This post is part of my series on Pop, Power & the Vocal-Subject
It is well known that Adorno hated pop music. In fact, for those who’ve heard of him as a music theorist rather than a philosopher, it is often one of the only things that is known. Attempts to defend jazz and pop from the spectre of Adorno have largely involved the cultivation of alternative perspectives and ways of understanding the music (as resistant/freely expressive) which show up Adorno’s critical outlook as narrow, inappropriate and culturally imperialist. My tactic is to engage with pop music as music on Adorno’s terms. This will largely involve applying his critical work on modern classical music (as the music of his historical moment) to pop music (as the music of our historical moment). To do this, I will adapt his notion of the part-whole relationship within musical structures as homologous to social structures, replacing it with my notion of the relationship between vocal-subject and objective musical forces as homologous to various different structures (including social structures). By doing this, I will retain some of his focus on dynamics of power and control, freedom and coercion, but attempt to find resistant and critical potential in the pop music that he would probably have roundly dismissed.
This chapter will give a partial overview of Adorno’s approach to a critical ‘sociology of music’, before demonstrating its implications for the relationship between vocal-subject and objective musical forces, in the examples of Robert Schumann's Lieder and Robert Johnson's Delta blues. These two musical styles will initially be framed with a kind of neo-Adornian absolutism, as exemplary of a free and autonomous subject on the one hand, and a highly controlled and constrained subject on the other. I will then address some of the anti-Adornian positions on such a hearing of the blues form, in particular the concept of Signifyin(g), before examining the implications of all these perspectives for interpretations of resistance and critique.
In the previous essay, I mentioned Adorno as a theorist whose philosophy of a musical ‘subject’ provides a precedent to my own. The particular structural homology that he hears in music, however, is quite inflexible, and allows him to judge the value of musical compositions in relation to his own theories of modern society. Adorno’s method, according to Robert Witkin, is ‘to set music up as a drama or event-world in which part-whole relations within a musical work can be treated as a structural analogue of part-whole (individual-society) relations in society.’ (Witkin 1998: 195)
This equating of part-whole relations in musical compositions with the mediated relations of ‘individual’ and ‘society’ is fundamental in all Adorno’s theorising of music. …When Adorno seeks the individual expressive subject in music, he discovers it in the dynamic elements or parts (the motivic-thematic particles) which develop through repetition and variation; against them he sets the totality of the composition, the ‘form’ to which they give rise and within which they develop and which he equates with the objective (external) collective force of society. (31)This ‘isomorphism’ between artistic structures and social structures is what allows Adorno to assess what he understood as the value of art. For Adorno, ‘there is a moral dimension in aesthetic praxis’ (191) – artists have a particular ethical responsibility in their work, which is the responsibility to represent the world as it really is. He saw very clearly, as outlined in his critique of ‘the culture industry’, the huge capacity that artistic production had to pacify people, to disseminate a false image of the world as peaceful and harmonious, and otherwise to mask or distract from the real and intensifying suffering and alienation produced by (capitalist) modernity. For this reason, the primary category for Adorno’s judgement of music is that of truth, and the ‘truth-content’ of a musical work can only be judged in relation to its immediate socio-historical context: it must be ‘historical’. And the truth of Adorno’s historical moment – that of the early twentieth century, late modernity and bourgeois society – was the ‘rupture between subject and object’ (i.e. between the human individual and their environment, society, the natural world, etc.):
Such a subject is not a complete or full subject, one that is at home in the world – that is, one whose spiritual integrity is grounded in society. There is a moral choice to be made here: either one can face up to one’s responsibility to struggle with the world, to be fully historical, or one can retreat into a so-called realm of pure subjectivity… For Adorno, to choose the latter was to abdicate from responsibility for the world; it was a cowardly way out of the demands of becoming historical under modern conditions. The choice extended from the praxis of everyday life to the praxis of the arts. (23)For this reason, Adorno’s music criticism can only really be understood alongside his sociological and philosophical writings; his value criteria, based on what he perceived as the truth of the individual’s relationship to society, are revealed throughout his work, and he uses musical structures as models for his sociological concepts. The truth-content of music therefore has to do with the extent to which the part-whole relations in the musical structure, between the individual motives and the overall form, reflect the ‘true’ part-whole relations in contemporary social structure, between the individual and society.
It was this criterion which informed Adorno’s criticism of classical, tonal music - Beethoven’s middle-period symphonies, for example - in which (in the paradigmatic form of the ‘sonata allegro’) the spontaneous development of the core, individual motive leads to the organic, harmonious formation of the overall closed form. This is an ‘idealised’ depiction of Adorno’s social subject (‘The social constitution of the subject is the self-development of the subject’ (47)), but it is not a truthful reflection of the relationship between the subject and society at that period of history.
Classical tonality, no less than linear perspective or the conventions of the absolute drama, was integral to bourgeois ideology. As ideology, it offered an image of reconciliation. In an antagonistic society constructed for the exploitation of nature, all social relations bear the scars of that antagonism and no identity is possible between the oppressive force of society and the spiritual needs of the individual. In that sense, bourgeois art is false and partakes in the construction of illusion and not truth.1 (45)
However, there was another dimension to this aesthetic praxis. It was not enough to recognise and represent a dominating, alienating society, even a totalitarian society; the artist must continue to identify with the alienated, suffering subject, in all its weakness, rather than the dominating forces of oppression. This is the key to a critical musical praxis, which Adorno relates to the literature of Franz Kafka:
Criticism, here…meant that in depicting the objective truth of the power of the collective force of modern bureaucratic society and the weakness of the individual subjects who are its victims, an artist like Kafka struck from it an expression of the suffering of the victims, a sense of what has been done to them, of what was withheld from them, of loss and absence. In the presence of this absence, as disclosed in the sufferings of society’s victims, the artist provided a via negativa from which to glimpse utopia. (4)Hence, ‘in the best modern music, the awful force of technological administered society is made to express the subject who suffers its absurdity, fragmentation and meaninglessness and yet who somehow endures, somehow resists being absorbed, refuses identity’ (17).
Mimesis vs. Construction
Adorno frames the relationship between subject and society (or totality) as one of control, by making a distinction between two potential types of relationship: mimesis and construction. Witkin describes this as ‘a polar opposition between a process of ordering which proceeds from the domination of the whole over the parts and one developed from the spontaneous development of the parts to the whole’ (48).
Just as the actions of the individual can be totalistically determined from above, in the most authoritarian manner, or can be organised from below through social interaction and negotiation among ‘free’ individuals, so, in music, the same poles exist in respect of the organisation of the musical ‘material’ which may be totally constructed from above – Adorno saw pre-classical music in this way – or spontaneously and expressively ordered from below, as (in appearance) was Beethoven’s music. (31)For Adorno, the key contemporary manifestations of these two processes were, on the one hand, the ‘expressionist’ music of Schoenberg and Berg, and on the other hand, the music of Stravinsky, as well as jazz and serialism. The music in this latter category, structured through the imposition of forms from above, was a ‘totalitarian’ music. These totalitarian forms could be what he called ‘rhythmic-spatial’ (dance) forms, like in Stravinsky’s ballets, the regular beat and common progressions of jazz, or the straitjacketing ‘twelve-tone’ system developed in Schoenberg’s later works.
Clearly, it is possible to hear a dystopian analogy in such systems: if we imagine musical motifs as subjects that want to express themselves and develop freely, such restrictive systems impose limits, regulations and norms as if from ‘outside’. ‘The individual is totally subsumed by the collectivity, and his or her relations with others mechanically determined, in a de-sociated and atemporal reality’ (182). However, Adorno’s castigation of ‘totalitarian’ music goes further. Because, in his sociology, he clearly acknowledges the presence and danger of potentially ‘totalitarian’ social formations and configurations (after all, the triumph of fascism was very much a reality at the time he was writing), the real crime of ‘totalitarian’ music was in the subject’s ‘identification with the aggressor’. The motivic subject, which for Adorno - as part of a structural homology which aimed to reflect the truth of the world – was necessarily fragmented and alienated from its environment, would have to sacrifice its (true) individuality in order to be ordered comfortably and harmoniously within such imposed musical structures.
