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
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