Can popular music be subversive? According to the critical theorist Theodore Adorno the answer is firmly, ‘no’. The reasons for this are related to the structure of contemporary society itself; “We live in a society of commodities—that is, a society in which production of goods is taking place, not primarily to satisfy human wants and needs, but for profit. Human needs are satisfied only incidentally, as it were. This basic condition of production affects the form of the product as well as the human interrelationships.” – A Social Critique of Radio Music – Adorno
In modern society popular music is a commodity, its production and distribution undertaken by a vast culture industry. This industry produces a vast array of homogenised films, music, television, magazines etc, that serve to pacify the consumer and to prime them into buying more goods. For Adorno, the psychological mechanisms that are created through the functioning of the culture industry are identical with those that enable the functioning of totalitarian regimes. Both popular culture and fascism demand the same thing, the enthusiastic and uncritical acceptance of their authority by the masses. One is an authority that tells us to hate and to kill, and the other is an authority that tells us to buy things that we don’t really need, but the methods employed by both are strikingly similar.
Popular music is designed to be consumed as a product. Like a microwave dinner it is intended to be consumed with as little intellectual effort on the part of the consumer as possible. In Adorno’s eyes, the simplified structures of popular music mean that it can be described as little more than a musical children’s language. Like music made for the entertainment of children, today’s popular music is meant to not challenge the listeners ears, to be easily digestible, and to be enjoyed without any deep or critical thinking.Typical features include a time limit of 3 to 4 minutes and a rigid standardised and predictable format. Most pop songs follow the same sequence of verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus and all use similar scales and chord progressions and catchy hooks and melodies repeated over and over again. Despite different surface appearances, divergent schools of popular music are all essentially the same, using the same underlying structures and formulas. Adorno claimed that this kind of music, which has little dissimilarity with the structure children’s songs, turns us into adult infants.
The tastes that the culture industry promotes are simple, underdeveloped and predictable. When we give in to these underdeveloped preferences it makes us gullible and easily manipulated. These underdeveloped child-like preferences are exploited by the culture industry in order to sell us things. And, just as the culture industry encourages us to remain underdeveloped in our musical preferences, political leaders encourage us to remain underdeveloped in our political thinking. Politicians are in the business of selling us simple solutions to complex problems.
Those at the top of social hierarchies need to discourage critical thinking and the development of consciousness, in order to protect their position in the hierarchy. Therefore, the culture industry, as it is owned by and ran in the interest of those at the top of the hierarchy, has a vested interest in keeping the consumer from criticising social and political realities. The simplistic, Pavlovian music produced by the culture industry has a tranquillising and stupefying effect that helps to keep a critical attitude at bay. Pop music is aimed at the immediate gratification of simple preferences and seeks to turn everything it touches into consumable products, and this is the only function it can fulfil. For Adorno, it is impossible for a pop song to be truly subversive because the production of pop music is part the mechanism that needs to be criticised. Popular protest songs are entertainment masquerading as protest, and passively consuming entertainment cannot bring about the active and critical stance that is required for real criticism and change.
So what kind of music can be subversive? For Adorno music is at its most political when it has no political use – that is when it has no obvious lyrical message or is not deliberately trying to convince us of anything. Adorno held up Arnold Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces as an example of such a piece of music. This music is chaotic and unpredictable, and has very little that immediately grabs us. Its unpredictability makes it impossible to listen to it passively, there is very little that has a simple or straightforward appeal to it.
Why Adorno thought this kind of music has subversive potential can be explained by understanding how he thought the way we listen and respond to music is shaped by the society we live in. The structures of popular music sound natural to us, but in reality they are specific to a particular point in the development history, politics and technology. Pop music can be passively listened to because it predictably follows a set of well-established conventions that we have been accustomed to over time. If music is to be subsersive it has to shatter these rules of convention, and there’s not a passively enjoyable way to do this. Schoenberg’s music demands that we listen to it with an active and questioning attitude, and this is exactly the same kind of attitude that we need if we want to engage critically with society. For Adorno, Schoenberg’s music is real political music because it forces us out of passive ways of listening and thinking.
So how convincing do we find Adorno’s arguments? Is Adorno merely putting forward his own aesthetic preferences at the expense of others? And how far removed, if at all, is the independent music scene from the culture industry?
Adorno’s arguments about the culture industry have a certain compelling force to them. On a wider level, the Mcdonald’s-ification of society should be familiar to all, where commercial needs take priority over creativity and quality, and where advertising dominates everything. (Have you ever been sitting the cinema and wondered how the film is actually differentiated from the adverts that precede it; doesn’t the whole thing just seem like an endless advertisement for consumer society in general?) We can easily think of examples of commodification of descent in music; anarcho-punk, hippy and psytrance etc become just another category of consumer goods. But for Adorno it’s not that these types of movement are co-opted, they’re part of the pacifying mechanism of ‘culture’ from the very beginning.
We don’t have to accept Adorno’s claims about the validity of one form of culture over another uncritically. Tate Modern and Guggenheim demonstrate that ‘high’ culture can be as open to commercialisation as popular culture. But Adorno’s ideas do provide us with plenty of material to get our brains working. Modern society persists for a large part because it’s functioning remains unquestioned by the majority of the population, and this passivity is reinforced by the spectacles and circuses of the entertainment industry. In a world completely colonised by commerce, culture is never far away from being commodified.
Further reading: On Pop Music – Theodore Adorno