The closing of this gap between the subject and society – that is, the achievement of a complete identification of the subject with the collective force of society – demands a process of de-sociation, of de-individualisation. To identify with collective force as the aggressor is to abandon, at a stroke, the individuality that has been socially constructed and, as pure ego, to merge with the oppressor and gain access vicariously to its power. (74)The injunction to reflect social relations ‘truthfully’ and remain ‘historical’ also complicates the ideal process of mimesis. Because of the alienation of the subject from society and the fragmentary nature of modern life, the dream of mimesis as ‘the sensuous experience of the subject [seeking] to assimilate objects, discovering their likeness in itself’ (15) is ultimately impossible.
Adorno meets the Vocal-Subject
It is this tension between control ‘from above’ and control ‘from below’, along with its interpretation as homologous to socio-political configurations, which is the key element that I borrow from Adorno when listening to pop songs in terms of power and control. The vocal-subject in pop is distinct from Adorno’s motivic subject in that it cannot ever completely achieve mimesis and integrate/assimilate into its objective environment, just as it cannot be completely subsumed into any ‘totalitarian’ order. This is because – as I’ve argued – its unmediated ‘bodily’ quality means that it is always experienced as distinct from non-vocal sounds. While this complications the usefulness of many of Adorno’s ideas to this theoretical framework, the original alienation of human from non-human sounds certainly adheres to his notion of the alienation of the bourgeois subject from nature and from society, which he’d consider as true to the reflection of the modern experience.
In place of mimesis vs. construction, then, the typology of polarised relationship between vocal-subject and objective forces might be understood better in terms of free expression vs. total compulsion. In the former, the entirety of the objective musical forces would be at the service of the vocal-subject in its goal of genuine, authentic and autonomous expression. In the latter, the possibility of the vocal-subject’s free expression would be entirely foreclosed by the pre-existing, rigid and dominating structures of the objective forces, which the vocal-subject could neither resist nor co-opt. These two extremes of power distribution, neither of which would really be possible in its ‘pure’ form in popular, vocal music as we recognise it, resemble the sociological categories of structure and agency. One of the key debates in sociology in the twentieth century, this perspective counterbalances the possibility of free choice and action by individuals in society, with the ‘recurrent organization and patterned arrangements' of social structures, 'which are often said to be constraining and determining of actors and action' (Barker 2004: 191-192). Sociologists have posed a huge range of perspectives on the respective weight and value to be assigned to both terms (as well as denying the effective existence of each/both).2 Hearing the possibility of free, genuine expression on the part of the vocal-subject as the possibility of free action within society, different pop songs can be heard to propose different perspectives on the debate, as filtered through the specifics of the lyrical and extramusical semantic content.
Unlike Adorno, however, ‘truth-value’ is not my overriding category, not least because my starting point is subjective listening experience, and music as feeding into a dialogical praxis of socio-cultural critique which also includes critical writing and discussion, and extends to various listening and performing practices. In other words, the political value of ‘music’ as an entire practice and discipline doesn’t need to be completely immanent within the sounds, although it does start from there. There are various different ways to approach a socially-engaged music, of which the truthful reflection of contemporary experience is just one. The dynamics of power played out in pop songs can be framed as satire, as utopian or ironically dystopian, as a pedagogical or affective model for political action and attitude, or as socially/critically ‘realist’ on different registers, from psychologically-driven expressionism to dead-pan naturalism. And even if a song seems to resist a critical or emancipatory reading (and I make no bones about the fact that my practice – just like all interpretive practices – is to draw these songs, willingly or not, into a dialogue with my own (political) ‘agenda’), it can still be useful in a study of embedded ideologies. In these essays, there is no good or bad music, just political possibility and political foreclosure.
A more pluralist approach towards a politicised music criticism/listening praxis can only benefit from what Byron Almén calls music’s ‘flexibility of referential specificity and definition’ (Almén 2008: 227). Almén, whose focus is more on music’s ability to articulate narrative (more about this in Part 2), describes the features of music which are equally salient to its richness of potential in the simultaneous representation and criticism of power structures:
Narratives [in music] can, for example, be staged between actorial units [e.g. the vocal-subject/other non-vocal forces], with and against paradigmatic expectations, using conventionalized ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ associations, between densely denotative symbolic units. Likewise, they can inflect that struggle in political, gendered, psychological, cosmic, mythic, or even ‘abstract’ terms. Musical events are constantly acquiring, shedding, and adjusting meanings; attention to these meanings can suggest convincing narrative and rhetorical frameworks for interpretation. (227)
In order to illustrate the ideas expressed above, I now want to turn to two different ‘conventional’ configurations of power distribution within two starkly opposed genres: the Lieder (or German art songs) of Robert Schumann and the early blues, in its classic 'twelve-bar' format. While these two genres can be contrasted in very strong terms with regards to socio-economic, cultural and racial context and significance, they are also easily comparable in that both are quintessentially song forms, with often brief durations, involving a solo voice and solo accompaniment instrument (a piano in Lieder, a guitar in blues). My argument is that the relationship between voice and accompaniment in Lieder represents the apotheosis of the ideal of ‘free expression’ and control ‘from below’, while this same relationship in the twelve-bar blues represents an extreme and politicised example of the dominance of ‘structure’ and control ‘from above’. These opposite extremes of musical power distribution refer quite clearly to the starkly differing power distribution within the respective situations of the subject represented in each. I chose to include examples which articulate this dichotomy in the clearest possible terms, even if such analyses may seem tired or clichéd, since most of the pop music that I go on to discuss works somewhere between these two extremes.
The Ideal of Free Subjective Expression: Schumann’s Lieder
When I say that the musical structure is controlled ‘from below’ in Schumann’s Lieder, by the vocal-subject rather than the objective musical forces, I mean that it is the spontaneous movement of the vocal line which dictates the direction of the harmony, tempo and dynamic flow. The vocal-subject is neither contained by a key nor by a regular pulse. Moreover, musical form (patterns of large-scale repetition etc.) are crystallised through the free movement of the vocal line, rather than imposed by demarcating events in the accompaniment. When regular forms or patterns emerge, the listener doesn’t hear them as predestined or imposed by the accompaniment, but instead taking shape through the decisions of the vocal line. The first-time listener can’t necessarily predict that these forms will take shape in the way they do (although the pre-existing limitations of common practice tonality does of course have some delimiting effect). This emphasis on musical form as taking shape spontaneously is fundamental to Adorno, who said:
Nothing deserves to be called an art work that keeps the contingent at bay. For by definition form is form of something and this something must not be allowed to degenerate into a tautological iteration of form. (quoted in Witkin 1998: 49)The accompanying forces (i.e. the piano) are, in turn, effectively yoked to the vocal line for the purposes of expression. The harmony, rhythmic structure and texture that the piano provides contextualises the melodic line, giving it meaning, but the control that the vocal-subject wields over the accompanying forces clearly establishes these forces as part of the expressive content of the vocal line. The harmony and texture is effectively deployed by the vocal-subject in order to extend its subjective expressivity beyond the linguistic content of the lyrics. This demonstrates a power, on the vocal-subject’s part, not just to express the otherwise inexpressible, but to bring the objective (musical) world into the service of subjectification and self-expression.
- Cartography: The piano begins with a relatively static accompaniment texture, over which the voice enters before departing on a harmonic ‘journey’. The character (rhythmic, textural) of the accompaniment texture here is retained while the vocal phrases proceed to lead it through different keys and, via the metre and cadence of the lyrical phrase, establish small- and large-scale structures. In these instances, the accompaniment forces can be said to establish the ‘materiality’ of a musical ‘terrain’ or ‘landscape’ onto which the vocal-subject emerges, but it is the vocal-subject who leads the listener through this (psychological/emotional) terrain. There is no real sense of harmonic movement or phrase structure before the vocal enters. Examples: ‘Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden’, ‘Berg und Burgen schau’n herunter’ (Liederkreis), ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’ & ‘Ich grolle nicht’ (Dichterliebe).
