Ric Amurrio
17 min readOct 7, 2018



What if I told you that pop music is a form of mind control designed to keep people distracted and anesthetized? Indeed, not just pop music, but nearly every genre of music that people listen to today? It might sound like an Illuminati conspiracy theory, but actually it is the thesis of Theodor Adorno’s essay “On Popular Music,”

I’d like to join together the work of Theodor Adorno through the lens of Edward Macan and his insight into Critical Theory.

At one time, music, through impulse, subjectivity and profanation was the adversary of materialist alienation. These days though, music has become corrupted by the allure of commercial success and now it conspires with authority against freedom. Musicians, as representatives of the opposition to the authoritarian schema, have become witnesses to the authority of commercial success. In the service of success they renounce that insubordinate character which was theirs.

Theodor Adorno

Formerly, music was a check on the cultural narratives of the ruling class. Now the function of all music has changed. Cultural “goods,” and satisfiers by their very administration, are “transformed into evils” and pseudo-satisfiers. People have learned to listen without hearing. The musical consciousness of the masses today is “displeasure in pleasure” — the unconscious recognition of “false happiness.”

It’s Alright, We Told You What to Dream

The fundamental characteristic of popular music, Adorno argues, is its 32-bar popular song form or twelve-bar blues — two schemes that emphasize stock chord progressions. It is actually kind of shocking (although it should not be) just how many genres wholly adhere to the same patterns.

It’s his contention that “popular art becomes the mere exponent of society, rather than a catalyst for change in society.” He believed American authoritarianism had a different facade than the typical European forms. Instead, it was characterized by a disguised and gentle conformist enforcement rather than blatant terrorist coercion.

“individualistic tendencies are liquidated and flawlessly arranged pieces of music are perfectly performed.

Unlike classical music, where each detail “virtually contains the whole and leads to the exposition of the whole, while, at the same time, it is produced out of the conception of the whole,” in American popular music, “the detail has no bearing on a whole, which appears as an extraneous framework.”

The listener seems to care more about treatment and “style” than on aspects of substance. Along with the attraction to color as such, there is of course the veneration for the tool. It means that the act of “listening to popular music” involves manipulation by “a system of response mechanisms wholly antagonistic to the ideal of individuality in a free, liberal society. Through structural standardization,

The composition hears for the listener. This is how popular music divests the listener of his spontaneity and promotes conditioned reflexes” Structural standardization leads listeners to regard commercial music as “natural,” and anything that deviates from it as “unnatural”.

(p. 306).

Furthermore, commercial music promises to deliver two things people desire from their leisure time: novelty, and “relaxation which does not involve the effort of concentration at all”

(p. 310).

Popular music grants them both: the standardized structures reassure, while the individual features — the seemingly individualistic substitute chords, timbral colorings, and so forth, — offer the promise of novelty.

But the promise is never kept.

“To escape boredom and avoid effort are incompatible,”

Because popular music’s offerings are “ever identical,” novelty disappears and the listener becomes bored again. The result is a relationship between industry and consumer that is something like a vicious circle: consumers like what they know and the industry knows what they like, and delivers it without fail.

“The people clamor for what they are going to get anyhow”

(p. 310).

The unity of the two spheres is obscured and they are portrayed as being antagonistic. In fact, the ideal is that popular (light) music should serve as an introduction to higher (serious) music, while higher music should renew its lost collective strength by borrowing from the lower.

The liquidation of the individual is the real signature of the new musical situation. Between incomprehensibility (serious music) and inescapability (popular music), there is currently no room between them for the “individual.”


Musical appreciation degrades to “fetishism” — particularly a vulgar materialistic fascination with the technical material of music. For musical materialists, it is synonymous to have a voice and to be a singer. Today, the material as such, destitute of any function, is celebrated. To legitimate the fame of its owner, a voice need only be especially voluminous or especially high. The voice or instruments are made into fetishes and torn away from the function which gives them meaning — the eliciting of moments of sensual pleasure in the idea.

Theodor Adorno


Music is a commodity, the last pre-capitalist residues have been eliminated. Music, with all the attributes of the ethereal and sublime, serves in American broadcast media as an advertisement for commodities. In modern capitalist society, one of the more legitimate pleasure to be got from music is to appreciate its exchange value.

