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  • The Ideology of Postmodern Music and Left Politics
  • John Beverley

This article appeared initially in the British journal Critical Quarterly 31.1 (Spring, 1989). I’m grateful to its editors for permission to reproduce it here, and in particular to Colin MacCabe for suggesting the idea in the first place. I’ve added a few minor corrections and updates.

for Rudy Van Gelder, friend of ears

Adorno directed some of his most acid remarks on musical sociology to the category of the “fan.” For example:

What is common to the jazz enthusiast of all countries, however, is the moment of compliance, in parodistic exaggeration. In this respect their play recalls the brutal seriousness of the masses of followers in totalitarian states, even though the difference between play and seriousness amounts to that between life and death (...) While the leaders in the European dictatorships of both shades raged against the decadence of jazz, the youth of the other countries has long since allowed itself to be electrified, as with marches, by the syncopated dance-steps, with bands which do not by accident stem from military music.1

One of the most important contributions of postmodernism has been its defense of an aesthetics of theconsumer, rather than as in the case of romanticism and modernism an aesthetics of the producer, in turn linked to an individualist and phallocentric ego ideal. I should first of all make it clear then that I am writing here from the perspective of the “fan,” the person who buys records and goes to concerts, not like Adorno from the perspective of the trained musician or composer. What I will be arguing, in part with Adorno, in part against him, is that music is coming to represent for the Left something like a “key sector.”

For Adorno, the development of modern music is a reflection of the decline of the bourgeoisie, whose most characteristic cultural medium on the other hand music is.2 Christa Burger recalls the essential image of the cultural in Adorno: that of Ulysses, who, tied to the mast of his ship, can listen to the song of the sirens while the slaves underneath work at the oars, cut off from the aesthetic experience which is reserved only for those in power.3 What is implied and critiqued at the same time in the image is the stance of the traditional intellectual or aesthete in the face of the processes of transformation of culture into a commodity—mass culture—and the consequent collapse of the distinction between high and low culture, a collapse which precisely defines the postmodern and which postmodernist ideology celebrates. In the postmodern mode, not only are Ulysses and his crew both listening to the siren song, they are singing along with it as in “Sing Along with Mitch” and perhaps marking the beat with their oars—one-two, one-two, one-two-three-four.

One variant of the ideology of postmodern music may be illustrated by the following remarks from an interview John Cage gave about his composition for electronic tapeFontana Mix (1958):

Q.—I feel that there is a sense of logic and cohesion in your indeterminate music.

A.—This logic was not put there by me, but was the result of chance operations. The thought that it is logical grows up in you... I think that all those things that we associate with logic and our observance of relationships, those aspects of our mind are extremely simple in relation to what actually happens, so that when we use our perception of logic we minimize the actual nature of the thing we are experiencing.

Q.—Your conception (of indeterminacy) leads you into a universe nobody has attempted to charter before. Do you find yourself in it as a lawmaker?

A.—I am certainly not at the point of making laws. I am more like a hunter, or an inventor, than a lawmaker.

Q.—Are you satisfied with the way your music is made public—that is, by the music publishers, record companies, radio stations, etc.? Do you have complaints?

A.—I consider my music, once it has left my desk, to be what in Buddhism would be called...

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