- Pathetic Fallacy: The piano begins with an introductory phrase or refrain that contains some harmonic movement and reaches a cadential point. The voice enters as this introductory phrase repeats, adding a melodic line and lyrics to it, or adopting its melodic identity wholesale, before ‘bending’ this phrase away from any further repetition, towards new key areas, altering, disrupting and repurposing the structure of the phrase. Here, the accompaniment forces establish a more fully-realised ‘world’, with its own dynamics, into which the vocal-subject enters. This objective world then becomes (or is revealed to be) a subjective world, as it is instrumentalised for the vocal-subject’s self-expression. Examples: ‘Es treibt mich hin’, ‘Anfange wollt’ ich fast verzagen’, ‘Mit Myrten und Rosen’ (Liederkreis) & ‘Hör ist das Liedchen klingen’ (Dichterliebe).
- Demiurgy: The voice initiates the song, either alone or with the piano following from the start. The vocal-subject, in this case, brings the ‘song world’ into being by effectively deploying texture, harmony and metre in the moment of expression (...in the beginning was the Word. Or, rather, the Voice.) Examples: ‘Lieb’ Liebchen, leg’s Händchen’ (Liederkreis) & most of Dichterliebe.3
Structure and Proscription in Early Blues
Adorno’s criticisms of jazz are well known.4 He heard in jazz the ‘standardisation’ of the commodity form, as well as the ‘rational-technical’ impetus of a modern capitalist society in which everything was flattened into equivalence and exchangeability, before being painted with superficial distinctions. The ordering, controlling imposition of the regular beat was one manifestation of this: the seeming imposition of a pulse ‘from outside’ rather than its generation ‘from within’. Another manifestation of this controlling standardisation was the set harmonic progressions and regular phrase lengths, which – according to him – weren’t in any way disrupted by the substitution of more colourful chords or blue notes.
In jazz [the melodic points] are harnessed, like the mock-beat of ‘hot music’, into the metric-harmonic schema of the ‘standard’ cadence of the eight-bar measure. The subjective-functional distribution of the melody remains impotent by being recalled as it were by the eight-bar condensation, into a melodic soprano form which merely toys with its particulars rather than composing a new form from them; this is true in the case of the complex harmonies when they are caught again by the same cadence from which their floating resonances want to escape. (quoted in Witkin 1998: 168)But Adorno's real problem with jazz went beyond his criticism of popular music in general as a cultural symptom of domination and standardisation, focusing instead on jazz’s particular claims to freedom. These were couched in the performance practice of improvisation, as well as the use of harmonies, rhythms and timbres which were generally considered subversive. Adorno considered this claim to freedom to be ‘illusory’. He heard the ‘irregularity’ of jazz as superficial, playing off an underlying conformity; the syncopated rhythms only sound free because of the deeply entrenched beat which underpins them. For Adorno, jazz constituted ‘an amalgam of deviation and excess on the one hand and utter rigidity on the other’ (163); this was supposedly symptomatic of jazz’s derivation from two stylistic traditions – salon music and the march:
If the salon style is responsible for the supposedly individual element in jazz, which Adorno sees as merely a socially produced illusion of freedom, the march represents a ‘completely fictive community which is formed from nothing other than the alignment of atoms under the force that is exerted upon them’ (T. Adorno 1989: 61)… In the admixture of salon music and the march, bourgeois individuality, as expressed in movement – the casual gait of individuals from the salon – appears to oppose the strict order of the march, to release the dancer from the prison of strict form and give expression to the arbitrary nature of everyday life, a life which, Adorno argues, is not escaped through dance but playfully transfigured there as a latent order. (168)Clearly any reading of jazz that fails to take into account its far more significant stylistic influences – African and African-American music, in particular the blues – should invite heavy criticism. I will address some of this criticism later; while there is plenty that is very short-sighted and certainly culturally imperialist about Adorno’s understanding (or more specifically his refusal to attempt a real understanding) of jazz music, I don’t think that his approach should be wholly rejected. Indeed, discounting his real-life dismissiveness, I actually believe that an unprejudiced Adornian hearing of early blues music could be a good route into some of the music's sonic politics.
The twelve-bar blues, as a formal convention in the music of Delta bluesmen like Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell, (as well as early pioneers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, and plenty of later blues musicians), can be considered extremely rigid in many respects. The strict formal scheme, with three phrases of four-bars per verse, progressing through the same harmonic movements, is combined with an equally strict lyrical convention in which the first two lines are repeated, and sung lyrics only extended over the first two bars of each four-bar phrase. All of these aspects, just like any clear formal conventions, can be heard as ‘imposed’ and ‘delimiting’. Even if we don’t presume to know the form before we hear the music, the regularity of the chord changes and the distribution of the phrases, as well as the repetition of the lyrics, enact this constraint in the song’s unfurling. The possibility of variation from this formula becomes less and less likely with each successive verse.
The locking-in of a regular metre, as well as regular phrase lengths and patterns, is certainly one of the key ways in which the objective musical forces order the world in which the vocal-subject is able to exist, move and act. In the next chapter, I’ll discuss music with a very present and regular beat, and the power relationships that this creates. However, by far the more significant dimension in which the non-vocal forces order the vocals in this early blues is through the harmonic progression.
A similar movement is effected in the lyrical couplet, what Susan McClary (2001) hears as the 'call' and 'response', with its schema of AAB. The restatement of this initial (usually woeful) line gives the sense of 'a reconsideration of the "call" in the second line, cast now in the new light of a changed harmonic context' (40); this is the 'context' of Chord IV - the fleeting moment of 'hope'. What McClary doesn't acknowledge is the crushing blow of what comes after; while the restatement of the initial woeful line might extend towards some hope of transformation, the third line wraps up the whole verse too abruptly, too brutally, with only the restatement or the reinforcement of the woe. There is an asymmetry to the lyrical scheme - the odd number, the repetition of one line but not the other - that is imposed by the fateful harmonic function of the final line.
A: I - I - I - I7
A: IV - IV - I - I
B: V - IV - I - IUsually, because of the ‘front-loaded’ word-setting in these songs, it is the vocal-subject that is associated with change/hope (the new chord), while the guitar drops back to Chord I after the end of their line. The use of an ‘anacrusis’ – words which precede the first strong beat in a lyric, and come before the first strong beat (and chord change) in the bar – corroborates this sense that it is the vocal-subject who is initiating each change, which remains unsustained as the progression slips back to the tonic chord. Hearing the blues song take form in this way would assign the instrumental forces, the riff, lick or 'response' constituting the second half of each phrase, with the function of pulling the harmony back to its original conditions. However, the key aspect of the blues is the fact that the progression is present underneath both the vocals and the instrumental forces. For Adorno, any alteration or change would be proscribed before the song were even to start. Unlike jazz, however, in the blues this is not masked by an illusory freedom. Instead, the gradual realisation of the impossibility of structural disruption, of escaping the preplanned harmonic format, is the narrative of each successive song. This ‘realisation’ occurs from verse to verse, as the pattern is repeated. The guitar is pulled back into the progression by the underlying structural rules – the impossibility of escaping chord I – and the voice, in turn, is pulled back by the guitar which can be heard as the manifestation in sound of these proscriptions.5
Linked are some examples of this harmonic scheme, in the Delta blues of Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell and Charlie Patton, which I chose mainly because the solo guitar accompaniment which they usually employ allows for an effective comparison with the piano-accompanied Lieder. The difference, of course, that the listener will often be aware of, is that the guitar is usually also played by the singer, while it is very rare for the Lied singer to provide their own accompaniment. This disposes the guitar towards a closer, more sympathetic relationship with the vocal-subject, in the listener's imagination, but it doesn't eradicate the qualitative difference of the voice's unique presence as voice.