The fiction of “supply and demand” survives merely in trivial individual nuances. The identical character of commodities (which everyone must buy) is hidden by the myth of universal style. Acquiescence to this state of uniformity is rationalized as modesty, or opposition to caprice and anarchy.

As well as the vibration the music produces the consumer is really worshipping the money that he himself has paid for the ticket to the Toscanini concert. Pleasure is derived from the idea that the music is valuable rather than taking pleasure in the music itself.


According to Adorno, there are two types of people who listen to popular music: the “rhythmically obedient” type and the “emotional” type. The “rhythmically obedient” , particularly the youth. To them, music is about following the beat without any “individualizing”. It gives them a sense of belonging with the “untold millions of the meek” who are similarly affected.

The “emotional” are people with a romanticized, view of music. They identify with the subject or tone of the music, heavy metal as if it were the hero in dungeons and dragons or Game of Thrones or cry in your beer country songs. Adorno says that people mistake it for “wish-fulfillment.


the illusion of free choice in the market which lets a listener pick which of the pre-digested music they “prefer”. It must be illusory, or people would resist it. There must also be a like-dislike dichotomy (I like Metallica and dislike Megadeth), despite the “fundamental identity of the material” in order to allow the listener to feel in control.

For Adorno, plugging is more than just repeating a “hit” to make it successful — it is about breaking down the human resistance to monotony. If they play it enough, listeners will believe it must be a hit.

“It leads the listener to become enraptured with the inescapable. And thus it leads to the institutionalization and standardization of listening habits themselves. Listeners become so accustomed to the recurrence of the same things that they react automatically.”

There is a paradox in continually producing songs that must be fundamentally the same as their predecessors while being fundamentally different. Sameness ensures predictable consumer behavior; difference ensures that there will be something about the song people remember. The typical compromise is a song which is identical to all other songs except for one isolated trademark, plays on nursery rhymes, repetition of some demand, and other child-like behavior.. In this way, plugging agencies fulfill the role of an adult, and place the listener in the role of a child, again relieving him of his own adult responsibilities.

What is happening is that the listener is able to glean satisfaction and ownership by participating in the plugging process. It is a delusion of grandeur, according to Adorno.


This ‘regression of listening’ was synonymous with the incapability of most people to participate in concentrated listening. The musical audience resign themselves to whatever is offered, rejecting freedom of choice and the responsibility for intellectual perception of the songs. Therefore, a ‘regression of listening’ means needs are being manipulated by outside forces.

Not only do listeners lose, along with freedom of choice and responsibility, the capacity for conscious perception of music, but listeners come to stubbornly reject the notion that any such perception is possible. They listen atomistically and dissociate what they hear.

“regressive listening is tied to production by the machinery of distribution, and particularly, by advertising.”

Adorno says music works as distraction — an escape from the boredom of mechanized labor.

“Distraction is bound to the present mode of production, to the rationalized and mechanized process of labor to which, directly or indirectly, masses are subject. This mode of production, which engenders fears and anxiety about unemployment, loss of income, war, has its “non-productive” correlate in entertainment; that is, relaxation which does not involve the effort of concentration at all.”

He goes further to suggest that the repetitive nature of our entertainment is designed to condition us specifically for the repetitive nature of our work, and indeed, the repetitive nature of our lives. “The less the mass discriminates, the greater the possibility of selling cultural commodities indiscriminately.”

Similar to the paradox about selling music that is both the same and different, there is a paradox for listeners in terms of entertainment: listeners wish to escape boredom, yet avoid effort. These are incompatible, and the compromise reached is that entertainment must be a form of stimulant in and of itself.

Adorno believes that even though it seems listeners readily accept plugged material, their acceptance is propped up by “a veil of flimsy rationalizations” that could collapse one day. For instance, entertainment or fashions that were popular 20 years ago seem old-fashioned today, and the same will be true of today’s glamorous things 20 years from now. And yet in music, if not in every art, these “corny” characteristics of “dated” music are only nominally different from the characteristics of today’s music: “a sixteenth on the down beat with a subsequent dotted eighth.” Despite the lack of a musical criterion on which it is justifiable to refer to older music as “corny,” we reject it today “with the smug feeling that the fashions now familiar to the listener are superior”.

Adorno posits that perhaps older plugged hits provoke “revenge” from listeners once the impetus to enjoy them has moved on to newer hits. He attributes this ambivalence to an ever-increasing gap between the individual and social power. Even though fundamentally, the decision to like a song is an individual one, rejecting a “hit” is a matter of rebelling against the wisdom of the public.

