Cultural Connections: Music Fetishism

One of the things that I carry on my person at any given time outside of the home is my MP3 player. I suppose its a fetish of mine, or a totem (the subtle difference between the two is an ommitted discussion for now), I of course mean fetish in the traditional (and non-sexual) sense of the term. I try to be as aware as I can about my music listening habits, and in a sense it helps that there are such things as metadata, and even apps which analyse music listening statistics. I have recently put a manual record system to pasture which used to keep a note of my music listening habits, solely for the fact that it was no longer relevant or coped with the comparatively advanced ways that I can analyse and order my music preferences. I suppose you could say that I am a music fetishist, perhaps more so than others, but according to Adorno, it is an inevitable social condition.

Reading ‘On the Fetish-Character in Music’ was a delightful, yet exceptionally difficult essay. I read sections of it as an undergraduate, and I now realise that my lecturer omitted the sections about Schoenberg and the more technical musical terminology of the essay. If you thought Kant was hard, try reading a work which requires you to have a background in music theory and intimate familiarity with the work of Bach, Mahler, Schoenberg or Wagner. I must admit that I’m a little sketchy on details about Wagner and Mahler. For this piece I shall consider distinct themes:firstly I shall address the notion of Commodity Fetishism in relation to music specifically, then the ‘regression thesis’, I will then consider in perhaps an artificially seperate fashion the specific cultural examples that Adorno brings to highlight his case and I shall close my considerations by reflecting on the possibility of modern examples of Adorno’s fetishism as well as addressing a topic that is implicit in a lot of my writing about music which I have taken deeply to heart from my early reading of Adorno, namely, the cultural importance and superiority of composer Arnold Schoenberg. 


Commodity Fetishism revisited

One of the really powerful ways in which Marxism’s general thesis of the ideological control of society can really take force is if we look at Culture. Engels and Marx make a good attempt at this through their look at journalism and some anecdotal cases, but it is in the decades of the Twentieth Century where Culture takes to a more Marxian analysis. One general thesis about Marxism (I’m in no knowledgeable position to be an exegete on Marx) is that of Commodity Fetishism (CF). CF can be understood as the notion that value of an object becomes distinct and independently valued from its means of production, and the consumption of that object (whether it is food, or technological, or cultural) from the process in which it was manufactured. The criterion of value is solely based on its consumption or other social forces that relate to its consumption, but explicitly not by means of production value.

(As a lemma, a contrasting set of terms can be applied which originates in Aristotle’s Politics (which Marx himself borrows), between Chrematistics and ‘Oikonomikon’ (sic). As with most thins, a discussion on Aristotle is fruitful and relevant to Marx, but we’ll have to skip this for now..)

For Adorno, music has become an extension of what the Marxists saw around them as a capitalist appropriation of music and wider culture. Adorno makes two appeals to this claim, the first is stylistic/musicological and the second appeal is subjective (that is, focusing on the social subject). Music is repetitive, and popular music appeals to hooks and certain ideosyncracies in order to be listenable, appealing and satisfying. This may be the equivalent of saying in modern terms: pop music appeals to the lowest common denominator and a bunch of old tired cliches, appealing to our indulgences and sense of pleasure and contentment. Adorno is implicitly making the critical point from a musical perspective that popular music is usually not very good either. Adorno notes for instance how few musicians in Jazz for instance barely know how to play instruments and learn by ear or by ‘sign-posting’ notations (I think he must mean some form of Tablature) instead of the traditional stave-and-line means of music.

Why is this important? It’s important because music lacks subtlety and accuracy. Traditional heresies and rules of writing good music (e.g. don’t double your 5ths, avoid consecutive octaves) are not only ignored, it makes the modern audience of Adorno brandish him as some kind of ‘elitist’ and probably undermines the case that Adorno makes by such readers. The ‘signposting’ or ‘traffic signal’ method of music notation that Jazz and other such popular music (that is, popular by the standards of 1938) lacks the sophistication of making chords more sophisticated than simple triads and melody lines. Music is made simple so that it can be reproduced easily. This can also be true not just for (what we now call) live performance but also in terms of listening for the ear. Jazz is easy listening, as is the music by the crooners.

Now on to the subject. The social subject treats music as an object, a thing that is a means to an end. By objectifying music, we ignore the process of its creation, or other factors such as the underlying musical style features or whether it is innovative. Music becomes part of the social life and an objectified object just like many other social phenomena. Perhaps we can liken the kind of objectification to the ultimate form of objectification: sexual. Music has become appropriated as a thing for use, a thing for deriving pleasure or perhaps sorrow, but essentially a tool to be used for the satisfaction of the user. It helps to have norms such as identifying ownership such as associating a performer or composer with the song, or appealing to a canon of Jazz standards. Music has become isolated from its means of production, or any meaning that was originally imbued into it.

