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volume 2
january 2000

On popular music


  III. Theory about the listener
  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)

In this last part of his essay on popular music Adorno expands his analyses of the musical material and the presentation of popular music. Here he unfolds his theory of the listener. Popular music, he notes, changes individuality: "When popular music is repeated to such a degree that it does not any longer appear to be a device but rather an inherent element of the natural world, resistance assumes a different aspect because the unity of individuality begins to crack."

1 Recognition and acceptance. Mass listening habits today gravitate about recognition. Popular music and its plugging are focused on this habituation. The basic principle behind it is that one need only repeat something until it is recognized in order to make it accepted. This applies to the standardization of the material as well as to its plugging. What is necessary in order to understand the reasons for the popularity of the current type of hit music is a theoretical analysis of the processes involved in the transformation of repetition into recognition and of recognition into acceptance.
2 The concept of recognition, however, may appear to be too unspecific to explain modern mass listening. It can be argued that wherever musical understanding is concerned, the factor of recognition, being one of the basic functions of human knowing, must play an important role. Certainly one understands a Beethoven sonata only by recognizing some of its features as being abstractly identical with others which one knows from former experience, and by linking them up with the present experienee. The idea that a Beethoven sonata could be understood in a void without relating it to elements of musical language which one knows and recognizes — would be absurd. What matters, however, is what is recognized. What does a real listener recognize in a Beethoven sonata? He certainly recognizes the "system" upon which it is based: the major-minor tonality, the inter-relationship of keys which determines modulation, the different chords and their relative expressive value, certain melodic formulas, and certain structural patterns. (It would he absurd to deny that such patterns exist in serious music. But their function is of a different order. Granted all this recognition, it is still not sufficient for a comprehension of the musical sense.) All the recognizable elements are organized in good serious music by a concrete and unique musical totality from which they derive their particular meaning, in the same sense as a word in a poem derives its meaning from the totality of the poem and not from the everyday use of the word, although the recognition of this everydayness of the word may be the necessary presupposition of any understanding of the poem.
3 The musical sense of any piece of music may indeed be defined as that dimension of the piece which cannot be grasped by recognition alone, by its identification with something one knows. It can he built up only by spontaneously linking the known elements — a reaction as spontaneous by the listener as it was spontaneous by the composer — in order to experience the inherent novelty of the composition. The musical sense is the New — something which cannot be traced back to and subsumed under the configuration of the known, but which springs out of it, if the listener comes to its aid.
4 It is precisely this relationship between the recognized and the new which is destroyed in popular music. Recognition becomes an end instead of a mcans. The recognition of the mechanically familiar in a hit tune leaves nothing which can be grasped as new by a linking of the various elements. As a matter of fact, the link between the elements is pre-given in popular music as much as, or even to a greater extent than, the elements are themselves. Hence, recognition and understanding must here coincide, whereas in serious music understanding is the act by which universal recognition leads to the emergence of something fundamentally new.
5 An appropriate beginning for investigating recognition in respect of any particular song bit may he made by drafting a scheme which divides the experienee of recognition into its different components. Psychologically, all the factors we enumerate are interwoven to such a degree that it would be impossible to separate them from one another in reality, and any ternporal order given them would be bighly problematical. Our scheme is directed more toward the different objective elements involved in the experienee of recognition, than toward the way in which the actual experience feels to a particular individual or individuals.
6 The components we consider to be involved are the following:
a) Vague remembrance.
b) Actual identification.
c) Subsumption by label.
d) Self-reflection on the act of recognition.
e) Psychological transfer of recognition-authority to the object.
7 a) The more or less vague experience of being reminded of something ("I must have heard this somewhere"). The standardization of the material sets the stage for vague remembrance in practically every song, since each tune is reminiscent of the general pattern and of every other. An aboriginal prerequisite for this feeling is the exist. enee of a vastsupply of tunes, an incessant stream of popular musie which makes it impossible to remember each and every particular song.
8 b) The moment of actual identification — the actual "that's it" experienee. This is attained when vague remembrance is search-lighted by sudden awareness. It is comparable to the experienee one has sitting in a room that has been darkened when suddenly the electric light flares up again. By the suddenness of its being lit, the familiar furniture obtains, for a split second, the appearance of being novel. The spontaneous realization that this very piece is "the same as" what one heard at some other time, tends to sublate, for a moment, the ever-impending peril that something is as it always was.
