Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Industrialisation of Modern Music

Here’s a short essay I wrote back in 2015 comparing the theories of Adorno and Benjamin: always relevant, especially as the powers that be continue to tighten the grip…

The critical analyses of both Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin are among the most important and thought provoking reviews of popular culture. Their respective essays, “On Popular Music” and “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, assert divisive theories on post-modern society and the way we consume art in this industrialised system. Although written around 80 years ago, these pieces remain consistently relevant to the modern world, as technology and industry continue to occupy our daily lives in ever increasing ways. While, at face value, Adorno’s sceptical analysis and claims of “standardisation” may seem poles apart from that of Benjamin’s hopeful contemplations on the liberation provided by the reproduction of art, I want to explore the complex relationship between these arguments, and correlate these points to my own agreements and disagreements.

An undoubtedly important theme of both Adorno and Benjamin’s examinations, is the issue of autonomy. Adorno believed that the standardised and pseudo-individualistic structures of popular music – which at the time of writing would have been the Swing Jazz of 1940’s Tin-pan Alley – were creatively unambitious; a systemic product of the production-line attitude of industrialised recording technology – providing a false sense of the consumers freedom. It is his belief that the pop listener lacks the ability to critically engage with this music; the music provides a pleasant distraction which requires limited attention. He writes: “The composition hears for the listener. This is how popular music divests the listener of his spontaneity and promotes conditioned reflexes. Not only does it not require his effort to follow its concrete stream; it actually gives him models under which anything concrete still remaining may be subsumed.” (Adorno, 1941).

Adorno was considerably detached from the popular sphere, perhaps by his social class, preferring to define classical compositions as “serious” music – a term which fuels some of my animosity towards his argument. While, having fled Nazi Germany, his fear of control and cultural dictatorship in supposedly liberal societies is clearly understandable, it is also important to consider a more complicated relationship between music and listener. Jason Toynbee writes: “Rather than popular music audiences being cowed and incorporated by the industrial apparatus, they are extremely difficult to assimilate. This independence of audiences, and, just as important, their ideal independence, is a precondition for institutional autonomy in pop.” (Toynbee, 2000, page 6).

This is explicitly evident today, in TV talent shows like The X Factor. While the conformity and commercialism of the show’s acts may be seen by some as a reinforcement of Adorno’s critique, the programme – in essence a drawn out market research project – has an extremely poor success rate with it’s winning singers. Instead, it’s often acts such as One Direction and Little Mix who enjoy the longest and most prosperous careers, despite not winning the publicly voted TV show. In turn, this serves to strengthen the idea that the music industry will always, to some degree, be subservient to the changing tastes and attitudes of the listener.

It is in Benjamin’s argument, that we see a more nuanced understanding of this autonomy. Recognising an interchangeable relationship, he writes “The distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. The difference becomes merely functional; it may vary from case to case. At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer.” (Benjamin, 1936).

In the system of industrialisation, particularly the reproduction of Art, he recognises the significant potential accessibility inspires. Beyond being merely a product, he sees the distribution of art and the creation of a popular culture as the beginning of a critical, public forum – an industry defined by the attitudes of both consumer and artist that rejects notions of control. Michael Chanan shares this view, writing: “This process also redefines the audience, which comes to be constituted quite differently from before. It is no longer limited to traditional concepts of community; it is not compact but dispersed; it is atomised and, in the end, often divided more by generation than by social class” (Chanan,1995, page 9).

Critically, the rise of pop music and the advent of mechanically reproduced art levelled the playing field, surpassing the constrictions of class and inevitably politicising music. Benjamin’s argument seems to foresee how integral capitalism, and the social conditions it creates, has been to the experience of recording and consuming popular music.

Benjamin’s study is not without it’s complications, however. For all his enthusiasm and hope projected towards the reproduced object, he rejects to consider how this process of industrialisation could be manipulated and controlled to the artists detriment. The recording of music has heightened issues of appropriation and commercial control, with artists on major labels often losing the rights to their own music as soon as it has been recorded. New York Garage DJ Todd Edwards, for example, endured a 4 year battle to regain the rights to his original master recordings, having never gained any profit from the sale of his own music.

While Benjamin’s analysis was written in 1936, during the infancy of the record industry, it’s often romantic focus on the liberation of music from the trappings of tradition, fails to recognise how new traps could occur.
Adorno presents a similar but alternative problem in his objection to the dissolving of tradition. Perhaps influenced by past ambitions to become a classical composer, Adorno heavily mourns and romanticises the bourgeois history of art – one that excludes large portions of society. He fails to recognise – as does Benjamin, in fact – the emerging success that long marginalised black artists were beginning to enjoy in forms of popular music. While race is ignored by both writers, it’s arguably a crucial factor of both arguments – confusingly overlooked.

In the internet age, the lines between Adorno and Benjamin’s theories are increasingly blurred. The flood of music unleashed via the web has, to an extent, realised Adorno’s concerns about the standardisation of this form. The sheer volume of media available, and the lack of quality control, is resulting in our reduced ability to hear anything new or exciting – something we haven’t already heard in some way before. Michael Chanan writes: “Music has become literally disembodied, and the whole of musical experience has been thrown into a chronic state of flux. In these circumstances, in which most ubiquitous mechanical reproduction pushes music into the realms of noise pollution, it often seems that musical values must inevitably become relative. And this is both a symptom and one of the causes of the condition of postmodernism.” (Chanan,1995, page 18). Artists – particularly independent ones – may view this differently, however. With the emergence of sites like BandCamp and Soundcloud advancing the ideas of Benjamin, cutting out the dominant labels and enhancing artists control of the reproduction of their work has become far easier, diminishing the potential for exploitation.

Increasingly, it’s often through an engagement with the means of distribution that artists enjoy the most success. The rapper Drake, currently one of the most prevalent musicians, proves this theory via his methods of artist to consumer transmission – songs, videos, and clothing created with the covert intention of fan manipulation and internet saturation. Jon Caramanica writes: “No celebrity understands the mechanisms of Internet obsession better than Drake. Online, fandom isn’t merely an act of receiving — it’s one of interaction, recontextualization, disputed ownership and cheek. For the celebrity, it’s about letting go of unilateral top-down narratives and letting the hive take control. For fans, it’s about applying personalization to the object of adoration.” (Caramanica, 2015).

These arguments are integral to one another, especially within the conditions of todays recording industry. While I find myself consistently more in agreement with Benjamin’s ideas, the theories of standardisation and control contributed by Adorno continue to hold undeniable truths in contemporary culture – an inescapable by-product of industrial reproduction. As the internet continues to progress these issues in evermore complicated forms, I believe that the nuance and foresight of Benjamin’s analysis holds more progressive ideals. Perhaps even more essential though, the dialogue between these pieces will continue to provide insight into a complex industry for years to come.


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