In the wake of Roger Scruton’s passing it might be tempting for those on the conservative side to note what a dedicated opponent of Marxism Scruton was while those on the progressive or left or liberal sides (none of which I personally find able to view as equivalent or commensurate) may note that Scruton softened his views but that his views were, in the end, rejections of the idea that inequality could be eliminated.
It’s important to consider which ideas a philosopher budges on and why when assessing a philosopher’s legacy. I think a case can be made that Roger Scruton’s assessment of popular musical styles and forms was ultimately little different in terms of his negative assessment of pop as Theodore Adorno’s was throughout his own career. That one of the more famous anti-Marxist conservative philosophers laid out an argument for the limitations of jazz and popular music which merely recapitulates arguments made previously by one of the more famous Marxists, Adorno, who was a founding thinker in critical theory is any irony that can’t be overstated.
As decades passed Scruton regarded jazz as an actual form of musical art, a point that Adorno was reluctant, to put it discreetly, to agree with.
That Adorno and Scruton made a common argument as to why jazz and popular song fell short of the art in “serious music” is not difficult to establish from what the two men wrote. Since Scruton’s legacy of writing critically about pop so post-dates Adorno, let’s start with Adorno first. Rather than draw upon Adorno’s more infamous piece “On Jazz” I want to shift toward his post-US stay writings because it is in these later writings he was better able to articulate the kinds of arguments that we shall see, at length, were basically replicated by Scruton.
Introduction to the Sociology of Music
Theodore W Adorno
Conversely, as long as the objective spirit was not yet wholly planned and steered by administrative centers, the higher art would recall the extent to which its own principle involved injustices to the many. Time and again it felt the need of something else, of something that would resist the formative esthetic will and that might serve as the touchstone of that will-and so, whether unintentionally or intentionally, it would absorb elements of the lower music. Some of this shows in the old custom of parody, of setting spiritual texts to profane melodies. Bach did not shrink from borrowing from below even in his instrumental works, as in the Quodlibet of the "Goldberg Variations," and neither Haydn nor the Mozart of The Magic Flute or Beethoven would be conceivable without an interaction of what by then were separated spheres. [emphasis added] The last instance of their reconciliation, utterly stylized and teetering as on a narrow mountain by pass, was The Magic Flute-an instant still mourned and longed for in such structures as Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Ariadne auf Naxos. There were times far into the nineteenth century when it was possible to write decent popular music. Its esthetic decay is as one with the irrevocable and irrelative dissociation of the two realms. [emphasis added]
... The higher music's relation to its historical form is dialectical. It catches fire on those forms, melts them down, makes them vanish and return in vanishing. Popular music, on the other hand, uses the types as empty cans into which the material is pressed without interacting with the forms. Unrelated to the forms, the substance withers and at the same time belies the forms, which no longer serve for compositional organization. [emphasis added]
The social function of jazz coincides with its history, the history of a heresy that has been received into the mass culture. Certainly, jazz has the potential of a musical breakout from this culture on the part of those who were either refused admittance to it or annoyed by its mendacity. Time and again, however, jazz became a captive of the culture industry and thus of musical and social conformism [emphases added]; famed devices of its phases, such as "swing," "bebop," "cool jazz," are both advertising slogans and marks of that process of absorption. Popular music can no more be exploded from within, on its own premises and with its own habituated means, than its own sphere points beyond it.
The modular construction of a pop song and the recursive repetition of the core chart chords in jazz were commensurate with an age and society of mass production. There was a dialectical relationship between “high” and “low” music that, in the era of monopoly capitalism, Adorno asserted had broken apart. This rupture between “serious” and “light” music was not simply at the level of the means of production, it also involved a parallel break in the modes of cognition which were used to both produce and perceive “serious” and “light” music. Adorno would expand upon his criticism of popular music in Current of Music. There was a distinction to be made between serious music and light classical music and popular song. Adorno described that difference as follows:
Essays on Music: Selected, with introduction, commentary and notes by Richard Leppert; new translations by Susan H. Gillespie
University of California Press
(c) 2002 by Regents of University of California
From “On Popular Music”, which is also published in Adorno’s Current of Music.