9 It is characteristic of this factor of the recognition experience that it is marked by a sudden break. There is no gradation between the vague recollection and full awareness but, rather, a sort of psychological "jump". This component may be regarded as appearing somewhat later in time than vague remembrance. This is supported by consideration of the material. It is probably very difficult to recognize most song hits by the first two or three notes of their choruses; at least the first motif must have been played, and the actual act of recognition should be correlated in time with the apperception — or realization — of the first complete motifical "Gestalt" of the chorus.
10 c) The element of subsumption: the interpretation of the "that's it" experience by an experience such as "that's the hit "Night and Day"." It is this element in recognition (probably bound up with the remembrance of the title trade-mark of the song or the first words of its lyrics [7]) which relates recognition most intimately to the factor of social backing.
11 The most immediate implication of this component may be the following: the moment the listener recognizes the hit as the so and so — that is, as something established and known not merely to him alone — he feels safety in numbers and follows the crowd of all these who have heard the song before and who are supposed to have made its reputation. This is concomitant with or follows hard upon the heels of element b). The connecting reaction consists partly in the revelation to the listener that his apparently isolated, individual experience of a particular song is a collective experience. The moment of identification of some socially established highlight often has a dual meaning: one not only identifies it innocently as being this or that, subsuming it under this or that category, but by the very act of identifying it, one also tends unwittingly to identify oneself with the objective social agencies or with the power of these individuals who made this particular event fit into this pre-existing category and thus "established" it. The very fact that an individual is capable of identifying an object as this or that allows him to take vicarious part in the institution which made the event what it is and to identify himself with this very institution.
12 d) The element of self-reflection on the act of identification. ("Oh, I know it; this belongs to me.") This trend can be properly understood by considering the disproportion between the huge number of lesser-known songs and the new established ones. The individual who feels drowned by the stream of music feels a sort of triumph in the split second during which he is capable of identifying something. Masses of people are proud of their ability to recognize any music, as illustrated by the widespread habit of humming or whistling the tune of a familiar piece of music which has just been mentioned, in order to indicate one's knowledge of it, and the evident complacency which accompanies such an exhibition.
13 By the identification and subsumption of the present listening experience under the category "this is the hit so and so," this hit becomes an object to the listener, something fixed and permanent. This transformation of experience into object — the fact that by recognizing a piece of music one has command over it and can reproduce it from one's own memory — makes it more proprietable than ever. It has two conspicuous characteristics of property: permanence and being subject to the owner's arbitrary will. The permanence consists in the fact that if one remembers a song and can recall it all the time, it cannot be expropriated. The other element, that of control over music, consists in the ability to evoke it presumably at will at any given moment, to cut it short, and to treat it whimsically. The musical properties are, as it were, at the mercy of their owner. In order to clarify this element, it may be appropriate to point to one of its extreme though by no means rare manifestations. Many people, when they whistle or hum tunes they know, add tiny up-beat notes which sound as though they whipped or teased the melody. Their pleasure in possessing the melody takes the form of being free to misuse it. Their behavior toward the melody is like that of children who pull a dog's tail. They even enjoy, to a certain extent, making the melody wince or moan.
14 e) The element of "psychological transfer". "Damn it, 'Night and Day' is a good one!" This is the tendency to transfer the gratification of ownership to the object itself and to attribute to it, in terms of like, preference, or objective quality, the enjoyment of ownership which one has attained. The process of transfer is enhanced by plugging. While actually evoking the psychic processes of recognition, identification, and ownership, plugging simultaneously promotes the object itself and invests it, in the listener's consciousness, with all those qualities which in reality are due largely to the mechanism of identification. The listeners are executing the order to transfer to the music itself their self-congratulation on their ownership.
15 It may be added that the recognized social value inherent in the song hit is involved in the transfer of the gratification of ownership to the object which thus becomes "liked." The labeling process here comes to collectivize the ownership process. The listener feels flattered because he too owns what everyone owns. By owning an appreciated and marketed hit, one gets the illusion of value. This illusion of value in the listener is the basis for the evaluation of the musical material. At the moment of recognition of an established hit, a pseudo-public utility comes under the hegemony of the private listener. The musical owner who feels "I like this particular hit (because I know it)" achieves a delusion of grandeur comparable to a child's daydream about owning the railroad. Like the riddles in an advertising contest, song hits pose only questions of recognition which anyone can answer. Yet listeners enjoy giving the answers because they thus become identified with the powers that be.
