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What if I told you that pop music is a form of mind control designed to keep people distracted and ambivalent? Indeed, not just pop music, but nearly every genre of music that people listen to today? It might sound like an Illuminati conspiracy theory, but actually it is the thesis of Theodor Adorno’s essay “On Popular Music,” which I will be discussing today. I will first talk about Adorno himself, then I will summarize the essay without editorializing before finally weighing in with my thoughts on the topic.

About the author

Theodor Adorno was a German who lived from 1903 to 1969 (this piece was published in 1941), and he was an important member of the Frankfurt School. The Frankfurt School was (and is) a school of thought originally based in Goethe University, Frankfurt, which developed the ideas of “critical theory” and “cultural marxism.” These terms are notorious amongst those studying political philosophy today due to their association with and abuse by some social thinkers. At their heart, however, the terms refer to the study of every individual facet of Western society and how they relate to the capitalist and hierarchical nature of that society. One question that the Frankfurt School sought to answer was: why did the Marxist revolution never manage to take hold on the capitalist societies of the west, but instead the poor agrarian societies of the east?

In reality, critical theory is a good thing; it asks questions about society and normality that are worth asking. The devil is in the answers to those questions.

The musical material

In the first section of his essay, Adorno addresses the difference between “popular” and “serious” music. This is a dichotomy often superficially acknowledged by music listeners and critics alike, but Adorno makes it clear that there is more to the distinction than saying that popular music is “simple” and serious music is “complicated,” or “lowbrow” versus “highbrow.”

For Adorno, the hallmark of popular music is “standardization.” It is the fact that across vastly different genres, you find the “verse-chorus-verse-chorus” pattern, and many other patterns in which “nothing fundamentally novel will be introduced.” These songs are recognizable for details like the entrance into the chorus (we call it “the hook”), rather than for the abstract whole of the song — because all of these songs are identical in abstract.

In contrast, “serious music” does not have an abstract structure, and each part of the song has a meaning that depends on its relationship to other parts of the song. He gives examples of Beethoven’s music, and how the individual parts are meaningless without the context of their surroundings. Adorno acknowledges that in serious music there are many examples of formulaic behavior, but states that there is a key difference between these occurrences and the standardization of popular music: in serious music, they are employed with a greater goal in mind¹. For instance, the “minuet-like” scherzo in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is highly formulaic, but its purpose is to create tension, and a sense of foreboding leading up to the finale. There is no such dedication to a “concrete totality” in popular music, where the details are not permitted to overstep their roles in the abstract structure of the song.

Therefore, in serious music, there is little possibility of substituting elements of a song — the meaning of the song would be lost. In popular music, as we are frequently reminded, even elements from songs in completely different genres can be easily hot-swapped into other songs.

Adorno then asks the question of “who sets the standards?” It is the “cartelized agencies” of the media. The standards are essentially that all popular music must do something to catch the listener’s attention, but nothing so unconventional that it challenges peoples’ understanding of “natural” music:

“that is, the sum total of all the conventions and material formulas in music to which he is accustomed and which he regards as the inherent, simple language of music itself, no matter how late the development might be which produced this natural language”

The last topic of this section concerns the mechanism by which such “standardized” music is able to remain popular. Adorno calls it “pseudo-individualization”: the illusion of free choice in the market which lets a listener pick which of the pre-digested music they “prefer”. It must be illusory, or people would resist it. There must also be a like-dislike dichotomy (I like Benny Goodman and dislike Guy Lombardo), despite the “fundamental identity of the material” in order to allow the listener to feel in control. The goal is to make the listener forget that everything they are hearing is pre-digested.

Presentation of the material

The next section of Adorno’s essay deals with a concept he calls “plugging”, essentially the “hit parade” referenced by Jacques Attali. For Adorno, plugging is more than just repeating a “hit” to make it successful — it is about breaking down the human resistance to monotony.

“It leads the listener to become enraptured with the inescapable. And thus it leads to the institutionalization and standardization of listening habits themselves. Listeners become so accustomed to the recurrence of the same things that they react automatically.”

