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“On the Fetish-character in music and the Regression of Listening” Reading notes for the 1938 essay by Theodor Adorno.

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Presentation on theme: "“On the Fetish-character in music and the Regression of Listening” Reading notes for the 1938 essay by Theodor Adorno."— Presentation transcript:

1 “On the Fetish-character in music and the Regression of Listening” Reading notes for the 1938 essay by Theodor Adorno

2 Reading Adorno  Adorno is a member of the Frankfurt school of philosophers and social critics. These thinkers were (are) strongly influenced by the thought of Karl Marx, and also by Freudian ideas; they use these ideas as tools for social criticism. This essay uses Marx’s idea of “commodity fetishism” to analyze the phenomenon of popular music.

3 More background on Adorno  Adorno is not only a philosopher but a musician and composer, a student of Schoenberg’s student Alban Berg.  The “popular music” Adorno is writing about is jazz in the late 1930’s. But his ideas are at least as valid for contemporary popular music as they were for the jazz of his day.  For some background on Adorno’s theory of music, here are two web address: m.html m.html

4 The basic idea  Music – both popular and the classical music played in concert halls and on the radio – is driven primarily by commercial interests. “Music, with all the attributes of the ethereal and sublime which are generously accorded it, serves in America today as an advertisement for commodities which one must acquire in order to be able to hear music.”

5 The basic idea (continued)  In other words, commercial music exists to sell CD’s, stereos, i-pods and concert tickets rather than these things existing to make music available. Both the music makers and the listeners have become submerged in the commercial process, and neither is really musically free.

6 Commodity fetishism  A fetish is a substitute object of desire. So, in the most familiar kind of case, sexual desire might be displaced onto garments worn by the individual whom one cannot, for whatever reason, directly desire or have.  Karl Marx said that commodities can be fetishes. In this case, the displaced desire is the desire for freedom, and for the fruits of your labor. Here’s what happens.  You are alienated (estranged, separated) from the fruits of your labor. The products you help make are too far from your control for you to recognize them as your own. In return for your labor, you get dollars, which are only a small percentage of the value you have added to the product.

7 Commodity fetishism (continued)  “Marx defines the fetish character of the commodity as the veneration of the thing made by oneself which, as exchange value, simultaneously alienates itself from producer to consumer….’the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labor is presented to them as a social relation existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labors.’”

8 Commodity fetishism (cont.)  So instead of a relationship between you and some musicians, who would play for you in exchange for some service you would render to them, there is now a relationship between your dollars and their CD.  But the dollars and the CD are part of a capitalist system that is driven by the need to make money, not the need to make and hear good music.

9 Commodity fetishism (3)  To put this in everyday terms, you work hard. You know you should get back more than you do, and what you get should not just be money but also freedom and enjoyment. When you can get enough money to afford a good concert ticket, it feels like you are getting back a little of what you put out. The price of the ticket, spent on your own pleasure, makes you feel good.  But this is actually an illusion, say Marx and Adorno. Underneath the surface of the transaction, commercial interests are taking even more of the fruits of your labor from you. And what they are giving you in exchange is fake music. It is bland, repetitive, and formulaic. It disappears quickly, to be replaced by more of the same, because that is what makes money. It is not free.

10 Popular (and classical) music as “fetish”  What do you really like when you like a popular song, a rap concert, or a performance at the symphony? Not the music, says Adorno. Rather, it’s the (illusory) feeling of your own wealth (when you buy the concert ticket); the feeling of belonging, of being “cool”, when you like what is popular, or of being “individual” when you like “alternative” music or “non-commercial” rap. (The illustration of the ham radio operator. Translate it to your own case!)  The entertainment system, and the money you give it, contain the fruits of your labor, which you want. But the freedom and satisfaction you want won’t be found by giving the system money. It won’t be found, says Adorno, by listening to commercial music.

11 Regressive Listening  The commodity system of music requires regressive (i.e., childish) listeners. “Their (our) primitivism is not that of the undeveloped, but of the forcibly retarded. Whenever they have a chance, they display the pinched hatred of those who really sense the other but exclude it in order to live in peace….”  Regressive listening is “tied to production by advertising. [It] appears as soon as advertising turns into terror, as soon as nothing is left for the consciousness but to capitulate before the superior power of the advertised stuff and purchase spiritual peace by making the imposed goods literally its own thing.”  Watney’s ad: “We demand (what you are selling us).”

12 Regressive Listening  The illusion of freedom: Alternative music. Notice Adorno’s remarks (top of page 540) about the “wire fences” between different kinds of music, and the remarks from the bottom of 544 to 546 about individuals trying to break free from the system and establish an individual taste.  Adorno’s point: there is a commercial slot waiting for every “individualist”.  Vocabulary tip: “reified” = “made into an object”

13 Advertising as terror  Why does Adorno describe advertising as terror? Do you think he is right?  How does the advertising system work to promote music? Does it shape musical taste?

14 Thinking about Adorno  How much truth is there in Adorno’s analysis of popular music?  How does the commercial music and entertainment system work?  How did you acquire the musical tastes you have?  How much musical training do you have?

15 Thinking about Adorno  Is popular music simple-minded?  Is classical music (as played by orchestras and on the radio) just as commercial as popular music, as Adorno claims?  Does commercialism tend to swallow up musical originality, substitute simple- minded formulas, and keep the audience simple-minded?

16 Thinking about Adorno  Can you think of some ways that Adorno is wrong? In particular, can you think of examples of genuine originality in popular music?  What about musical taste? Are you growing in your ability to hear and appreciate different kinds of music? Do you hear more than you used to?  What about your musical expression? Do you sing? Dance? Are you a better musician than you used to be?


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