One of the examples that McClary uses in her essay, which allows for a particularly nuanced investigation of the role of the guitar relative to the underlying blues schema, is Robert Johnson's 'Cross Road Blues'. As McClary notes:
Because he performs by himself, Johnson has no need to follow the standardized organization of ensemble blues, whereby each line receives four bars. Instead, phrase-length becomes one more element he can manipulate rhetorically. Typically in ‘Cross Road’ Johnson lingers after the first line, as his call is met with a varying number of guitar riffs that seem to obstruct his progress. The presentation of the second line operates similarly, with erratic extensions. But the final phrase often sounds truncated, with some bars of three rather than four beats. And no sooner does he achieve the conventional closure of the culminating line than he plunges on, as though dissatisfied, back into the maelstrom. He grants little relief here – as though hesitation at the cadence would meant that the devil (to whom Johnson’s peers believed he had sold his soul in exchange for his guitar technique) would claim him. (51)
There is a sense, in her commentary, that the guitar is ambivalent in its relationship to the voice. It can permit a freeing up of the metrical scheme, but this can also be heard to 'obstruct his [as in, the vocal-subject's] progress'. For McClary, it feeds into the Faustian myth that surrounded Johnson, by simultaneously enabling flights of superhuman fugitivity from damnation, while always leading inexorably 'back into the maelstrom' of his damned situation. Triangulating vocal-subject and guitar with the underlying captivity of the twelve-bar structure, this myth can be translated neatly onto a hearing of the vocal-subject's situation as appearing paradoxically more impotent the more free the vocal and guitar lines become. The inescapable despair of the devil's bargain is the existential angst of the blues, conditioning and delimiting all attempts at escape. What McClary describes as particular to 'Cross Road Blues' can, I believe, be generalised to many of the blues songs being recorded at the time, if not in quite such extreme language:
As idiosyncratic as ‘Cross Road’ may be, it relies on the blues format both for its affective quality of obsession and for its public intelligibility. Indeed, Johnson takes for granted that his audience knows the harmonic framework within which he operates: the changes themselves are only suggested as he concentrates instead on the pungent guitar riff that haunts the song. No longer just a glorified accompaniment pattern or the expected response to fill in the time between vocal lines, the riff comes to dominate ‘Cross Road’, serving double duty both as the amplification of the vocalist’s affect and as the object of dread against which he strains. The cross-rhythms set up within the guitar seem to allow no airspaces, no means of escape. Unlike ‘Hellhound Blues’, another of Johnson’s songs of metaphysical entrapment, there are no moments of relief – no ribald references to making love while awaiting doom. Instead we are locked into two-and-a-half minutes of concentrated horror – intense social alienation, images handed down from African vodun (which holds the cross road to be the terrain of Legba), and the entirely justified fear of what might well befall a black man in Mississippi in the 1930s caught outside after sundown. (51-52)Signifyin(g), and the Blues as Resistance
One of the key rejoinders to Adorno’s criticisms (and my own) can be found in Samuel A. Floyd Jr.’s essay ‘Ring Shout! Literary Studies, Historical Studies, and Black Music Inquiry’ (1999), which extends Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s discussion of ‘Signifyin(g)’ in black literature (see Gates 1998) to a discussion of music. Targeting those Western academics (like Adorno) who presume to assess one musical tradition (i.e. African-American music) within the aesthetic guidelines of a quite different tradition (i.e. Western classical music), Floyd basically sets out in very general terms one of the key ways in which African-American music functions meaningfully. Signifyin’, according to Gates, is a strategy of wordplay that ‘exploits the gaps between the denotative and figurative meanings of words’. For Floyd, the musical translation of this ‘gap’ is the ‘master musical trope of Call-Response’. He writes:
In music, calls, cries, hollers, riffs, licks, overlapping antiphony, and the various rhythmic, melodic, and other musical practices of the ring serve as Signifyin(g) musical figures and are used as such in musical compositions and performances. These musical figures, as well as others, are used to comment (Signify) on other figures, on the performances themselves, on other performances of the same pieces, and on other and completely different works of music. (Floyd 1999: 141)In this way, the relationship between the underlying form and the ‘superficial’ details is the substance of the work. There then needs to be a structure or convention on which to Signify in order to make music meaningfully in this way. This theory explains both Adorno’s ‘illusory’ freedom of the swung rhythms (as Floyd calls it ‘when sound-events Signify on the time-line, against the flow of its pulse’ (143)) and of improvisation which is Signifying ‘within a rhythmic and structural frame’. Moreover, for Floyd, Signifyin(g) can be a potent resistant or critical practice:
Such practices are criticism – perceptive and evaluative acts and expressions of approval and disapproval, validation and invalidation through the respectful, ironic, satirizing imitation, manipulation, extension, and elaboration of previously created and presented tropes and new ideas. (145)In this way, all the tiny rhythmic, melodic and timbral variations in the blues song, in both guitar and voice, could be heard as Signifyin(g) on the underlying format of the blues itself (the structures, rules and progressions), as well as other performances of that particular blues, and other blues songs. Such variations might include swung rhythms, licks, blue notes, vocal sighs and moans, breaks etc. Understood in this way, the practice of the blues song is one of taking this underlying structure – which can still be conceived of as (necessarily) rigid – and putting it through a series of critiques, without ever effacing it. Within the blues' own listening practice, the nature of the structure itself is supposedly taken for granted, and it is how this structure is realised is that is the whole of the content. The listener will know in advance, or as soon as the song starts, that the progression is likely to be set, and the interest is in the Signifyin(g). As McClary (2001) writes:
It is the formulaic status of [the twelve-bar] pattern that has enabled it to give rise to so many rich and varied repertoires, that allowed it to function so effectively as what literary critic Houston Baker calls a matrix of African American memory, to sustain personalized improvisation, to maximize communication and the immediate appreciation by listeners of even the most minute inflections. (38-39)For my purposes, approaching all my examples in terms of spontaneous sound experiences by listeners who don’t necessarily know in advance what’s going to happen (and who really knows for sure, without listening through, that a twelve-bar blues won’t turn into a fifteen-bar blues in the very last verse?), it is significant that the blues outlines these underlying structural conventions as it criticises them. There must be clear rules, order and constraints in order to hear the resistance to them. This is also the key to my particular 'Adornian' hearing of the early blues, which takes elements from Floyd and Baraka, as well as Adorno, in order to deal with it in its particularity as ‘listening music’ rather than as performance practice, cultural convention, etc.
The Blues and Adornian Truth-Content
The answer an Adornian might give to the critique derived from Gates and Floyd would reaffirm that Adorno’s sociology of music judges the truth-content of music made within modern bourgeois society, relative to the truth of the subject’s experience in that same society. It’s unlikely that Adorno would have criticised African music because it didn’t contain enough alienation or suffering. Jazz was a quintessential music of urban modernity, popular with the very people whose subjective experience Adorno’s sociology directly addressed. It was their consciousness he was particularly invested in, and he was interested in them as listeners and consumers, for whom culture had become part of their passive leisure time. The 'truth' he was interested in when he criticised popular music wasn’t necessarily the 'truth' of the African-American experience as a particular experience, since their subjectivity, alienation and suffering, while included within and intersected by certain alienating forces in modern Western capitalism, had its own very unique dimensions, symptoms and consequences. His criticism of jazz as a music was (clearly) removed from a consideration of race, and was instead part of an assessment of the effect of a particular style and practice of music (as part of an industrial complex) on a particular class within a particular place and time in history (i.e. the working classes in the modern Western metropolis).
