Theodor Adorno’s Radical Critique of Joan Baez and the Music of the Vietnam War Protest Movement

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Theodor Adorno’s Avant-Garde Musi­cal Com­po­si­tions

Theodor Adorno’s Phi­los­o­phy of Punc­tu­a­tion

Wal­ter Benjamin’s Mys­ti­cal Thought Pre­sent­ed by Two Exper­i­men­tal Films

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Janet Abbey says:

    I met her in 05 at Camp Casey where she sang to us in the large tent.She most­ly kept to her­self, was walked around by women who seemed to be pro­tect­ing her.She was very thin and still very beautiful.What I per­ceived was that she is not anti war,but just sim­ply pro peace.It radi­ates from her in every move­ment and every word she says.Yet she is not at all passive.She intro­duced a song by telling the sto­ry of one time she sang it. She was on a beach and some boat peo­ple — Cam­bo­dia? — has arrived and the author­i­ties were there to send them back from safety.Here’s what she said happened.I said to the offi­cer in charge, “What would it take for them to be allowed to stay?” In psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic terms this is an object ori­ent­ed ques­tion that does NOT attack the ego. The offi­cer in charge replied, “A song.” So she sang the song to us that she had sung on the beach that day.Sorry forget.She made the per­fect inter­ven­tion to allow the offi­cer to do what he want­ed to do with­out los­ing face.She laughs eas­i­ly when she per­forms now, and tells lit­tle stories.She said that Cindy had kicked a hole in the wall of the Bush admin­is­tra­tion’s con­trol over the media and “we all fol­lowed her through.”

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