Adorno’s Sociology of Music

Below, in a non-italic typeface, is a wikipedia edit which will probably get hosed.

I keep returning to Adorno’s experience at the Princeton Radio Research project because it is a social experience that is never talked about but continuously experienced. A person is hired as a “knowledge worker” because he or she seems to be very intelligent and well-informed, and to have the ability and desire to create a disruptive technology or analysis.

The interview is a love-feast.

But on the first day of the job, the knowledge worker is given a ration of shit about reusing with excessive respect what turns out to be a pile of crap as opposed to theorizing What Is To Be Done.

“Don’t make me think!”

Ideas disappear and become a clash of personalities and bodies as in grade school: thus it was more important that Adorno was a funny sounding little schlemeil (where Yiddish evolved rapidly in the USA to sort strangers into creeps/not creeps, kosher or tref, etc. as a genuine survival mechanism) than the fact that he had perfect pitch and could annotate his output with musical bars written accurately in musical notation.

We’re not supposed to say this, but the Holocaust was not metaphysically unique. If you lose all chance at a university appointment after being first in the class because you’re a Jew (or today a Palestinian or Palestinian sympathiser) you’re not supposed to interpret your experience in the emigre job market in the same light, as a second derivative so to speak of the Holocaust.

This I find on reflection a curious logic, akin to my experience in families, both my family of origin and my marriage. It is the emotional “logic” of “my pain is metaphysically unique because I’m a woman, or your son, or whatever, therefore it may not be compared, nor even spoken of”. “The Palestinians may not use the word ‘Holocaust’ to describe Gaza”.

Adorno was in the playbook supposed to be eternally grateful to the USA for giving him a way to escape Hitler. But the USA systematically excluded ordinary and less educated Jews during the Holocaust: Edwin Black, in his study IBM and the Holocaust, reproduces a tragic letter from a mere IBM data processing technician and Jew to Thomas Watson Sr., IBM’s founder, begging him for any sort of job out of Germany: the letter went unanswered.

[Herb Grosch, the IBMer who had a beard when beards were suspect, said of IBM “nobody who wants an international assignment will get one”. This was humorous but in my experience true, and tragically true in the case of the IBM employee in 1939.]

In view of this fact, and in view of the fact that the USA forced Britain to abandon the Palestinians rather than admit more Jews or anger Truman’s constituency, “gratitude” and celebration of the sort seen from other emigres would have been misplaced.

Rather than a Shoah, a unique event to be senselessly interpreted metaphysically as Divine intervention (for what?) in the history of the Jews, a tectonic (ecological) interpretation of the Holocaust would make it an explosion of an underlying global pressure which was found in the over-eagerness of Paul Lazarsfeld to please David Sarnoff by keeping “costs” down…such as the cost of a funny looking guy doing “nothing” but “write stuff”.

In the corporation, which Lazarsfeld was operating in spirit, any human activity can be analyzed as a waste of time from a preselected point of view, with one signal exception: making pure money. This is the reason for the savage, barbaric, Gadarene-swinish stampede that started in the Eighties into pure finance, the consequences of which have been horrendous: anything but making pure money might be a waste of time.

In 1986, I was enthusiastically hired by Princeton University because in the interview I breezily connected by humanities knowledge with technology. But on the job I was non-promotable: because I was constantly connecting my humanities knowledge with technology, and this irritated some of the more burned-out employees.


The experience is modal. I just met a journalist. She found working on a newspaper horrifying and now freelances because everyone’s supposed to sing the praises of a free press while never filing anything but malarkey, with enough bonehead errors in grammar and spelling to make editors feel important.

We drink about it. We cry about it. We beat our spouses about it and neglect our children about it. But we cannot talk about what it is to live inside a contradiction.

I have nothing much to say at parties since usually the music is so loud that a complete sentence is unheard, and as to “picking up girls”, well, been there, done that, and like Pistol, “old do I wax”. So, I put on cutoffs which are inappropriately short in the heat of the jungle in which I live, go to parties and dance to whatever music is playing.

One is self-conscious at first but it passes. I like to move, and took some dance training. It is art, including the anguish of thinking, “why am I moving this way? Is this movement authentic? How will it be interpreted? Why is there something rather than nothing?” But then you are one with the music and the questions die down. “We can only say, there the dance is: we cannot say where” (TS Eliot).

I’m not exactly the life of the party but I behave myself otherwise, and one bloke dancing by himself reassures the other blokes, who are in American and British culture dance-averse, that it is OK if they dance with or without their sweetie pie assuming they have one. Deejays and musicians are males permitted to move but in white, Western culture, almost unique in a global sense, one’s not “supposed” to participate in the social reproduction of music by moving one’s body, under the iron (Western: British-American) law of “cool” which has become the new “character armor” in Fromm’s sense: something that keeps us from love and enables us to work.

When I first came to Lamma Island, we had a rave that lasted six or more hours and I danced throughout, waking up the next morning feeling rather creaky but refreshed.

Would Adorno approve? Who cares!

OK, here is my wikipedia submission.

One example of the clash of intellectual culture and Adorno’s methods can be found in Paul Lazarsfeld, the American (and Americanized) sociologist for whom Adorno worked in the middle 1930s after fleeing Hitler. As Rolf Wiggershaus recounts in ”The Frankfurt School, Its History, Theories and Political Significance” (MIT 1995) and Stefan Müller-Doohm confirms in his recent biography of Adorno (Polity 2005), Lazarsfeld was the director of a project, funded and inspired by David Sarnoff (the head of [[RCA]]), to discover both the sort of music that listeners of radio liked and ways to improve their “taste”, so that RCA could profitably air more classical music…Sarnoff was, it appears, genuinely concerned with the low level of taste in this era of “Especially for You” and other forgotten hits, but needed assurance that RCA could viably air classical music.

