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.

The distinction between serious and popular music involves the juxtaposition of two unrelated variables, and cannot be maintained; as Brewster has pointed out, Adorno’s distinction breaks down into one between good and bad music, between creative appreciation of art and a more magical, self-absorbed transaction with it, between the development of a historical perspective and excessive fashion-consciousness. As such, his thesis is very cogent; in its particular form, however, it is paranoid, sadistic and over-polarized, allotting all the good to ‘serious’ music and denigrating all else, despite peripheral qualifications. Brewster has pointed to a ‘flight from Fascism’ and consequent fear of ‘the masses’ as the historically conditioned motive underlying this position. One should note that, in order to achieve this distortion, Adorno concentrated on one facet of popular music, on swing (Benny Goodman, Guy Lombardo, Glenn Miller, etc) the most decadent phase of big-band jazz, which could most easily, be written off as standardized and mechanical. Had he turned his attention towards the musical theatre (Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, etc), he would not have been able to dismiss the whole of popular music with such facility. The extent to which music from this area was subsequently explored by jazz musicians is only one proof that its original composition involved much more than a mere aggregation of inert parts within an inert framework.

Adorno does not make use of the total realization implicit in his mention of bad serious music ‘which may be as rigid and mechanical as popular music’, and ‘normalized’ jazz improvisation, which is that all art and its appreciation can be reified and polluted in this present society. In classical music, one may find less than the ideal creative work and appreciation that Adorno specified—sterile academism, capitulation before authority, alienation of individual potential and determined opposition to new and revolutionary developments.footnote2 A similar state of affairs may exist in relation to jazz. Parenthetically, one should note that Adorno’s formalist position prevents him from appreciating any jazz; it leaves him unable to distinguish between jazz rhythm, which has always been more than mere syncopation,footnote3 and march rhythm—between living jazz, such as King Oliver, and its petrified imitations, like The odjb or The Triangle Harmony Boys. Here one often finds reproduction rather than improvisation, mythologized and plugged by miniature bureaucracies, while catatonic bebop intellectualism and futile, self-defeating attempts to recreate an idealized spontaneity are just as fictitious as the mania Adorno pointed to in the cult of popular music. As these antitheses exist in relation to other fields of musical endeavour, so they may exist in relation to popular music. A more realistic approach to this field entails greater optimism and the expectation that one may find in popular music more than simple concatenation at the level of composing, and, at the level of consumption, more than a factitious gratification—the awareness of separate achievement and the illumination of the listener’s own experience.