Theodor Adorno Meets "Lo-Fi" Rock

by Samuel Jeffries
May 1996

Rock and roll is not about structural innovation. One could apply "structural listening" to rock and roll, but it would be like using a microscope to read a magazine. The structure is already given, and is easily discerned. Rock and roll creates its effect through repetition (both across and within individual songs) and slight variation. The established forms and styles of rock trigger emotional responses, responses which are historically prescribed. By triggering the pleasure-effects of established styles, and at the same time introducing variations within its standard structures, rock and roll inspires both the comfort of the familiar and the thrill of the new.

Adorno recognized all this, and spared no harsh words for the formulaic nature of popular music. For him, this "variation-within-a-structure" formula is the worst kind of musical production. It leaves the listener expecting and desiring nothing new, and, at the same time, remaining content with pre-ordained "deviations" in place of real change. In other words, the structure of popular music, along with the diachronic "constancy" of each pop-music form, directly interpellate the listener into the "false consciousness" of capitalist ideology.

Adorno's arguments are enormously compelling, and refuting them may not be possible, or even desirable. If one shares Adorno's basic theoretical assumptions about the ideological functioning of cultural products, one can hardly to reject his critique of popular music's formal-ideological function. Despite Adorno's oft-noted ignorance of jazz's development, as well as the innovations of rock and roll, his basic analysis of popular-music forms remains unassailable. Post-Adornian writers, especially those with strong investments in various forms of popular music, may be quick to assail Adorno's "elitism," yet a vindication of popular music from within a Critical Theory -informed perspective will have to be launched from a different front.

If one wants to find rock and roll that is in some way "progressive," and which escapes or at least problematizes the ideological function that Adorno identified in popular music, where is one to look? Since rock and roll is not about structural innovation, New Music -style compositional rigor will not suffice to radicalize the form. Such compositional techniques might transcend the form, becoming something else entirely, but the piece at hand would almost surely no longer be "rock." (As Florindo Volpaccio notes in his "Reply To Kentor" (p. 121), the "pseudo-Schoenbergian elements" of the Beatles' "I Feel Fine" are not an "innovating" contribution to the rock and roll form - rather, the Beatles' real "innovation" was the "legitimacy they provided the recording studio" as a fundamental part of rock.)

A truly radical or progressive rock (for the two are not the same, as will be demonstrated shortly) must, it seems, take the form head-on, addressing its severe structural limitations, its ideological baggage, etc. Perhaps one might look to film production as a model for alternative, counter-hegemonic practice. In film, as in popular music, the dominant system of production, distribution, and promotion is criticized not just for its economic hegemony, but also for the ideological function of the dominant form itself. The conventional narrative form, so familiar to viewers of most Hollywood and "independent" features, carries with it a set of ideological functions which avant-garde and "experimental" filmmakers have long sought to disrupt. For now, I will address one prominent mode of oppositional film technique and attempt to locate a similar thrust in rock: foregrounding the constructedness of filmic texts and their narrative conventions, in order to disrupt the "naturalness" of the cinematic image and the narrative grammar.

Avant-garde filmmakers have long revealed the materiality of film, that very physicality of the recording processes and apparatuses which Hollywood attempts to efface. This can mean as little as purposefully letting the "boom," or overhead microphone, fall into the shot, in order to destroy the illusion of "natural," non-recorded sound; or as much as actually scratching directly into the film stock itself in order to produce an image. Other filmmakers, less concerned with the materiality of the film itself, focus on disrupting the seamless cohesion of the narrative structure. Jean-Luc Godard pioneered the use of "jump-cuts," in which "cutting out" "dead time" is not seamless, in order to disorient the viewer and call attention the physical process of editing. Other filmmakers may present a scene from different angles, or even include different versions of the "same" scene. As a result, the "realness" of the narrative is disrupted, and its artificiality and constructedness emphasized.