Lazarsfeld, however, had trouble both with the prose style of the work Adorno handed in and what Lazarsfeld thought was Adorno’s habit of “jumping to conclusions” without being willing to do the scut work of collecting data. He was also troubled by the density of Adorno’s prose. The perception seems to have been in modern terms that Adorno wasn’t a “team player”. Stefan Müller-Doohm writes (p 246): “right from the start, however, the collaboration between the two-one a social researcher, the other an intellectual-was anything but plain sailing”.

Adorno was interested in what today’s sociologists would consider a “thick” description of radio listening that would take music theory of the most advanced sort into account, whereas Lazarsfeld wanted to simplify the musical aspect by taking into account “what people actually like”. In a collection of papers recently published, “Current of Music” (Polity 2008), it’s clear that Adorno felt that the questionnaire responses “I like”, “I do not like”, or “I give it four out of five stars” and so on neglected what the actual interviewee knows or does not know about music and how she likes music.

His fundamental insight was that “liking a piece of music” is not a simple, unanalyzable predicate. Some listeners at a classical concert might drift off into reveries having little to do with the music when it reminds them of erotic or what Adorno called “culinary” experience, and during this detour and frolic, they cannot be said to be listening to new developments in the music, such as occur unpredictably in Mahler, or following classical forms. Other listeners may be admiring the good fortune which has brought them to the private box and their refined taste, like Al Capone at the opera in the movie the Untouchables, or Reynhardt Heydrich (the architect of the Holocaust) listening to Schubert.

In “Current of Music” Adorno refused to spare the new “big band” music of the late 1930s and 1940s from this pitiless analysis of attention and preference. Before Frank Zappa (way before), Adorno pointed out that listeners to what he called jitterbug music didn’t seem to be genuinely enjoying the sounds, and were more careful to be seen as being “cool”, as rejecting the immediately preceding “sweet” sounds with rigidity, like the Showroom Dummies in Kraftwerk.

The Princeton Radio Research project occured at a critical juncture. Robert Hullot-Kentor, in his editor’s introduction to Current of Music, reveals that in the 1920s, most radio music in the USA was classical music, strangely enough. Sarnoff was dismayed, perhaps, by the growth in radio jazz, which was a form always assumed to be “popular” in American culture owing to racism despite the fact that the proto-jazz ragtime composer, Scott Joplin, considered himself an African-American classical musician.

Adorno unwittingly (given his well-known dislike of jazz, based less on racism and more on his ignorance of non-European cultures, a common failing of the German scholar at the time) threw a monkey wrench into this plan by pointing out that was considered “high class” listening to “high class” music was in fact inattention to and ignorance of form. He showed simple ways of teaching the actual structure of well-known pieces such as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony that could probably have been understood by Sarnoff’s audience.

However, according to Müller-Doohm, Lazarsfeld’s plan was to exploit RCA in order to become an intellectual “tycoon”, and minimize “costs”. Despite the fact that when Adorno, who himself was a good entrepreneur of necessity, formed with Horkheimer the Institute for Social Research, Adorno proved willing to use questionnaires and empirical research (having dreams about IBM punched cards), Lazarsfeld, who’d wanted to import a first-rate European scholar, discovered that first-rate European scholarship was an open-ended cost center. The result was that Adorno was essentially fired.

Instead, lightweight musical journalists such as Deems Taylor and assimilated composers including Aaron Copland and George Gershwin spread the meme (through films including Disney’s Fantasia) that it was simple to be a high-class listener to classical music: that no training in performance or theory would be necessary: and that the best way to listen to a symphony was to wait patiently for familiar themes (such as the “heigh-ho Silver” theme from William Tell) and then evoke hopefully an idea (freedom from the bad guy capitalist) or failing that an image (the Lone Ranger) whilst staying more or less awake.

The result was the gradual collapse between 1940 and today of a mass audience for classical music, precisely the reverse of Lazarsfeld’s intention. Adorno never reconciled himself to this, returning to the subject of pop music in the 1960s to use the Beatles and “protest” music as examples of music that created mass conservatism in spite of the overt message.

Of course, Adorno’s early essay “On Jazz” makes it clear that he was literally unable to listen to popular music because the crudity of mass market sound reproduction and musical performance probably caused him that sort of physical pain which musically trained people evince today when played music on You Tube.

Adorno did make friends in the USA with popular entertainers and musicians in Hollywood, according to Müller-Doohm but there is no record of him ever connecting with popular American music in any significant way. In the category of “light” music, and with the caveat that Adorno refused to make any distinction between the light and the serious that would give light music an independent right to exist, he appears, like most German emigres, to have preferred operetta and the march form, which he credits as having a clear structure.

Since Adorno died in 1970, it is only a thought experiment to reflect whether he would have “liked” (connected with) Kraftwerk, Nina Hagen, or the Clash. Unavoidable is the fact that Adorno as a Marxist was never reconciled with the predetermination of the length of a song imposed by the needs of the market, not only to sell individual tracks on Amazon today, or assemble several tracks into a 45 rpm or long-playing format for sale in the past, but also with savagery to separate music-that-sells from music-that-doesn’t-sell.

He would instead point out that the machine takes away the product from the maker, whereupon Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, a worker’s anthem, becomes a patriotic tune, and today’s military gradually replaces the 19th century march with rock tunes.

However, Adorno might have been happy to have a drink with Frank Zappa.


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