“Resistance is regarded as the mark of bad citizenship, as inability to have fun, as highbrow insincerity, for what normal person can set himself against such normal music?”

In order to serve reaction, technical development must establish itself as a fetish. By perfecting techniques, the neglected social tasks are represented as already accomplished.


On Philosophy of Modern Music he considers the two major “schools” of composition in Adorno’s time — one led by Arnold Schoenberg, the other by Igor Stravinsky.

The creators of new and radical music do not just aim to contribute to musical progress. They consciously aim to resist regressive listening and battle against those powers which destroy individuality in society. The terror which Schoenberg and Webern spread, today as in the past, comes not from their incomprehensibility, but from the fact that they are all too well understood.

Their music gives form to that anxiety, that terror, that insight into the catastrophic situation which others merely evade by regressing. These musicians are called individualists, and yet their work is nothing but a single dialog with the powers which destroy individuality —

Adorno’s take on Stravinsky is particularly relevant, because psychedelic rock of the late 1960s, such as Frank Zappa, The Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Genesis, King Crimson, inadvertently resurrected certain elements of Stravinsky’s primitivism; understanding alienation in a key primitivist work like Rite of Spring, his controversial ballet score that caused a riot when it was premiered in 1913, makes it easier to understand the nature of those bands achievements in their more ambitious early works and show just how difficult it is for any composer or songwriter to effectively confront alination without recourse to music that is itself alienating.


Schoenberg, held a Darwinian view of stylistic development, believing that stylistic change is inevitable and that simple music must inexorably become more chromatic, for chord progressions to become less anchored to a home key, and ultimately, for any key to disappear entirely.

In Schoenberg’s twelve-tone music, the composer must establish and repeat a sequence of twelve tones. While this sequence of notes may be transposed , inverted , presented backwards, or given in retrograde inversion, it may never be abandoned.

Few will argue that twelve tone music makes for easy or pleasant listening. The counterpoint of twelve-tone music itself models alienation since the simultaneous melodic lines, rather than blending, are

“totally alien to each other and, in their accordance, actually hostile to each other”

(p. 94).

That, however, is exactly how this contemporary music achieves its critical bite —

“it points out the ills of society, rather than sublimating those ills into a deceptive humanitarianism which would pretend that humanitarianism had already been achieved in the present.

Stravinsky’s Primitivism

Stravinsky uses music to model a primeval, pre-alienated state. Short themes, often consisting of just a few pitches are tied to specific rhythm patterns. These are repeated at a steady, unyielding tempo in a manner that anticipates both jazz and rock:

Stravinsky often presents two or more short melodic-rhythmic patterns simultaneously, creating a dissonant chord that sounds until a new network of rhythmic patterns suddenly appears, sounding a new chord.

“he has excavated the buried origins of music; as, for example, the events of The Rite of Spring might well evoke the simultaneously complex and, at the same time, strictly disciplined rhythms of primitive rites”

(p. 154).

For Adorno, “primitivism” describes not only the sound, but its goal: these works.

By dissolving individual identity through hypnotically-repetitive rhythms and slowly-shifting harmonies, Adorno took this music to present “an inner stage which . . . is the scene of pre-individual experiences which are common to all” (p. 162).

He saw an evocation of mental illness in the obsessive repetition of short rhythmic patterns

Whether or not it is coincidence Syd Barrett certainly knew a thing or two about hallucinogenic drugs. Indeed, in Barrett’s case, the boundary between the psychedelic experience on the one hand, and mental illness on the other, eventually became blurred. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the goals of Stravinsky’s primitivist music, and even some of its techniques, converge with The Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, Genesis, King Crimson or The Grateful Dead’s psychedelic rock of the late 1960s.


The enormous success in 1967 of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band inspired other bands to expand and refine this blending of rock, folk, and classical into a style that came to be known as progressive rock. Throughout the 1970s the form developed into a core element around which colossal light shows, elaborate props, and outlandish costumes were added as bands like Genesis and Yes moved the music into arenas and stadiums. Though hugely popular, many critics considered the music emotionally cold and pompous. By the end of the decade a backlash against progressive rock and disco led to do-it-yourself movements like Punk and New Wave. The music’s continued success, however, indicates that this is an important if controversial subgenre of rock music.


