PR, Films and Fantasies

Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund Adorno – On popular music

Posted on: February 24, 2010

The reading for this week puzzled me a bit so I thought about sharing some of its ideas.

First of all, in order to understand it better I did a short research about its writer, Theodor W. Adorno, a German-born philosopher, member of the Frankfurt School.

In the early 1950s there was a tremendous unease among many intellectuals as to where will mass culture and mass production lead the individual and what will be their impact on his character. Adorno studied and explored the mechanisms of the creation of this democratic style of culture and presented a framework in order to explain the way it operates.

His main theory was that “the culture industry manipulated the population” by producing and circulating cultural commodities and leading to a general feeling of contentment and relaxation among their consumers, regardless of their economic circumstances. This is because, although cultural goods appear as different, they are in fact just variations of the same theme, over and over again. He wrote that “the same thing is offered to everybody by the standardised production of consumption goods” but this is concealed under “the manipulation of taste and the official culture’s pretence of individualism” – pseudo-individualization.

So, a cultural good is no longer unique, but just a copy of its successful predecessors, allowing no possible mistakes in the following of patterns that made it to the top.

This mass-produced culture was seen as a danger to the high arts as it cultivates false needs (which could simply be satisfied by pure capitalism) in contrast to the true, more complex needs (freedom, creativity and happiness). So both the consumers and the way they consume culture is defined by what it is pushed and put forward to them.

In “On Popular Music”, Adorno underlines the differences between “popular” and “serious” music, a distinction that begun in Europe, a long time before America’s pop.

Harmony has been associated with popular music in the idea of its standardization: for each musical piece, there are certain composition rules and patterns. As a result, the same familiar experience will be offered each time, in a “whole that is pre-given and pre-accepted”. This has gone to such extent, that even the so-called improvisations have become so “normalized” that they lack individuality. They are even perceived as “false” and automatically corrected by the ear because “popular music commands its own listening habits”.

Going back to Standardization, popular music needs no effort in being perceived, as even it’s most complicated parts are seen as a distortion of the simple, in contrast with serious music where the simplest event necessitates an intellectual process in order to be “understood”.

“People want to have fun so popular culture gives them what they want.”

In terms of the listener, the “popularity” of popular music can be associated with the need of distraction and inattention, listeners being distracted from the demands of reality by a kind of entertainment which does not ask for any kind of attention.

Adorno defines two types of popular music listeners: the rhythmical type – the obedient, addicted to the “beat”, mainly found among the youth, radio generation – and the emotional type – who don’t really take part in the happiness of a tune, but actually realise that they won’t achieve that kind of fulfilment so they use the music to reconciliate with their own sadness.

However, as boredom is a very common feeling in the day to day life of the masses, a “number one” song easily fades away when they get to know it to well. So, a new product is made in order to sweep the market, but keeping close to the previous one as the route to success implies imitation.

“One may go so far to suggest that most listeners of popular music do not understand music as a language in itself. If they did it would be vastly difficult to explain how they could tolerate the incessant supply of largely undifferentiated material.” A very hard statement to take in, but we have to admit it is mostly true…


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