At the same time, one of the problems with the idea of Signifyin(g) as a particularly critical strategy is that, since Signifyin(g) is such a universal paradigm for the way in which music derived from a certain tradition actually functions, there must within the practice of Signifyin(g) be ‘more’ or ‘less’ critical instances. As Floyd writes, these practices can be ‘approving’ or ‘disapproving’, ‘respectful’ or ‘satirising’, ‘validating’ or ‘invalidating’. In this way, Signifyin(g) as a concept – as a way of understanding the relationship between structure and detail, underlying form and elaboration – has a certain transparency, and cannot really be understood as critical or uncritical per se, although it can allow for either. It remains to be shown how critical Signifyin(g) manifests itself differently from respectful Signifyin(g), beyond the fact that all Signifyin(g) takes a wry, ambivalent attitude between the two, acknowledging the presence of rules and structures while playing against them and gently disrupting them.6 The other key question to ask with regards to Signifyin(g) is, if structure is required on which to Signify, what kinds of structures are chosen and why? If the Signifyin(g) practice is a critical one, then it necessarily refers back to the structure which is being criticised, meaning that it is important to understand how this structure is conceived of as meaningful.7
As I understand it, the blues is less of a problematic case than later jazz and pop, for both a conception of Signifyin(g) as critical, and for a neo-Adornian search for truth-value. The twelve-bar blues progression, in its inexorability, contains and restricts the voice both through the form of its repetition and regularity, and through the content of what is being repeated: the same sequence of failed, undermined escape. Adorno identifies the characteristic element of jazz as ‘helplessness’, but it is in the blues that this helplessness is expressed explicitly and self-consciously in the relationship between voice and guitar. The self-consciousness of this relationship is confirmed by the lyrics, which give expression to the poetic genre of the blues, as an lament and emotional state. Blues lyrics express an unhappy situation which remains unresolved. There is no closure, no sense of solution or escape; the purpose of the blues is to give voice to this scenario (addressed sometimes to a specific person and sometimes to the world in general) and, by Signifyin(g) on it, express dissatisfaction with it.
The acknowledgement and expression of, and reflection upon, this ‘helpless’ situation transfigures it into more of a self-reflexive ‘hopelessness’; a sober, often quite stoic hopelessness is inscribed in the dogged repetition of each twelve-bar cycle. Those Signifyin(g) gestures in both voice and guitar definitely contribute a kind of critique and resistance, but it is at the same time a hopeless resistance. It is not as purely resistant as Floyd makes out, nor is it anything like the 'false' emancipatory project that Adorno portrays in the case of jazz. It is exactly the kind of self-aware resistance against all odds, criticism with the knowledge of its own impotence, that Adorno ascribes particular truth-value to in his analyses of Mahler ‘as an artist for the weak and defeated’. The voice can and will never alter the blues progression, but this doesn’t stop it from attempting to resist, and from pulling against the beat and the harmony without effacing its dominating power. There is certainly no illusory freedom here: no utopia, no emancipation, no hope of action, only a constant restatement of failure. Christopher Small, in identifying some of these features, stresses the role of the blues as an articulation of endurance:
There is in the blues very little hint of genuine rebellion against the social conditions under which black Americans had to live in the early part of the present century; it has been suggested that, by helping to make the unbearable bearable it contributed to their continuing oppression, or at least at their acquiescence in that oppression. That has always seemed to me an insensitive and unimaginative suggestion, which takes no account of the real hopelessness of any form of overt rebellion in those years. What was needed, no less perhaps that in the days of slavery, was a tool for preserving the integrity of the self and of the community, and in that, it seems, blues was and, despite changes, remains effective. (213-214)'Preserving the integrity of the self' is perhaps the quintessential Adornian criterion for modern music, but in this context there is an interesting tension between the 'self and the community' which Small elides. This is because, in fact, what makes the blues a particularly pertinent musical practice to be given an Adornian treatment, and contrasted with European art song, is the notion of the quintessential modernity of the ex-slaves who pioneered it.
In an interview with Paul Gilroy in his Small Acts (1993), Toni Morrison described 'the intensity of the slave experience as something that marks out blacks as the first truly modern people':
Modern life begins with slavery...From a woman's point of view, in terms of confronting the problems of where the world is now, black women had to deal with "post-modern" problems in the nineteenth century and earlier. These things had to be addressed by black people a long time ago. Certain kinds of dissolution, the loss of and the need to reconstruct certain kinds of stability. Certain kinds of madness, deliberately going mad in order, as one of the characters says in [Beloved], "in order not to lose your mind". These strategies for survival made the truly modern person. (quoted on 179)Kodwo Eshun (2003) uses this notion in his exploration of Afrofuturism, framing the kidnapping of the slaves as a kind of alien abduction: 'The African subjects that experienced capture, theft, abduction, mutilation, and slavery were the first moderns. They underwent real conditions of existential homelessness, alienation, dislocation, and dehumanization that philosophers like Nietzsche would later define as quintessentially modern’ (288).
The blues formula, as structural homology, has certainly been heard as an articulation of the situation of the black American ex-slaves, just after the period of emancipation. Nominally, slavery was abolished, but the marginalisation, exploitation and alienation continued, enduring at a much deeper level than the mechanism of legalised slavery: 'That such [unaccountable and pervasive] depression should have been common among black Americans in the period after the failure of the great hopes engendered by Emancipation is scarcely surprising' (Small 1999: 197). There was a particular truth-value, by no means veiled, in the very relationship between particularity and generalisable formula throughout the blues at the time. These discrete twelve-bar blues were only really differentiated by the particularity of the lyrics. ‘Cross Road Blues’, 'Walking Blues', ‘Statesboro Blues’, ‘Dry Well Blues’ are all, of course, distinct blues in that they bemoan distinct scenarios and situations, but they are all instances of the same specific state or phenomenon – ‘the blues’ in general – whose homogeny as an emotional and existential state is confirmed by the homogeny of the musical form. The formulaicness of the blues acknowledges this fact, that beneath these particular experiences is the same underlying situation or experience, which is accessed or articulated by these particular events but run much deeper than them, precede them and will continue to follow them. As Baraka (1963) puts it:
Blues was a music that arose from the needs of a group, although it was assumed that each man had his own blues and that he would sing them. As such, the music was private and personal… But again it was assumed that anybody could sing the blues. If someone had lived in this world into manhood, it was taken for granted that he had been given the content of his verses. (82)One of Baraka's key arguments, in Blues People, is that the 'primitive' blues was made possible in the shift from a collective objecthood (as 'private property') to an individual subjecthood with emancipation:
Primitive blues-singing actually came into being because of the Civil War, in one sense. The emancipation of the slaves proposed for them a normal human existence, a humanity impossible under slavery. Of course, even after slavery the average Negro’s life in America was, using the more ebullient standards of the average American white man, a shabby, barren existence. But still this was the black man’s first experience of a time when he could be alone. (60)So what is significant about the blues is not that it reflects a heightened experience of (post-)modernity, but also that it reflects the experience of an individual subject within this (post-)modernity. Unlike the collective subject of the work songs and hollers, spirituals and gospel music, the blues gives birth to a black American vocal-subject:
This intensely personal nature of blues-singing is also the result of what can be called the Negro’s ‘American experience’. African songs dealt, as did the songs of a great many of the preliterate or classical civilizations, with the exploits of the social unit, usually the tribe. There were songs about the gods, their works and lives, about nature and the elements, about the nature of a man’s life on the earth and what he could expect after he died, but the insistence of blues verse on the life of the individual and his individual trials and successes on the earth is a manifestation of the whole Western concept of man’s life, and it is a development that could only be found in an American black man’s music. … The whole concept of the solo, of a man singing or playing by himself, was relatively unknown in West African music. (66)What then is the significance of the blues formula which constrains and determines every individual subjective expression of early black American experience? What was the provenance of Baker's '"always already" of Afro-American culture ... the multiplex, enabling script in which Afro-American cultural discourse is inscribed' (1987: 4)? The blues formula is the expression of an existential state that proceeded from a particular historical situation. It is the bleak quandary of how to achieve emancipation when you’re already ‘emancipated’: this is enacted in the chords themselves, in the hopefulness of the move to IV and then the disillusionment of the IV leading back to I in the final line. The blues was a self-conscious, political statement of hopelessness, very much in line with Adorno’s assessment of musical modernism. And the gap between the pure harmonic/metrical schema and its realisation, in infinite subtle variation, is the struggle for the promised ideal (American) subjecthood, proscribed by the racism that endures to this day.
