One of my favorite sociological essays is Teodor Adorno’s 1941 “On Popular Music.” Adorno didn’t much like the popular music he heard on the radio in Los Angeles, and said so. He found it simplistic, monotonous, limited and manipulative. With an emphasis on manipulative. For besides being a classically trained musician, Adorno was also a leading critic of capitalism, and especially its need for endless consumption so that large corporations could generate profits. He found popular music to be a particularly insidious form of consumption because it generated so much profit, for so little effort. All the successful music producer had to do was produce the same beat, chords, theme, and lyrics and not only would endless profits flow into corporate coffers, but the workers themselves would be conditioned to work to the very beat of the factory by popular songs “stuck in their head.”
How simple? Well, seventy years later the Australian Band “Axis of Awesome” recorded the Four Chord Song. You can judge for yourself from their performance how very prescient Adorno’s point was.
As for the lyrics—there is a formula for that too. Here is how the Axis of Awesome writes love songs. You take those same four chords, and add formulaic sighs, whispers, and falsettos. It is really that easy–listen to them sing about how dead easy a love song is to write
See what I mean about Adorno? He wrote in 1941 what the Axis of Awesome sang about in 2011. And I’m willing to Benny and his Jets from the Axis of Awesome have never heard of Adorno!
There are of course songs which are less polished than the Axis of Awesome—songs that have electrified audiences, created social movements. Remember the music that brought down the US President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War???? Here is one of my favorites, sung by Country Joe MacDonald at Woodstock. Listen carefully to the lyrics–they are hilarious! And then go down below Country Joe to click on Adorno himself–and see what he had to say about such protest music.
Well, actually Adorno had something specifically to say about that. Here is the man himself speaking about the maudlin nature of “protest music.” The first part of this clips are in German, and the English subtitles begin at about 54 seconds).
Or to repeat Adorno’s words:
“I find, in fact, THIS SONG unbearable, in that by taking the horrendous and making it somehow consumable, it ends up wringing something like consumption-qualities out of it.”
In other words, anti-war music was just another product to be bought, sold, and profited from. At the end of the day, Country Joe and all his friends at Woodstock just went back home. And the concert-goers simply went back to work, so they could make enough money to buy the album, and go to the next concert.
Anyway, dear reader, if you still like popular music, despite Adorno’s critique, we are in full agreement. I still tap my foot and sing along in the shower with Country Joe and the Axis of Awesome, even if what Adorno writes makes much more sense.
And so for those of you who have listened to the YouTube clips, and read this far, please go back up and click on Adorno’s original article—it is really worth the read, if it is not required reading as it is in my class. But if you’re are not going to do that, here is Rob Pavalonian’s spoof on popular music, Pachabel’s Rant. I can think of worse ways to spend five minutes!