Adorno on “classic rock”

From The Culture Industry:

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. The familiarity of the piece is a surrogate for the quality ascribed to it. To like it is almost the same thing as to recognize it.

One is predisposed to disagree with Adorno’s judgments on popular music. He is, after all, the stuffy German philosopher trained in 12-tone composition, etc., etc., and so what does he know?

My reaction to this passage was certainly negative when I read it a couple days before leaving to visit my family for Thanksgiving — but several hours stuck in the car listening primarily to “classic rock” stations convinced me of the essential truth of this observation. Does anyone really “like” the song “American Pie,” for instance? What would that even mean?

The intuitive reaction of most people who “like” classic rock is not to enjoy the musical content, chord progressions, etc., but to imitate it — for instance, by singing along to the guitar solo on “Comfortably Numb,” as someone of my acquaintance may sometimes do when in the car alone. The advent of karakoe, American Idol, and Guitar Hero revealed the underlying truth of popular music. The popularity of these phenomenon shows that what is being sold here isn’t the direct enjoyment of music, but the fantasy that one could be a rock star.

(A possible objection: some music is meant for dancing, which perhaps wouldn’t fit with this analysis. But I wouldn’t know anything about that.)

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14 Responses to “Adorno on “classic rock””

  1. Ken Surin Says:

    Agree with your assessment of Adorno, who thought that ‘swing’ (Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman) represented all of jazz, and clearly did not have Coleman, Monk, Coltrane, Gil Evans, Albert Ayler, et al, on his musical radar.

    As for ‘popular music’, I take your point re ‘American Pie’ and others of that ilk, but one would have to make an exception for some kinds of reggae or dub (e.g. Burning Spear, Mutabaraka), and also post-industrial or experimental rock (Nurse with Wound, Can, Amon Duul, einstürzende neubauten).

    However I’d bet that Adorno would nix all of the above as well.

  2. Troy Says:

    I definitely see the sense in which classic rock has knotted a place in our culture that represents more of an identity card than a direct enjoyment of music (I like to call some of this stuff “good music for people who like bad music”, in addition to some cheesy classic rock you have truly terrible examples like Dave Matthews and John Mayer).

    Couldn’t it (somewhat) reasonably be argued that all music, even before being subject to modern markets, offers a perverse surplus in addition to (or instead of) the actual enjoyment of music? Baroque, Classical, Romantic, even stuffy German atonalism like Schoenberg can be argued to play into the discourse of the academy more than anything else.

  3. Daniel Lindquist Says:

    I have a hard time believing anyone actually likes Schoenberg. It feels like a put-on: he’s someone to claim you like if you want to seem impressive.

    Anyone who claims to like Schoenberg in this thread will of course confirm this: Of course you come out as someone who likes Schoenberg! What, you think I don’t like him? The first paragraph of this comment was a joke. I would always listen to him rather than DMB.

  4. ben Says:

    One no more likes “American Pie” than one believes that man has never walked on the moon.

  5. Ross Wolfe Says:

    I generally agree with Adorno here, as I agree with Adorno almost everywhere. His dyspeptic and often apocalyptic attitude can be off-putting to some, but I can’t imagine why his extensive training in music theory and sociology would recommend against heeding his judgments. Also, when he wrote his most famous piece on jazz, it was prior to the era of bebop; “jazz” referred either simply to big-band music or more generally to all popular music. That’s something that is often forgotten when it comes to reading Adorno’s thoughts on music.

  6. Ross Wolfe Says:

    And to Daniel, Schoenberg was obviously a genius. Adorno was trained by Schoeberg’s associate, Alban Berg, and despite Adorno’s defense of Schoenberg’s music, the two despised each other. You can imagine the position that I’m in, as I’m someone who reveres Adorno but who prefers Stravinsky to Schoenberg, and even must admit that I love some of Sibelius’ pieces.

  7. Guido Nius Says:

    This can’t be about rock vs. classical music because there is horrible easy listening classical music (the humming-along kind) and there is incredibly complex and stimulating hard rock (e.g. Earth). So, insofar Adorno classified his music based on which tradition it came from he was stupid and conservative.

  8. dominicfox Says:

    A large part of my enjoyment of thrash metal in my teens was linked to the painstaking learning of guitar solos, or in the case of some of the really fancy ones the aspiration to be able to learn them. Now I’m 37 I can do a tolerable Dave Mustaine impression. It would not be wholly true to say that I no longer want to.

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Adorno says in the same essay that Schoenberg and other “advanced” music shares with commercial music the resistence against being “liked.”

  10. Wilson Says:

    As per the last line of the post, isn’t more nostalgia for the fantasy than the fantasy itself? Sure, there are certain peoples who still fantasize of being rock stars, but the deception is found in that longing for the time when that fantasy was possible as opposed to the hear and now.

  11. David Says:

    I think your point about imitation is key here, as that is what Adorno is most concerned about in almost all of his writing on music: music *is* social mimesis. For Adorno, Schoenberg represents a “truthful” mimesis that is simply honest about the social reality that provides the conditions for such music to be composed in its historical moment. Adorno believes that Schoenberg’s “discovery” of the twelve-tone technique is the realization of modern music’s, and coterminously modern society’s, ultimate fate: the serialization of musical material is the mimesis of society’s complete objectification by the dialectic, the subject itself being objectified in order to succumb to the brutal and complete rationalization of modern life. Commercial music (in its mass produced and repetitive form), for Adorno, is simply untruthful. It is concealment of reality because it tries to deny the dialectic’s drive towards the complete objectification of the subject by attempting some sort of objective authenticity, i.e. a *standard* form that gives way to a comforting and numbing familiarity (this is basically what Adorno accuses Stravinsky of, although he does it through other musical means). This makes a lot of sense when thinking about how I prefer to listen to certain forms of music in those long car drives in which I’m simply trying to “pass the time.” I think Schoenberg for most people would make one keenly aware of just how awful and long that drive really is.

  12. Charlie Collier Says:

    Thanks to Facebook, I’ve recently been introduced to the world of national and international air guitar competitions. My wife dated a guy in high school who, all grown up now, “performs” and “competes” under the handle Shred Boy R D. Not. making. this. up. Enjoy a compilation video of the recent “world championships” here: http://www.airguitarworldchampionships.com/en/event/agwc-2012

  13. Lindsey Says:

    i once voted ‘american pie’ the song i would most like removed from history.

  14. Erin Says:

    Yeah, first glance I don’t like the thought – seems a bit academic as Troy gets at; a critique of the music industry more than the appreciation of music. There are some physiological rewards to repetitive rhythm worth considering, too (cf:monks/chanting/dancing/). What does Adorno think of all convention, like in writing? He has always perplexed me. I’m going to go wash him out with Merzbow.


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