So I was delighted with the Rock seminar this blog grows out of on Tuesday of this week. We had a long and (to me, at least) thoroughly stimulating discussion of Theodore Adorno’s critique of the music industry, and some reactions to it. I am always happy when three hours of discussion slip by and I’ve been so immersed that I forgot to give the students a break. But I was also delighted because I feel like I haven’t really had a full grasp on Adorno’s critique and as a result haven’t had more than a knee-jerk reaction to it.
My knee-jerk reaction is that Adorno’s talking about my mama, and though I can be dismissive of schlocky pop or overbearing rock, or whatever, he had better watch his ass next time he comes around because it is mine. He is dismissive of people who listen to popular music (A says, they are fed only what the industry wants them to have–to ask them whether they like it is beyond the point because they (we) have been so totally dominated by capital that they (we) are unable to have taste in any meaningful sense); he fetishizes the musical work (so that music people dance to is always suspect; he (wierdly, in my opinion) rejects out of hand any music written in tablature (why? who knows, but it is bad, and maybe evil); and so forth.
But, as Ben said, it’s possible that even if we disagree with all his examples, his basic point might hold, or at least have some significance. And I’m glad we got down to it, because, though I still disagree with him, I think it was worth getting there. The basic critique, as I understand it, is that having turned music into a commodity, the industry creates a situation in which music’s use value (its non-commodity purpose, whatever that is) is subordinated to (or perhaps replaced by) its exchange value (its commodity status). Again, I will say, I disagree, but I think it’s worth considering. I think it’s particularly worth considering, because a rational person could argue that the industry creates a situation in which music becomes incapable of, even hostile to the radicalization of oppressed social groups in the West. (Yes, I think this is wrong–just because music can be co-opted, in my opinion, doesn’t mean that people can’t/don’t still do personally and socially useful things with it–but I think the argument can be had between rational people).
All of this was on my mind today when I gave a presentation to a group of visiting scholars from overseas. I had been asked to speak on American music, and I chose to do my little spiel about blues, for a variety of reasons. Now, I LOVE blues. Love it. And have respect for it as a form and as a cultural manifestation. So you can imagine my consternation at the end of the presentation when one of the scholars (who had not listened to the presentation, but instead chosen to read an article on a different subject–at a table with nine other people…it was conspicuous) chose to lay into the old saw that blues/rock was socially corrosive. After hearing him talk about my mama, so to speak, for a few minutes, I suggested Adorno’s critique to him. I thought, here’s an opportunity: we can talk about whether this music/the industry does, in fact, stop people from effectively organizing into radicalized polities and objeting to their own domination. I’m willing to say that people do it, and sometimes they involve commodified music in the process, but that the music itself is basically neutral with regards to this sort of business.
But in the end he just said that popular music leads to moral degradation (proffering Elvis’s unsavory death as evidence), and the like, like a writer for the Ladies’ Home Journalin the 1920s. I was truly disappointed, at least in part because this is what I fear Adorno’s actually doing, too, but just with fancier verbiage and reasoning. It makes me wonder how common this sort of idea is among academics outside my little sphere.