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volume 2
january 2000

On popular music


  II. Presentation of the material
  by Theodor W. Adorno, with the assistance of George Simpson
  Originally published in: Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, New York: Institute of Social Research, 1941, IX, 17-48.
  Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969)

According to Adorno every popular song can be made into hit by plugging it: "Provided the material fulfills certain minimum requirements, any given song can be plugged and made a success, if there is adequate tie-up between publishing houses, name bands, radio and moving pictures." In this second part of his essay on popular music Adorno goes into these requierements and the mechanisms of plugging. The other parts of this essay treat the subjects of the musical material and the impact on the listener.

1 Minimum requirements. The structure of the musical material requires a technique of its own by which it is enforced. This process may be roughly defined as "plugging". The term "plugging" originally had the narrow meaning of ceaseless repetition of one particular hit in order to make it "successful". We here use it in the broad sense, to signify a continuation of the inherent processes of composition and arrangement of the musical material. Plugging aims to break down the resistance to the musically ever-equal or identical by, as it were, closing the avenues of escape from the ever-equal. It leads the listener to become enraptured with the inescapable. And thus it leads to the institutionalization and standardization of listening habits themselves. Listeners become so accustomed to the recurrence of the same things that they react automatically. The standardization of the material requires a plugging mechanism from outside, since everything equals everything else to such an extent that the emphasis on presentation which is provided by plugging must substitute for the lack of genuine individuality in the material. The listener of normal musical intelligence who hears the Kundry motif of "Parsifal" for the first time is likely to recognize it when it is played again because it is unmistakable and not exchangeable for anything else. If the same listener were confronted with an average song-hit, he would not be able to distinguish it from any other unless it were repeated so often that he would be forced to remember it. Repetition gives a psychological importance which it could otherwise never have. Thus plugging is the inevitable complement of standardization. [3]
2 Provided the material fulfills certain minimum requirements, any given song can be plugged and made a success, if there is adequate tie-up between publishing houses, name bands, radio and moving pictures. Most important is the following requirement: To be plugged, a song-hit must have at least one feature by which it can be distinguished from any other, and yet possess the complete conventionality and triviality of all others. The actual criterion by which a song is judged worthy of plugging is paradoxical. The publisher wants a piece of music that is fundamentally the same as all the other current hits and simultaneously fundamentally different from them. Only if it is the same does it have a chance of being sold automatically, without requiring any effort on the part of the customer, and of presenting itself as a musical institution. And only if it is different can it be distinguished from other songs — a requirement for being remembered and hence for being successful.
3 Of course, this double desideratum cannot be fulfilled. In the case of actual published and plugged songs, one will generally find some sort of compromise, something which is by and large the same and bears just one isolated trade-mark which makes it appear to he original. The distinguishing feature must not necessarily be melodic, [4] but may consist of metrical irregularities, particular chords or particular sound colors.
4 Glamor. A further requirement of plugging is a certain richness and roundness of sound. This requirement evolves that feature in the whole plugging mechanism which is most overtly bound up with advertising as a business as well as with the commercialization of entertainment. It is also particularly representative of the inter-relationship of standardization and pseudo-individualization.
5 It is musical glamor: those innumerable passages in song arrangements which appear to communicate the "now we present" attitude. The musical flourishes which accompany MGM's roaring lion whenever he opens his majestic mouth are analogous to the non-leonine sounds of musical glamor heard over the air.
6 Glamor-mindedness may optimistically be regarded as a mental construct of the success story in which the hardworking American settler triumphs over impassive nature, which is finally forced to yield up its riches. However, in a world that is no longer a frontier world, the problem of glamor cannot be regarded as so easily soluble. Glamor is made into the eternal conqueror's song of the common man; he who is never permitted to conquer in life conquers in glamor. The triumph is actually the self-styled triumph of the business man who announces that he will offer the same product at a lower price.
7 The conditions for this function of glamor are entirely different from those of frontier life. They apply to the mechanization of labor and to the workaday life of the masses. Boredom has become so great that only the brightest colors have any chance of being lifted out of the general drabness. Yet, it is just those violent colors which bear witness to the omnipotence of mechanical, industrial production itself. Nothing could be more stereotyped than the pinkish red neon lights which abound in front of shops, moving picture theatres and restaurants. By glamorizing, they attract attention. But the means by which they are used to overcome humdrum reality are more humdrum than the reality itself. That which aims to achieve glamor becomes a more uniform activity than what it seeks to glamorize. If it were really attractive in itself, it would have no more means of support than a really original popular composition. It would violate the law of the sameness of the putatively unsame. The term glamorous is applied to those faces, colors, sounds which, by the light they irradiate, differ from the rest. But all glamor girls look alike and the glamor effects of popular music are equivalent to each other.
8 As far as the pioneer character of glamor is concerned, there is an overlapping and a change of function rather than an innocent survival of the past. To be sure, the world of glamor is a show, akin to shooting galleries, the glaring lights of the circus and deafening brass bands. As such, the function of glamor may have originally been associated with a sort of advertising which strove artificially to produce demands in a social setting not yet entirely permeated by the market. The post-competitive capitalism of the present day uses for its own purposes devices of a still immature economy. Thus, glamor has a haunting quality of historic revival in radio, comparable to the revival of the midway circus barker in today's radio barker who implores his unseen audience not to fail to sample wares and does so in tones which arouse hopes beyond the capacity of the commodity to fulfill. All glamor is bound up with some sort of trickery. Listeners are nowhere more tricked by popular music than in its glamorous passages. Flourishes and jubilations express triumphant thanksgiving for the music itself — a self-eulogy of its own achievement in exhorting the listener to exultation and of its identification with the aim of the agency in promoting a great event. However, as this event does not take place apart from its own celebration, the triumphant thanksgiving offered up by the music is a self-betrayal. It is likely to make itself felt as such unconsciously in the listeners, just as the child resents the adult's praising the gifts he made to the child in the same words which the child feels it is his own privilege to use.
