Rose Briccetti

“On The Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” Position Paper


Adorno’s “On The Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” begins by stating that “music represents at once the immediate manifestation of impulse and the locus of its taming,” defining almost immediately the Apollonian-Dionysian dialectical occurring within music. (29)  He continues, pointing out that “liking” and “disliking” are no longer appropriate terms to apply to music, that rather familiarity has replaced “liking.”  Music, Adorno argues, has become something which “inhabits the moments of silence that develop between people moulded by anxiety, work, and undemanding docility.” (30)  As happens most obviously in a film or advertisement, music has fallen into the background and is something which is denied attention.  This denying of attention, he argues, has broken down the wholeness of music, such that the “listener” (if that term is even still applicable) finds “delight in the moment and the gay façade” instead of considering the work as a whole, celebrating only an element of a musical composition such as a singing voice or a specific, familiar passage.


These moments of gaiety play a key role in what Adorno sees as the fetish character of music. Applying the basic Marxist equation of value [use value + exchange value = value] to cultural goods, Adorno defines music as something that is ultimately a commodity and produced solely for commerce. He sees music (and cultural goods in general) as goods in which use value has been replaced by exchange value; that is that in a capitalist society exchange value is ultimately useful to the consumer.  It is this exchange value, Adorno posits, that creates “enjoyment” in music and the purchasing of cultural goods; in his words one “who has money with which to buy is intoxicated by the act of buying.” (39)  In becoming intoxicatedly in love with that which enslaves him, man is ultimately acting as a sado-masochist, like a “prisoner who loves his cell because he has nothing else left to love.” (40)  Adorno chooses to discuss musical arrangements as a way of illuminating this fetish character and disintegration of wholeness; in arrangements wholeness is compromised in order to make a work more familiar and marketable.  Scores of hit songs are arranged and sold for the piano and guitar soloist, stripping the work of its wholeness only to capture the “individual trick.” (50)


The “counterpart,” as Adorno calls it, of this fetish character is a regression in contemporary listening which he defines as a primitivism not coming from a lack of maturity, but instead wrought out of a decisive denial of maturity.  In this regressive listening the mass audience is adamantly rejecting the possibility of a higher form of music.  This “arrogantly ignorant rejection of everything unfamiliar” is clearly a sign of childlike behavior becoming the norm in listening. (51) Here we come back again to the problem of the “arrangement” and it’s role in regressive listening.  The so-called “mistakes” or the breaking of musical rules in arrangements, which are put together by trained music professionals who are well aware of such rules, are intentional and cater to the regressed listener. Adorno also attributes the short lifespan of a hit song to regressive listening, comparing the listener to a child for whom certain charms quickly wear off. (50)


In bringing the essay full circle, back to music’s dialectical between desire and impulse control, Adorno begins to speak of musical “quotations.”  These references to the “classical stock” of music are at each moment both affirming and mocking.  Such is the state of sensuality in music; the references to such human desires serve to both imitate and mock them simultaneously. Adorno says point-blank: “Dance and music copy stages of sexual excitement only to make fun of them.” (53)  The same is true of individualism, and this becomes particularly transparent in the context of jazz; the jazz enthusiast learns syncopation from a predetermined structure. (55)  This mocking of that which is desired leads regressive listening easily into rage.  The regressive listener “would like to ridicule and destroy what yesterday they were intoxicated with…to revenge themselves for the fact that the ecstasy was not actually such.” (56)  This is precisely a theme we see throughout modernity, rejection and hatred of the past out of spite and an obsession with newness of the present moment.


In closing his essay, Adorno describes the ray of hope he sees in certain forms of “artistic” music in which “nothing sounds as it was wont to” and “all things are diverted as if by a magnet.” (59)  Such music does not subconsciously use regression to ignore or evade the terrors of reality, but instead recognizes and willfully resists regression.  Thus, Adorno argues, one must dive into the dialectical between collectivity and individuality by asserting one’s individuality in order to recognize that collectivity is breaking down the individual.