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Indispensable but flawed
on 30 July 2008
Adorno's essays develop his theory that "mass culture" - he speaks particularly of modern popular music - has degenerated so that one can only see it today as a commodity. There is, for him, no question of art in this music ; rather the masses' tastes are produced by the industry which sells the music.
Adorno is one of the few writers who have developed in detail the very widespread idea in academic circles that popular music is bereft of any human or artistic value. The whole field of study of popular music has in a way been erected by reaction againt the analyses of Adorno. From this point of view it is important to look at what he wrote.
Nevertheless his analysis is tremendously problematic. If what he says is true, different changes in popular music ( the arrival of rock, punk, rap, blues or techno) reflect nothing more than the introduction of gadgets to sell more records, and in no way reflect social or artistic developments; in this way pop music is seen to be outside history.
Adorno claims a background in marxism, which makes it perhaps all the more surprising that he does not see popular music as a contradictory phenomenon containing voices and values from different social classes, in conflict within the genre. But his marxism was that which had more or less written off the mass of workers as agents of social change. It is then perhaps unsurprisings that for him, as well as not being able to change the world, ordinary workers listen to music, and write music, which is of no value.