Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Thoughts on Adorno's "On Popular Music"

          Adorno’s writing on “On Popular Music” first differentiates popular and serious music. He says that ‘standardization’ is what sets popular music apart from serious music. In standardization, he explains that “regardless of what aberrations occur, the hit will lead to a familiar experience, and nothing fundamentally novel will be introduced” (18). So, whether you are listening to a country song by Tim McGraw or a rock and roll song by the Rolling Stones, the overall experience is the same in that both songs are constructs based off a normalized song structure. Adorno also argues that these songs are pre-digested for the consumer to guarantee their success. Essentially, serious music like that of Beethoven has what he calls “detail” that serves to create a whole meaning. If that particular detail is taken out of the serious song, the entire meaning is changed. Whereas with popular music, we have “detail that has no bearing on a whole” or a fortuitous relationship to the whole. So, if you take out a verse or a particular instrument in Carly Rae Jepson’s Call Me Maybe, you are still left with the original theme (of Carly stalking a boy she just met). 
I agree that popular music is unoriginal, sticks to the thirty two bar chorus, and standardization practices that he details in the reading in the midst of a competitive, profit-seeking music market. I couldn’t help but think of the Taylor Swift songs on my iPod that are actually interchangeable with each other. If you take one verse of Swift’s newest release “We are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and put it into one of her other songs “Picture to Burn,” the meanings would virtually be the same. The songs are imitations of each other, to guarantee success on the billboard charts. As Adorno explained, pop music imitates itself and introduces nothing novel for fear that the novel will do poorly in sales. The songs deviate slightly from each other, but in essence the theme is never broken: Swift has a sucky love life and wants some form of revenge on an ex. Could you tell if these songs were different from each other?
I didn’t get my perfect fantasy, 
1: I realized you love yourself
More that you could ever love me”

I'm really gonna miss you picking fights
2: And me, falling for a screaming that I'm right
And you, will hide away and find your piece of mind”

However conformed popular music may be, I think Adorno’s argument that it numbs society from being able to “think” is a bit dramatic. Adorno argues that popular music has a tranquilizing effect on society’s ability to think critically about their current situation. I believe that whether someone listens to popular music or Beethoven, they still have the ability to think critically. Just because one wastes 3 minutes of their life listening to this:, and all other horrible songs that follow the same melody and standardized form, that hardly means that they are unable to then “think.” That also does not mean that they cannot turn on what Adorno deems as serious music right after listening to "Call Me Maybe." If a pop song adheres to these normalized rules, it does not mean that an individual can’t also respond to a song individually. I feel as though this reading assumes the listener to be too passive. The listener may be entertained by the tune for that three minutes, but that hardly means that they are suddenly paralyzed to think


  1. Good examples, Stina, and toward the end of your post you start to suggest some potential ways to argue against Adorno's critique. How can we bolster your ideas with evidence? In other words, how could we get at "individual response" to a song?

  2. In agreement with Stina, I also think that Adorno's argument about popular music limiting the thoughts of human beings, making us more machine-like to follow the form of working life even during leisure times, is a little harsh. Adorno says that "The listener suspends all intellectual activity when dealing with music...", (211) but I don't believe we suspend ALL intellectual activity when we listen to music. People remember memories that songs remind them of, think of visual images of lyrics that songs allude to, imagine, and dream about what each song means to them. In the past, such as during Adorno's times, we did not have technology of internet or computers, yet now we do, and we constantly create and re-create the songs that we listen to in our own form. We have covers, music videos, parodies, and other altered content that were inspired from contents it originated from. Then, we don't just think of the original song or the music video, but we alter them by what and how we think of them, and create new meanings for us. Yes, I believe music is standardized, especially with the pop songs, but I thought it was too extreme to think that because we listen to pop songs, we are supporting mechanization and the entire capitalistic system of commodity, and sucking them in as if we are vacuum machines. Reading Adorno, I felt that he is an elitist of cultural things such as music, and although we learned that he was an expert in music, we live in a postmodern world where the distinction between these notions of what are considered "good" or "truth" or "bad" are blurred. Yes, I think that it is limiting our imagination and freedom that such big corporate monopolies own majority of music and exclude those that are not standardized. However, we also have numerous genres of music that popped up, with its own subgroups and subcultures. People encounter them and can decide to like them or dislike them, whereas in the past the genres were much more limited and choice of listening consisted of TV, Radios, and other entertainment venues outside of home such as Cinemas. Consequently, I agree with Adorno's view on standardization and capitalistic characteristics of popular music, yet thinking of people as mindless and thoughtless because we follow the majority with an attitude of "everyone else are doing it" is bit of an overstatement in that there has been great psychological advancement and shift in our society of how we interact with everything in our lives. I thought that Adorno was generalizing individuals' psychology as the mass, and divided them into very few categories according to music, when there is actually so much more to it then being the consumer, "emotional type" or "obedient type" (40-41).

    1. Yelynn: some insightful ideas about the weaknesses in Adorno's arguments! Much depends on how we define "intellectual activity," of course. You're including emotion as a valid component of mental work, while Adorno seems to sidestep that or at least separate out superficial emotion (say, crying during a made-for-TV movie or hearting a sentimental ballad) from being truly moved by a work of art (in any medium).