Thursday, July 7, 2011

blogging adorno: popular music and the "contrived postures of femininity"

Okay, okay. Time to confess: I have never read Introduction to the Sociology of Music. Once upon a time I tried to read Aesthetic Theory, and I am sorry to admit that my head almost exploded. Recently, a friend of mine began his own serious engagement with Adorno; after a few conversations about these studies, I decided it was foolish for me to sit around twiddling my thumbs with Dostoevsky my only literary/philosophical diversion. Eccolo, "baby's first" Adorno. And since every signature looks, more or less, like this:

I hope that you will indulge me as I post some thoughts daily as I make my way. First off, this is an ongoing project. As I read, I find myself overjoyed by the words on the page. Why it has taken me so long to engage with this text, I will never know; frankly, I'm a little irritated with myself that I didn't crack the damn thing open the day I received it in the mail. In any event, here we are, months later.

Prior to my engagement with Teddy, I took a few moments to read Susan Brownmiller's "The Contrived Postures of Femininity." You know I can't get enough of the disciplined, docile feminine body--Brownmiller's essay seemed to be an appropriate summer epilogue to Foucault, Butler, McClary and the rest. Upon reading "The Contrived Posture...", I had a largely predictable reaction: a lovely combination of anger, sadness, and an undeniable aporia (what can be done? how did we get here?). We should all read this in its entirety, however, in conjunction with my recent reading of IttSoM, I couldn't help but be reminded of the following passage and the notion of an ideal femininity (one that fosters and subsequently manipulates desire) based upon a tenuous balance between that which is crass and that which is cultured. Brownmiller writes:

Slowly, it dawned on me that much of feminine movement, the inhibited gestures, the locked knees, the nervous adjustments of the skirt, was a defensive maneuver against an immodest, vulgar display that feminine clothing flirted with in deliberate provocation. My feminine responsibility was to keep both aspects, the provocative and the chaste, in careful balance, even if it meant avoiding the beautifully designed open stairway in a Fifth Avenue bookshop. [1]

Likewise, about popular music, Teddy pens the following:

On the one hand [popular music] must catch the listener's attention, must differ from other popular songs if it is to sell, to reach the listener at all. On the other hand it must not go beyond what audiences are used to, lest it repel them. It must remain unobtrusive, must not transcend that musical language which seems natural to the average listener envisaged by the producers...

Going on, he writes:

The difficulty facing the producer of pop music is that he mus void the contradiction. He must write something impressive enough to be remembered and at the same time well-known enough to be banal. [2]

So why discuss these passages together? Their commonalities exist in their oblique references to a rhetoric of desire and more importantly (and indeed, more distressingly) cultural technologies of coercion. I have quite a bit to say about Adorno, structure/ornament and femininity, certainly. For now, why don't we just use these two passages as preliminary evidence for such a connection. Let's look at what we have here:

Adorno equates the hit song with its ability to traverse that tenuous passage between submission and dominance, the passive and dynamic, that which is familiar and that which is alien. Likewise, Brownmiller discusses that same delicate balance struck by feminine postures and manners. At once submissive and suggestive, the ideally desirable woman must expertly navigate the murky waters of culturally constructed conceptions of the feminine.

This banal observation aside, broader implications surround Adorno's rhetoric. Again and again Teddy returns to the coercive force of music, that it manipulates its "victims" through a manipulation of desire. I don't know about you, but to me this sounds like Brownmiller and countless accounts of the femme fatale. So I leave you with the following question: do Adorno's aesthetics valorize structure, thus devaluing ornament? And, if indeed we accept this premise (and I think we must), is there something intrinsically masculine about Adorno's philosophy of music?

Okay, well, that was a little more sex and gender-y than I originally intended. Stay tuned for tomorrow: sonic landscapes and the distancing, stratification and reification of social classes.YEAH! Adorno is the coolest.

[1] Ashton-Jones, Evelyn, and Gary A. Olson. 1991. The Gender reader. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. 543
[2] Adorno, Theodor W. 1989. Introduction to the sociology of music. New York: Continuum. 31

No comments:

Post a Comment