Notes for Theodor W. Adorno “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening”

Key concepts: arrangement, deconcentration, displeasure in pleasure, docility, fetishism, light music, listener as acquiescent purchaser, regression of listening, sensuality.

Huxley also hints at the Nietzschean last man, the docile, repressed subject whose fetishism of music attends a corresponding regression of listening. This less desirable part of the postmodern subject is joined by desirable transformations articulated by Clark, Hayles, and others, historicized along with the emergence of subjectivity through the personal compulsions in Greek music. Listener converted into acquiescent purchaser, whose experience is ultimately shaped by fetishized monetary capital as the cost of listening. From master voices and violin, new fetish is technical production of perfect performance, leading to personal worship of home theater. Blistering criticism of fetishistic listeners epitomized by radio ham as early version of fan culture. Now the online participant. New listeners have free time and no freedom; degrades this retarded, master of none bricoleur. Implicit praise for Schonberg and Mahler for rebelling against leveling to light music programmed for deconcentrated enjoyment.

Related theorists: Benjamin, Huxley, Kittler, Marx, Nietzsche, Plato.


Huxley also hints at the Nietzschean last man, the docile, repressed subject whose fetishism of music attends a corresponding regression of listening. This less desirable part of the postmodern subject is joined by desirable transformations articulated by Clark, Hayles, and others, historicized along with the emergence of subjectivity through the personal compulsions in Greek music.

(270-271) But if the disciplining function of music has been handed down since Greek philosophy as a major good, then certainly the pressure to be permitted to obey musically, as elsewhere, is today more general than ever. . . . An approach in terms of value judgments has become a fiction for the person who finds himself hemmed in by standardized musical goods. . . . Nevertheless, such music is also affected by the change in that the entertainment, the pleasure, the enjoyment it promises, is given only to be simultaneously denied. In one of his essays, Aldous Huxley has raised the question of who, in a place of amusement, is really being amused. . . . It inhabits the pockets of silence that develop between people molded by anxiety, work and undemanding docility.
(272) In the conventional complaints about declining taste, certain motifs constantly recur. There is no lack of pouting and sentimental comments assessing the current musical condition of the masses as one of “degeneration.” The most tenacious of these motifs is that of sensuality, which allegedly enfeebles and incapacities heroic behavior. . . . Plato's ethical-musical program bears the character of an Attic purge in Spartan style. . . . The predominance of the person over collective compulsion in music marks the moment of subjective freedom which breaks through in later phases, while the profanation which frees it from its magic circle appears as superficiality.

Listener converted into acquiescent purchaser, whose experience is ultimately shaped by fetishized monetary capital as the cost of listening. Note the same kind of operation may occur with fetishization of the home theater.

(273-274) But what are emancipated from formal law are no longer the productive impulses which rebelled against conventions. Impulse, subjectivity and profanation, the old adversaries of materialistic alienation, now succumb to it. . . . The listener is converted, along his line of least resistance, into the acquiescent purchaser. . . . If asceticism once struck down the claims of the esthetic in a reactionary way, it has today become the sign of advanced art: not, to be sure, by an archaicizing parsimony of means in which deficiency and poverty are manifested, but by the strict exclusion of all culinary delights which seek to be consumed immediately for their own sake, as if in art the sensory were not the bearer of something intellectual which only shows itself in the whole rather than in isolated topical moments.
(274-275) The new phase of the musical consciousness of the masses is defined by displeasure in pleasure. It resembles the reaction to sport or advertising. The words “enjoyment of art” sound funny. If in nothing else, Schonberg's music resembles popular songs in refusing to be enjoyed. . . . the neat parcelling out of music's social field of force is illusionary.

Individual is liquidated between incomprehensibility and inescapability, consciousness defined by displeasure in pleasure. Same for television and web junk? Recall Kittler asks about the situation with media.

(275-276) 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. . . . Between incomprehensibility and inescapability, there is no third way; the situation has polarized itself into extremes which actually meet. There is no room between them for the “individual.” . . . The liquidation of the individual is the real signature of the new musical situation.
(276) The differences in the reception of official “classical” music and light music no longer have any real significance. They are only still manipulated for reasons of marketability.

Reduction of work to signature melody that can be reified as intellectual property.

(276-277) The world of that musical life . . . is one of fetishes. The star principle has become totalitarian. . . . The choice of the standard works is itself in terms of their “effectiveness” for programmatic fascination, in terms of the categories of success as determined by light music or permitted by the star conductors. . . . Melody comes to mean eight-beat symmetrical treble melody. This is cataloged as the composer's “idea” which one things he can put in his pocket and take home, just as it is ascribed to the composer as his basic property.
(277-278) At its most passionate, musical fetishism takes possession of the public valuation of singing voices. . . . All this reaches a climax of absurdity in the cult of the master violin. One promptly goes into raptures at the well-announced sound of a Stradivarius or Amati, which only the ear of a specialist can tell from that of a good modern violin, forgetting in the process to listen to the composition and the execution, from which there is still something to be had. . . . If the moments of sensual pleasure in the idea, the voice, the instrument are made into fetishes and torn away from any functions which could give them meaning, they meet a response equally determined by success in the blind and irrational emotions which form the relationship to music into which those with no relationship enter.

Marxist social analysis.

(278-279) This is the real secret of success. It is the mere reflection of what one pays in the market for the product. The consumer is really worshipping the money that he himself has paid for the ticket to the Toscanini concert. . . . It has the basis in the abstract character of exchange-value. Every “psychological” aspect, every ersatz satisfaction, depends on such social substitution.
(279-280) The more inexorably the principle of exchange-value destroys use-values for human beings, the more deeply does exchange-value disguise itself as the object of enjoyments. . . . The auto religion makes all men brothers in the sacramental moment with the words: “That is a Rolls Royce,” and in moments of intimacy, women attach greater importance to the hairdressers and cosmeticians than to the situation for the sake of which the hairdressers and cosmeticians are employed. The relation to the irrelevant dutifully manifests its social essence.

Merchants of Cool.

(280) The masochistic mass culture is the necessary manifestation of almighty production itself. When the feelings seize on exchange-value it is no mystical transubstantiation. It corresponds to the behavior of the prisoner who loves his cell because he has been left nothing else to love. . . . The identical character of the goods which everyone must buy hides itself behind the rigor of the universally compulsory style. The fiction of the relation between supply and demand survives in the fictitiously individual nuances.
(281) The memorability of disconnected parts, thanks to climaxes and repetitions, has a precursor in great music itself, in the technique of late romantic compositions, especially those of Wagner.

Stockfelt.

(281) Vulgarization and enchantment, hostile sisters, dwell together in the arrangements which have colonized large areas of music. The practice of arrangement extends to the most diverse dimensions.
(282) One must therefore assume that the motives for the practice of arranging are sui generis. Above all, arranging seeks to make the great distant sound, which always has aspects of the public and unprivate, assimilable.
(283-284) The practice of
arrangement comes from salon music. . . . The uncompelling and superficial nature of the objects of refined entertainment inevitably leads to the inattentiveness of the listeners.

New fetish in technical production of perfect performance, leading to personal worship of home theater.

(284-285) But fetishism takes hold of even ostensibly serious practice of music, which mobilizes the pathos of distance against refined entertainment. The purity of service to the cause, which which it presents the works, often turns out to be as inimical to them as vulgarization and arrangement. . . . The new fetish is the flawlessly functioning, metallically brilliant apparatus as such, in which all the cogwheels mesh so perfectly that not the slightest hole remains open for the meaning of the whole. Perfect, immaculate performance in the latest style preserves the work at the price of its definitive reification. . . . The protective fixation of the work leads to its destruction, for its unity is realized in precisely that spontaneity which is sacrificed to the fixation. . . . The fetish character of the conductor is the most obvious and the most hidden.
(285) No causal nexus at all can properly be worked out between isolated “impressions” of the hit song and its psychological effects on the listener. If indeed individuals today no longer belong to themselves, then that also means that they can no longer be “influenced.”

Regression of listening, deconcentration foreshadow distracted attention characteristic of mobile technology; regressive listening music fans like sports fans.