16 It is obvious that these components do not appear in consciousness as they do in analysis. As the divergence between the illusion of private ownership and the reality of public ownership is a very wide one, and as everyone knows that what is written "Especially for You" is subject to the clause "any copying of the words or music of this song or any portion thereof makes the infringer liable to prosecution under the United States copyright law," one may not regard these processes as being too unconscious either. It is probably correct to assume that most listeners, in order to comply with what they regard as social desiderata and to prove their "citizenship", half-humorously "join" the conspiracy [8] as caricatures of their own potentialities and suppress bringing to awareness the operative mechanisms by insisting to themselves and to others that the whole thing is only good clean fun anyhow.
17 The final component in the recognition process-psychological transfer-leads analysis back to plugging. Recognition is socially effective only when backed by the authority of a powerful agency. That is, the recognition-constructs do not apply to any tune but only to "successful" tunes — success being judged by the backing of central agencies. In short, recognition, as a social determinant of listening habits, works only on plugged material. A listener will not abide the playing of a song repeatedly on the piano. Played over the air it is tolerated with joy all through its heyday.
18 The psychological mechanism here involved may be thought of as functioning in this way: If some song-hit is played again and again on the air, the listener begins to think that it is already a success. This is furthered by the way in which plugged songs are announced in broadcasts, often in the characteristic form of "You will now hear the latest smash hit." Repetition itself is accepted as a sign of its popularity. [9]
19 Popular music and "leisure time". So far the analysis has dealt with reasons for the acceptance of any particular song hit. In order to understand why this whole type of music maintains its hold on the masses, some considerations of a more general kind may be appropriate.
20 The frame of mind to which popular music originally appealed, on which it feeds, and which it perpetually reinforces, is simultaneously one of distraction and inattention. Listeners are distracted from the demands of reality by entertainment which does not demand attention either.
21 The notion of distraction can be properly understood only within its social setting and not in self-subsistent terms of individual psychology. Distraction is bound to the present mode of production, to the rationalized and mechanized process of labor to which, directly or indirectly, masses are subject. This mode of production, which engenders fears and anxiety about unemployment, loss of income, war, has its "non-productive" correlate in entertainment; that is, relaxation which does not involve the effort of concentration at all. People want to have fun. A fully concentrated and conscious experience of art is possible only to those whose lives do not put such a strain on them that in their spare time they want relief from both boredom and effort simultaneously. The whole sphere of cheap commercial entertainment reflects this dual desire. It induces relaxation because it is patterned and pre-digested. Its being patterned and pre-digested serves within the psychological household of the masses to spare them the effort of that participation (even in listening or observation) without which there can be no receptivity to art. On the other hand, the stimuli they provide permit an escape from the boredom of mechanized labor.
22 The promoters of commercialized entertainment exonerate themselves by referring to the fact that they are giving the masses what they want. This is an ideology appropriate to commercial purposes: the less the mass discriminates, the greater the possibility of selling cultural commodities indiscriminately. Yet this ideology of vested interest cannot be dismissed so easily. It is not possible completely to deny that mass consciousness can be molded by the operative agencies only because the masses "want this stuff."
23 But why do they want this stuff? In our present society the masses themselves are kneaded by the same mode of production as the arti-craft material foisted upon them. The customers of musical entertainment are themselves objects or, indeed, products of the same mechanisms which determine the production of popular music. Their spare time serves only to reproduce their working capacity. It is a means instead of an end. The power of the process of production extends over the time intervals which on the surface appear to be "free". They want standardized goods and pseudo-individualization, because their leisure is an escape from work and at the same time is molded after those psychological attitudes to which their workaday world exclusively habituates them. Popular music is for the masses a perpetual bus man's holiday. Thus, there is justification for speaking of a preestablished harmony today between production and consumption of popular music. The people clamor for what they are going to get anyhow.
