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.)