(286-287) The counterpart to the fetishism of music is a regression of listening. . . . They fluctuate between comprehensive forgetting and sudden dives into recognition. They listen atomistically and dissociate what they hear, but precisely in this dissociation they develop certain capacities which accord less with the concepts of traditional aesthetics than with those of football and motoring. . . . The regression is really from this existent possibility, or more concretely, from the possibility of a different and oppositional music. . . . Together with sport and film, mass music and the new listening help to make escape from the whole infantile milieu impossible.

Watney's billboard example that Johnson criticizes.

(287) Regressive listening is tied to production by the machinery of distribution, and particularly by advertising. Regressive listening appears as soon as advertising turns into terror, as soon as nothing is left for the consciousness but to capitulate before the superior power of the advertised stuff and purchase spiritual peace by making the imposed goods literally its own thing. In regressive listening, advertising takes on a compulsory character. . . . “What we want is Watney's.” . . . the type of relationship is suggested by the billboard, in which masses make a commodity recommended to them the object of their own action, is in fact found again as the pattern for the reception of light music.
(288-289)
Deconcentration is the perceptual activity which prepares the way for the forgetting and sudden recognition of mass music. . . . Benjamin's reference to the apperception of the cinema in a condition of distraction is just as valid for light music. . . . If atomized listening means progressive decomposition for the higher music, there is nothing more to decompose in the lower music. . . . Typically, the listeners show a preference not merely for particular showpieces for instrumental acrobatics, but for the individual instrumental colors as such. This preference is promoted by the practice of American popular music whereby each variation, or “chorus,” is played with emphasis on a special instrumental color, with the clarinet, the piano, or the trumpet as quasi-soloist.
(290) A sensory pleasure turns into disgust as soon as it is seen how it only still serves to betray the consumer. The betrayal here consists in always offering the same thing. . . . Nobody believes so completely in prescribed pleasure. But the listening nevertheless remains regressive in assenting to this situation despite all distrust and all ambivalence. . . . But ears which are still only able to hear what one demands of them in what is offered, and which register the abstract charm instead of synthesizing the moments of charm, are bad ears. . . . There is actually a neurotic mechanism of stupidity in listening, too; the arrogantly ignorant rejection of everything unfamiliar is its sure sign.

Musical childrens language for deconcentrated listeners suitable for surface enjoyment.

(290) A sort of musical children's language is prepared for them; it differs from the real thing in that its vocabulary consists exclusively of fragments and distortions of the artistic language of music.
(291) No less characteristic of the regressive musical language is the quotation. . . . The quotations are at once authoritarian and a parody. It is thus that a child imitates the teacher.

Blistering criticism of fetishistic listeners epitomized by radio ham as early version of fan culture. Now the online participant.

(292-293) Whenever they attempt to break away from the passive of compulsory consumers and “activate” themselves, they succumb to pseudoactivity. . . . There are, first, the enthusiasts who write fan letters to radio stations and orchestras and, at well-managed jazz festivals, produce their own enthusiasm as an advertisement for the wares they consume. They call themselves jitterbugs, as if they simultaneously wanted to affirm and mock their loss of individuality, their transformation into beetles whirring around in fascination. . . . People do not dance or listen “from sensuality” and sensuality is certainly not satisfied by listening, but the gestures of the sensual are imitated. . . . The imitative assimilation to commodity models is intertwined with folkloristic customs of imitation. . . . Dance and music copy stages of sexual excitement only to make fun of them. . . . The opposite type appears to be the eager person who leaves the factory and “occupies” himself with music in the quiet of his bedroom. He is shy and inhibited, perhaps no luck with girls, and wants in any case to preserve his own special sphere. He seeks this as a radio ham. . . . As radio ham he becomes the discoverer of just alone those industrial products which are interested in being discovered by him. . . . Of all fetishistic listeners, the radio ham is perhaps the most complete. It is irrelevant to him what he hears or even how he hears; he is only interested in the fact that he hears and succeeds in inserting himself, with his private equipment, into the public mechanism, without exerting even the slightest influence on it. . . . He is nearest to the sportsman: if not to the football player himself, then to the swaggering fellow who dominates the stands. . . . He pictures himself as the individualist who whistles at the world. But what he whistles is its melody, and his tricks are less inventions of the moment than stored-up experiences from acquaintance with sought-after technical things.