24 To escape boredom and avoid effort are incompatible — hence the reproduction of the very attitude from which escape is sought. To be sure, the way in which they must work on the assembly line, in the factory, or at office machines denies people any novelty. They seek novelty, but the strain and boredom associated with actual work leads to avoidance of effort in that leisure time which offers the only chance for really new experience. As a substitute, they crave a stimulant. Popular music comes to offer it. Its stimulations are met with the inability to vest effort in the ever-identical. This means boredom again. It is a circle which makes escape impossible. The impossibility of escape causes the widespread attitude of inattention toward popular music. The moment of recognition is that of effortless sensation. The sudden attention attached to this moment burns itself out instanter and relegates the listener to a realm of inattention and distraction. On the one hand, the domain of production and plugging presupposes distraction and, on the other, produces it.
25 In this situation the industry faces an insoluble problem. It must arouse attention by means of ever-new products, but this attention spells their doom. If no attention is given to the song, it cannot be sold; if attention is paid to it, there is always the possibility that people will no longer accept it, because they know it too well. This partly accounts for the constantly renewed effort to sweep the market with new products, to hound them to their graves; then to repeat the infanticidal maneuver again and again.
26 On the other hand, distraction is not only a presupposition but also a product of popular music. The tunes themselves lull the listener to inattention. They tell him not to worry for he will not miss anything. [10]
27 The social cement. It is safe to assume that music listened to with a general inattention which is only interrupted by sudden flashes of recognition is not followed as a sequence of experiences that have a clear-cut meaning of their own, grasped in each instant and related to all the precedent and subsequent moments. One may go so far as to suggest that most listeners of popular music do not understand music as a language in itself. If they did it would be vastly difficult to explain how they could tolerate the incessant supply of largely undifferentiated material. What, then, does music mean to them? The answer is that the language that is music is transformed by objective processes into a language which they think is their own — into a language which serves as a receptacle for their institutionalized wants. The less music is a language sui generis to them, the more does it become established as such a receptacle. The autonomy of music is replaced by a mere socio-psychological function. Music today is largely a social cement. And the meaning listeners attribute to a material, the inherent logic of which is inaccessible to them, is above all a means by which they achieve some psychical adjustment to the mechanisms of present-day life. This "adjustment" materializes in two different ways, corresponding to two major socio-psychological types of mass behavior toward music in general and popular music in particular, the "rhythmically obedient" type and the "emotional" type.
28 Individuals of the rhythmically obedient type are mainly found among the youth — the so-called radio generation. They are most susceptible to a process of masochistic adjustment to authoritarian collectivism. The type is not restricted to any one political attitude. The adjustment to anthropophagous collectivism is found as often among left-wing political groups as among right-wing groups. Indeed, both overlap: repression and crowd mindedness overtake the followers of both trends. The psychologies tend to meet despite the surface distinctions in political attitudes.
29 This comes to the fore in popular music which appears to be aloof from political partisanship. It may be noted that a moderate leftist theater production such as Pins and Needles uses ordinary jazz as its musical medium, and that a communist youth organization adapted the melody of "Alexander's Ragtime Band" to its own lyrics. Those who ask for a song of social significance ask for it through a medium which deprives it of social significance. The uses of inexorable popular musical media is repressive per se. Such inconsistencies indicate that political conviction and socio-psychological structure by no means coincide.
30 This obedient type is the rhythmical type, the word "rhythmical" being used in its everyday sense. Any musical experience of this type is based upon the underlying, unabating time unit of the music — its "beat". To play rhythmically means, to these people, to play in such a way that even if pseudo-individualizations — counter-accents and other "differentiations" — occur, the relation to the ground meter is preserved. To be musical means to them to be capable of following given rhythmical patterns without being disturbed by "individualizing" aberrations, and to fit even the syncopations into the basic time units. This is the way in which their response to music immediately expresses their desire to obey. However, as the standardized meter of dance music and of marching suggests the coordinated battalions of a mechanical collectivity, obedience to this rhythm by overcoming the responding individuals leads them to conceive of themselves as agglutinized with the untold millions of the meek who must be similarly overcome. Thus do the obedient inherit the earth.
31 Yet, if one looks at the serious compositions which correspond to this category of mass listening, one finds one very characteristic feature: that of disillusion. All these composers, among them Stravinsky and Hindemith, have expressed an "anti romantic" feeling. They aimed at musical adaptation to reality — a reality understood by them in terms of the "machine age". The renunciation of dreaming by these composers is an index that listeners are ready to replace dreaming by adjustment to raw reality, that they reap new pleasure from their acceptance of the unpleasant. They are disillusioned about any possibility of realizing their own dreams in the world in which they live, and consequently adapt themselves to this world. They take what is called a realistic attitude and attempt to harvest consolation by identifying themselves with the external social forces which they think constitute the "machine age". Yet the very disillusion upon which their coordination is based is there to mar their pleasure. The cult of the machine which is represented by unabating jazz beats involves a self-renunciation that cannot but take root in the form of a fluctuating uneasiness somewhere in the personality of the obedient. For the machine is an end in itself only under given social conditions — where men are appendages of the machines on which they work. The adaptation to machine music necessarily implies a renunciation of one's own human feelings and at the same time a fetishism of the machine such that its instrumental character becomes obscured thereby.
32 As to the other, the "emotional" type, there is some justification for linking it with a type of movie spectator. The kinship is with the poor shop girl who derives gratification by identification with Ginger Rogers, who with her beautiful legs and unsullied character, marries the boss. Wish fulfillment is considered the guiding principle in the social psychology of moving Pictures and similarly in the pleasure obtained from emotional erotic music. This explanation, however, is only superficially appropriate.
33 Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley may be dream factories. But they do not merely supply categorical wish fulfillment for the girl behind the counter. She does not immediately identify herself with Ginger Rogers marrying. What does occur may be expressed as follows: when the audience at a sentimental film or sentimental music become aware of the overwhelming possibility of happiness, they dare to confess to themselves what the whole order of contemporary life ordinarily forbids them to admit, namely, that they actually have no part in happiness. What is supposed to be wish fulfillment is only the scant liberation that occurs with the realization that at last one need not deny oneself the happiness of knowing that one is unhappy and that one could be happy. The experience of the shop girl is related to that of the old woman who weeps at the wedding services of others, blissfully becoming aware of the wretchedness of her own life. Not even the most gullible individuals believe that eventually everyone will win the sweepstakes. The actual function of sentimental music lies rather in the temporary release given to the awareness that one has missed fulfillment.
34 The emotional listener listens to everything in terms of late romanticism and of the musical commodities derived from it which are already fashioned to fit the needs of emotional listening. They consume music in order to be allowed to weep. They are taken in by the musical expression of frustration rather than by that of happiness. The influence of the standard Slavic melancholy typified by Tchaikovsky and Dvořák is by far greater than that of the most "fulfilled" moments of Mozart or of the young Beethoven. The so-called releasing element of music is simply the opportunity to feel something. But the actual content of this emotion can only be frustration. Emotional music has become the image of the mother who says, "Come and weep, my child." It is catharsis for the masses, but catharsis which keeps them all the more firmly in line. One who weeps does not resist any more than one who marches. Music that permits its listeners the confession of their unhappiness reconciles them, by means of this "release", to their social dependence.
35 Ambivalence, spite, fury. The fact that the psychological "adjustment" effected by today's mass listening is illusionary and that the "escape" provided by popular music actually subjects the individuals to the very same social powers from which they want to escape makes itself felt in the very attitude of those masses. What appears to be ready acceptance and unproblematic gratification is actually of a very complex nature, covered by a veil of flimsy rationalizations. Mass listening habits today are ambivalent. This ambivalence, which reflects upon the whole question of popularity of popular music, has to be scrutinized in order to throw some light upon the potentialities of the situation. It may be made clear through an analogy from the visual field. Every moviegoer and every reader of magazine fiction is familiar with the effect of what may be called the obsolete modern. Photographs of famous dancers who were considered alluring twenty years ago, revivals of Valentino films which, though the most glamorous of their day, appear hopelessly old-fashioned. This effect, originally discovered by French surrealists, has since become hackneyed. There are numerous magazines today that mock fashions as outmoded, although their popularity dates back only a few years and although the very women who appear ridiculous in the past styles are at the same time regarded as the peak of smartness in present-day fashions. The rapidity with which the modern becomes obsolete has a very significant implication. It leads to the question whether the change of effect can possibly be due entirely to the objects in themselves, or whether the change must be at least partly accounted for by the disposition of the masses. Many of these who today laugh at the Babs Hutton of 1929 not only admire the Babs Hutton of 1940 but were thrilled by her in 1929 also. They could not now scoff at the Barbara Hutton of 1929 unless their admiration for her (or her peers) at that time contained in itself elements ready to tilt over into its opposite when historically provoked. The "craze" or frenzy for a particular fashion contains within itself the latent possibility of fury.