There is a paradox in continually producing songs that must be fundamentally the same as their predecessors while being fundamentally different. Sameness ensures predictable consumer behavior; difference ensures that there will be something about the song people remember. The typical compromise is a song which is identical to all other songs except for one isolated trademark by which it appears original.

Adorno believes that there is a necessity for “glamor” when plugging a song. To succeed, a song needs flourishes. Adorno claims that Americans need this “glamor” to be there, because “he who is never permitted to conquer in life conquers in glamor.” He likens this need in music to the end-result of the same need elsewhere: every shop on a street has bright neon lights to attract attention. Of course, if everything is glamorous, then everything is uniform. “All glamor girls look alike and the glamor effects of popular music are equivalent to each other.”

Another emergent byproduct of plugging is “baby talk.” This is the prevalence in popular music toward butchered language, plays on nursery rhymes, repetition of some demand, and other child-like behavior. Adorno claims that “baby talk” in music plays on the listener’s sense of dependence, like glamor plays on the listener’s desire for strength. In this way, plugging agencies fulfill the role of an adult, and place the listener in the role of a child, again relieving him of his own adult responsibilities.

At the end of this section, Adorno briefly discusses two concepts that are quite interesting in their own right, but have little bearing on the rest of the essay, so I will only give a cursory description of them. First, he notes that music journalists play a role in plugging by being responsible for inventing the terminology and the context by which this new (yet the same) music is discussed, and that they do not even need to be paid by the music industry to do so. Second, he remarks that the arrangers of music (the ones who actually write the songs) seem ever more often to take a back seat in publicity and notoriety to the conductor, or the band leader, and that this is probably because the existence of an arranger betrays the illusion that music is not systematized.

Theory about the listener

The last section of the essay, as alluded to by the title, is focused on us: the listener, the target of all this plugging, the people that must be distracted and pacified. Adorno identifies a five step process in which repeated material is recognized and accepted by the listener:

  1. Vague remembrance
    • I must have heard this somewhere before…
  2. Actual identification
    • That’s it!
  3. Subsumption by label
    • That’s the hit “Night and Day”!
  4. Self-reflection and the act of recognition
    • This is something that I know. It belongs to me.
  5. Psychological transfer of recognition-authority to the object
    • Damn it, “Night and Day” is a good one!

What is happening is that the listener is able to glean satisfaction and ownership by participating in the plugging process. It is a delusion of grandeur, according to Adorno. Central agencies, of course, are the ones who determine what songs will or will not be plugged, and they take advantage of the feelings of the listener in order to plug a song. If they play it enough, listeners will believe it must be a hit.

Adorno then discusses the role of music as a distraction — an escape from the boredom of mechanized labor.

“Distraction is bound to the present mode of production, to the rationalized and mechanized process of labor to which, directly or indirectly, masses are subject. This mode of production, which engenders fears and anxiety about unemployment, loss of income, war, has its “non-productive” correlate in entertainment; that is, relaxation which does not involve the effort of concentration at all.”

He goes further to suggest that the repetitive nature of our entertainment is designed to condition us specifically for the repetitive nature of our work, and indeed, the repetitive nature of our lives. “The less the mass discriminates, the greater the possibility of selling cultural commodities indiscriminately.”

Similar to the paradox about selling music that is both the same and different, there is a paradox for listeners in terms of entertainment: listeners wish to escape boredom, yet avoid effort. These are incompatible, and the compromise reached is that entertainment must be a form of stimulant in and of itself. The “I recognize this” moment is the effortless sensation that keeps people coming back for more. But this moment is fleeting, and all it does is ensure continued boredom, and ultimately inattention and distraction. Indeed, Adorno claims that plugging both presupposes distraction and produces it.

Listening to music as a process of inattention punctuated by “sudden flashes of recognition” is not an intellectual or artistic experience. Adorno asks “What, then, does music mean to listeners?”

“Music today is largely a social cement. And the meaning listeners attribute to a material, the inherent logic of which is inaccessible to them, is above all a means by which they achieve some psychical adjustment to the mechanisms of present-day life.”

