They walk through the doors with a distant gaze and metal in their ears. No one talks or acknowledges each other yet they are all walking through the same wallpapered halls. Music has become the wallpaper that decorates the walls of our culture; a background aesthetic that is always resent but rarely given an afterthought. Wallpaper is always visible but rarely valued for the intricate assembly of pattern flawlessly manufactured for the covering of our walls. Theodor Adorno discusses the state of music and our culture in his essay “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening.”He observes the commodification of music and its role in capitalist economy. This essay will explore his notions and expand on the production and consumption of music acting within our culture.
Early in Adorno’s work he mentions the Platonian concept of music as acceptable when encouragingly “warlike” rather than “expressive of sorrow” or “soft harmonies suitable for drinking”. Here music must only re-enforce the attributes of heroism and suppress the other socially undesired attributes. This early focalization of musical purpose evidences the power that is carried by notes of musical composition for power, pleasure, and persuasion. It also resembles the ulterior motives of controlling the masses by means of psychological manipulation found in government propaganda. Comparable aspects include: constant exposure, repetition, prohibition, and broadcast control. All of these forms of regulation are applied to music in Western culture today to foster the musical market. The listening to and creation of music has become an altered art; a tailored product of capitalism.
Constant exposure occurs in shopping centers, restaurants, elevators, telephone lines on-hold, vehicles, the workplace, and the home. The population is so accustom to musical production that it is now carried on light weight Mp3 players so that one may never have to bear the natural soundtrack of life. As everyone listens in isolation the pleasure that is derived from the communal sharing of music diminishes. (279) Over-stimulated and over-exposed this civilization grows deaf and desensitized to the music so craved as we simultaneously become a silent community.
Music is an art with endless creative and radical potential. It breaches the security of known scale and meter to re-invent unheard expression. However the economic variables of product, price, and promotion have greatly reduced artistic expression to a matter of the market and profitability. Music is confined to a 3 minute excerpt including a catchy hook supported by a 4/4 beat. It is short enough not to challenge an attention span yet long enough to reiterate the fundamentals of pop-culture to meet consumer demand.
The listeners cannot be entirely at fault for creating such a demand. This basic format is the romance of repetition. (285) It is the controlled media broadcasting that creates the illusion of consensus by over representing portions of culture insinuating their dominance, thus, popularity. What instill this popularity among the masses are not only the psychological effects of false consensus but also repetition. At first one my find a song irrelevant and then perhaps annoying as it is repeatedly thrust upon them in environments of musical exposure but as the proximity of this piece to one’s environment remains as does the attraction, affection, and then desire in its absence. This concept does not only apply in singularity but also, as Adorno suggests, to the compositional pattern of “light” music that the listener becomes accustomed to. The repeated similarities of songs perceived as pleasurable, because of their familiarity, form a chart of expectation to which subsequent music is then measured and liked or disliked according to the conditioned taste. The manufactured desire then continues the cyclic commodification of music as producers supply to the masses and generate capital. It is a “compulsion to the similar.”(287)
There is no question that society has developed an innate need to consume insatiably to fill a void that only grows larger. Over the last century our culture has been educated on the methods of achieving happiness in a capitalist society and thus we have learned that capital equals happiness. Advertisements featuring a smiling actor portray a desired life that is possible with the purchase of whatever material it has been attached to. Happiness can be purchased. The desire to buy thus sparked the desire for capital. To generate capital the members of our culture forfeit labour in exchange for compensation that detaches them from their productive value and creates a lack within. The purchasing power that substitutes labour is now used to buy whatever the individual feels will fulfill their desired ideology. The psychological attachment of ideology to products extends to music, and to devices that must be purchased in order to enjoy music.
Music no longer comes simply as music but carries with it an entourage of celebrity, politics, and personal statement. The attachment of celebrity image to the music causes it to acquire a use an persona beyond the music. A listener now considers the physical image, the actions, the connotations, and similarities factoring in an alternate use for the music. If a listener likes the celebrity they often like the music by association. The music becomes a reflection of the persona it is presented by.
Adorno discusses the disintegration of underground music as it too is absorbed into commodification. This is evident in the trending that occurs in those who follow it. It becomes a matter of ownership over the art. American Idol programs take the exploitation of artists to another level of commodity. Music then becomes a profit generating program as viewer’s witness musicians conform to certain acts, wardrobes, and song selections controlled by the network. Yes, they are given choices but those choices are made within the field designated by the program director. Listener’s then partake in a musical ‘democracy’ as they vote for their favourite act. Loyalties are formed with performers and votes cast regardless of musical talent. The viewer/listener has now been ‘empowered’ by the media and is using music for purposes other than direct value. This can be said of “high” taste music listeners as well. The symphony is not often celebrated for its occurrence but rather the ability for its audience to claim purchasing power to have attended that event and thus that inclusivity. The ticket purchased for entry to another hall. (284)
Industry profits from many things and though record labels do not profit from illegal downloading of music it is still conducive to commodification. Just as one might steal a necklace; it is still a necklace and it is still to be used for the same purpose – to wear- to reduce the representation of self-value to metal and stone draped around the neck. Many may hail the piracy of Mp3 as a revolt against capitalism and privatization of music. They must consider the increased sales of Mp3 players and their accessories that result from the mass accessibility to digitized copies of music. They must consider the invariable increase in superficial listening – as the playlist runs through 4 times while focusing on another task. They must consider the invariable decrease in cultural consciousness.
It would be expected that with the masses increased exposure to music that it would represent a transcendent cultural phenomena where the sensual spirit of expression and pleasure is embraced. The radical environment of music should infiltrate the capitalist hold on society, but this is not so. Adorno considers the increase in musical experience on of “superficiality “. The fullness of mass enjoyment constrained to shallow entertainment by the limited capacity for consciousness belonging to its audience. This superficial understanding of music comes from having been conditioned by commoditization to receive sensory signals and information but refrain from fully interacting, and questioning it as a complete form. The experience of culture has been reduced to lyrics emphasized by their composition to tell us that one portion is important and more superior to the remainder of the song and the rhythmic purpose is reduced to audible dancibility. This false fullness of function has convinced listeners that they are awakened and conscious of the beating drum of life active in their musical resistance when in fact they lie- awake in a dream and tucked under a blanket of false awareness.
The guise of fullness through isolated experience and the manufactured perfection of digital assembly have come to be the empty reality for many. They concede to the mild- not too inspiring- product of consumption. They shy away from provocative alternatives. It is ironic that they “fetishists” can form such a compulsion towards obsessive desire but be so dismayed by the provocateur of sensuality. Music is that natural sensual expression of intent through which its listeners purge their suppressed natural intent.
Adorno’s term “fetishists” implies an obsession that is gratified by the collection and consumption of music. A primitive desire to satisfy the suppressed agendas of instincts banished to unconsciousness due to their unsuitability to civil order. By providing music of commodity to the dimming ears of mass consumerism on can be sure to stifle all chance at release and realization. This is how the materials of superficiality are used to control cultural dependence on the capitalist system; what tunes do they play in waiting rooms of methadone clinics? What colour are their walls?
It is only when one questions the motives of desire that he/she can then see value as it is and not as what it ought to become.
Adorno, T. “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening”. Cultural Resistance Reader. Duncombe, S. ed. New York : 2002.