36 The same thing occurs in popular music. In jazz journalism it is known as "corniness". Any rhythmical formula which is out-dated, no matter how "hot" it is in itself, is regarded as ridiculous and therefore either flatly rejected or enjoyed with the smug feeling that the fashions now familiar to the listener are superior.
37 One could not possibly offer any musical criterion for certain musical formulas today considered tabu because they are corny — such as a sixteenth on the down beat with a subsequent dotted eighth. They need not be less sophisticated than any of the so-called swing formulas. It is even likely that in the pioneer days of jazz the rhythmical improvisations were less schematic and more complex than they are today. Nevertheless, the effect of corniness exists and makes itself felt very definitely.
38 An adequate explanation that can be offered even without going into questions that require psychoanalytical interpretation is the following: Likes that have been enforced upon listeners provoke revenge the moment the pressure is relaxed. They compensate for their "guilt" in having condoned the worthless by making fun of it. But the pressure is relaxed only as often as attempts are made to foist something "new" upon the public. Thus, the psychology of the corny effect is reproduced again and again and is likely to continue indefinitely.
39 The ambivalence illustrated by the effect of corniness is due to the tremendous increase of the disproportion between the individual and the social power. An individual person is faced with an individual song which he is apparently free either to accept or reject. By the plugging and support given the song by powerful agencies, he is deprived of the freedom of rejection which he might still be capable of maintaining toward the individual song. To dislike the song is no longer an expression of subjective taste but rather a rebellion against the wisdom of a public utility and a disagreement with the millions of people who are assumed to support what the agencies are giving them. Resistance is regarded as the mark of bad citizenship, as inability to have fun, as highbrow insincerity, for what normal person can set himself against such normal music?
40 Such a quantitative increase of influence beyond certain limits, however, fundamentally alters the composition of individuality itself. A strong-willed political prisoner may resist all sorts of pressure until methods such as not allowing him to sleep for several weeks are introduced. At that point he will readily confess even to crimes he has not committed. Something similar takes place with the listener's resistance as a result of the tremendous quantity of force operating upon him. Thus, the disproportion between the strength of any individual and the concentrated social structure brought to bear upon him destroys his resistance and at the same time adds a bad conscience for his will to resist at all. When popular music is repeated to such a degree that it does not any longer appear to be a device but rather an inherent element of the natural world, resistance assumes a different aspect because the unity of individuality begins to crack. This of course does not imply absolute elimination of resistance. But it is driven into deeper and deeper strata of the psychological structure. Psychological energy must be directly invested in order to overcome resistance. For this resistance does not wholly disappear in yielding to external forces, but remains alive within the individual and still survives even at the very moment of acceptance. Here spite becomes drastically active.
41 It is the most conspicuous feature of the listeners' ambivalence toward popular music. They shield their preferences from any imputation that they are manipulated. Nothing is more unpleasant than the confession of dependence. The shame aroused by adjustment to injustice forbids confession by the ashamed. Hence, they turn their hatred rather on those who point to their dependence than on those who tie their bonds.
42 The transfer of resistance skyrockets in those spheres which seem to offer an escape from the material forces of repression in our society and which are regarded as the refuge of individuality. In the field of entertainment the freedom of taste is hailed as supreme. To confess that individuality is ineffective here as well as in practical life would lead to the suspicion that individuality may have disappeared altogether; that is, that it has been reduced by standardized behavior patterns to a totally abstract idea which no longer has any definite content. The mass of listeners have been put in complete readiness to join the vaguely realized conspiracy directed without inevitable malice against them, to identify themselves with the inescapable, and to retain ideologically that freedom which has ceased to exist as a reality. The hatred of the deception is transferred to the threat of realizing the deception and they passionately defend their own attitude since it allows them to be voluntarily cheated.
43 The material, to be accepted, necessitates this spite, too. Its commodity-character, its domineering standardization, is not so hidden as to be imperceptible altogether. It calls for psychological action on the part of the listener. Passivity alone is not enough. The listener must force himself to accept.