According to Adorno, there are two types of people who listen to popular music: the “rhythmically obedient” type and the “emotional” type. The “rhythmically obedient” are people who identify with repression and obedience², particularly the youth. To them, music is about following the beat without any “individualizing” aberrations. It gives them a sense of belonging with the “untold millions of the meek” who are similarly affected. The “emotional” are people with a romanticized, Hollywood-like view of music. They identify with the subject or tone of the music as if it were the poor girl in a movie who marries a rich man and lives a good life. Adorno says that people mistake it for “wish-fulfillment,” but it is really a matter of acknowledging the futility of such wishes. For them, music is about being able to cry. Ultimately, however, these two types of people (those who march, and those who weep) are not capable of resisting their social dependence.

The last topic of this section discusses the “ambivalence,” or perhaps the cognitive dissonance of popular music listeners. Adorno believes that even though it seems listeners readily accept plugged material, their acceptance is propped up by “a veil of flimsy rationalizations” that could collapse one day. For instance, entertainment or fashions that were popular 20 years ago seem old-fashioned today, and the same will be true of today’s glamorous things 20 years from now. And yet in music, if not in every art, these “corny” characteristics of “dated” music are only nominally different from the characteristics of today’s music: “a sixteenth on the down beat with a subsequent dotted eighth.” Despite the lack of a musical criterion on which it is justifiable to refer to older music as “corny,” we reject it today “with the smug feeling that the fashions now familiar to the listener are superior”. Adorno posits that perhaps older plugged hits provoke “revenge” from listeners once the impetus to enjoy them has moved on to newer hits.

Adorno attributes this ambivalence to an ever-increasing gap between the individual and social power. Even though fundamentally, the decision to like a song is an individual one, rejecting a “hit” is a matter of rebelling against the wisdom of the public.

“Resistance is regarded as the mark of bad citizenship, as inability to have fun, as highbrow insincerity, for what normal person can set himself against such normal music?”

Adorno states that popular music has been plugged for so long that it has completely broken down the individual. The power mismatch means that the individual cannot resist openly, so he resists internally, and falls in line outwardly. The fact that one is dependent and helpless is a shameful one that leads to ambivalence about oneself and society. This ambivalence leads to spite, and the spite manifests by turning one’s “hatred rather on those who point to their dependence than on those who tie their bonds.” To be genuinely enthusiastic about popular music means that the outward subservience has been fully internalized, and no resistance remains.

However, even if it seems as though an ever-increasing number of individuals have lost the will to fight, Adorno believes there is a possibility for revolution

“They cannot be altogether the spineless lot of fascinated insects they are called and like to style themselves. They need their will, if only in order to down the all too conscious premonition that something is “phony” with their pleasure. This transformation of their will indicates that will is still alive and that under certain circumstances it may be strong enough to get rid of the superimposed influences which dog its every step. … To become transformed into an insect, man needs that energy which might possibly achieve his transformation into a man.”

Discussion

There is an abundance of writings from the past that, when read without a date on them, seem as if they could have been written yesterday. This piece, written during World War II, is a great example. As I read through it the first time, I was immediately struck with the uneasy realization that he is correct. He is correct. He is correct about the nature of popular music, and I could not help but feel guilty, because even today I listen to music that follows the exact patterns of standardization that he talked about during the early 1940’s. It is actually kind of shocking (although it should not be) just how many genres wholly adhere to the same patterns. The ones that don’t follow the most basic of pop archetypes often follow more localized patterns, such that they still meet Adorno’s criteria for swapping elements of songs in and out.

What makes me uneasy is not simply the revelation that all popular music is the same — people always say that — it is that I enjoy it anyway. The idea of entirely rejecting standardized music in favor of completely experimental genres (or even classical music) is a troubling one for me, and with that recognition comes the knowledge that I am just as dependent on the system as everyone who listens to popular music. I often make the quip that “your taste is only as good as the worst band in your library,” but ironically, my own unwillingness to abandon “good” standardized music (be it emo, underground hip-hop, etc.) proves the rule. The fact that I listen to some of what Adorno calls “serious music” does not invalidate that I keep coming back to the popular arena, and I cannot help but see it as anything other than a subconscious dependence as described above. It certainly gives me something to think about when I’m looking for new music to listen to.