New listeners have free time and no freedom, like housewives; degrades this retarded, master of none bricoleur.

(294) Regressive listeners have key points in common with the man who must kill time because he has nothing else on which to vent his aggression, and with the casual laborer. To make oneself a jazz expert or hang over the radio all day, one must have much free time and little freedom. . . . The new listeners resemble the mechanics who are simultaneously specialized and capable of applying their special skills to unexpected places outside their skilled trades. . . . But if regressive hearing is progressive as opposed to the “individualistic” sort, it is only in the dialectical sense that it is better fitted to the advancing brutality than the latter.
(295) Regressive listening is always ready to degenerate into rage. If one knows that he is basically marking time, the rage is directed primarily against everything which could disavow the modernity of being with-it and up-to-date and reveal how little has in fact changed. . . . But we should not think of the rhythmically simpler, light music of the pre-jazz era and its relics as corny; rather, the term applies to all those syncopated pieces which do not conform to the approved rhythmic formula of the present moment.
(295-297) One might be tempted to rescue it if it were something in which the “auratic” characteristics of the work of art, its illusory elements, gave way to the playful ones. However it may be with films, today's mass music shows little of such progress in disenchantment. . . . Otherwise, bourgeois sport would not want to differentiate itself so strictly from play. Its bestial seriousness consists in the fact that instead of remaining faithful to the dream of freedom by getting away from purposiveness, the treatment of play as a duty puts it among useful purposes and thereby wipes out the trace of freedom in it. This is particularly valid for contemporary mass music. . . . Whether a technique can be considered progressive and “rational” depends on this meaning and on its place in the whole of society as well as in the organization of the particular work. Technical development as such can serve crude reaction as soon as it has established itself as a fetish and by its perfection represents the neglected social tasks as already accomplished. . . . All attempts at reconciliation, whether by market-oriented artists or collectively-oriented art educators, are fruitless. They have accomplished nothing more than handicrafts of the sort of products with which directions for use or a social text must be given, so that one may be properly informed about their deeper background.
(297) But regressive listening represents a growing and merciless enemy not only to museum cultural goods but to the age-old sacral function of music as the locus for the taming of impulses. Not without penalty, and therefore not without restraint, are the debased products of musical culture surrendered to disrespectful play and sadistic humor.
(297-298) Music has become comic in the present phase primarily because something so completely useless is carried on with all the visible signs of the strain of serious work. By being alien to solid people, music reveals their alienation from one another, and the consciousness of alienation vents itself in laughter. In music – or similarly in lyric poetry – the society which judged them comic becomes comic. . . . Perhaps a better hour may at some time strike even for the clever fellows: one in which they may demand, instead of prepared material ready to be switched on, the improvisatory displacement of things, as the sort of radical beginning that can only thrive under the protection of the unshaken real world. Even discipline can take over the expression of free solidarity if freedom becomes its content. As little as regressive listening is a symptom of progress in consciousness of freedom, it could suddenly turn around if art, in unity with the society, should ever leave the road of the always-identical.

Negativland as artistic music like Mahler that seems to recycle existing light music: the WSS concealed by being encoded in custom protocols. Adorno has a positive prediction of where music should go.

(298) Not popular music but artistic music has furnished a model for this possibility. It is not for nothing that Mahler is the scandal of all bourgeois musical aesthetics. They call him uncreative because he suspends their concept of creation itself. Everything with which he occupies himself is already there. He accepts it in its vulgarized form; his themes are expropriated ones. Nevertheless, nothing sounds as it was wont to; all things are diverted as if by a magnet. What is worn out yields pliantly to the improvising hand; the used parts win a second life as variants. . . . Such music really crystallizes the whole, into which it has incorporated the vulgarized fragments, into something new, yet it takes its material from regressive listening.


Adorno, Theodor W. “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening.” Essays on Music. Ed. Richard Leppert. CA: University of California Press, 2002. Print.