Michael Hicks has identified three fundamental effects of the LSD experience, namely

  1. dechronization (the breaking down of conventional perceptions of time), Dechronization results in songs being lengthened and their tempos being slowed down, with open-ended forms becoming the rule; the quasi-hypnotic repetition of an ostinato (a short melodic pattern) by the bass guitarist, over which the guitarist or keyboard player weaves long, non-directional solos, contribute to a sense of stasis.

2) depersonalization (the breaking down of the ego’s ordinary barriers and resulting awareness of undifferentiated unity. Depersonalization affects both dynamics and texture: extremely loud amplification in live settings results in a diminishing of individual consciousness, as listeners feel the music as much as hear it . Among the band itself, the distinction between lead and accompaniment players is dissolved, resulting in a kind of democratic counterpoint that is denser and more complex than the texture of any earlier rock music.

3) )dynamization (whereby static physical forms appear to dissolve into molten, dripping objects). Dynamization leads to a number of techniques that are especially closely associated with psychedelic rock — the use of artificial reverberation, echo units, and stereo panning to suggests enormous interior spaces, unusual, “sliding” or “floating” chord progressions, and the use of wah-wah pedals, feedback, and pitch-bending to dynamize and render “molten” otherwise stable timbres.

In the most characteristic structural approach of psychedelic rock, dechronization and dynamization converge in the multi-movement “song” in which the meter, tempo, texture, instrumentation, and sometimes key of each section or movement contrasts with that of the others.


Was the goal of The Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Genesis, King Crimson — of psychedelic rock in general — similar to Stravinsky’s primitivist regression to a time before, or place beyond, the corrosive effects of modern life? It would seem the answer is “yes.” If anything, the structural dynamics of “Dark Star” suggests the dissolution of the ego and its ultimate re-emergence and reintegration more definitely than Stravinsky.


A) First,

there’s an instrumental introduction of a meditative or mystical nature. Always unusual, often somewhat forbidding, the purpose of the introduction is not just to set a mood (although it does), but to draw the listener out of the realm of ordinary experience — there is a patient, unhurried pace to the track’s unfolding with a slow, mournful electric guitar lead.

B) Next

is the song proper, or, at least, the principal melody, since conventional song form is not always in evidence.

“Dark Star” begins with a clearly-sketched theme — The song proper begins airy vocal harmonies that were forever after linked to Pink Floyd, Genesis, King Crimson, no matter who was singing. There is a real song here, with a twelve-bar verse followed by an eight-bar instrumental refrain. the smoothly contoured vocal lines are their most memorable yet, and the warm orchestration (sustained organ chords, echo-treated piano filigrees, liquid electric guitar obbligato, languid 4/4 rhythm section accompaniment) ties the song securely to its introduction beautifully expresses a monist vision of universal interconnectedness that instantly ties together as a metaphysical and individual condition on the one hand and a social, communal phenomenon on the other.

This is

C) followed

by a lengthy instrumental section,

a vision of space as the womb of all life, and renders a word painting of an archaic creature, in an unimaginably distant past, groping its way out of the space onto earth. The lyric thus shows similarities to the creation mythos of Yes’s “Revealing Science of God” and Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Great Gate of Kiev.” But for Hunter/Garcia the main point is the loneliness of this first attempt to ascend toward the light. Alienation here appears as a metaphysical, individual experience that is far older than humankind itself.

The musical fabric is then subjected to varying levels of dissolution, until it reaches a “furthest out” point where it dissolves entirely —, when the sense of pulse essentially disappears. Is this the final dissolution of the individual into the collective?


The third part of the four-part process — the instrumental breakthrough and climax — takes in three distinct sections. First is a lengthy jazz-funk jam lyrical, circular guitar lead defined by a much bigger, more searing timbre than anything he had ever recorded before; This is the breakthrough section, where the piece’s pitch/rhythm parameters are transcended, and it evokes a pantheistic vision of enormously powerful natural forces of which human life is but a tiny part,

D) climax,

after which the “song” is recapitulated more or less (at times decidedly less) literally. And finally, the recap of the opening section — does this signal the reemergence of the ego, now deeper and wiser after its journey? The structural trajectory ” depicts the hallucinogenic experience, the plunge into the depths of inner space, as both an alienating experience — purely individual, lonely, and often frightening — and as an antidote to alienation, since the moment of dissolution signals escape from the limits of the ego into the great collective, The track continues to build, until finally, Garcia launches into a dramatic electric guitar fanfare that brings “Dark Star” to its radiant climax.