For Adorno, commodification divorces music from its original value. In a sense, it doesn’t even matter whether a song is good or not when it is commodified, because in a fundamental way, its value is divorced, alienated from any kind of critique internal to the piece itself, and is ideologically construed by its locus to the consumer. Creativity and originality are no longer relevant terms, as they have been reconstrued and defined with an ellipsis. Creativity is ‘creativity….in relation to the consumer’.

The ‘regression’ thesis

The further prong of the music fetishism discusion relates a particular aspect of the way music is consumed. Music, when fetishised enforces a set of values, these values are distinctly conformist and promote sameness. Commodified also has the psychological affect of creating a ‘regress’ in mentality. Critical adults are made into children by commodified music. Perhaps the best way that Adorno highlights this is by the metaphor or speaking. When an adult speaks, a child is supposed to listen. Music operates in a similar way by silencing people and promoting the subject’s role to listen to music. Listening in this way gives a relationship of authority and education to music, music can be the mediator of values and norms by this way. By inducing the silence of the listener, music also becomes a silencer for critical thought and space for the individual’s thought. While that is not to say that individuals cannot speak or think, but within the context of music, they will have to speak through listening to it.

Regress occurs in the manner of taking the subject back, this may be in terms of a ‘golden age’, of a better past, or a sentimental time when things were seemingly simpler. In my translation, the word ‘retardation’ is used, which is perhaps an apt term to describe the way in which the listener is forced to a less critical and more receptive state (although not very politically correct these days). By regress, music can stunt the emotional and psychological development of a person. Music can also be a powerful ideological tool, as a means of mediating messages such as: the past was a much better time, we should return to it. Regression is important because in the metaphor, if one is to make a listener more child like, it also makes them more amenable to subservience and obedience.

Critically speaking there are a plurality of ways that regression occurs:

  1. Emotional regression: Regress to emotional simplicities which are comforting, Depressive and Suicidal Black Metal can sometimes do this by emphasising the negative modalities.
  2. Social regression: Some songs emphasise the simplicity of relationships, such as the value of ‘finding the right boy/girl to romance’ as well as the ironically incompatible cultural companion of this: just plain sex. Songs which are commodified rarely put forward a complex or nuanced message
  3. Ideological/political regression: Some songs emphasise a particular history which is inherently political ‘dark satanic mills’ or ‘green and pleasant lands’ were originally lines from Blake, who was an avid Romantic and sentimentalist, what better way to communicate such values by singing it before an England Rugby match!


I shall now consider Adorno’s examples.

Adorno’s examples

1. Beethoven’s Fourth

Adorno mentions how some classical music has been made into packaged and sanitised objects which are repeatedly played until it becomes part of the social consciousness. When it is played so much, the sonic experience of music is isolated from its original context. What would have been the great beauty of Beethoven is now an annoying ringtone, what value is left in such commodified music is not from the context of Beethoven the composer, and an emphasis is made on pieces to create a canon. Adorno notes how Beethoven’s fourth symphony is almost never played, he doesn’t even mention number five, but the point is, we are already thinking about it and it doesn’t even need to be stated that the work has become an iconic example of a commodity.

2. Mahler

One of my raconteur conversation pieces is that I don’t understand why people love Mahler so much, to my humour its an enjoyable experience because it’s actually my way of gauging a conversation by judging their response. I do however, feel that I just don’t understand why Mahler is in such high repute and after reading Adorno, there is an extent to which I still am not. Adorno gives the example of Mahler to emphasis regress, because commodification takes place in high art as well.

Mahler exemplifies regression sylistically. Mahler emphasises repetition and long drawn out melodic phrases, in a grossly hyperbolised way, this is much like how popular music standards work. Mahler is considered the height of innovation, yet by the time he was composing, his style was already ‘old’. What Adorno means by this is that in isolating music’s value from its production by emphasising the consumer, the genuine musical innovations are lost, and things which are called innovations and modern are already established tropes. This cannot be more true of Mahler, who represented the High Romantic. In some respects, Adorno is being unfair to Mahler, but the emphasis for highlighting Mahler as an archetype makes more sense when compared to a contemporary of the composer: Schoenberg. I’ll get back to this later.

3. Jazz music

Adorno is given a lot of flack about Jazz, Adorno does have a low opinion of Jazz and many call him elitist (see aforementioned comment), or accuse him of not understanding what Jazz was. Adorno had a range of cultural interests, and like myself, I suspect he probably made a point of listening to music he didn’t like in order to understand it. Adorno identifies the sentimentality of Jazz, as well as anticipates phenomena such as the unwritten Jazz songbook of standards, as well as the other amusing archetype of the ‘White Jazz Collector’. The White Jazz Collector is usually a man, and usually white, they are also probably from a middle class background, and they obsessively collect jazz records. Such a jazz collector emphasises a holy canon of jazz music, where performers such as Miles Davis or Louis Armstrong take positions much akin to saints. Songs are fetishised and worshipped in terms of which recording they are, what year or who the performer/producer/collaborators/recording artists were. Now, although Adorno didn’t refer to such an archetype, that he describes jazz in the fetish way directly anticipates this phenomenon. Also notable is the ‘white’ aspect of the collector, as Jazz was initially a Black endeavour, there is the implication that the music had become established, perhaps civilised and able to be appropriated into the comfortable conformity of bourgeois (or as its also known, BBC Radio 3 audiences).

