This post started originally began as a reading response for a seminar I took at UVa with Fred Maus (Writing about Music, Spring 2014). Fred’s course was a great survey of a lot of major strategies for interpreting and writing about music; this class in particular set up an excellent debate about embodiment, politics, and the political economy of music. The texts in question were:
TW Adorno, “On Popular Music”
Walter Hughes, “In the Empire of the Beat”
Maria Pini, “Moving Homes: Femininity Under Reconstruction”
Maria Pini, “Cyborgs, Nomads, and the Raving Feminine”
Alejandro Madrid, “Dancing with Desire”
One of the major issues we were debating in the class was how well Adorno’s work holds up to later, more affirmative accounts of pop music. We especially focused on the way the account of embodiment and dance presented in “On Popular Music” contrasts with more recent work on the topic. I’m obviously sympathetic to such later work, which I think avoids a lot of the problems of Adorno’s thinking on pop. But I thought it would be helpful to stake out a defense of Adorno, in large part because so many (myself included) are instinctively sympathetic to his critics. It could stand to be more thorough on every front, but I thought it was a nice enough piece that I’d post it without any revision. I poached my title from JM Bernstein’s great book on Adornian aesthetics, Against Voluptuous Bodies (I don’t actually draw on that text in anyway, I was just trying to be cute).
Against Contorting Bodies
This week’s assignment contrasts three visions of the utopian possibilities of electronic dance music (EDM) with an account of 1930s popular music published by Theodor Adorno in 1941. Each of the three dance essays attempts to theorize electronic music as a form of social, cultural, or political praxis.
In his “In the Empire of the Beat,” Walter Hughes argues that disco functions as a revolutionary redefinition of subjectivity in light of the post-Stonewall need to account for gay male experiences of the world. Disco’s seeming rigidness and endless repetition turn out to be a radical refusal of narrative structure and normative subjectivity, its computerized whirring functioning as a form of Haraway’s cyborg posthumanism. Buzzing along like little robots on the dance floor, then, the gays are finally freed to pursue pleasures in an authentic and proper way denied to them in the public sphere more broadly.
Maria Pini’s chapters offer an ethnographic take on the ways British rave culture constructs female identity. For her, rave culture responds to the new, post-feminist world of ambiguity surrounding sexual mores, functioning as a kind of test-space for new female identities. Pini has a bit more moderate stance about the politics of rave, regarding dances as both sites of ambivalence and ones invested with a version of the radical potential Hughes sees in disco. The dance floor at its best is a safe haven for the marginalized, a site where the only people are the mad ones. Thus, for a world populated by nomads, rave offers a glimpse of home.
For Alejandro Madrid, EDM intervenes into the shattered world of the Latin post-colonial subject. Defined as peripheral beings, a colonial other, Latinx people find themselves hovering in a space between center and periphery, traditional and modern. Born at the intermediary of these poles, Nor-tec music works such doubled identities out. Men find themselves organically at the center of Latin tradition and a modernity denied to them, women become desiring rather than desired, and more generally, “dancing bodies mediate among a variety of ideological discourses that inform the fan’s everyday life, offering a performative solution to the cultural contradictions those representations entail” (396).
Read alongside such accounts, Adorno’s essay “On Popular Music” should appear woefully incapable of accounting for the ways dance music engenders revolutionary redefinitions of sexuality, body, and subject. His world lacks the sweat and grit of the dance floor, and his rather abstract concepts pale in comparison to the colorful cast of rave queens and androids populating his foils. One needn’t sweat much here over the inadequacies of his argument beyond the simple observation that his account is far too abstract to be a sufficient description of much of anything; for this reason, his estimation of serious music appears far more charitable than is warranted, and his account of pop runs dangerously close to relying on clichés that have little to do with any actual practice of popular music. (It might be interesting to bring in some of his stronger writing on this topic, including the “On the Fetish Character” essay, or his more generally substantial texts like Aesthetic Theory, Philosophy of New Music, and Beethoven. Starting from them, a potentially more interesting Adornian theory of pop music could emerge).
All the same, “On Popular Music” offers two thoughts that function as preemptive responses to writers such as Hughes. For one thing, Adorno offers a more robust defense of the relevance of music to social life than our dancers. Adorno is deeply concerned for music as a social process and a social problem. He offers an implicit defense of understanding art as a phenomenon both autonomous from and deeply implicated in sociality (this, of course, was one of the key concerns of a text like Aesthetic Theory, and so is much more explicit in that text).
Whereas many scholars are basically content to view music as a sonic metaphor for social practice, Adorno worries that such an understanding impoverishes art. A hostile reading of Hughes, for example, leads disco dancing to look pretty trivial in comparison to what it represents: a truly post-hierarchal, egalitarian world wholly open to queer people. Likewise, Madrid makes a forceful plea for a truly post-colonial world where full moral dignity is extended to postcolonial people. If both must be realized in practice – and they obviously should, I think – it seems absurd to set music to this task. Indeed, given the stakes, we ought to be ashamed for contenting ourselves to speak of art at all.
Rather than simply valorize art as a foil to politics, however, “On Popular Music” takes seriously the worry that art really may not be enough. Adorno worries that music’s inability to repeat us into a better society makes it a woefully disappointing “empire” in comparison to the actual empires on the march in the late 1930s. Even worse, Adorno’s fear is that art’s uncanny proximity to experiences of democratic sociality might content us in spite of the relative absence of such experiences in the broader world. In his account of glamour-mindedness, popular music functions as a “mental construct of the success story in which the hardworking American settler triumphs over impassive nature” (448-9); this is a reading of art which is not miles away from Hughes, Pini, or Madrid’s estimations of art working out better models of sociality.
But Adorno recognizes that such experiences are compartmentalized in modern society. We are not allowed to live the glamor we glimpse in art. EDM subcultures function like Adorno’s neon-signs, giving us Friday night utopias or a few years of nomadic existence before we rejoin the labor force and slink further down into poverty. Most horrifying of all, such experiences recruit the very people who ought to be discontent with the capitalist division of labor into its ranks as consumer-advocates. My satisfaction with exuberant weekends spent in clubs obscures the dismal situation thrust upon me during the other five days of the week.
Adorno’s account necessarily would need to be reconfigured in light of the decades that have passed since his death; serious art today has never seemed less serious in its history, and one could hardly accuse much of pop music of being too content with our world. Yet I think Adorno’s essay still points directly at the guilt art bears whenever it calls attention to the glamorous enclaves of an otherwise wrong world. But the essay’s most important impart might be for our own relationship as scholars to this world; we should be wary, lest our scholarship function like neon signs.