In rock and roll, similar avant-garde techniques can be found. The Dead C, a group from New Zealand, aggressively foreground the materiality of recorded music. The White House, a Dead C recording from 1995, consists largely of incidental, or "non-musical," noise produced by instruments and recording equipment. Because these washes of noise undergo changes in tone, volume, and intensity, the record is clearly "orchestrated" in some way. Yet most of it does not contain recognizable "notes," or song structures. And when more conventionally "musical" sounds can be identified (the strumming of a guitar, the blips of a keyboard, the beat of a drum), they are always subsumed in the tide of distortion and feedback. Thus, The White House makes clear how rock and roll (for this is a "rock" band, using "rock" instruments) is not merely the "expression" of a musician, but is rather produced with material devices and processes. As a result, the "naturalness" of recorded is destroyed, and its ideological effect severely curtailed, if not totally obliterated. [Play "The New Snow" (track 2).]

The White House also deconstructs the form of rock and roll. In "The New Snow," bongo drums can be heard in the background, guitars buzz, and keyboards ramble, but these elements do not cohere into a "song," by any conventional standard. The drumbeat may be steady, but it carries nothing forward. At one point, a "musical" riff is played on the guitar, and then echoed by a human whistle [skip to 9:20], but neither have any cumulative effect on the largely chaotic whole. Thus, contrary to Adorno's definition of popular music, this is rock and roll in which pseudo-individualizing elements carry no ideological illusion of "change." Rather, "The New Snow" destroys rock's ability to promise something "new" while just delivering the same old thing. (In fact, the track is long and amorphous, rejecting any form-and thus rejecting any ideological function other than opposition.)

Because "The New Snow" so completely refuses the "pleasure-function" of the rock form, it may be characterized as truly "radical," nihilistic, and uncomprom-ising. Not all Dead C songs are like this, however. [Play "Your Hand" (3).] "Your Hand" conforms recognizably to a rock and roll standard: a steady beat, carrying forward an actual song, with regular, consistent chord changes, vocals, etc. Yet the distortion is still acute, and so the "naturalness" of the form remains subverted. [Play "Outside" (6).] The resulting song is marked by a kind of ambivalence: it obeys the conventions of rock even as it refuses to allow these to be accepted unquestioningly. [Stop CD.] Such a rock song, "halfway" between radically oppositional and conventional, might be deemed "progressive": it allows for some of the pleasure that the form carries, yet qualifies it by foregrounding the materiality of the recording. Adorno may not be so impressed by this: as long as the form remains intact, he might argue, so does its ideological function. Yet I believe that such "progressive" techniques are interesting and valuable, in precisely their ability to offer up pleasure and critique at the same time.

As another example, I offer Love As Laughter. This "group," actually the work of Sam Jayne, a single musician, is considered part of the recent "lo-fi" trend in sub-mainstream "indie rock." Lo-fi rock foregoes the slickness of expensive studio recording, favoring instead the politically-charged (for reasons just enumerated) hiss and crackle of the home tape recorder. "It's Only Lena," the first song from Love As Laughter's The Greks Bring Gifts, is the perfect example of rock which uses the alienation of foregrounded materiality as an aesthetic device. (Indeed, many might protest that the tape hiss and distortion of lo-fi rock merely become codified into a new set of standard, unquestioned tropes, thus taking on the empty aura of "progressiveness" and losing whatever real progressiveness they may have had. And these detractors would certainly have a case.)

When poor sound quality is paired with an extremely basic example of rock and roll form (and many lo-fi songs are extremely basic, without trying for the "pseudo-individualization" that Adorno so detested), the result is double-alienation, both material and formal. Instead of a "disparagement of all distances" (Adorno, Intro To The Sociology Of Music, p. 28), there is an emphasis of distance-the distance between the musician and the listener, the distance created by the mediation of recording and playback technology. Unlike with less self-critical rock, there is no "insistence that nothing a man comes in touch with may be better, or may be regarded as better, than he himself is or thinks he is" (28). The lo-fi listener encounters a form, as a form-and not any transparent font of "emotion," etc. The music may still be pleasurable, but it is pleasure in a cultural product which refuses to be merely what it appears to be, which constantly puts its very ontological status into question. In a world dominated by the cultural industry and its products, such pleasure seems to be, in a way, progressive-even if not in the sense that Adorno would favor. [Play "It's Only Lena."]

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