Pop-Musicology: Theodor W. Adorno

February 5, 2018

The gap between academia and journalism remains problematic. The former still struggles with its ivory tower stigma and as for music journalism, it often relies on chlichés and stands accused of simply being a promotional tool for artists. Trying to bridge the gap might be a bit over-ambitious, yet offering a brief introduction to Adorno’s ideas on pop music and mass culture certainly synthesises both in a way that remains relevant today.


              Source: https://libcom.org/files/images/library/2009-a32-08-05-adorno-b.jpg


Theodor W. Adorno (1903 - 1969) studied philosophy, psychology and sociology, but is most known for his works in the field of musicology. He was a key member of the Frankfurt School, a gang of anti-fascist, progressive left-winged scholars that revolutionised the humanities around the time of WWII. While most of his writings are originally published in German and even in translation remain unreadable due to his style, his core ideas can be abstracted as follows.


Pop music’s inherent problem is its commercial drive on the producer’s side, and the inattentiveness on the audience’s side. What this entails is that artists too often draw on the ever-same musical forms (song-structure, lyrical content, instrumentation, etc.) which perpetuates an eternal sameness. At the same time it is the listener’s task to actively listen, rather than passively use music as a means for ends other than the music itself.


Adorno may seem like the bogeyman of musicology, with his seemingly negative view of pop music having many wonder whether or not certain music is Adorno-proof. However, it is not all doom & gloom with the guy. The inherent progression of pop music has brought forth whole new types of music - e.g. hip hop and electronic dance music - that should be evaluated by their own standards rather than by pure negativity. 


Music labels form the gatekeepers of the music industry, and thereby play an important role in its progression. The argument that artists and managers too got to earn a living remains valid in today’s late-capitalist society. Yet for the better of the music all parties ought to play their part in music criticism. Despite their rigor, Adorno’s ideas remain relevant in countering a constant rut of sameness. 

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