bureaucratic production agencies and the forces they represent, but the outcome of collusion between the two bodies.