Tuesday, September 11, 2012

On Adorno's "A Social Critique of Radio Music"

The question Adorno puts forth is a valuable one, "how can good music be conveyed to the largest possible audience?" However, what he is failing to recognize is the subjectivity of art. Another important piece of the puzzle Adorno lost is the fact that popular music is cultural for the very reason that it represents our given cultural during a specific point in our history. Beethoven's concertos are works of art indeed, but do they represent the culture in the time Adorno writes? Or now? My answer is no.

"Today music is considered ethereal and sublime, although it actually functions as  a commodity. Today the terms ethereal and sublime have become trademarks. Music has [...] become a fetish."

I do agree with Adorno in his assertion that popular music functions as a commodity. Looking at the top pop artists/songs of 2012 I am having difficulty picking a song I would want to listen to, let alone dissect. The most popular songs mostly represent an industry dominated by songs that sound alike in their lack of originality and digitized sound. I noticed several past American idol contestants dominating the charts, which points to our cultural obsession with reality television. To dispel my own statement of art being highly subjective, pop music today is certainly reflective of the downward spiral of the music industry as we know it. Kelly Clarkson will not be remembered as an important musical artist, but rather as an icon of reality television dominance over all media, the music industry included.

The artist Maluca, whom I presented in class, along with my friend Bijoux Altamirano, the director of her music video "Lola" have both been called "too risky" by music industry executives. This points to how hard it is to break into an industry that has a specific formula for success. But whether Adorno would classify them as artists or their work as valuable is questionable. His focus on Beethoven as "good music" along with other classical musicians of centuries past is a rather narrow and dated view of   music, even for the time he was writing. A more expansive view of culturally valuable music, including artists of his time, would strengthen his argument considerably.

Here is Bijoux's video of Maluca's "Lola" since I did not get to show it in its entirety in class:
What do you think- would Adorno approve of these women challenging how women are depicted in music videos along with channeling media forms-old and new? I am a bit dubious based on his narrow view of "good music."


  1. Nora, I know what you mean when you say that you are having a hard time choosing which song to dissect. As I scroll through the Top Charts, I have a genuine curiosity of why these songs are so popular. Given, the melody and lyrics may be catchy, but I think about how interchangeable they can be. They are all imitations of each other, with a tweak, but just enough to get away with it. In addition, I look at the artists that sings these hits and am reminded of the term "pseudo-event." How much individual publicity must these "artists" gone through to have their song on this chart? And how in the world do people buy into this?

    1. This theme of "just enough difference" or the same difference always haunts my watching of any commercials--take the $5 foot-long sandwich commercials for Subway (you can choose roast beef or turkey, all sorts of condiments, etc., but in the end it's still a cheap, mass-produced sandwich. Or consider this ridiculous Twix commercial!

  2. Smart tack, Nora, which is to consider how Adorno could have made his argument stronger (as a way in to recognizing where his argument(s) are weak or not well supported). I'm also glad you brought up the term "fetish," which I think aptly encapsulates Adorno's concerns about music (one definition is "any object, activity, etc, to which one is excessively or irrationally devoted," though fetishes were also small objects worshipped by more "primitive" peoples and in psychoanalytical terms, a fetish has a special meaning).

  3. Thank you, Alenda for pointing out the word "fetish" in the quote I picked. Though I did not go into it above, I did think it was a curious word and perhaps I can touch on it in my essay. I did think Adorno's argument was strong, but certainly today there exists ways to strengthen it.

    Jean- I am not sure if I should pick a song I loathe (maybe a bad idea) or look for a diamond in the rough on the bottom half of the charts. I am curious to know what people pick! Taylor Swift will be a top choice, I'll bet.