The metaphysical Jordan of life after death was beginning to be replaced by the more pragmatic Jordan of the American master: the Jordan of what the ex-slave could see vaguely as self-determination. Not that that idea or emotion hadn’t been with the very first Africans who had been brought here; the difference was that the American Negro wanted some degree of self-determination where he was living. The desperation to return to Africa had begun to be replaced by another even more hopeless one. The Negro began to feel a desire to be more in this country, America, than chattel. (Baraka 1963: 63-64)There were, of course, specifically emancipatory and utopian traditions of African-American music, particularly gospel and spirituals. If the blues is understood in this way, then the progressive ‘freeing up’ of jazz, the project which culminates in ‘free jazz’ in the ‘50s, can be understood as the subject (voice, trumpet, saxophone, etc.) achieving more and more real, effective agency against the rigidity of the blues form. This too is an emancipatory project, which should be understood in tandem with the changing socio-political position of the black working class population in America. Baraka's book attempts a similar kind of genealogy; for him: 'Each phase of the Negro's music issued directly from the dictates of his social and psychological situation' (65), meaning 'the one particular referent to the drastic change in the Negro from slavery to ‘citizenship’ is his music' (x). Rather than understanding this progression as a retreat into illusory freedom (even though a critique could certainly be mounted of the ‘individualist’ freedom of free jazz as accompanying other individualist ‘freedoms’ in the counter-cultural movement in the ’50s and ‘60s), it could be understood as an evolution in political subjectivity from one of admitting and enduring hopelessness to one of imagining radical hope.
The Weapon/Burden of Language
One of the key ways in which the voice can resist the controlling and ordering power of the objective musical forces in pop songs, which certainly wouldn’t be acknowledged in Adorno’s theories, is through the use of language. In a much more literal sense than Floyd intended, language can be a way in which the vocal-subject can Signify on the musical forces, even as they are swept along, contained and controlled by them. Language is incredibly powerful in ordering and controlling the meaning extracted from the musical world as a whole, just as tonality and metre are powerful in ordering and controlling the vocal melody and its potential for musical expression.
Language can be deployed as a weapon by the voice, in what can be heard as a struggle for the control over meaning. Lyrics can impose a specific interpretation of a musical texture, by naming or framing it, either by creating semantic structures on the fly (i.e. ‘this sound means this feeling’), or by creating limits and boundaries on the possibilities of meaning (e.g. ‘this song is in an introspective mode, so these sounds must represent forces contained within a single psyche’). In turn, musical forces can shift to undermine these delineations, labels or sign systems, using their imposed specificity against them, moving towards incongruity, or deconstructing them through defying or exceeding their logic. Richard Middleton describes Dave Laing’s rather cautious assessment of this situation in his book Studying Popular Music (1990):
Laing’s suggestion is not the crude one that lyrics force the music into particular meanings but ‘that the words of a song give us the key to the human universe that the song inhabits, and that the musical signifieds may best be verbalised in a meta-language whose terms refer to the structure of that human universe’ (Laing 1969: 99). Laing, however, goes on immediately to argue that the words’ simple meanings are often transcended or modified, either when particularly strong musical conventions take precedence, or when lyric effects are transformed by the musical treatment of the words. (228)The world of the song can then be conceived as a terrain of expression. There is a constant negotiation of what is being/what can be expressed – how specifically, how sincerely, how congruously – between the vocal-subject’s linguistic signification and the musical world formed by the accompanying forces and inhabited musically by the voice as musical presence.
However, language can also be a burden; as a tool on which the vocal-subject relies for resistance and control, it is fundamentally limited and lacking. The limits of linguistic expression are well-discussed in twentieth-century philosophy, of course. But especially when put up against music, which can only ever be partially contained or ordered by language, language draws attention to its own inability to mean perfectly. Rather than being the problem that most music philosophers consider it to be, this imperfection of language, when placed alongside the dynamics played out in the music, is the quality that allows pop songs to function as they do.
The burden of language can be clearly heard in the example of the blues above, in which the particularity of the events detailed, which may be fairly inconsequential on their own, are made to express a more universal existential experience which cannot be fully articulated. The blues as a universal experience (or, perhaps, a specifically modern, African American, working-class experience) is not fully comprehensible as an edifice, just as the whole apparatus of exploitation and oppression which culminated in the African American experience circa 1900 is far too huge to begin to understand, let alone confront or resist.8 It is the glaring gap between the universal and the particular, the music and the words, which expresses the poignancy of the blues.
In the same way, in most pop music, language’s inability to fully express – and its association with an incomplete rational/conscious subjectivity (or persona, or self-identity, or self-narrative) at the core of a whole complex of drives, desires and feelings called the Self – is fundamental to its operation. In arguing that song words are ‘the vehicle for the voice’, Simon Frith represents a whole host of pop music theorists, primed in cultural studies, who tend to disavow the significance of lyrics as language, privileging them as instrumental vessels for the ‘real’ significance which is carried by the vocals as sound:
Pop songs celebrate not the articulate but the inarticulate, and the evaluation of pop singers depends not on words but on sounds – on the noises around the words. (quoted in Middleton 1990: 228)The sheer defensiveness of the word ‘celebrate’ here is symptomatic. Frith singles out black vocal music in particular as signifying in spite of language. He suggests that black music is in part defined by a ‘struggle against words…a quality of sincerity which can only be described in terms of sound, in terms not of what is sung but of how it is sung: the test of soul conviction is the singer’s way with non-words’.
What this analysis risks obscuring is that this vocal signification through sound rather than language actually draws attention to and comments upon language’s own failures. The words aren’t simply transparent vessels to which these singers resort for want of any other easily accessible phonic forms. It is a struggle indeed, but the words are present in this struggle, and fundamental to its significance as such. The voice reaches towards the inarticulable through the fragments of impotent words and their incomplete signification. The various lyrics that have been used to articulate the blues serve as initial access points, while simultaneously disavowing their capability to really access the matter at hand. Here again we perceive the practice of Signifyin(g), this time not on a pulse, a theme or a progression but on words. Again, simply acknowledging the fact of Signifyin(g) – to defend black music from the imperialist value judgements of European logocentrism - isn’t enough; we need to be aware of what structures are being Signified upon, and why.
An alternative interpretive framework, developed by Fred Moten in his book In the Break (2003), makes a link between the super-linguistic 'materiality of the voice' with 'the resistance of the object'. He discusses the entire black avant-garde tradition in terms of the '(re)production' of an original 'performance' - what he calls the 'primal scene' - which he equates with the subjectification/subjection of Fredrick Douglass (as subject/object, property/commodity) hearing the 'heart-rending shrieks' of his Aunt Hester being beaten by their master (initially discussed in Saidiya Hartman's Scenes of Subjection (1997)). Via Marx, Derrida and Nathaniel Mackey, Moten arrives at a hermeneutic framework concerned with 'the implications of the breaking of ... speech, the elevating disruption of the verbal that takes the rich content of the object's/commodity's aurality outside the confines of meaning precisely by way of this material trace' (6). This is tantamount to a 'disruption of the Enlightenment linguistic project' which 'allows a rearrangement of the relationship between notions of human freedom and notions of human essence' (7). Moten's theory of black performance takes place in a Marxian impossibility (the speech of the commodity) and a Saussurian 'degradation' (non-linguistic speech), in shriek of the slave-as-commodity, proclaiming its own exchange value:
These material degradations - fissures or invaginations of a foreclosed universality, a heroic but bounded eroticism - are black performances. There occurs in such performances a revaluation or reconstruction of value, one disruptive of the oppositions of speech and writing, and spirit and matter. It moves by way of the (phono-photo-porno-)graphic disruption the shriek carries out. This movement cuts and augments the primal. If we return again and again to a certain passion, a passionate response to passionate utterance, horn-voice-horn over percussion, a protest, an objection, it is because it is more than another violent scene of subjection too terrible to pass on; it is the ongoing performance, the prefigurative scene of a (re)appropriation - the deconstruction and reconstruction, the improvisational recording and revaluation - of value. (14)Here, Moten brings the issue of a vocality which Signifies on and against language (and signification itself) into a consideration of performance as repetition and reproduction (of the blues formula as 'foreclosed universality'), to propose a particular and radical pursuit of a uniquely black subjecthood, which makes something wholly resistant out of the struggle between American individualism and racialised (African/alien) collectivity that Baraka describes.