Serious music, for comparative purposes, may be thus characterized: Every detail derives its musical sense from the concrete totality of the piece which, in turn, consists of the life relationship of the details and never of a mere enforcement of a musical scheme. For example, in the introduction of the first movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony the second theme (in C major) gets its true meaning only from the context. Only through the whole does it acquire its particular lyrical and expressive quality--that is, a whole built up of its very contrast with the cantus firmus-like character of the first theme. Taken in isolation the second theme would be disrobed to insignificance. [emphasis added] Another example may be found in the beginning of the recapitulation over the pedal point of the first movement of Beethoven's Apassionata. By following the preceding outburst it achieves the utmost dramatic momentum. By omitting the exposition and development and starting with this repetition, all is lost.
Nothing corresponding to this can happen in popular music. It would not affect the musical sense if any detail were taken out of the context; the listener can supply the "framework" automatically, since it is a mere musical automatism itself. The beginning of the chorus is replaceable by the beginning of innumerable other choruses. The interrelationship among the elements or the relationship of the elements to the whole would be unaffected. In Beethoven, position is important only in a living relation between a concrete totality and its concrete parts. In popular music, position is absolute. Every detail is substitutable; it serves its function only as a cog in a machine. [emphases added]
To sum up the difference: in Beethoven and in good serious music in general--we are not concerned here with bad serious music which may be as rigid and mechanical as popular music--the detail virtually contains the whole and leads to the exposition of the whole, while, at the same time, it is produced out of the conception of the whole. In popular music the relationship is fortuitous. The detail has no bearing on a whole, which appears as an extraneous framework. Thus, the whole is never altered by the individual event and therefore remains, as it were, aloof, imperturbable, and unnoticed throughout the piece. [emphasis added] At the same time, the detail is mutilated by a device which it can never influence and alter, so that the detail remains inconsequential. A musical detail which is not permitted to develop becomes a caricature of its own potentialities.
The previous discussion shows that the difference between popular and serious music can be grasped in more precise terms than those referring to musical levels such as "lowbrow and highbrow," "simple and complex," "naive and sophisticated." For example, the differences between the spheres cannot be adequately expressed in terms of complexity and simplicity. All works of the earlier Viennese classicism are, without exception, rhythmically simpler than stock arrangements in jazz. Melodically, the wide intervals of a good many hits such as "Deep Purple" or "Sunrise Serenade" are more difficult to follow per se than most melodies of, for example, Haydn, which consist mainly of circumscriptions of tonic triads, and second steps. Harmonically, the supply of chords of the so-called classics is invariably more limited than that of any current Tin Pan Alley composer who draws from Debussy, Ravel, and even later sources. Standardization and non-standardization are the key contrast terms for the difference. [emphases added]
Structural standardization aims at standard reactions. [emphasis original] Listening to popular music is manipulated not only by its promotors but, as it were, by the inherent nature of this music itself, into a system of response mechanisms wholly antagonistic to the ideal of individuality in a free, liberal society. This has nothing to do with simplicity and complexity. In serious music, each musical element, even the simplest one, is "itself," and the more highly organized the work is, the less possibility there is of substitution among the details. In hit music, however, the structure underlying the piece is abstract, existing independent of the specific course of the music. This is basic to the illusion that certain complex harmonies are more easily understandable in popular music than the same harmonies in serious music. For the complicated in popular music never functions as "itself" but only as a disguise or embellishment behind which the scheme can always be perceived. [emphasis added]In jazz the amateur listener is capable of replacing complicated rhythmical or harmonic formulas by the schematic ones which they represent and which they still suggest, however adventurous they appear. The ear deals with the difficulties of hit music by achieving slight substitutions derived from the knowledge of the patterns. The listener, when faced with the complicated, actually hears only the simple which it represents and perceives the complicated only as a parodistic distortion of the simple.
No such mechanical substitution by stereotyped patterns is possible in serious music. Here even the simplest event necessitates an effort to grasp it immediately instead of summarizing it vaguely according to institutionalized prescriptions capable of producing only institutionalized effects. Otherwise the music is not "understood." Popular music, however, is composed in such a way that the process of translation of the unique into the norm is already planned and, to a certain extent, achieved within the composition itself.
