This post is part of my series on Pop, Power & the Vocal-Subject
Theodor W. Adorno would have liked Burial’s music. This is a ridiculous statement of course, not only because it is impossible to verify, but because if he were still alive when the Burial LP was released – a cantankerous old public intellectual of 102 – he would almost certainly have disliked it, dismissing it with all the other beat-driven commodity music whose slight innovations of timbre, texture and timing still pale in comparison to the radical freedom of 1910s expressionism. But to accept this would be to accept Adorno as the elitist, culturally imperialist music critic, constructing ad hoc theories to valorise his own taste whilst patronisingly proscribing all real agency by non-academic musicians in advance. This is not the Adorno that I’ve been making use of in these essays, and it is not an Adorno that has any real use in contemporary music criticism. Moreover, even if the above characterisation is an exaggeration, I still think any such a gloss on Adorno confuses the conclusions of his theories with their processes and rationale.
To take Adorno’s sociology of music seriously as a critical tool, and not just an ad hoc construction based on his personal tastes or on the music’s actual material relations of production, is to ask: what kind of music would Adorno be promoting if he were a music writer of today?1 In this essay, I suggest that the exceptional popular and critical reception of Burial can be understood with reference to Adorno, in particular his writing on Mahler, as a particularly ‘truthful’ (or, at any rate, convincing) expression of the contemporary subject within what Gilles Deleuze and others have called ‘the societies of control’. Along with the music of James Blake, I frame Burial’s music in terms of an Adorno-friendly strategy of resistance on the part of a musical (vocal-)subjects, against the oppressive social conditions of the day. What’s more, I will (of course) argue that Burial’s achievement of this relies on a direct engagement with the categories that I’ve been developing over the course of the previous chapters: vocal-subject, objective instrumental forces, song world, technologies of control.