* * *
A Bourgeois ‘Hearing’: Self-Critique
Adorno’s formal analyses of musical works are preoccupied with meaning in the context of a hearing of the works. Adorno’s analyses develop a sophisticated appreciation of what he hears as ‘significant’ in the music… They are… centred more on a ‘composed hearing’. (5)
The cultural product isn’t necessarily inscribed with (and productive of) the ideology so much as the product sounds meaningful/intelligible/good because it is disposed towards a ‘bourgeois’ mode of hearing (and therefore reaffirms the ideology which already constitutes the ‘ear’ of the listener). This ‘bourgeois’ mode would be a mode of hearing that divides music into subject and objective forces, that 'reads' this dimension of separation/alienation into the work, and hence reproduces, in the collection of sounds, the same ‘individual’ who constitutes the modern bourgeois sense of self. One might then identify some tautology in Adorno’s project: he was being ‘historical’ by listening in a historical way for what he understood as historical in music that he deemed historical, etc.
In choosing to divide the subject from the objective world in this way, and hear the self in the pop song as if reflected in a sonic mirror, I too am relying on my ‘bourgeois’ ear, which invests meaning, identification and empathy in relation to my own sense of self.10 This is, of course, also how and why we understand and appreciate other bourgeois forms: novels, naturalist plays, drama films, etc. Adorno presupposes the listener’s alienation, as a modern subject within capitalism, for them to be able to conceive of music as a relationship between individual and society, false or not.
I certainly don’t think this matters. Adorno has written enough about society and modernity to give a great deal of context to his particular mode of listening – it’s fairly, though not entirely, self-reflexive and intended as a provocation anyway. What’s more, any assessment of musical meaning can never be empirical, and any project along those lines is doomed to a general vagueness which is quite unrepresentative of the effect of musical meaning on an individual level. The questions that should be continually asked of a project like this, which presupposes a particular listening practice in order to compare meanings and evaluate ‘truth’ with regards to different musical works, are these: Is the listening practice prevalent and does it shape interpretation which goes on to shape practice, attitudes and delimit values within the wider musical, aesthetic and socio-cultural world? All of the progressive and critical political readings that I give of pop songs in the chapters that follow rely on this particular mode of listening in order to present these attitudes. What’s more, any avant garde practice needs a dominant mode of reception, or ideology of interpretation, which it can dig into, derail or deconstruct. To begin to subvert, détourne, co-opt or over-identify with a problematic or hegemonic tradition or institution, there must be an understanding of the way in which it currently accrues and distributes meaning. This will prove significant in my essay on the ‘modernist’ strategies of Burial and James Blake (Chapter 1.5).
However, my insistence on this ‘bourgeois hearing’ of everything that comes under the radar of pop listeners, and is accepted as good or meaningful in a comparable way, does stretch the delineation that Peter Manuel made of the song form as bourgeois form (see Chapter 1.1). Manuel writes:
In the realm of popular music, song form has come to be rivaled, if not surpassed in quantity, by other forms, particularly those ostinato-based idioms informed by Afro-American music and its derivatives, including rock… Given the unprecedented dominance of capitalism, and, one would think, of the subsequent hegemony of bourgeois ideology, this lack of correspondence would seem to require some explanation – unless one chooses to discard the entire notion of homology between aesthetics and socioeconomic context. (Manuel 2002: 56-57)I think Manuel’s designation of rock as somehow qualitatively distinct from song form is a problematic one, and the same can be said of all the various points on the continuum from acoustic ballads at one end of the spectrum, to minimal techno or afrobeat or krautrock at the other. Certainly, some of these latter styles fit very uncomfortably with the various delineations of the bourgeois subjectivity in pop music, and my resulting interpretive frames. This is, of course, particularly the case with music that lacks a vocal track,11 but for music that does feature a lead vocalist, I think the way it is received must be abstracted somewhat from the socio-cultural conditions within which it was produced.
My wager is that there is a dominant bourgeois mode of hearing, to which pop radio is tuned, that assimilates all these ‘ostinato-based idioms’, given their resemblances to the ideal interpretive model. Certainly they are distorted or misrepresented in being heard in this way, and often they will be appropriated and reconstituted in some more ideologically consistent form (radio edits, adding vocals to instrumental tracks, troping dance styles to furnish pop hits, etc.) that repositions the musical forces in relation to a clear subject. This is certainly a key distinction between dance music with vocals and ‘dance pop’ music (although this distinction is muddied in intriguing ways through various remix tactics). It is also very apparent, however, in the distinction between the subject in disco, funk and jazz music compared to hip hop and contemporary R‘n’B music. If there is a vocal-subject in these earlier musical genres, it could be said to represent a general or ‘universal’ subject, in contrast to the more modern genres whose vocal-subjects are more ‘particular’. In this way, rather than the predominance of these black genres over the pop charts suggesting a wholesale attack on the bourgeois song form, this progression could be heard as the ‘bourgeoisification’ of black music, or of the black musical subject.
Clearly, the arguments made by writers such as Eshun, Moten and Baraka about the homologies between black diaspora music and subjecthood/experience, in their resonances with Adorno's critiques of modernity, have influenced my hearing of blues music as such. Baker's notion of the blues as 'matrix' both enables and complicates this, however. He calls the blues a 'phylogenetic recapitulation – a nonlinear, freely associative, nonsequential meditation – of species experience' (5). 'What emerges,' he continues, 'is not a filled subject, but an anonymous (nameless) voice issuing from the black (w)hole'. It mediates between particularities and universals, while (like Moten's 'primal scene' of Aunt Hester's Scream) proposing something like a particular black universal. But, when any possible fixed meaning of this universal, the blues progression, is clearly complicated by its presence in music that mobilises a huge range of semantic and affective fields: jazz, soul, all kinds of white blues and classic rock, R&B, rockabilly, psychobilly, etc etc. The way Baker describes the operation of this 'matrix' in his literary criticism, in terms of a 'blues effect', not only sheds some light on this problem, but also provides a useful commentary on my deployment of the 'vocal-subject' as a kind of 'song effect' in general:
The blues matrix is a ‘cultural invention’: a ‘negative symbol’ that generates (or obliges one to invent) its own referents. As an inventive trope, this matrix provides for [the] following chapters [of Baker's Blues, Ideology and Afro-American Literature] the type of image or model that is always present in accounts of culture and cultural products. If the analyses that I provide are successful, the blues matrix will have taken effect (and affect) through me.