The composition hears for the listener. This is how popular music divests the listener of his spontaneity and promotes conditioned reflexes. Not only does it not require his effort to follow its concrete stream; it actually gives him models under which anything concrete still remaining may be subsumed. The schematic build-up dictates the way in which he (page 443) must listen while, at the same time, it makes any effort in listening unnecessary. Popular music is "predigested" in a way strongly resembling the fad of "digests" of printed material. It is this structure of contemporary popular music, which in the last analysis, accounts for those changes of listening habits we shall later discuss. [emphases added]
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 [hearing] 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.
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 Dvorak 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. [emphasis added]
... we cannot content ourselves with merely stating that spontaneity has been replaced by blinded 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 facade. 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. [emphasis added]
It hardly needs to be said this is a harsh assessment of popular music and of jazz. Although Adorno in his later writing could grant that the most accomplished jazz musicians displayed real skill and talent his argument that popular music as a whole was a product of the culture industry incapable of rising to the level of serious music as an art form did not shift much. In his later writings he had comparably harsh things to say about rock:
Copyright (c) 1997 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota
The demise of art, which is today being proclaimed with as much glibness as resentment, would be false, a gesture of conformism. The desublimation, the immediate and momentary gain of pleasure that is demanded of art, is inner-aesthetically beneath art; in real terms, however, that momentary pleasure is unable to grant what is expected of it. The recently adopted insistence on culturing uncultivation, the enthusiasm for the beauty of street battles, is a reprise of futurist and dadaist actions. The cheap aestheticism of short-winded politics is reciprocal with the faltering of aesthetic power. Recommending jazz and rock-and-roll instead of Beethoven does not demolish the affirmative lie of culture but rather furnishes barbarism and the profit interest of the culture industry with a subterfuge. The allegedly vital and uncorrupted nature of such products is synthetically processed by precisely those powers that are supposedly the target of the Great Refusal: These products are the truly corrupt. [emphasis added]
Shifting from Beethoven to the Beatles would do nothing at all to attenuate or weaken the power of the culture industry. No amount of imputing radical or critical political discourse onto a style like rock or punk or any form of music derived from Anglo-American standardized music was going to change the totalitarian mass-produced tendencies that Adorno perceived in popular music as it evolved in the last century.
Neither did Adorno, later in life, concede that tonality was no longer “spent”. Despite his scathing criticisms of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, Adorno did not concede as Arnold Schoenberg did that there was still good music to be written in the key of C major. While Adorno could summon praise for Edgar Varese and Gyorgy Ligeti (and I admit I enjoy some of their music), his stance against tonality remained firm:
Essays on Music: Selected, with introduction, commentary and notes by Richard Leppert; new translations by Susan H. Gillespie
University of California Press
(c) 2002 by Regents of University of California
The methods that are linked to the traditional language of music have become retrospectively problematic as a result of those that were discovered later--namely, they have become schematic. [emphasis added] One hears, through what is newer, weaknesses of the old that were once hidden. There are very many things that sound stereotyped that were not stereotyped at the time. Richard Wagner, who was very alert in these matters, already registered this. Disrespectfully, but forthrightly, he said that in some of Mozart's pieces he could hear the dishes clatter on the table--Tafelmusik, even when it was by no means intended as such. It was possible to follow this schema as long as it was not evident as such, as long as it was still of a piece with the self-evident preconditions of composing. But once composing, and the relationship of the composer to the schemas, has lost its virginity, then the schemas not only emerge baldly and annoyingly, but lead in many places to anomalies, contradict the moments that have meanwhile been emancipated. [emphasis added]...
... The person who commits himself to what is older only out of despair at the difficulties of the new is not comforted, but becomes the victim of his own helpless nostalgia for a better era that, finally, never actually existed.
On the other hand, one should not dispense with reactionary objections in the manner of an apologist, but should learn the measure of correct insights that they offer, which so frequently give them the advantage over moderate, progressive cultural liberalism. [emphasis added]...
Adorno’s last quote which I have quoted is interesting for what he specifically said, that we should not dispense with the objections of reactionaries in the manner of an apologist but we should learn the measure of correct insights they have to offer. Why? The objections of the reactionaries about the arts frequently give them an advantage over moderate progressive cultural liberalism. It would seem, then, that the counsel of Adorno was that we should learn the measure of correct insights offered by a reactionary. If Roger Scruton can be considered a reactionary and not just a conservative then what criticisms of contemporary post-tonal music and popular music did Scruton write?
Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation
Copyright (c) Roger Scruton 209
page 211, "Why Read Adorno?"
... his attack on mass culture should be seen in the Old Testament spirit, as a repudiation of idolatry, a reaffirmation of the age-old distinction between true and false gods--between worship that ennobles and redeems us, and the superstition that drops us in the ditch. ...
One conclusion to draw from the history of American popular music is that we should take the world "popular" seriously--far more seriously than it was taken by Adorno. [emphasis added] Pace Adorno and Horkheimer, this music was not imposed upon the American people by an unscrupulous `culture industry' eager to exploit the most degenerate aspects of popular taste. It arose `by an invisible hand' from spontaneous music-making, with a large input from Afro-American music, both secular and religious. When that music later spread around the world it was not by some imperial venture of a conquering civilization but by the same process whereby it arose--the spontaneous taste of ordinary people. [emphasis added]
The great days of American popular music may now be past: rock `n roll changed the Blues from a lyrical confession to a Dionysian display, and the long-term effects are now being felt, not only in America, but all across the world. Nevertheless, visitors to America are still astonished by the number of spontaneous musical episodes that they encounter: marching bands at football matches; barber shop singing; church choirs and `praise dances'; jazz combos in the clubs and Blue Grass in the tavern. ...
... The American song exists because people have enjoyed it and asked for more. It is the musical expression of consumer sovereignty. And like everything typical of America it gets up the intellectual nose, precisely because it seems to leave no opening for the would-be priesthood. Intellectuals on the left have never been able to accept that the spontaneous choices of ordinary people might be the final explanation of their social world. ...
It is undeniable that this musical tradition is full of kitsch and false sentiment. But there is another way besides Adorno's of looking at that fact. The American popular song arose from the spontaneous desire of ordinary Americans to celebrate the world that they themselves had created. It has never been a critical idiom, any more than the folk-music of old Europe was critical. It takes America as it comes, and its lyricism is a lyricism of acceptance. Kitsch is there in the music because kitsch lies all around. If this music were to make an effort to eliminate kitsch and false sentiment it would not be seeing through lies but telling them. [italics original, bold added] There is a kind of realism here, to which Adorno closed his ears, just as he closed his mind to the real function of song in the life of ordinary people--which is to help them to be at one with their social condition, and to normalize their sufferings and their joys. As their social conditions change, so do their songs ...
Adorno's defense of the avant-garde of his day was based on the view that `standardization' could not take root in this idiom, which would always question its own status as a commodity and refuse to be driven by aesthetic routines. But the routines soon arose and, from the tin-cans of John Cage to the bombastic operas of Stockhausen, the musical landscape today is strewn with avant-garde kitsch.
Having discussed Adorno’s scathing criticisms of Stockhausen, Boulez, American serialism and John Cage’s aleatoric reaction in some detail elsewhere; I don’t wish to dwell on what I regard as Scruton’s somewhat lazy engagement with the full range of Adorno’s commentary on post-tonal modernist styles. That Adorno made even more trenchant criticisms of Cage and Stockhausen in 1967 than Scruton made throughout his career should be a warning to contemporary conservatives that in the midst of worrying about cultural Marxism it’s not merely possible for conservatives to seemingly unknowingly repeat the criticisms a Marxist (namely Adorno) made of the mid-20th century avant garde, it has been something of a cottage industry fashion to repeat Adorno’s argument minus both Adorno’s Marxism and giving him any credit for having criticized Cage and Stockhausen first.
If Adorno turned against the post-tonal avant garde as he saw its advocates turning to what he regarded as more inhuman and technocratic methods pursued for the sake of method (a criticism that was echoed by Jacques Ellul), Scruton shifted toward a more generous view of the possibilities of popular song as a rejuvenator of tonality. Scruton, at length, could not continue rejecting popular song as incapable of being a musical art the way Adorno seemed to. But let’s notice that Scruton, in considering what he saw as the weaknesses of jazz and popular song, was still taking up what we saw of Adorno’s complaint about the standardization and modular construction of pop songs and the recursive schemata of jazz:
Adorno argued that the addiction to musical fetishes--by which he means the standardized effects of popular music--produces a `regression' in the art of listening, what we might today call a shrinking attention span. People are content with snippets that they can hum or whistle, and--thanks to mechanical reproduction--will listen to a movement, a tune or a bar detached from the work to which it owes its significance. Inevitably, therefore, the old art of listening, which involves following a complex development over long stretches of time, gives way to an interest in catchy fragments, shortened sequences that can be detached from their context and repeated at will. And it is just such fragments, Adorno implies, that become clichés, which the ear of the listener and the mind of the composer prefer to the hard work of harmonic and melodic argument.
