One of Adorno's most valid criticisms of pop music is its support of "the basic culture-industrial principle: affirmation of life as it is."1 This certainly holds true for much of what gets radio play. Such music tells us "don't worry; be happy" and thereby pre-suppresses any objections we might raise to the socio-economic status quo. But there exist forms of pop music that carry a message of negation instead of affirmation. (Negation here, as defined by Greil Marcus, is that which suggests that "the world is not as it seems."2) Sonic Youth's "Shaking Hell," from the album Confusion is Sex, is a prime exemplar of pop's power in the field of negation. This analysis will attempt to show how it serves as a refutation of Adorno's claim that popular music cannot "be exploded from within, on its own premises and with its own habituated means."3
"Shaking Hell" succeeds as "negative" music in several areas. First, it takes deviation from standard pop form as its core, not as trite ornamentation. Its form is serial, roughly ABC, with internal repetition in each section. The pop listener must therefore abandon the hope of applying a generic "framework" over the song (such as a standard ABABCABB).4 Instead it must be accessed by concentrated attention to developing details, a sign of "serious music" (Adorno's term). Furthermore, the listener is denied the simple pleasure of recognition usually delivered by repeating chorus arrangements.
The second area where "Shaking Hell" makes a statement of negation is in its narrative. The A section, which resembles a slightly off-kilter Hitchcock soundtrack, lulls the listener into a sense of cultural recognition while hinting that something is out of control. When, in the B section, the singer begins her tale, her identity is immediately problematized. As the lyrics unfold, it seems she is recounting a violent seduction/rape scene. It is somewhat unclear, however, whether she is referring to herself in the third person, or speaking generally from a disembodied position, or, most dangerous to the status quo, negating identity as a category altogether. The listener is thereby prevented from establishing his/her relationship to the singer. But, she promises, "come closer and I'll tell you..."
What comes next turns the curiosity of identity ambiguity into panic. "Come closer and I'll...Take off your dress." Suddenly we need to know who she is; can she hurt us? I can speak only as a male listener when I say that her words feel accusatory as well as threatening. The first time I heard this, in a room full of people, that line leapt out at me, and it was at best uncomfortable. "I'll take off your dress!" she quoted back at me, while I wanted to believe that I had never said it in the first place. I could not treat the music like aural wallpaper, for it had reached in and stirred up culturally-inherited guilt which remained unresolved (and, to cope, repressed) with my social position as a male. Neurotic personal anecdotes aside, the point is that affirmative pop music would never cross this line. Making the listener squirm with guilt is about the farthest thing music can do from "don't worry; be happy."
In the C section, the singer fixates on the word "shake," as if to say "shake me? shake me? no, i'll shake you...". Following a brief calm, a mad chaotic guitar begins to build the texture back up as the singer's implied threat becomes more explicit. Eventually, the word is brought into the present and threat becomes obeyed command; with her final "SHAKE" the music cuts out. The singer has gained mastery of the narrative. Yet since for the listener, subject-identification has been blocked, her empowerment is non-transferable. For the male listener at least, the only point of identification is as a negative object of accusation and retributive violence.
It would seem I have proved that there is an exception to Adorno's "rule" that no pop music can affect negation. Yet such a conclusion is problematized by shifting categories: perhaps Adorno's framework can simply swallow up "Shaking Hell" by accepting it into the domain of "serious music." I would argue that, by Adorno's conventions, it is too marked by pop conventions to merge back into "serious" avant-garde. The harmonic material, while incorporating dissonance, is tonal and fairly simple. It has repetitive rhythms that (as Adorno viewed jazz) ally with fascism through their "affinity to march music."5 It is also executed with relatively crude instrumental technique that by definition fails to "emphasiz[e] norms of high technical competence" characteristic of "serious music."6
The resolution to this dilemma comes in realizing that Adorno's theory in its whole is simply not applicable to this music. Paddison's category of "minority music," pop in its material but not in terms of "ratings on popularity polls,"7 might work. So might Mark Amerika's "Avant-Pop" construction. For now, all we know is that "Shaking Hell" succeeds in exploding pop from within, as well as Adorno's framework that requires "serious" and "pop" to remain in opposition.
1Adorno, "Popular Music," p.37
2Marcus, "Gulliver Speaks," Artforum Nov.1983, p.72
3Adorno, "Popular Music," p.34
4Adorno, "On Popular Music," p.18