The Marxist Frankfurt School’s practice of negative dialectics put the “critical” in critical theory, and none of its loose band of philosopher-critics was as incisive as the dour, depressive Theodor Adorno. Against both mystical and materialist notions of history as progress, Adorno argued in his treatise Negative Dialectics that, writes Peter Thompson, “history is not the simple unfolding of some preordained noumenal realm,” but rather an open system. In other words, we can never know in advance where we are going, or should go, only that we live enmeshed in contradictions. And in the thick of late-modernity, these are engendered by the logic of consumer capitalism. For Adorno, the ultimate product of this system is what he termed the “Culture Industry”—the monolithic complex of Hollywood film, TV, radio, advertising, magazines, etc.—engineered to lull the masses into docility so that they passively accept the dictates of an authoritarian state.
The antidote to this cultural drugging, Adorno argued, was to be found in the avant-garde, in difficult and challenging works of art that appeal primarily to the intellect. In demonstration of the kind of art he meant, he even composed his own music, inspired by the work of Arnold Schoenberg. It’s very tempting to read Adorno’s attacks on jazz and rock ‘n’ roll as the bellyaching of a cantankerous snob, but there is substance to these critiques, and they deserve to be taken seriously, even if in the end to be refuted.
Take, for example, Adorno’s take on the protest music of the sixties. We tend to assume the importance of artists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez (at the top, singing the spiritual “Oh Freedom”) to the anti-war movement—their songs, after all, provide the soundtrack for our documentaries and fictionalized films of the period. But Adorno felt that popular “protest music” was a contradiction in terms, given its relationship to the same Culture Industry that manufactured and disseminated advertising and propaganda. It’s obviously a problem many artists, including Dylan, have grappled with. In the short clip above, Adorno delivers his verdict on Baez:
I believe, in fact, that attempts to bring political protest together with “popular music”—that is, with entertainment music—are for the following reason doomed from the start. The entire sphere of popular music, even there where it dresses itself up in modernist guise, is to such a degree inseparable from past temperament, from consumption, from the cross-eyed transfixion with amusement, that attempts to outfit it with a new function remain entirely superficial…
Put another way—whatever else protest music is, it is also inevitably a commodity, marketed, like the most vacuous bubblegum pop, as entertainment for the masses. But it isn’t only the commodification of music that gets under Adorno’s skin, but also the standardization—the very thing that makes pop music popular. Its forms are instantly recognizable and easy to hum along to while performing mindless repetitive tasks. As he wrote in his essay “On Popular Music”: “The whole structure of popular music is standardized, even where the attempt is made to circumvent standardization, [guaranteeing] the same familiar experience.” Such formal stagnation precludes for Adorno the emergence of anything “novel,” and, therefore, anything truly revolutionary. He goes on to say specifically of anti-Vietnam protest music:
And I have to say that when somebody sets himself up, and for whatever reason sings maudlin music about Vietnam being unbearable, I find that really it is this song that is in fact unbearable, in that by taking the horrendous and making it somehow consumable, it ends up wringing something like consumption-qualities out of it.
The flattening effect of mass culture, Adorno suggests, renders every gesture performed within it—whether of protest or acquiescence—as fundamentally trivial… and marketable. His position is irritating–it tips one of our cultural sacred cows–and it’s certainly debatable; Lisa Whitaker, author of the blog Contextual Studies takes issue with it. Other writers have explained his critique in more nuanced terms. But whatever you think of them, his arguments do give us a useful framework for discussing the ways in which cultural movements seem to get instantly co-opted and turned into products: Every radical ends up on a t-shirt; every revolutionary gets reduced to pithy quotables on coffee mugs; every movement seems reducible to handfuls of quirky memes.
For an interesting engagement with Adorno’s pop culture critique vis-à-vis the work of Dylan, see this entry in the Madame Pickwick Art Blog. And for much more of Adorno’s cranky but enlightening statements on popular culture, see this list of readings of work he produced in the forties with Max Horkheimer, as well as a later reconsideration of the “Culture Industry.” We live in an age dominated by mass popular culture, and saturated with protest. Adorno asks us to think critically about the relationships between the two, and about the efficacy of using the media and messaging of corporate capitalism as a means of resisting the oppressive structures created by corporate capitalism. But rather than Adorno’s wet blanket theorizing, I’ll leave you with Joan Baez. Whatever the usefulness of her so-called protest music, anyone who denies the beauty of her voice has surely got tin ears.