sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

October 5, 2011

The Sad State of Contemporary Popular Music

Filed under: society, taste — Tags: , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 9:52 pm

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?



  1. wow what a post..I am a music addict so I appreciate the care u put into this one! have a great rest of the day my friend~:)

    Comment by Angel — October 6, 2011 @ 7:50 am

  2. A nice post. I think most people have bad taste in music and a catchy bass beat is all that’s required. So much of popular music is manufactured and singers are built like products and are not artists. If anything, shows like American Idol have re-inforced this methodology.

    There is still great music out there but it is tougher to find.

    iTunes has also undercut music in that people just buy the top hits so singers feel the need for more bubble gum pop.

    Comment by Harrison — October 6, 2011 @ 8:33 pm

  3. Angel,
    Thank you

    The irony of shows like American Idol, of course, is that at least in theory they can teach an attentive viewer about vocal arts. However, technology brought pitch correction (or whatever it’s called) and multiple other gimmicks nullify the need for vocal techniques… not that it was necessary for pop performances.
    Another problem with digitizing music, is that consumers simply copy it. So now the small record labels are going belly up.

    Comment by edge of the sandbox — October 7, 2011 @ 9:40 am

  4. Copying music is a problem but as Apple has shown, people will pay for music, too. I used to get questions about why casette players were in cars now I get questions about why CDs are in them.

    The industry has changed but the upside is that it’s no longer controlled by a few cigar chomping executives deciding who will be published or not… now if you’re good you can upload your music, get “discovered” and become rich and famous.

    This singer Dev had that happen when she put a song she made on My Space:

    And before downloading was common a band I loved, Luna, said they made all their money from selling t-shirts on tour and such not from records.

    Comment by Harrison — October 7, 2011 @ 5:41 pm

    • You are right about the change in the industry. It’s very multifaceted now.
      Merchandizing is a good idea, and there is also the trend of putting out really nice vinyl, with colored records and extra artwork. However, the market for that is limited. Of course, there are also tours, but there used to be a lot of bands that didn’t play very often and made their money on CDs.
      I’m sure there are some performers out there who had a breakthrough using technology. The big acts will be OK. It’s the underground bands who are hurting.

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — October 8, 2011 @ 8:31 pm

  5. Hello,
    Check this post published on my blog for more details about Leonid Utesov and Soviet jazz :
    Greetings !

    Comment by Ceints de bakélite — December 20, 2011 @ 10:08 am

  6. […] are a snob like me, you probably spend countless Friday nights complaining about the current sorry state of American popular music.  I hope you realize that much of today’s American pop sells very well abroad, and that even […]

    Pingback by No Country for R&B « sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue — February 5, 2013 @ 2:16 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: