Essay on Deconstruncting Adorno: Music and Cultural Theory

Published: 2021/12/07
Number of words: 4173

‘’Pleasure hardens into boredom because, if it is to remain pleasure, it must not demand any effort and therefore moves rigorously in the worn grooves of association. No independent thinking must be expected from the audience: the product prescribes every reaction: not by its natural structure (which collapses under reflection), but by signals. Any logical connection calling for mental effort is painstakingly avoided.’’
– Adorno on popular culture and its audience, taken from his book Dialectic of Enlightenment. A one-of-a-kind provocation.

In this essay, I will be analysing some of Adorno’s ideas on popular music and explaining why these ideas fail to describe what popular music really is and what function it exercises in our culture and societies. In other words, I will be exposing Adorno and explaining why he was not right about popular music.

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Part interchangeability and pseudo-individualisation

One of the most well-known and controversial Ideas that Adorno came up with was that of part interchangeability and pseudo-individualisation. This appeared along with capitalism and Adorno used it to explain how the quality of popular music had gone down due to standardised modes of production and compared it to other standardised modes of production of other industries. He draw a line connecting how physical products are manufactured in a factory and how cultural texts are produced.

Part interchangeability is the way in which objects are produced. Let us use videogame consoles as an example. On one hand, one has the ‘core’ of the device, which is what actually makes it work and serves its function. (Processor, hardware for graphics) On the other hand, one has the ‘periphery’ of the device, which is the rest of the elements that compound it (design and shape of the external box, colour, shape and location of the buttons). The point is that in most devices, the core is the same – it is the periphery what they change for each model in order to make them look different, to make the new ones look like they are better or simply to make them stand out from the ones produced by other brands. It is these parts the ones that are interchangeable.
Pseudo-Individualisation is the process in which the device is marketed and presented to the public. It is the way in which they show people why this new model is better and different from others. They make it look different by emphasising the periphery, even though it is basically the same when it comes to functionality.

Pseudo-Individualization is the indispensable capitalist complement to part interchangeability […] Part interchangeability results from the drive to minimize the cost of production; pseudo-individualization results from the imperative to maximize sales. The system of advertising seduces us into believing that differences in packaging reflect differences in essence. Pseudo-individualization glamorizes style over the real inner content.[1]

Adorno argued that the production of popular music is limited by standardisation brought up by technology, same as a product manufactured at the assembly line.

It [the capitalist society] has made the technology of the culture industry no more than the achievement of standardization and mass production, sacrificing whatever involved a distinction between the logic of the work and that of the social system.[2]

In this regard, he did not seem to realise that popular music is something totally different to videogame consoles, cars or pairs of trainers.

where should one draw the divisor line between the core and the periphery of a song/album? Does technology really limit producers when making music? Let us take Johnny Be Good by Chuck Berry as an example. How would someone determine what the core and the periphery are in this song? We take for granted that the song follows the typical standards of a 4/4 time signature, it’s less than three minutes long… one could say that these things would compound the core and the rest of musical elements (a guitar line, piano line, etc.) plus the case of the album, the picture, would be the periphery. However, in music, this ‘core’ can be as interchangeable as any other musical parts of the song. Chuck Berry could have written the song in any desired time signature, chord progression and could have made it as long as he had wanted to make it. There is no real fixations, limits or constraints that recording technology demands we work within. Time signatures, key signatures, harmony, arrangement, melody, percussive patterns… every single part is interchangeable and malleable. Therefore, part interchangeability does not fit the context of popular music, regardless of Adorno’s claims.

Taking into consideration the paragraph above, pseudo-individualisation is already deconstructed. As all of the elements of a song are peripheral, there is no commonality to camouflage. Popular music celebrates its individuality as much as its commonality. It is not about pseudo-individualisation, but rather, marketing music by glamourizing both its commonality with other bands or genres and the aspects that makes it distinguishable, different, unique.

When it comes to producing functional goods, these are directly influenced by the technology that creates them. When manufacturing a processor, it is the assembly line that pre-establishes the dimensions of the circuits and all of its components and how they are interconnected (that would be the standard for all manufacturers). It is true that there are certain standards that one needs to work with when producing popular music (songs are usually 3.5 minutes long, in a time signature of 4/4, etc). However, technology does not play a role of limiter when making music – it helps creating different sounds, it contributes positively to the production of music. ‘Technology does not put the same constraints on the production of recorded musical sounds. If anything, it greatly expands the possibilities for variation.’[3] The electric guitar, the synthesizer, the music sequencer; they all are technological devices that empower producers to come up with new ways, new genres, new sounds.

When thinking about what Adorno stated, it is unavoidable to find his argument a bit bland. It seems to the reader that rather than having found similarities between the standardisation of the production of goods and the standardisation of the production of music, he actually wanted to put popular musical texts in the category of standardised goods without even realising about the lack of substance of his own argument. ‘Under monopoly all mass culture is identical,’[4] he stated. To him, a T-shirt with a picture of the Cadillacs was the same as an album of the Cadillacs. He did not grasp the complexity and dynamism of the music industry.

The culture industry and the decline of the individual

Digging a bit further we find two more controversial ideas, those being what Adorno called the culture industry and the idea of the decline of the individual.

To Adorno, the culture industry creates texts that purposely make people docile and passive to their financial, social or political situations. He talked and wrote about it as though the industry were behind this huge conspiracy in which they work towards the numbing of people’s brains, contributing to the decline of the individual by killing their individuality by mass-culturing them.

We all are aware of the kind of music that the industry produces today. One just needs to open up Spotify and check music produced by the latest artists. It is easy to find songs of simple, digitalised rhythm patters with simplistic or even sexist lyrics. This happens when music is treated as a commodity for exchange value, one would agree with Adorno on this.

We live in a society in which most of the art is intended to be a commodity, which removes challenges in every field related to the arts. The production process must be cheap, aimed to as many audiences as possible and subject to deadlines. Money is the boss.[5]

Taking into consideration the content of these musical texts, it is easy to find a correlation between the nature of the music and Adorno’s description of the nature of popular culture and, therefore, of the culture industry.
However, his pitfall resides in the very same foundations of this idea. It is true that this is the most common behaviour of the culture industry (I make a simple piece of music, I sell the CD, I make money), but he, in a seemingly almost schizophrenic way, underlined the idea that the industry dumbs people down on purpose. As he wrote, ‘The rate at which they [the people] are reduced to stupidity must not fall behind the rate at which their intelligence is increasing.’[6] They dumb brains down with their productions because that is what they are intended for – the ultimate conspiracy theory.

The culture industry does not make texts with the intention of making people less intelligent. Whenever they want to produce something, they do it with the intention of selling it to a particular type of audience. If someone is producing a song that it is meant for people to dance, they would be targeting a specific type of audience – 18-25 year olds that will probably be dancing to it in a club. 18-25 year olds will not dance and enjoy a piece of music that Adorno would consider to be high art (just imagine being in a club and try dancing to Adorno’s string quartet from 1921). The nature of the music produced fits a particular purpose for a particular group of people in a particular place. As Adorno wrote himself:

The usual commercial jazz can only carry out its function because it is not attended to except during conversation and, above all, as an accompaniment to dancing. Again and again one encounters the judgment that it is fine for dancing but dreadful for listening.[7]

And it is fine because that is probably what that jazz song was made for – for dancing. That is its purpose. The Power Rangers is not a tv series created for adults to analyse and try finding the social constraints that the show is supposedly reflecting – it is a show for children. Hanna Montana’s songs are about having fun with friends and falling in love because that is what teenage girls want to hear (and buy).
Put simply, it is about strategic targeting. You sell what people would buy. There is no brainwashing conspiracy, it is marketing. The industry takes for granted certain characteristics and behavioural traits (hobbies, intelligence, background, etc) of groups of people of a determined age, education and place and produces material that they would want to purchase.

Since there is no such thing as an activity that purposely dumbs people down, the decline of the Individual is yet another far-fetched fantasy. The individual tastes of people don’t degrade because of the materials produced by the culture industry. The materials produced try to fit a set of tastes already acquired by a particular type of audience in order to maximise sells and profit.
‘The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them’[8] – precisely because most of the people who buy and use the products of the culture industry do enjoy its content. If they did not, they would not spend a penny on them.

Adorno seemed to automatically discard anything that was not related to his tastes. It is quite interesting to see how a person who used to be such a brilliant student and went up the academic ladder so quickly seemed to be unable to understand a simple fact – people have different tastes:

If one seeks to find out who ‘’likes’’ a commercial piece, one cannot avoid the suspicion that liking and disliking are inappropriate to the situation, even if the person questioned clothes his reactions in those words. The familiarity of the piece is a surrogate of the quality ascribed to it. To like it is almost the same thing as to recognize it.[9]

Recognising a piece of music is the same as liking it. Is it, though? There are people who regardless of how many times they hear Anaconda by Nicky Minaj, they never end up liking it. Passing by a car which driver is playing the song out loud can actually remind people how much they dislike the song instead of going into a frenzy just because of the fact that they know what song it is and know that they have heard it before. It does not much sense. Listening to a song more than once does not equal liking the song.

His arguments are not valid because of the fact that he was being elitist by making negative assertions about music that he simply did not seem to enjoy because of being different to the music that he was used to listen and compose. I do not like Johnny Be Good by Chuck Berry because it does not use the twelve-tone technique and was not written by Schoenberg – even an undergraduate student would understand that someone working in the academic sphere should be able to do better than this.

The problem with Adorno was that he listened to popular music the same way he listened to classical music – He did not know how to listen to other music genres. As Stockfelt wrote:

Different listening situations give different norms of quality, both for the piece of music and for the activity of the listener. As long as I listened with dispersed interest, I was charmed by the sound […] I adopted an adequate mode of listening, and the music could therefore play a meaningful role in relation to the world.
When I began to listen concentratedly, however, I applied an inadequate mode of listening – not because the music couldn’t or shouldn’t be adequate to listen to in a concentrated way, but because I measured it according to norms appropriate to other listening situations and other music.[10]

‘People have learned to deny their attention to what they are hearing even while listening to it’[11] – Wrong. Each type of music is created for a different use and therefore, the only way one could understand each type of music is by adopting an appropriate way of listening that fits the purpose of the music. Adorno failed to do this. There was never a decline of the individual, he was just imposing his individuality and tastes on everyone else.

Adorno’s hostility towards the blue note

Adorno criticised the composition style of popular music because he saw it as extremely simple, with presence of wrong notes, very repetitive and fundamentally degenerative.

[The songs] confine themselves to the three tonic major chords and exclude any meaningful harmonic progression. […] It swarms with mistakes in phrasing and harmony. There are wrong pitches, incorrect doublings of thirds, fifth and octave progressions, and all sorts of illogical treatments of voices, sometimes in the bass.[12]

To him, all of the harmonies and progressions of all songs are wrong because of ‘’incorrect doublings of thirds’’ and wrong pitches. But what does this mean, exactly? Let us use as an example one of the most known types of popular music known to the western societies – the blues.

If one were to compose a song using a blues turnaround in a minor key, technically speaking, to classic conventions, there would be a fundamental error in the melodic lines – the use of the blues note, a sharp fourth, what actually makes it sound like a blues. This note is not in your typical diatonic scale and therefore is considered to be a mistake – only that considering it a mistake is itself fundamentally wrong for several reasons. It gives it the sound of a whole genre and, regardless of classic conventions, it sounds good.

If all of the songs that have a distinctive characteristic that is conventionally considered to be wrong had to be discarded and thrown away because of being rubbish, one would have to travel in time and talk to Adorno. What about the twelve-tone technique? How does that fit in your conventional (correct) composition? Is there not anything ‘’wrong’’ in it? One could discard all of the songs made using the twelve-tone technique on the grounds of ‘it sounds very dissonant. That is wrong,’ using Adorno’s own logic.

Each type of musical genre has a different modus-operandi, different ways of writing music and, sometimes, what makes a genre sounds like it is that genre could be something that does not necessarily fit traditional ways of writing music. Disagreeing with Adorno, the music that does not sound like the music you like or is not written the way you are used to write (or the way you were taught to write) does not mean that the music is degenerative or that it is going to make you less intelligent.

Understanding Adorno

Adorno was born to a family that were in a very good financial situation. He started to acquire his taste for music when he was very little. His mother was a singer that performed for the imperial court in Vienna and his aunt was both a pianist and a singer. His musical identity was very well determined by his early years.
He happened to live the very beginning of a huge transition in society, transition that he never really got used to. Works of art being mechanically reproduced, new ways of creating, treating, distributing and interpreting culture. This failure to accomplish peace of mind with the new technologies and new ways is clearly reflected as frustration in his writings. He was so determined by his ideology that he could not accept the new wave of capitalist ideology. This is how ideology is supposed to work, people are influenced by it and see it as truth without even thinking a about it:

I am already eating from the trash can all the time. The name of this trash can is ideology. The material force of ideology makes me not see what I’m effectively eating.[13]

However, as a philosopher and an academic, he should have been able to keep himself more opened to new ideas, at least to the point in which one can make valid arguments by actually digging into those new ideas properly instead of making assertions that are exaggerated and without substance.

One of the main characteristics of ideology is that not only does it place you inside of the ‘’all’’ but also excludes you from other ideologies. Ideology dominated him to the point of blindness, and this is something that a philosopher should at least try to be aware of – ideological constraints. Only by being aware of one’s constraints it is possible to actually try to pull them from the inside to try and reach other ideologies. In order to understand ideology, one needs to be aware of the conscious and unconscious, otherwise the whole theory falls apart.

However, from the ideological point of view, it is not difficult to understand where Adorno comes from. The term of ideology was coined to explain how, in culture, groups holding power have the maximum control over other groups with the minimum of conflict. Having this fact as a reference, one can easily see how Adorno was in the group that was holding power (thanks to his academic accomplishments) and using this power to exercise control over other groups (by criticising and publishing writings that put works of art that were different to what his former education had taught him in a bad position).

The strength with which Adorno exercised his power is so intense that he sometimes even went too far, reaching the point of being insulting.

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Regressive, too, is the role which contemporary mass music plays in the psychological household of its victims. They are not merely turned away from more important music, but they are confirmed in their neurotic stupidity, quite irrespective of how their musical capacities are related to the specific musical culture of earlier social phases.[14]

No wonder why he caused such a stir in his late years.

Adorno’s destructive criticism on popular music genres seems to have been a prophecy that eventually occurred with certain genres (anaconda by Nicky Minaj, Telephone by Lady Gaga) and we, as a society, have ended up accepting – low quality music that the culture industry offers us in exchange of money. However, Adorno simply could not appreciate the extent of the different types of music related to popular music genres. He saw all popular music as a whole, as a one thing, and analysed and described them as if all songs, all genres, were the same – one of his most epic pitfalls. He was not able to adopt proper ways of listening to popular music and therefore, could not understand it. However, because of his qualifications and his work in the academic field, he thought that he had the right to discard all the music that was not ‘high art.’ He thought that his opinions and his presumptuousness were valid because he was in intellectual. He limited his efforts on criticising popular music instead of properly analysing it and reaching substantial conclusions, and this is why, generally speaking, Adorno was not right about popular music.


Adorno, Theodor W, Sound Figures (Stanford, California: Stanford University press, 1999).

Adorno, Theodor W, Dialectic of Enlightenment, (London: Verso, 1979).

Adorno, Theodor W, Introduction to the Sociology of Music (1962).

Adorno, Theodor W, Esthetic Theory and Cultural Criticism (1938).

Barthes, Roland, Image/Music/Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977).

Berry, Mark, New German Critique (Duke University Press, 2008).

Culler, Jonathan, On Deconstruction – Theory and Criticism After Structuralism (Ithaca, New York:

Cornell University Press, 1982).

Fraser, Donald, 1968 – A Student Generation in Revolt (New York: Pantheon books).

Gendron, Bernard, ‘Theodor Adorno Meets the Cadillacs,’ Studies in Entertainment – Critical

approaches to Mass Culture , volume 7 of the series ‘Theories of Contemporary Culture,’ 19-35.

Oliver, Bert, ‘Lacan and Critical Musicology,’ International Review on the Aesthetics and Sociology of

Music volume 36 n 1 (June 2005), 135-158.

Stockfelt, Ola, ‘Adequate modes of listening’, in David Schwarz, Anahid Kassabian and Lawrence

Siegel (eds), Keeping Score: Music, Disciplinarity, Culture (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997) 142.

Žižek, Slavoj, Mapping Ideology (London: Verso, 1994).

The pervert’s guide to Ideology, Sophie Fiennes, 2012, 136 min. (DVD, Zeitgeist Films).

[1] Berdard Gendron ‘Theodor Adorno Meets the Cadillacs’, Studies in Entertainment – Critical Approaches to Mass Culture, Volume 7 (1986), 18-36 (21).

[2] Theodor W Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, (London: Verso, 1979) 121.

[3] Berdard Gendron ‘Theodor Adorno Meets the Cadillacs’, Studies in Entertainment – Critical Approaches to Mass Culture, Volume 7 (1986), 18-36 (26).

[4] Theodor W Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, (London: Verso, 1979) 121.

[5] Jesus L Garcia, ‘Music and Cultural Theory – Santana, The Game of Love’ (First portfolio essay for MCT, 2016) 2.

[6] Theodor W Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, (London: Verso, 1979) 145.

[7] Theodor W Adorno, ‘On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening’, Esthetic Theory and cultural criticism (from Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, volume VII1938) 270-299 (288).

[8] Theodor W Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, (London: Verso, 1979) 167.

[9] Theodor W Adorno, ‘On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening’, Esthetic Theory and cultural criticism (from Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, volume VII, 1938) 270-299 (271).

[10] Ola Stockfelt, ‘Adequate modes of listening’, in David Schwarz, Anahid Kassabian and Lawrence Siegel (eds), Keeping Score: Music, Disciplinarity, Culture (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997) 142.

[11] Theodor W Adorno, ‘On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening’, Esthetic Theory and cultural criticism (from Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, volume VII, 1938) 270-299 (271).

[12] Ibid, 291.

[13]The pervert’s guide to Ideology, Sophie Fiennes, 2012, 136 min. (DVD, Zeitgeist Films).

[14] Theodor W Adorno, ‘On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening’, Esthetic Theory and cultural criticism, (from Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, volume VII, 1938) 270-299 (286).

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