There are variants of the White Jazz Collector, Rock Enthusiasts, or even subcultural enthusiasts such as Punk obsessives or Metalheads also fit the similar mould of the White Jazz Collector. I think that Adorno wasn’t as unfamiliar with the culture of Jazz as his critics think, especially considering that he was a German man who barely knew English during the 1930s.  Another remark I wish to add is tha the canonification of the jazz standard is much similar today to a canonification of a popular music songbook. Consider for instance how shows such as the X Factor (both in the UK and US, and probably numerous other countries now) canonise pop songs by covers. Songs such as Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody are covered and parodied so much that they were probably first known by someone referencing it rather than the original. The phenomenon of the cover song emphasises the canonicity of certain songs and gives a near mysterious quality to cultural works.

4. The ‘Radio Ham’

One unexpected example of cultural fetishism is what Adorno eccentrically calls ‘The Radio Ham’, as a 21st Century reader of Adorno, I barely understood this example, although I have heard a little bit about Ham Radio. The Radio Ham is a person (almost always a man) who is probably socially isolated, and probably has poor prospects with women (Adorno’s words, NOT mine!). One way of mediating this sense of inadequacy is by learning the skill of detecting short wave radio and discovering secret messages and communications. In a sense I did not understand the point of this example or where it was going, but then Adorno says that the hallowed skill of the Ham Radio became a way of expressing individuality or seperateness and was a behaviour that was exemplary of fetishism. After reading this article and talking with Antisophie and Destre about it, they commented amusingly that this archetype comfortably fits into the geek/nerd duality (perhaps more nerd than geek), where technical skill and obscure interests may seem different or deviant to commodifiation fetishism, but it is basically another flavour of the same brand of pie.

Our allegiance to Schoenberg

“The terror in which Schoenberg and Webern spread, today as in the past, comes not from their incomprehensibility but from the fact that they are all too correctly understood. Their music gives form to that anxiety, that terror, that insight into the catastrophic situation which others evage merely by regressing [Adorno, 2005]”

My final word goes to Schoenberg. Schoenberg is the archetype of greatness for Adorno, but reading this essay does not make the composer as revolutionary as I think he is. Schoenberg subverts classical music by using the traditions of it and by the innovation of dodecacophony (serialism) created somehing quite new out of a tradition that was otherwise old. Adorno insinuates but doesn’t go as far as I would like, that Schoenberg’s music differs from his notion of cultural commodification, in a sense, it resists commodification in the way that Mahler and Beethoven did. While the music of the past did in fact have revolutionary potential, it eventually becomes subverted into conformity and commodity. If it is not for the inaccessible and difficult to understand musical style of Schoenberg that makes his music difficult to commodify (Adorno seems to imply this isn’t a good accusation), it is what his music represents: discomfort, despair and the dissonance that characterised the Twentieth Century. Schoenberg’s music was a mirror on the state of the world, where cultural commodification was more like the mirror owned by the Queen in Snow White: looking at ourselves to the ignorance of everything else.


Thinking about ‘That Day’

10 years on, and everyone in the media and the political establishment are trying to find some kind of remembrance of what happened that day 10 years ago. I remember what I did that day very vividly, I was still in school. We had a massive pep talk completely unrelated to what happened 4-5 hours later, there was a pep talk in school about how important the coming exams were and all the potential things that one could choose to be, that on its own made it a notable day. Once I got home I found out about the terror attacks. The thing that scared me particularly was that I just came back from the US no less than a week previously.

It was/ an event which, as I realised from all of the documentaries and programmes reflecting on the event, affected many things in the culture. Thinking about say, Team America: World Police, the ‘Aristocrats’ joke, or even the rise of so-called ‘New Atheism’. Over the past few months I have been thinking the situation 100 years ago, and wonder if we will ever have another moment like the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdiand, where a tragedy limited to one event leads to a mass of effects from a single cause. Perhaps more than any other event, September 11th was our Franz Ferdinand moment. Counterfactually speaking: would we have a UK Conservative led government were it not for the events that happened? Would there be a war in Iraq? Would there have been the attack in London in 2005? How powerful a counterfactual can be when one event is so taken for granted in the status quo. Speaking of days considered to be ‘That Day’, september 15th is coming up, another day of serious political consequences.

So today, like many other people in the world: I’m thinking about the lives lost on the day 10 years ago, as well as the many others lost as a consequence of that day. As a closing thought I remembered how as I listened to the radio during the years 2001-2003, it was almost every day when that event was mentioned, either on the news, or an advert, or some related story. It took 8 months (if I correctly recall) until I went through only a single day where it wasn’t mentioned. I’d like to think that the negative repercussions of that event, as the years go on, will be less significant as time goes on. If you read this post and looked up Archduke Ferdinand, for example, its a testimony of how that event has less influence over the present.