To ‘take effect,’ of course, is not identical with to ‘come into existence’ or to ‘demonstrate serviceability for the first time.’ Because what I have defined as a blues matrix is so demonstrably anterior to any single instance of its cultural-explanatory employment, my predecessors as effectors are obvious legion. ‘Take effect,’ therefore, does not signify discovery in the traditional sense of that word. Rather, it signals the tropological nature of my uses of an already extant matrix. (9)At the same time, though, I don’t think there can be a ‘wrong’ way to listen to music, particularly if that music is found to be meaningful or valuable. It is part of the closeness-but-difference that these ostinato-based idioms share to Western popular song forms (as opposed, for example, to Indian classical music or Peking opera) which allows them to function as critical within this mode of listening, but also point outside this mode to other forms of listening and musical practice (or ‘musicking’ as Christopher Small would have it; see Chapter 5.2 on dance musics in particular). These qualities are acknowledged by Manuel (2002) later in his text:
As [Paul] Gilroy, George Lipsitz (1994), and others have stressed, the new musical sensibilities can be seen to reflect a critique of modernity and of capitalism, but not in the form of a headlong confrontation from an external, liberated zone (whether geographical, social, or attitudinal). Rather, they constitute immanent critiques largely from within modern capitalism itself. As such their strictly political significance – that is, as a challenge to the global capitalist world order – is arguably nil. Nor can they be unproblematically linked to a specific class configuration, such as the bourgeoisie or the underclass. It would thus seem that in the New World Order, with class struggle at a stalemate, these aspects of sociomusical evolution have tended to be conditioned primarily by features other than class-based sensibilities. (59-60)It is my opinion that this immanent critique operates, not through the incongruous presence of an alien musical style that cannot be reconciled with the idea of a vocal-subject or subjective song world, but for the very reason that such a style can still be heard as coherent, meaningful and valuable within this entrenched and predominant mode of listening.
We can still hear social homologies in non-bourgeois music, of course. These are often linked to perceived hierarchies or processes in performance practice and relations, processes of composition and improvisation, different everyday uses and forms of engagement. I would posit that, for ‘bourgeois listeners’, these homologies are often received in quite broad terms, relating to whole styles and genres, and often taking shape in contradistinction to more familiar musical structures, processes and practices. By hearing a configuration of sounds as ‘music’, we are automatically engaging with it in the terms of an ideology that was produced through all those other practices and experiences that have configured what ‘music’ can/should/must be to us. This is something which we can try to be aware of, critique and deconstruct, not least if we want to get a fuller appreciation of the potential significance of music that comes from other listening cultures, but at the same time, it’s something which we can also use in order to compose music, or direct musical discourse, within a politically progressive, critical or emancipatory praxis.
1 However, Witkin does admit that ‘such art can be seen to have a critical function. Insofar as its idealised integrity was manifestly not realised in bourgeois life, art, even as bourgeois ideology, could hold up to a bourgeois society an image of how far short it fell of its own ideals.’ This idea of utopia as critique will re-emerge in my discussion of the thoroughly un-bourgeois, post-capitalist ideology inscribed in certain dance musics, and their critical potential, in Chapter 5.2.↩
2 See Giddens 1984 for starters.↩
3 There are, of course, more problematic cases, although not necessarily counterexamples, within these song-cycles. In Dichterliebe’s ‘Aus alten Märchen’, the introductory piano phrase – after being pulled into the voice’s subjective world – wrenches free into another key, while the vocal-subject never really seems in control of the moto perpetuo waltz accompaniment underpinning ‘Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen’, which spins on obliviously. Additionally, there is something of a disjunction between the initial scene set in Liederkreis’s ‘Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen’ (a depiction of the trees (Bäumen) themselves, perhaps) and the scene through which the vocal-subject moves, the initial untrammeled landscape only recurring at the very end.↩
4 It's probably true to say that Adorno's understanding of jazz as a phenomenon probably wasn't particularly broad, even if he does subject some elements of the music to his particular brand of close scrutiny. He wrote 'On Jazz' in 1936, while studying at Oxford, after being forced into exile from Nazi Germany; it was another year before his first journey to New York, settling there in 1938 before moving to California in 1941. His essay seems to be aimed at the jazz orchestra, big band swing music and the 'hot' tropes which filtered into the music of Stravinsky, Weill and Krenek: 'jazz' as the music of the European bourgeoisie rather than an American subaltern class. He deems it an 'upper-class' music, and later writes: 'The extent to which jazz has anything at all to do with genuine black music is highly questionable; the fact that it is frequently performed by blacks and that the public clamors for "black jazz" as a sort of brand-name doesn't say much about it, even if folkloric research should confirm the African origin of many of many of its practices' (Adorno 2002: 477). It is probably the case that a combination of the kinds of watered-down reproductions of jazz that he happened to encounter in Europe, as well as a pronounced prejudice against the status of jazz as commodity music, allowed him to pursue such ad hoc arguments. For whatever reasons, he was able to write an essay three years earlier entitled 'Farewell to Jazz', in which he arguments that the Nazi regulation forbidding the broadcasting of 'Negro jazz' on the radio was actually merely symptomatic of the 'dissolution' of the genre: 'Jazz no more has anything to do with authentic Negro music, which has long since been falsified and industrially smoothed out here, than it is possessed of any destructive or threatening qualities' (496).↩
5 These are the implications of not taking the particular quality of the blues progression for granted, as it makes its appearance in any song. As an aesthetic structure, it is far from transparent - a mere genre signifier; the message, as they say, is the medium. And, like any musical structure, it reveals itself gradually over time. Questions to be asked include: why this particular chord progression as opposed to any other? Why does this progression work particularly well for the blues as literary and socio-cultural form? What do we hear in the blues progression as opposed to the standard kwela progression, for instance, which exceeds merely the tautological signified of 'blues', and its extramusical connotations? Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) proposes a historically-informed genealogy of the 'classic' blues format in Blues People (1963), based on its evolution from work songs and hollers, and the abilities of the first performers, but doesn't consider the particular quality of this - one of the most enduring and influential chord progressions in recent musical history - into full consideration.↩
6 Which actually reminds one of what Adorno himself wrote about jazz: 'It is determined by the possibility of letting the rigid vibrate, or more generally by the opportunity to produce interferences between the rigid and the excessive' (Adorno 2002: 471).↩
7 I will return to this notion, and to the limits of criticism and resistance that it implies, in my chapter on hip hop, to which the concept of Signifyin(g) is fundamental. If the dialogical relationship between structure and agency that Signifyin(g) involves is indeed one of the tropes which has been transferred from African-American music to rock, pop and dance musics over the last century, then it is fundamental to a lot of my analyses, not least in the next chapter, in which the vocal-subject can regain some power and control over meaning by Signifyin(g) on the objective musical forces. In these cases, I assess the specifically ‘critical’ or ‘resistant’ strategies on a song-by-song basis.↩
8 In this failure of comprehension, the 'post-modern' problems that Morrison identifies in the black female experience - 'Certain kinds of dissolution, the loss of and the need to reconstruct certain kinds of stability' - can be triangulated with Fredric Jameson's concept of the post-modern 'sublime', and the musicologist Adam Krims’s associated concept of the 'hip-hop sublime' (which I will discuss further in Chapter 6.1). Indeed, while the slaves were the first moderns, the blues - as a music that emerged following the moment of Emancipation - could just as well be conceived as an aesthetic response to a kind of postmodernity, faced with an erstwhile inconceivable freedom.↩
9 This is a formula that I derive principally from 'structural Marxist' philosopher Louis Althusser's influential essay 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses' (1971).↩
10 There is a basic logical problem here, in that potentially I only hear a particular kind of vocal-subject in a pop song because I expect to hear it, because I have an a priori idea of how a human subject is constituted and how it appears to itself, and to others. Given this ideology, arguments can be made on the basis of whether this subject appears as expected or not. This is clearly a specious basis on which to make any kind of universal, empirical claim. My rejoinder to this argument would be that what makes the pop song worth studying in the first place is the a priori fact that it is experienced as meaningful. The logic is not that the presence of a vocal-subject makes the song meaningful, but that the meaningfulness of the song, as experienced by myself as listener, suggests (among other things) the presence of a subject, as well as this particular type of subject. It is the generalisable meaningfulness of the specific pop song, allowing us to agree with the interpretations of others and arrive at a kind of consensus, that is the problem to be solved, and the vocal-subject is one solution.↩
11 Although the prevalence of the concept of 'dub' in the theory and practice of dance music does complicate this assertion, see: Penman 1995, Eshun 1998, Fisher 2013, etc.↩