44 Spite is most apparent in the case of extreme adherents of popular music-jitterbugs.
45 Superficially, the thesis about the acceptance of the inescapable seems to indicate nothing more than the relinquishing of spontaneity: the subjects are deprived of any residues of free will with relation to popular music and tend to produce passive reactions to what is given them and to become mere centers of socially conditioned reflexes. The entomological term jitterbug underscores this. It refers to an insect who has the jitters, who is attracted passively by some given stimulus, such as light. The comparison of men with insects betokens the recognition that they have been deprived of autonomous will.
46 But this idea requires qualifications. They are already present in the official jitterbug terminology. Terms like the latest craze, swing frenzy, alligator, rug-cutter, indicate a trend that goes beyond socially conditioned reflexes: fury. No one who has ever attended a jitterbug jamboree or discussed with jitterbugs current issues of popular music can overlook the affinity of their enthusiasm to fury, which may first be directed against the critics of their idols but which may tilt over against the idols themselves. This fury cannot be accounted for simply by the passive acceptance of the given. It is essential to ambivalence that the subject not simply react passively. Complete passivity demands unambiguous acceptance. However, neither the material itself nor observation of the listeners supports the assumption of such unilateral acceptance. Simply relinquishing resistance is not sufficient for acceptance of the inescapable.
47 Enthusiasm for popular music requires wilful resolution by listeners, who must transform the external order to which they are subservient into an internal order. The endowment of musical commodities with libido energy is manipulated by the ego. This manipulation is not entirely unconscious therefore. It may be assumed that among those jitterbugs who are not experts and yet are enthusiastic about Artie Shaw or Benny Goodman, the attitude of "switched on" enthusiasm prevails. They "join the ranks," but this joining does not only imply their conformity to given standards; it also implies a decision to conform. The appeal of the music publishers to the public to "join the ranks" manifests that the decision is an act of will, close to the surface of consciousness. [11]
48 The whole realm of jitterbug fanaticism and mass hysteria about popular music is under the spell of spiteful will decision. Frenzied enthusiasm implies not only ambivalence insofar as it is ready to tilt over into real fury or scornful humor toward its idols but also the effectuation of such spiteful will decision. The ego in forcing enthusiasm, must over-force it, since "natural" enthusiasm would not suffice to do the job and overcome resistance. It is this element of deliberate overdoing which characterizes frenzy and self-conscious [12] hysteria. The popular music fan must be thought of as going his way firmly shutting his eyes and gritting his teeth in order to avoid deviation from what he has decided to acknowledge. A clear and calm view would jeopardize the attitude that has been inflicted upon him and that he in turn tries to inflict upon himself. The original will decision upon which his enthusiasm is based is so superficial that the slightest critical consideration would destroy it unless it is strengthened by the craze which here serves a quasi-rational purpose.
49 Finally a trend ought to be mentioned which manifests itself in the gestures of the jitterbug: the tendency toward self-caricature which appears to be aimed at by the gaucheries of the jitterbugs so often advertised by magazines and illustrated newspapers. The jitterbug looks as if he would grimace at himself, at his own enthusiasm and at his own enjoyment which he denounces even while pretending to enjoy himself. He mocks himself as if he were secretly hoping for the day of judgment. By his mockery he seeks to gain exoneration for the fraud he has committed against himself. His sense of humor makes everything so shifty that he cannot be put — or, rather, put himself — on the spot for any of his reactions. His bad taste, his fury, his hidden resistance, his insincerity, his latent contempt for himself, everything is cloaked by "humor" and therewith neutralized. This interpretation is the more justified as it is quite unlikely that the ceaseless repetition of the same effects would allow for genuine merriment. No one enjoys a joke he has heard a hundred times. [13]
50 There is an element of fictitiousness in all enthusiasm about popular music. Scarcely any jitterbug is thoroughly hysterical about swing or thoroughly fascinated by a performance. In addition to some genuine response to rhythmical stimuli, mass hysteria, fanaticism and fascination themselves are partly advertising slogans after which the victims pattern their behavior. This self-delusion is based upon imitation and even histrionics. The jitterbug is the actor of his own enthusiasm or the actor of the enthusiastic front page model presented to him. He shares with the actor the arbitrariness of his own interpretation. He can switch off his enthusiasm as easily and suddenly as he turns it on. He is only under a spell of his own making.
