Up@dawn 2.0

Monday, April 27, 2015

Austin Jones Final Blog Post #2 Section H01

This particular post deals with Theodor Adorno’s analysis of popular and classical music. Adorno has offered one of the most critical reviews of popular music of all philosophers, saying that it is bland and boring. This is due to the nature of our capitalist economy, which must consistently offer new and relevant products to us, the consumers. This results in a process of standardization, which more often than not stifles creativity. This is not always true, of course, but you cannot deny that there are many prevailing aspects present in many pop hits, such as a thirty-two bar chorus, and the use of specific chord progressions (like the ii-V-I in jazz).

(This video shows comedy rock group Axis of Awesome showcasing how many pop songs utilize the same simple chord progression)

            This standardization stems from the aim of mass media companies to appeal to the largest number of people while still attempting to remain widely accessible.  As a result, many popular songs sound similar. This process reflects the oppressive nature of capitalism. Since music doesn’t really satisfy any basic needs, the consumer is drawn into an infinite cycle: consumption, boredom, alienation, and a return to consumption of new material. Even the social and political stance of such genres as punk and hip-hop, which often oppose the viewpoints of capitalism and promote anarchy, is meaningless to Adorno. He claims that this radical stance is yet another “hook” used by record labels to market their product to a different demographic.
            Adorno claims that popular music really wouldn’t be all that bad if there were no alternative. Which is unfortunate, because there is. However, Adorno isn’t very satisfied with all of classical music either. Even back then, he says, there were still societal expectations of what music should be. Some expectations have carried over to the 21st century (having a tonal center, traditional harmonies, etc.). These expectations influenced the output of composers such as Bach, Mozart, and Stravinsky. Adorno criticizes fans of classical music, saying that they only like it because it offers a familiar alternative to the trash that is popular music. True art, according to Adorno, is only that which is truly socially progressive. For instance, he applauds the compositions of the twelve-tone composer Arnold Schoenberg. As a bit of background info, twelve-tone music is music without traditional tonality. It has no tonal center, meaning there is no traditional harmony structure. As a result, it sounds very outlandish and dissonant.

(One of Arnold Schoenberg's string quartets)

This dissonance is exactly why Adorno appreciates it though; it has pushed music into an entirely unexplored realm. He embraces the challenge that twelve-tone music presents to the listener. He also argues that the “truth” present in twelve-tone music comes from the fact that this style of music is free from socio-economic forces. So basically, Adorno’s belief is that good music must sacrifice what is viewed as conventionally beautiful in order to better display the complex and contradictory demands we place on art. Since popular music is so relatable, it lacks any meaningful social role.
            Now I’m sure a lot of you are thinking “Hold on, there’s plenty of popular music that isn’t considered conventionally beautiful.” And you’d be correct. Metal, hip-hop/rap, punk, and electronica are all more modern genres that push the envelope of what music can be. Yet Adorno would reply by stating that any popular music cannot possibly contain truth, and that truth could not be conveyed in music that was commercially successful.

            Of course, I disagree with pretty much everything Adorno has to say about popular music. I believe that he is approaching popular music in the wrong way, with the wrong attitude. While his view on how music should be socially progressive is interesting, it is possible to do so in the framework of the modern music industry. Especially with the availability and affordability of semi-professional and professional audio equipment, it is easier than ever for an artist/band to be self-produced and marketed, thus freeing them from corporate influence. Stay tuned for my final blog post to hear my own personal philosophy on music!

1 comment:

  1. Adorno died in 1969, so he could have been listening to the Beatles. But I'll be his main reference points for popular music were more centered on the Jazz & Big Band eras. Either way, I agree with you: he didn't really know what he was talking about. That's not to deny that there's plenty of pop schlock, or that mass taste is unsophisticated, or that the music industry can be pernicious and leveling. But "classic" is a judgment, not a genre.