If left wing commentators view popular music as a problem, songwriting usually lies at the heart of the matter. This critique spirals out from a statement made by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology: ‘The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it’. Mental production in popular music is most often equated with the songwriting process. The danger, from a Marxist point of view, is that pop songs are no more than a reflection of the economic system that underpins their creation.
In Marx's and Engels’ formulation we have the base (the economic system) and the superstructure (the political and cultural system). Marx suggested that ‘The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life-process in general’. This is where we get the idea that economics ‘determine’ cultural production. Engels did, however, add a proviso. He stated that, while economic conditions are ‘ultimately decisive’, the influence isn’t wholly one-way: ‘the traditions which haunt human minds also play a part, although not the decisive one’.
The relationship between the base and superstructure is at the forefront of criticisms of popular music, whether these are made by academic theorists, journalists, fans or musicians themselves. For example, the indies vs. majors debate has rattled on for nearly a century now and is reliant on a belief that the major corporations’ economic systems are reflected in their musical product.
These criticisms were at their most acute when records were mass produced. It was suggested that the standardized, factory-based nature of creating records was reflected in the standardized nature of recordings. This is what Theodor Adorno almost said. He hated popular music and he hated popular music songwriting most of all. Spelling out his thoughts in his ‘On Popular Music Essay’ of 1941, he claimed, ‘The whole structure of popular music is standardized, even where the attempt is made to circumnavigate standardization’. Adorno, along with his fellow Frankfurt school theorist, Max Horkheimer, coined the term ‘culture industry’ to make clear the link between the production of popular culture and the assembly-line manufacture of industrial goods. Adorno’s argument could occasionally be subtle, however. He pointed out:
Though all industrial mass production necessarily eventuates in standardization, the production of popular music can be called ‘industrial’ only in its promotion and distribution, whereas the act of producing a song-hit still remains in a handicraft stage. […] It would not increase the costs of production if the various composers of hit tunes did not follow certain standard patterns. Therefore, we must look for other reasons for structural standardization – very different reasons from those which account for the standardization of motor cars and breakfast foods.
Adorno’s answer was ‘imitation’. He suggested that, ‘As one particular song scored a great success, hundreds of others sprang up imitating the successful one’. This resulted in ‘the crystallization of standards’, which were ‘rigidly enforced upon the material to be promoted’. The major record companies ‘institutionalized the standardization, and made it imperative’.
Adorno’s views were echoed by Jacques Attali, the French economist and music theorist who acted as advisor to François Mitterrand. In his 1977 book Noise, Attali drew up a Marxian historical account of musical development, equating four stages of music with four phases of production and reception. His account of the era of mass production was labelled ‘repeating’. Just like Adorno, he saw stultifying standardization:
Fetishized as a commodity, music is illustrative of the evolution of our entire society: deritualize a social form, repress an activity of the body, specialize its practice, sell it as spectacle, generalize its consumption, then see to it that it is stockpiled until it loses its meaning. Today, music heralds […] the establishment of a society of repetition in which nothing will happen anymore.
Also like Adorno, Attali stopped short of suggesting that the repetitive nature of record manufacture determined the repetitive nature of music. In fact, he viewed things the other way around. He argued that music ‘heralds, for it is prophetic’. Here, the superstructure precedes the base: ‘music is prophetic … social organization echoes it’.
Attali’s way of thinking has been pertinent in the internet age. We have seen music at the forefront of change. Along with pornography, it has been the most prophetic form of popular culture when it comes to dematerialization, piracy and transforming the economic base.
It is therefore worth returning to the conclusion of Noise. Attali posited ‘repeating’ as his third musical era. He did, however, envision a fourth: ‘composing’. He had a utopian vision of a society that would be beyond commerce: ‘composition is revealed as the demand for a truly different system of organization, a network within which a different kind of music and different social relations can arise. A music produced by each individual for himself, for pleasure outside of meaning, usage and exchange’.
If music can be viewed as being prophetic, then so can Attali. The internet has provided a ‘different system of organization’, it has produced a musical culture that exists outside of ‘exchange’, and it has made it more readily possible for each individual to create and distribute music. It has also, as I argued in an earlier post, produced a greater focus on ‘composition’.
But where are our new ‘social relations’? Moreover, where is our new music? Despite all the economic changes of the present century, popular music could still be regarded as being standardized. In fact, songwriting has now moved beyond the handicraft stage to become industrial. Adorno viewed popular music songwriting as being ‘individualistic’. This may have been the case in the 1940s, but songwriting teams piece together many of today’s hits. While some people will work on the rhythm track, others will provide the top line. One composer can provide the lyric for the main melody, while a hip hop artist can be called upon for a middle eight of rhymes.
Adorno and Attali were fixated with songwriting. For them, composition lay at the heart of all that was wrong with popular music. Consequently, it provided the solution if this form of culture was to get things right. Adorno also prioritized particular elements of musical creation: those that have been central to classical music, such as melody and harmony. It was these that popular music needed to improve. However, as Bernard Gendron has pointed out, if we focus on these elements it is possible to see ‘sameness’ in popular music. Conversely, if we focus on ‘timbre and connotation’ we can see ‘difference’ from song to song and between artist and artist. Gendron’s case against standardization is a strong one, but it remains subject to a ‘classical’ point of view. The response to Adorno’s criticisms of popular music doesn’t have to be found in songwriting; there are other and perhaps better ways of suggesting that the music is diverse. It can have huge variety when it comes to feel, inflection, groove and dynamics.
Or at least this used to be the case. Looked at from one angle, developments within computing technology have transformed popular music economics; looked at from another, they have made the creation of popular music more conservative. The focus is now on composition, just as it is with classical music and other 'high' arts. Adorno and Attali might have considered this the route to musical utopia, but as their writing makes clear, putting songwriting at the forefront only makes popular music seem more standardized. Moreover, despite the transformation of business practices, the music hasn’t entirely escaped exchange. If anything, the creation of mainstream popular music is more economically motivated than it was when it was less ‘mentally’ indebted. We have lost a bodily focus on timbre and feel and replaced it with a cerebral one that is centred on planning and editing. Popular music still has its problems, but it is clear that songwriting is not the only answer. An alternative solution is to decompose.