Dialectic of Pop, 35–56


I. Artistic Form


We propose the following hypothesis: within what we understand as musical art, usually conceived of as an art of sounds, pop may be understood as a particular form, a distinct way of producing forms—musical artefacts—from sounds.

This is certainly not a traditional distinction to make. For Adorno, light popular music is by no means a form: it does not even really belong to art. It is above all a social use of music determined by a psychosocial function: entertainment, the aim of which is to adapt individuals to the tempo of social life. Constrained by this function, according to Adorno, light popular music cannot possibly constitute an autonomous musical form. One can certainly relate it to an existing art form, music, but real Music as such is to be found only in the self-conscious complexity of serious music. Outside of that domain, it ceases to be an autonomous art and becomes a functional art: in short, it ceases to obey properly musical laws and instead becomes subject to constraints which minimise any artistic elements to the point of their wholesale atrophy. For Adorno, light popular music therefore seems to be nothing more than a degraded version of music, one that induces ‘a relationship to music into which those with no relationship enter’. But because this degradation is a provocation to the somewhat high-flown idea of musical
‘Art’, it arouses Adorno’s critical curiosity, even if it doesn’t persuade him to see it as a new art form.…