9 Baby talk. It is not accidental that glamor leads to child-behavior. Glamor, which plays on the listener's desire for strength, is concomitant with a musical language which betokens dependence. The children's jokes, the purposely wrong orthography, the use of children's expressions in advertising, take the form of a musical children's language in popular music. There are many examples of lyrics characterized by an ambiguous irony in that, while affecting a children's language, they at the same time display contempt of the adult for the child or even give a derogatory or sadistic meaning to children's expressions ("Goody, Goody," "A Tisket a Tasket," "London Bridge is Falling Down," "Cry, Baby, Cry"). Genuine and pseudo-nursery rhymes are combined with purposeful alterations of the lyrics of original nursery rhymes in order to make them commercial hits.
10 The music, as well as the lyrics, tends to affect such a children's language. Some of its principal characteristics are: unabating repetition of some particular musical formula comparable to the attitude of a child incessantly uttering the same demand ("I Want to Be Happy"); [5] the limitation of many melodies to very few tones, comparable to the way in which a small child speaks before he has the full alphabet at his disposal; purposely wrong harmonization resembling the way in which small children express themselves, in incorrect grammar; also certain over-sweet sound colors, functioning like musical cookies and candies. Treating adults as children is involved in that representation of fun which is aimed at relieving the strain of their adult responsibilities. Moreover, the children's language serves to make the musical product "popular" with the subjects by attempting to bridge, in the subjects' consciousness, the distance between themselves and the plugging agencies, by approaching them with the trusting attitude of the child asking an adult for the correct time even though he knows neither the strange man nor the meaning of time.
11 Plugging the whole field. The plugging of songs is only a part of a mechanism and obtains its proper meaning within the system as a whole. Basic to the system is the plugging of styles and personalities. The plugging of certain styles is exemplified in the word swing. This term has neither a definite and unambiguous meaning nor does it mark a sharp difference from the period of pre-swing hot jazz up to the middle thirties. The lack of justification in the material for the use of the term arouses the suspicion that its usage is entirely due to plugging — in order to rejuvenate an old commodity by giving it a new title. Similarly plugged is the whole swing terminology indulged in by jazz journalism and used by jitterbugs, a terminology which, according to Hobson, makes jazz musicians wince. [6] The less inherent in the material are the characteristics plugged by a pseudo-expert terminology, the more are such auxiliary forces as announcers and commentaries needed.
12 There is good reason to believe that this journalism partly belongs immediately to the plugging mechanism, insofar as it depends upon publishers, agencies, and name bands. At this point, however, a sociological qualification is pertinent. Under contemporary economic conditions, it is often futile to look for "corruption", because people are compelled to behave voluntarily in ways one expected them to behave in only when they were paid for it. The journalists who take part in the promotion of a Hollywood "oomph-girl" need not be bribed at all by the motion picture industry. The publicity given to the girl by the industry itself is in complete accord with the ideology pervading the journalism which takes it up. And this ideology has become the audience's. The match appears to have been made in heaven. The journalists speak with unbought voices. Once a certain level of economic backing for plugging has been reached, the plugging process transcends its own causes and becomes an autonomous social force.
13 Above all other elements of the plugging mechanism stands the plugging of personalities, particularly of band leaders. Most of the features actually attributable to jazz arrangers are officially credited to the conductor; arrangers, who are probably the most competent musicians in the United States, often remain in obscurity, like scenario writers in the movies. The conductor is the man who immediately faces the audience; he is close kin to the actor who impresses the public either by his joviality and genial manner or by dictatorial gestures. It is the face-to-face relation with the conductor which makes it possible to transfer to him any achievement.
14 Further, the leader and his band are still largely regarded by the audience as bearers of improvisatory spontaneity. The more actual improvisation disappears in the process of standardization and the more it is superseded by elaborate schemes, the more must the idea of improvisation be maintained before the audience. The arranger remains obscure partly because of the necessity for avoiding the slightest hint that popular music may not be improvised, but must, in most cases, be fixed and systematized.
3. As the actual working of the plugging mechanism on the American scene of popular music is described in full detail in a study by Duncan MacDougald, the present study confines itself to a theoretical discussion of some of the more general aspects of the enforcement of the material. Return to text
4. Technical analysis must add certain reservations to any acceptance of listener reactions at their face value in the case of the concept of melody. Listeners to popular music speak mainly about melody and rhythm, sometimes about instrumentation, rarely or never about harmony and form. Within the standard scheme of popular music, however, melody itself is by no means autonomous in the sense of an independent line developing in the horizontal dimension of music. Melody is, rather, a function of harmony. The so-called melodies in popular music are generally arabesques, dependent upon the sequence of harmonies. What appears to the listener to be primarily melodic is actually fundamentally harmonic, its melodic structure a mere derivative. It would be valuable to study exactly what laymen call a melody. It would probably turn out to be a succession of tones related to one another by simple and easily understandable harmonic functions, within the framework of the eight bar period. There is a large gap between the layman's idea of a melody and its strictly musical connotation. Return to text
5. The most famous literary example of this attitude is "Want to shee the wheels go wound" (John Habberton, Helen's Babies, New York, p. 9 ff). One could easily imagine a "novelty" song being based upon that phrase. Return to text
6. Wilder Hobson, American Jazz Music, p. 153, New York, 1939. Return to text