One important aspect of this four-part process is its commitment to organicism, meaning all the events of a song flow logically from the implications of its opening material. This commitment, shared by the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Genesis, King Crimson or , is quite different from what one encounters in contemporaneous experimental American bands like the Mothers of Invention who insert glaringly “out of place” passages to generate satire and ironic displacement in their music.


The rest, as they say, is history. On Dark Side of the Moon, Topographic Ocean, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway the bands transformed the multi-movement suite structures into a cycle of interconnected songs, tied together with instrumental interludes and imaginative collages of sound effects and spoken dialogue that continue to transfix audiences around the world.

Roger Waters, Gabriel, and Hunter/Garcia’s lyrics continue to explore alienation from both individual and social, metaphysical and socio-political perspectives. In the case of Pink Floyd. The historic success of Dark Side, is due both to Waters, great lyrics and the band’s now refined ability to cover the structural skeleton of their acoustic ballads with a sleek, futuristic sonic surface drawn from their psychedelic-era space rock epics. But both factors began to change as the bands ascended to mega-stardom in the mid 1970s.


On the one hand, Waters, Gabriel, and the people writing lyrics for King Crimson soon abandoned that monism as their lyrics became increasingly pessimistic, cynical, and preoccupied with a peculiarly misanthropic socio-political low degree of integration or common values and a high degree of distance or isolation between individuals, or between an individual and a group of people in a community or work environment.

On the other hand, as good as the music often was — it never again had the power of unfamiliarity that characterized the early Genesis, King Crimson and Pink Floyd classics. To put it another way, while one might argue that a track like “On the Run” played the same “breakthrough” function on Dark Side as the analogous sections of “Eugene” and “Set the Controls,” it’s unlikely that most listeners found it particularly disturbing or difficult, even if they did find it somewhat unusual.

Early Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Genesis, King Crimson or Jethro Tull fans did not conform to Adorno’s stereotypical popular music listener who listens for reassurance and relaxation. They instead sought stimulation and challenge in the new and novel. Which is a good thing: it took genuine commitment to truly absorb and comprehend such music as “Dark Star” “The Other One” “Echoes” 21st Century Schizoid men

After Dark Side, listening to As Pink Floyd, Genesis, King Crimson or Jethro Tull did not take quite the same level of commitment, since the songs tend to follow standard song forms more closely — and, to quote Adorno again,

“the composition hears for the listener.”

Even the surface novelties — the unusual electronic timbres, the unexpected juxtapositions in the sound collages — tend toward a generally smooth, sleek sonic sheen that can be appreciated or ignored with equal ease.

Granted, there are a few exceptions — the suite-like structure of “Shine on You, Crazy Diamond” or TAles from The Topographic Oceans shows a continuing engagement with earlier, more adventurous structural approaches — but these are offset by the largely conventional musical syntax and smooth, unobtrusive sonic surfaces. And although “Red” “Starless and Bible Back”, Animals and The Wall, feature the decade’s most abrasive sonic surfaces, they are much more conventional by the standards of their day.

Roger Waters, Gabriel, often seemed to want the music to function as a neutral canvas upon which they could sketch their lyrics and realize his conceptual ambitions — that is, they wanted the music to support their literary message, without vying with it for attention. But, if that is true, we encounter a paradox and, for a musician like Waters, Gabriel, who aspires to social criticism, a problem. As Adorno would have probably advised him, at the point at which the composition is hearing for the listener, the listener is probably not paying much attention to the words and images that are intended to challenge or stimulate, either.

The point is not that listeners may not know the words; it’s that even if they do, they may well not be inclined to puzzle through what they mean, or inquire about how individual songs fits into the album’s conceptual framework as a whole. Waters, Gabriel, Fripp’s ever-growing contempt for fan base is well-known. As the 1970s wore on, they became increasingly frustrated with what they perceived as the audiences indifference to the sophisticated analyses of alienation and the critiques of contemporary society .

Adorno would likely say that this state of affairs was simply the result of the paradoxical effort — and, I suspect Adorno would say, mistaken effort — of addressing low degree of integration or common values and a high degree of distance or isolation between individuals, or between an individual and a group of people ie ALIENATION through music that is not in itself alienating. Indeed, Waters, Gabriel, Fripp may have moved in the wrong direction by insisting that their music be ever more conventional.