28 Feb 2014

Chapter 1.5: Music and the Societies of Control, or, Why Adorno Would Have Liked Burial

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.

17 Feb 2014

Chapter 1.4: Asymmetrical Warfare: Voice, Topic, Resistance

This post is part of my series on Pop, Power & the Vocal-Subject

The previous essays in this series have begun to look at the power relationship inherent in all pop songs, between the ‘vocal-subject’ and the ‘objective musical forces’. The last essay in particular concentrated on the power and control that these instrumental forces exert on the vocal-subject, in terms of ‘technologies of control’ (timbral, rhythmic, dynamic, textural), but also ways in which the vocal-subject can resist this domination. The strategies of resistance addressed in those analyses, through co-opting, subverting, derailing or ironising the instrumental forces, constitute what I would call resistance through strength, which is often effected through the unique linguistic power of the vocals, allowing them to assign meaning directly, as well as their strategic placement in time relative to the beat.

In this essay, I will explore some very different ways in which the vocal-subject can resist the power of the instrumental forces – what I’ve previously called the ‘song world’ or ‘situation’ of the song – focusing instead on the possibility of critique and resistance through an affirmation of weakness. Rather than beginning from a discussion of objective musical forces and their ‘technologies of power’, this discussion begins with the vocal-subject and how, through ‘asymmetrical’ power relations and irreconcilable difference, their very weakness can become their strength. With this shift in focus from forces to subject, there is an accompanying shift from class-based politics to identity politics, ethics and post-colonialist thought. Yet the ‘sonic warfare’ metaphor still carries, feeding into the notion of ‘assymetrical warfare’: conflict situations between unevenly-matched groups, such as in guerrilla warfare.

10 Feb 2014

Chapter 1.3: Beat Control, Power Chords

This post is part of my series on Pop, Power & the Vocal-Subject

In the last two chapters, I set out the concept of the 'vocal-subject' in the pop song, as it exists within the 'song world' given form by the 'objective musical forces'. The relationship between these two elements of the song produces meaning through the distribution of power and control, agency and domination. In the chapters that constitute Part 1 of this essay series, I focus on just one particular direction of this power relation. This particular chapter will focus on the following two questions:
  1. How is the vocal-subject dominated and controlled by the objective musical forces?
  2. How does the vocal-subject resist this domination and control?
To address these questions, this chapter focuses on those pop recordings in which the objective musical forces exert a relentlessly dominating and structuring force, against which the vocal-subject has very little power. A vocal-subject can be controlled and structured through being 'contained' within a metre and key, coerced into following a certain structural progression or moulded into a pre-established melodic or rhythmic identity. However, these songs actually materialise their forces of domination sonically, allowing for a more overt playing out of power struggles, quite removed from the 'standardising' coercion evoked in Adorno’s critiques of pop and jazz, which allow an ‘illusory freedom’ to be maintained.

The two key musical dimensions by which instrumental forces in pop tracks manifest excessive power and control are: 1) through rhythmic-harmonic repetition, either on a small scale (beat-to-beat) or a larger scale (looped progressions/motifs), and 2) through ‘heavy’ and ‘powerful’ timbres (or textures). We might, after Michel Foucault (2004), label these as two ‘technologies’ of power by which the vocal-subject is subjugated, ordered and controlled. They vaguely correspond to his two categories of regulatory ‘discipline’ and spectacular ‘punishment’, and can be differentiated as below:

   Examples: constant beats, grooves, looped progressions, pre-existent cyclic structures, grounds
‘Black noise’
   Examples: thick, dense, heavy overwhelming timbres, distortion, overdrive, power chords
‘White noise’

In the essay that follows, I will discuss the particular qualities of each ‘technology’ of power, making particular use of the work of Steve Goodman and his book Sonic Warfare (2010), but extrapolating his ideas onto the terrain of the song itself, and the sonic battles fought between vocal-subject and instrumental forces.

3 Feb 2014

Chapter 1.2: Adorno, Autonomy, and the Blues

This post is part of my series on Pop, Power & the Vocal-Subject

Over the course of this essay series, I’m attempting to develop a political theory of pop music (as well as a theory of ‘political music’, or ‘the political’ in pop music). In the previous chapter, I framed the pop song in terms of an opposition between ‘vocal-subject’ and ‘objective musical forces’; this chapter will begin to ask what kind of relationships these two discrete elements can have. Much of my focus will be on the distribution of power in these relationships: control vs. resistance, autonomy vs. domination, freedom vs. constraint, structure vs. agency, repression vs. revolution, etc. In approaching these relationships, I’ll draw on the work of the twentieth-century theorist who has done most to explore them, as they are realised within the sonic structures of musical pieces themselves: Theodor W. Adorno.

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.