Adorno for pop critics

“Adorno had none of the faith that later pop culture theorists have had in the ability of consumers to subvert culture industry brainwashing and find liberating, creative use for Justin Timberlake or episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. That we mistake playing with the culture industry’s toys for a kind of real freedom shows only how impotent and short-sighted we’ve become. As far as Adorno is concerned, popular music is never about active engagement but always about relaxation, of lulling to sleep the individual’s critical awareness, of wallowing in passivity. (Is dancing a passive response to rhythmic music? Yes, in Adorno’s mind. It’s mimicking the martial movement of troops massed and marching past the dictator’s parade stand.)

Critics try to invent standards that will insulate themselves from the consequences of music commercialization, from the reality of exchange value, which levels off all other forms of value and slowly but surely introjects itself into the populace so that top-sales lists are popularly held to be synonymous with best lists. “If one seeks to find out who ‘likes’ a commercial piece, one cannot avoid the suspicion that liking and disliking are inappropriate to the situation, even if the person questioned clothes his reactions in those words.”  I can pretend to subjective opinions based on criteria of my own devising, but my own ability to hear has already been too compromised to make these criteria anything but postures of resistance to the market, or collaboration with it—I can either condemn sell-outs (or laud bands for “authenticity”) or hype bands and build their PR image; that is what is left to the music reviewer. Adorno has this cutting comment for my delusion: As a pop-music critic, I am like “The couple out driving who spends their time identifying every passing car and being happy if they recognize the trademarks speeding by, the girl whose satisfaction consists solely in the fact that she and her boyfriend ‘look good,’ the jazz enthusiast who legitimizes himself by having knowledge about what is in any case inescapable.” As for the masses? “Where they react at all, it no longer makes any difference whether it is to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony or a bikini.”

— Rob Horning, PopMatters, “Adorno for pop critics”

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