Now Adorno has a point here ... Whatever we think about tonality, there is no doubt that it has lent itself to a new kind of music, in which the lengthy paragraphs of the symphonic tradition have been replaced by the repetition of statically conceived cells--as in the ballets and symphonies of Stravinsky. The architecture of a Beethoven or Bruckner symphony, in which the modulation from tonic to dominant might take place over a span of minutes, and in which every scale degree is conscripted to the task of transporting the material from one solid foundation to the next--this wonderful art-form is less and less present in the tonal writing of modern composers, and the `developing variations' which Schoenberg discerned in the classical style and sought to revive through his serial language are now rarely encountered. The American popular song deploys the tonal language in a manner that is short-breathed and quickly exhausted; and the idiom of jazz, which has taken tonality in a new direction, and discovered harmonic sequences and dissonant cadences which have no place in the classical repertoire, has not produced any comparable expansion of the musical argument. On the contrary, where there should be development there is usually only improvisation, and where there might be the exploration of emotion and the building of character, there is usually the repetition of the same cheerful smile.
... Something is right in what Adorno is saying. But all attempts to pin down the thesis come up against the immovably singular nature of aesthetic judgement. And the failure of Adorno to produce any prescription, other than his entirely negative advocacy of atonality against the tonal cliché, leaves the matter hanging in the air.
In the light of this it seems to me that we should retrace our steps and revisit the attempts by composers to learn from the example of song--both folk song and the jazz-influenced songbook. Although this means a return from large-scale forms to the strophic idiom of natural music, it also involves a return to the crucible of tonality, in which the tonal order is first crystallized in the soup of sound. [emphasis added] That, it seems to me, is the direction taken by Debussy; and he was followed by Janacek, Dutilleux, Britten, Messiaen and many more--brilliant musicians who were led by their ears and not by theories, even if they were capable, like Messiaen, of theorizing at the highest level. ...
In the long run Roger Scruton budged more in recognizing that popular song had virtues, if perhaps partly in reaction to what he regarded as the inhuman and inhumane technocratic tendencies of the post-Schoenberg post-tonal schools of music. I have my own reasons for thinking Scruton was less generous to Americans rejecting what they saw as a repressive and oppressive legacy from German idealism in American music education than he could have been but it’s not because I don’t adore the music of, for instance, Haydn and J. S. Bach.
Even with Scruton’s affirmation that jazz and the American songbook had given the world real musical art Scruton was on the same side as Adorno when it came to answering the question of whether or not those popular songs were compatible with the “argument” of sonata forms. I recognize this observation may be a point that is only salient to musicians but I’m making it anyway, it can be too easy for non-musicians who may align themselves with a Scruton or an Adorno on ideological grounds to amplify the differences between the two philosophers so as to not see where they strongly agreed. If Roger Scruton was a reactionary for thinking American popular song was not compatible in terms of its substance with sonatas or fugues then Adorno was a reactionary and was a reactionary despite being a Marxist. Surely this should suggest to us that such a reductionist reading of either Adorno or Scruton will not do justice to either the best or even the worst of what they said and wrote.
That they both regarded the vocabulary of jazz in particular and popular song more generally as incompatible with the “argument” and formal developmental syntax of “serious music” is, in my estimation, a shared failure. Both men could be thought of as being too beholden to the legacy of what scholars have called “the long nineteenth century”. One of the apostates of serialism Scruton has invoked was the American composer George Rochberg and it has been striking to consider the ways in which Scruton presented Rochberg as returning to tonality. I am not so sure I agree but I find it interesting that when Scruton set out to find an example of a composer who repudiated the dead ends of post-tonal modernism he settled on a particular American composer:
Our model for the future should therefore not be the sterile works of Stockhausen and Boulez but the patient attempts to adapt the old to the new, and to find notes that touch the hearts of listeners because they express the heart of their composer. George Rochberg's music points us in this direction. But it raises the question that surely troubles all serious music-lovers now, which is whether we can find our way to a musical syntax which is as expressive as the tonal language of Rochberg, but which is not shut off from the surrounding world of popular culture. This is the theme to which I shall address myself in the next post.