Beyond my own reaction to the essay, I can imagine that many people will get defensive about Adorno’s tone and implications. He is often considered to be a cultural elitist, and I daresay that is evident when he gets around to calling people “insects,” if not earlier. I think there will also be the temptation to say “but I listen to jazz,” or “but I listen to metal,” but I advise you to really consider what Adorno is trying to say, before you look for exceptions to it. This is not a paper about enumerating what type of music counts as “serious” and what counts as “popular.” Besides, it is pretty clear that by Adorno’s definition of popular, very few modern genres are immune. What matters is why you are listening to music, and what it means to you.

Adorno characterizes two types of listeners: “rhythmically obedient” and “emotional”. I admit that I have mixed feelings on whether these characterizations are accurate, or even if I summarized them accurately in this post. However, I think it is perhaps better to think of them as “people who listen to music for others,” and “people who listen to music for themselves.” Without getting too mixed up in Adorno’s allusions about “rhythm,” it seems that “rhythmically obedient” people are the type who listen to dance music and pop. These are the most popular genres, and more importantly the genres that bring the most people together. The “emotional” type likely listen to rock or folk music, because these genres generally have more lyrical depth than dance music (which has next to no vocals) or pop (which has simplistic vocals), as well as perhaps more “organic” emotion for the listener to identify with. In this context, I would fall under the “emotional” category.

In terms of the inherently Marxist implications of the essay, I have less to say. It quickly becomes a matter of philosophy. The dichotomy between the weak and the powerful is not new, it is not a product of capitalism, and I don’t think it will go away. It is always worrying, of course, and it has a propensity to cause any number of social problems ranging from poverty to genocide. However, dwelling on an abstract entity that no one individual can act upon is not the way to live a successful life. That is the purview of conspiracy theorists. You can only change what you interact with. If change is your goal, interact with people.


¹To be clear, he explains this idea in exceedingly great detail. I cut it short like this to avoid having to repeat his entire argument from the paper.

²Adorno calls it “masochistic adjustment to authoritarian collectivism,” if you prefer it phrased that way.

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8 thoughts on “On Popular Music, by Theodor Adorno

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  3. Nice article! One point: in the last paragraph, you say “The dichotomy between the weak and the powerful is not new, it is not a product of capitalism, and I don’t think it will go away.”

    Here, we disagree. It is not the “dichotomy” which is of interest to us (any of us, i would hope), but rather the disastrously wide, and widening, gap. And, it is absolutely a consequence of our (corporate, capitalistic) economic system. And history has shown that systems which continue to drive inequity to great heights eventually do go away.

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    • First, what is actually disastrous about it? The incidence of absolute poverty has declined worldwide since the industrial revolution. Trade has been one of the greatest things to happen in human history.

      In fact, those occasions of corrupt systems of which you speak are hallmarked in every case by a government that refuses to allow free enterprise to take place. The inequality (which I still see fit to call merely a dichotomy) is always there. The critical question to me is “are people across the board given the opportunity to grow richer”. No closure of the gap is required. Everyone can grow richer together, and that gets you to where Western society is today.

      Systems which abide by this principle, such as Singapore, Australia, many western European countries, the US, etc. do not go away. Systems which reject it, e.g. USSR, Maoist China, many South American countries, etc. always do, and at substantial human cost along the way.

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  6. Just investigating “cultural marxism” having seen the phrase repeatedly on social media lately and ended up here, researching Adorno and Frankfurt School. hence, have very little context but I thought this was an admirably clear exposition and discussion and I was also rather shocked to discover that, as an almost Scrutonian conservative in many ways (instinctively rather than learnedly and as a symptom of encroaching middle age…) I have to credit Adorno with signifiant insights here! Thank you.

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    • That’s funny. I’ve been contemplating writing a similar post to this one about one of Scruton’s essays. As for cultural marxism, I think that what goes by that name today misses a key characteristic that the notable members of the Frankfurt School all had: familiarity with the classical philosophy it is so quick to reject.

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