Saturday, October 16, 2004

“They’ll like her bum…”

“…in this photo,” said the pallid executive. Heavy cufflinks scraped the boardroom table as he sorted through papers and proofs. To his right, a man from Finance nodded approvingly. “Projected sales for the first week?” he asked. An eyebrow was cocked across the room; a gold pen moved down a list. "Enough for a few years in the sun for you, Max.” A chuckle.

A scenario roughly like this one is repeated, several times, every time the latest hot female artist in whatever area of music is close to completing the song which marks the ‘two–thirds of another album’ mark. Sometimes it happens earlier than that. There are variations, of course: the bum may be a breast; it may be a face. The woman may be a man. The adult, a teenager. The executive might prefer an alpine retirement.

But in all the possible variations on this theme, there is one thing which never changes. The company is in charge. The artist is, at best, under a tight corporate leash, and at worst, of no musical merit — on the company’s books because of her appearance, fame, or sex appeal.

Where the product is intensely musical, the music is better left ignored, and is crushed under a double desire: to market a product without reference to the creative process, and to convince the public to get their wallets out by promising that the music provides some sort of satisfying quasi–intellectual experience.

But at the same time, the ads don’t tell you anything about the supposedly perfect fit between the musical language, and words, of a supposedly good song. They just show you the artist’s bum. Or screaming mouth. Or piercings.

The illusion of a social preference for light music as against serious is based on that passivity of the masses which makes the consumption of light music contradict the objective interest of those who consume it. […] They are only still manipulated for reasons of marketability. The hit song enthusiast must be reassured that his idols are not too elevated for him, just as the visitor to philharmonic concerts is confirmed in his status. […] For musical vulgar materialists, it is synonymous to have a voice and to be a singer. In earlier epochs, technical virtuosity, at least, was demanded of singing stars […] If one dares even in conversation to question the decisive importance of the voice and to assert that it is just as possible to make beautiful music with a moderately good voice as it is on a moderately good piano, one will immediately find oneself faced with a situation of hostility and aversion.
—from The Culture Industry by Theodor Adorno

Hmmm. Listeners as people wronged by shit music. Betrayed by the soulless production–line and the contents of their wallets. I’ve just started to read this book, and I haven’t made up my mind yet whether I think it’s a correctly stinging critique or a bit of an overreaction, but I can’t deny that when he talks about music he’s on the right track.

There is a lot of music today which is so intellectually empty that it demands no thought, so emotionally repetitious and flat that it gives no new thoughts or insight or redress to the poor sod who paid quite a lot of money for it, and finally, so technically unskilled that its only hope for the admiration of potential fans is by including strange sounds. But that’s not the whole story, so I guess I’ll keep reading and thinking about it.

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