Monday, September 10, 2012


In On Popular Music, Theodore Adorno distinguishes what he calls "serious music" (classic pieces, including the likes of Beethoven) and "popular music", a standardized sphere of music that was made for recognition and a conditioned response to ensure success and profit. He analyzes the structural and psychological aspects "frozen" by industrial regulation of popular music. Adorno's concept of "pseudo-individualization", the "endowing cultural mass production with the halo of free choice or open market on the basis of standardization itself" (Adorno, 25), is similar to Daniel Boorstin's "self-fulling prophecy" as described in his book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America.

According to Boorstin, a celebrity's or an event's importance has been pre-determined by their own portrayal of importance with pseudo-awards, celebrations, and fame. Celebrities are "famous for being famous", known and recognized for essentially nothing. Adorno's tone in On Popular Music is equally disdainful toward popular music, successful hits that have been repeated for recognition and acceptance but containing musical component that is neither notable nor praise-worthy. He very clearly finds "serious music" higher in quality. The repetition and uniformity of popular music and its' standardization implies the lack of creativity and innovation and thus, a lack of value. Like Boorstin's pseudo-events (10 year anniversaries, award ceremonies, etc.) and celebrities that give the impression of importance, the number of songs and genres appear to offer many choices. Yet neither the importance (in terms of necessity or benefit to society) nor the difference between songs (which are identical in framework and musical components but can be substituted to create minor variation, according to Adorno) are really there.

I may have misunderstood what Adorno means by substitution of musical details in popular music but it made me think about covers and remixes of songs that the average person is easily able to learn to do. Amateur or unsigned aspiring musicians flood the Internet with covers and remixes of popular songs with the rise of sites like Youtube, SoundCloud, and BandCamp. These artists can just as easily place their songs up for sale on iTunes. Compared to the long and complex Chopin or Beethoven pieces that take years of musical education to learn to play, the ability to learn hit songs is much easy to come by. In this sense, the imitation and structural standardization of popular music that Adorno criticizes is very true and even more present today than when he wrote the article in the 50s. With the Internet and accessible music modification technologies, almost anyone can edit or create a popular song. But is this a good or bad thing?


  1. Hi Anne,
    Great post! I found the idea of "pseudo-individualization" to be interesting as well. When reading Adorno, I was shocked to realize that my choice in music was not really my choice after all. I think one good thing from this era of music is how technology and music interact to create something that was not possible in the past. Technology has created new genres such as dub step that redefine the perception of what music should sound like. In terms of whether “pseudo-individualization” and standardization is a good thing, I agree that music has become less complex and easier to produce. The media industry in modern times is spoon feeding us with superficial and simple media that we hardly ever question. Instead of using the technology available to create “popular music,” I think technology should play a role in enhancing music to more complex and “serious” levels. The only problem is that I’m just unsure how and what would be done to change an entire culture of music based predominately on "popular music".

    Michelle Phung Vu

  2. Anne, your comparison to Boorstin's concepts is useful. Celebrities who are famous for being famous, like the Kardashians, are quite similar to songs that are popular because they get played incessantly (and not necessarily because of any innate value). Your post also gets to the multiple ways of reading popular culture (say, Adorno v. Jenkins), as either pernicious or empowering.

    Michelle is also onto something with this idea of "how technology and music interact." Some of your questions about how we could reverse or alter the state of popular music--to be more edifying or what not--are addressed by Lazarsfeld and Merton in the piece we're also reading for this week. Basically, they say that attempts to make mass media more educational or "serious" have largely failed. But then again, they also point out that the doom and gloom over the intellect-lowering effects of such media has also been overblown.