Recently Rogue Operator had a fascinating post about the politics of pop culture. Noting the general low quality of contemporary pop songs, like the current top 10 queen Britney Spears, he asks:
The question is if the sad state of American culture is due to economic forces inherent in capitalism, such as tailoring to the lowest common denominator, or is it part of a leftist drive to debase the culture and to remove moral opposition to socialism?
Rogue Operator starts his story with the Frankfurt School and their observations about American pop. Any discussion of the Frankfurt school and American music should start with acknowledgment that Theodor Adorno, the most widely read Frankfurt School cultural critic, didn’t get what is probably the single most important musical phenomena of the 20th century, namely jazz.
Adorno preferred atonal music, like that of his fellow European refugee Arnold Schoenberg. And while Adorno did his best to berate pop culture, less than a half century down the road mid-brow culture delivered with a proliferation bands who embraced dissonance, like, say, Sonic Youth. Before I write anything else, I have to say that this post rips off my husband shamelessly. I suppose behind every aspiring mommy blogger there is a DH with no blogging ambitions whatsoever.
Not saying that Sonic Youth, even in their more interesting early days, was anything like Schoenberg. Schoenberg is a classically trained composer whose music was written for people educated in composition and meant to be performed in a concert hall — or at least a movie theater as a backdrop for celluloid action.
At the time of Hitler’s rise power, musicians hostile to Schoenberg were fascist. Recall that the Nazis waged a campaign against degenerate art, and they saw Schoenberg’s music as degenerate. But continental totalitarians, including the Soviets, also despised jazz. In the Soviet Union, jazz was outright banned at times, now and then certain jazzy musicians, like Leonid Utesov, were allowed to strive.
I think it was John Lennon who said that rock-n-roll is the folk music of the 20th century. Rock or pop compositions are something to live by, to set the mood for spring cleaning, to use as an excuse to spend an extra hour at Anthropologie and, of course, to entertain company. A good pop song needs clever lyrics, nice arrangement and an appealing execution.
And while we don’t expect it to be demanding, pop and rock are known to serve as a stepping stone to a more sophisticated tastes. “Oh, I see you have Sonic Youth and Swans on your CD rack. Have you heard of Branca?”
The Frankfurt School’s one incredible insight was that popular songs became popular because they were repeatedly played on the radio. Yes, I’m being sarcastic here. This kind of top down view of pop opens the door to examine the intent of the producers. Rogue Operator points out that Marxist (or Marxian) writers long thought to subvert capitalist institutions via the long march, and that the drivel that is contemporary top 10 could be an example not of supply meeting demand, but of this intentional debasement of our culture by big recording studios. It’s a bold argument considering that music entertainment has long been seen as outpost of unabashed capitalism.
Marxists had their flirtations with smashing bourgeois morality. The Operator’s example of Lukacs is a good one, although it doesn’t specifically relate to popular music in America. We know what Adorno would like to hear on the radio, he wanted dissonance. When the left wants to smash bourgeois morality, they dream of doing it with the Avant Garde. There is a special place for the Artist in the leftist pantheon, and leftists have nothing but disgust for Britney Spears, who, by the way, is a Republican. We have no evidence that music executives are pushing smut on mass markets to undermine the foundation of American society. Or at least I don’t.
Another question is why the customers buy smut, and do they really? As it happens the music market today is far more fractured then it was at the time when Adorno and company walked the streets of New York.
Consumers of popular music read Adorno — or at least they heard of his theory. And really, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that certain songs are on heavy rotation because entertainment execs want you to buy the music. In the US we’ve witnessed a reaction against this kind of aggressive marketing of music (plus, the word got out that major recording companies are not very nice to bands they “sign”). Radio DJs like Rodney Bingenheimer earn cult status by introducing their audience to top notch songs. Knowledge of obscure bands is a prerequisite for entering certain social circles. A myriad of smaller labels, like 4AD or Alternative Tentacles sign more esoteric rock-n-roll offerings.
Considering that so much popular music is downloaded for free, and that so much of our culture is revival-oriented, I’m not sure that the notion of top 40 remains meaningful. What’s left to the American mass market is the most unsophisticated consumer. Certainly, this unsophisticated consumer is less sophisticated then ever, owning, in part, to the fact that we parents are not educating our children about music. Even the better of contemporary popular songs are lacking refinement. I have to admit my youthful musical taste amuses me. Overtime I grew to appreciate the unmatched achievement of the mid-20th century pop song.
That said, did you know that Doris Day now has a top 10 album in the UK?