51 But the closer the will decision, the histrionics, and the imminence of self-denunciation in the jitterbug are to the surface of consciousness, the greater is the possibility that these tendencies will break through in the mass, and, once and for all, dispense with controlled pleasure. They cannot be altogether the spineless lot of fascinated insects they are called and like to style themselves. They need their will, if only in order to down the all too conscious premonition that something is "phony" with their pleasure. This transformation of their will indicates that will is still alive and that under certain circumstances it may be strong enough to get rid of the superimposed influences which dog its every step.
52 In the present situation it may be appropriate for these reasons — which are only examples of much broader issues of mass psychology — to ask to what extent the whole psychoanalytical distinction between the conscious and the unconscious is still justified. Present-day mass reactions are very thinly veiled from consciousness. It is the paradox of the situation that it is almost insuperably difficult to break through this thin veil. Yet truth is subjectively no longer so unconscious as it is expected to be. This is borne out by the fact that in the political praxis of authoritarian regimes the frank lie in which no one actually believes is more and more replacing the "ideologies" of yesterday which had the power to convince those who believed in them. Hence, we cannot content ourselves with merely stating that spontaneity has been replaced by blind acceptance of the enforced material. Even the belief that people today react like insects and are degenerating into mere centers of socially conditioned reflexes, still belongs to the façade. Too well does it serve the purpose of those who prate about the New Mythos and the irrational powers of community. Rather, spontaneity is consumed by the tremendous effort which each individual has to make in order to accept what is enforced upon him — an effort which has developed for the very reason that the veneer veiling the controlling mechanisms has become so thin. In order to become a jitterbug or simply to "like" popular music, it does not by any means suffice to give oneself up and to fall in line passively. To become transformed into an insect, man needs that energy which might possibly achieve his transformation into a man.
7. The interplay of lyrics and music in popular music is similar to the interplay of picture and word in advertising. The picture provides the sensual stimulus, the words add slogans or jokes that tend to fix the commodity in the minds of the public and to "subsume" it under definite, settled categories. The replacement of the purely instrumental ragtime by jazz which had strong vocal tendencies from the beginning, and the general decline of purely instrumental hits, are closely related to the increased importance of the advertising structure of popular music. The example of "Deep Purple" may prove helpful. This was originally a little-known piano piece. Its sudden success was at least partly due to the addition of trade-marking lyrics. A model for this functional change exists in the field of raised entertainment in the nineteenth century. The first prelude of Bach's "Well Tempered Clavichord" became a "sacral" hit when Gounod conceived the fiendish idee of extracting a melody from the sequel of harmonies and combining it with the words of the "Ave Maria". This procedure, meretricious from its very inception, has since been generally accepted in the field of musical commercialism. Return to text
8. Cf. Hadley Cantril and Gordon Allport, The Psychology of Radio, New York, 1935 p. 69. Return to text
9. The same propaganda trick can he found more explicitly in the field of radio advertising of commodities. Beautyskin Soap is called "famous" since the listener has heard the name of the soap over the air innumerable times before and therefore would agree to its "fame". Its fame is only the sum-total of these very announcements which refer to it. Return to text
10. The attitude of distraction is not a completely universal one. Particularly youngsters who invest popular music with their own feelings are not yet completely blunted to all its effects. The whole problem of age levels with regard to popular music, however, is beyond the scope of the present study. Demographic problems, too, must remain out of consideration. Return to text
11. On the back of the sheet version of a certain hit, there appears the appeal: "Follow Your Leader, Artie Shaw." Return to text
12. One hit goes: "I'm Just a Jitterbug." Return to text
13. It would be worth while to approach this problem experimentally by taking motion pictures of jitterbugs in action and later examining them in terms of gestural psychology. Such an experiment could also yield valuable results with regard to the question of how musical standards and "deviations" in popular music are apperceived. If one would take sound tracks simultaneously with the motion pictures one could find out i.e. how far the jitterbugs react gesturally to the syncopations they pretend to be crazy about and how far they respond simply to the ground beats. If the latter is the case it would furnish another index for the fictitiousness of this whole type of frenzy. Return to text