Well folks, today’s angry missive is brought to you courtesy of another encounter with Adorno the artistocrat. Nope, that’s not a misspelling, and the patent is pending, athankyou. I read On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening, and while the following response is hurried and not terribly-well done, it has performed its psychic bowel cleansing quite well for me. I always try to edit edit edit. But I wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight if I didn’t take at least one cheap bitch slap at a Frankfurt school social critic before beddy-bye time. Look up the essay if you like. It is one of the most influential (and loathed) of its kind.
Adorno is quite happy to explain the unused psychic energy that the hapless masses needlessly expend in terms of categories: popular music is crap, jazz is some inside joke that only a few fools subscribe to, and dancing should be outlawed by the Bible. Think John Lithgow from Footloose meets Piper Laurie from Carrie and you’ll be halfway there. Was there ever an actual past like the one for which he seems nostalgic? Have the secular and sacred ever actually been as keenly divided as Adorno is so, well, keen on thinking? What would he have said to the French community in Arras in the 11th and 12th centuries, I wonder? Or to Voltaire several hundred years later? Or Mozart? Or for that matter Aristophanes, Terence, and tons of other popular artists creating some of the most extraordinary popular entertainment of any age. And the list goes on, in my humble opinion. Hmmm…well that was a long time ago, when music was music and people were people and men were men. And all men were Western men. And we used maps designed in the sixth century by a winemaker from Crete. And while the apex of Adorno’s early-to-mid 20th century “fetishists” were apparently ham radio enthusiasts, thank goodness no one told them this fact. Wait a tic – didn’t they have something to do with the progress of radio technology in the United States and Canada, or with maritime safety regulations, or the Radio Communications Acts of 1927 and 1934?
Our consumption of music today is a whole other bag of hurt. The live event has extraordinary cultural cachet and the recorded is subject to the same troubles as all information: it is celebrated and demonized for its availability rather than actively enjoyed and criticized. That being said, I submit that at the very least, there are far more people today actively listening to and creating music than in the past. The musical literacy that is required just to listen to contemporary pop is easily greater than sixty years ago, if only because the wretched “specialist” of the lumpen proletariat with his wrench and screwdriver that can’t afford piano lessons or concert tickets can still create and listen to widely available forms. I realize I’m just parroting the knee-jerk counter-rhetoric of the essay, but what would Adorno make of our music consumption today? I shudder to think. Well, I guess I’m just glad no one from Count Basie to Eric Dolphy to Jimmy Page to John Zorn to Ella Fitzgerald to Jimmy Reed to George Crumb ever took Adorno’s work too seriously… well, maybe Crumb did, at that.