Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Music and Social Identity

In my last post I was talking about music and identity in a very special sense: how musicians who play all their lives tend to become what they do. If they stop making music, they start wondering who they are.

But there is a wider sense of music and identity: the social aspect. This has attracted some analytical attention. Two 20th century thinkers who come to mind are Theodor Adorno and Jean Baudrillard. Here is a brief discussion that will give you some idea. I have to say that this account probably over-simplifies and misrepresents both philosophers, but this is not uncommon! Over-simplified Adorno and Baudrillard is, as we see from the source, the University of Maryland, a lingua franca in talking about the social aspect of music.

But while there may be some interesting things in Adorno and Baudrillard echt, this popular version of their thinking I think is quite wrong. The problem is the lack of aesthetic distinctions. Adorno's famous disdain for all popular music is as absurd as his claims for the universal value of 'serious' music. As Sophia Lewin Adams says,
Adorno attempts to disregard this argument [that classical music also uses standardized forms] by saying that he is only considering “good serious music” and not “bad serious music,” which is susceptible to this influence of mechanical standardization.
Which is of course, the "no true Scotsman" fallacy. I am amazed at the feeble quality of this whole discussion. All popular music is "standardized and completely reliant on a predetermined framework"? There is certainly a lot of pretty dreary popular music, but there is also outstanding popular music. And what do we mean by 'popular music' anyway? I don't see any attempt to define these things. Calling some music 'serious' and other music not is just to put forth your tastes without arguing for them. Sure, I think most Beethoven is serious music, but any discussion of Beethoven on this blog is always accompanied by an explanation of the reasons why I think so.

But enough kicking around popularized Adorno and Baudrillard. They both suffer from the same problem: they are Marxists (post-Marxist in Baudrillard's case) which means that they look at things in terms of a Marxist dialectic. You listen to classical music or popular music as a statement of social class. The belief that you have an individual taste is just illusion. But this is such crap! I don't even know why I should bother arguing against it because I have yet to see a good argument for it and the evidence of my life and the lives of many people I know is quite the opposite.

Believe me, I don't listen to Beethoven to show what a classy guy I am. Never did. And in any case, Beethoven in 2013 is hardly associated with a high social class in the way he might have been in 1850. Does Obama invite classical artists to come to the White House and perform Beethoven for a special event? Nope, he invites Beyoncé. Doesn't this in itself make Adorno's theory look quite ridiculous?

Here is another quote from the Adams essay:
In this world of postmodern thought and modern music, it is hard to imagine that a great composer like Bach or Mozart will ever emerge and create real, creative, and individual works again. We are at the point where this simulation of true music has completely overtaken all musical creation—the image of popular music now stands as its own simulacrum. This approach, combined with Adorno’s acceptance that all people are preconditioned to search for the standardization weakens the idea of true individualism ever existing in musical composition or consumption.
 Oh good grief! This is a great example of ivory tower abstractions ending up being absolutely contrary to reality. Hard to imagine a great composer ever writing 'real', 'creative' and 'individual' (I scare quote those three words because I strongly suspect she is using her own very special, or perhaps University of Maryland special issue, versions of these words) works again? I think that the music of Shostakovich quite disproves that absurd idea. There is always great music and not-so-great music and complete crap. The proportions may vary from era to era, but name any period you like and I will find examples of great, not-so-great and crap. It's really not hard to do. You just have to look and listen to the actual music instead of reading Adorno and Baudrillard.

So let's do that. First of all, some 'popular' music that is indeed creative and individual:

Nothing 'standardized' about that! And here is some not-very-'serious' Beethoven:

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