It is also interesting to see that in invoking Rochberg Scruton used the American composer as a potential model for finding a way “to a musical syntax which is as expressive as the tonal language of Rochberg, but which is not shut off from the surrounding world of popular culture.” Bridging a gap between “serious music” and popular culture was not, as we’ve seen, a priority in even the later writings of Adorno. Let’s say for a moment that Adorno and Scruton were philosophers who were committed political ideologues and who venerated Western music ranging from J. S. Bach up through Mahler into the age of Bartok, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and others. Both philosophers made early stands against what they regarded as the formulaic, vapid and enervating qualities of popular song. In the long run Scruton flinched where Adorno did not and the reason, as Scruton told us in book after book in the last decade, came down to recognizing that popular songs might be full of kitsch but there was no aesthetic judgment requiring a person to ignore a memorable tune. Scruton conceded Adorno’s point about American pop songs being full of kitsch and made a counter-proposal, that kitsch tells us something truer about the cultures we have been living in than the truth Adorno heard in the music of Schoenberg.
Generations of critical theory scholars have been squeamish about Adorno’s lacerating attacks on jazz and popular music with cause. Adorno can come across like he was a racist elitist. It is not, necessary to state, let alone imply (as Scruton swiftly did) that Adorno’s criticism of jazz was predicated on a more general criticism of tonality. Adorno was clear enough that the issue was not as simple as the schematic nature of tonality. Were Adorno alive today he could point out that a I-V-vi-IV power ballad by a Lewis Capaldi is a musical and textual fraud regardless of the faux-sincerity of the pop star’s crooning. The issue is how mass-produced and mass-directed the music is for a mass audience in a mass industry. Adorno would not have consented to Scruton’s concession that perhaps kitsch is true in a way and that kitsch in song does not preclude that song being art. Forty years since Star Wars and some ten movies later the monomyth is arguably the most potent formula to pander to all those Adorno regarded as philistines that the culture industry he rejected could have possibly come up with.
In many respects even conservatives would now probably simply say that Adorno was right and that contemporary popular culture proves Adorno was right but they would not for one second grant a corollary concession to a Marxist critique of mass culture. Adorno, for his part, could not concede that the Soviet Union was capable of producing music that was really art, and yet here we are in a century in which the string quartets of Shostakovich have made it into the chamber music canon. That what has so often been dismissed by serious philosophers of aesthetics and connoisseurs of Western concert music could be coded to be played and heard at more than just the level of kitsch is a point that, perhaps, philosophers like Adorno and Scruton, on either side of the Marxist and capitalist divide of the twentieth century, may have struggled to understand in the way practicing and practical musicians have.
Adorno advised that we not ignore the objections of a reactionary to the failures of modern music and Scruton leveled criticisms toward popular song that recapitulated Adorno’s complaints about the failure of popular music and popular song to rise above the assembly line modular construction of song-making machines. Adorno rejected tonality and Scruton affirmed it but what neither philosopher managed to do in their lives was suggest ways in which practical musicians could do something that could be a rebuttal to the criticisms both men made of the possibilities of popular song by making sonatas out of themes drawn from popular songs.
I’ve seen plenty of people write plenty of words to say that Theodor Adorno or Roger Scruton is right or wrong in terms of words, in terms of their ideas. I think both men were wrong but I think it’s paramount that musicians demonstrate that both men were wrong not just in words, though I could write plenty of words about why I think both men were wrong and right about a variety of things, but to demonstrate that they misread the possibilities of music that can be made drawing inspiration from popular songs in music.
I don’t see any reason that a capable and committed musician can’t take in and take on the criticisms of Adorno and Scruton alike and still make music that shows that they misjudged the asserted limitations of the musical vocabulary of popular song. Anyone can simply say that these men were wrong but saying why in both words and music takes a lot of work and a lot of thought. I think both philosophers were in error but in a way that invites careful thought and which invites a musical as well as a philosophical and theoretical response. I owe both philosphers a great debt of gratitude for writing as cogently as they did on music even where I strongly disagree with them and I think that if their work is taken together they point to problems and possibilities that musicians should relish considering at the level of philosophy, aesthetics, theory and music-making.