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”


In America, the aristocratic taste for the ‘simplicity’ of rural living has been democratized into a sentimental passion for all things ‘country.’ But true country isn’t just an idealized antithesis of the city or the suburbs – a place for wooden beams in the kitchen and Adirondack chairs on the lawn and the sounds of crickets in the night, a place where weekenders can wear Wellingtons in the dew. True country is a place entirely of its own, heterogeneous, recalcitrant, unruly, often defiantly unpicturesque, and it’s here to be found in the Berkshires. It’s what escapes imagining on the drive from Manhattan, and it’s what you forget to remember on the drive back. The Berkshires is the kind of place that opens itself to your imagination: You can see only the “country” if you wish, the post and beam barns, the fieldstone fireplaces, the long white fences lined with lilacs. But the trick in these mountains is to open your imagination to the Berkshires. At nearly every crossroad hereabouts, you notice the sound of pneumatic wrenches burring like giant cicadas. Quarries lie hidden behind screens of sumac, and more people in this county have driven a Caterpillar than a Mercedes. Beside an elegant “country" estate, you find an overgrown cabin where in winter the rib cage of a deer hangs from a tree for the birds. You can find the surname of the people who live in that cabin in half the graveyards in Berkshire County and on a nearby pond and half a dozen roads. They were here when Hawthorne visited. Their great-grandmother was born in the kitchen of the house you’re restoring, and they know your woods better than you ever will.

And if that makes you uneasy, well, welcome to the country.