Alan N. Shapiro, Hypermodernism, Hyperreality, Posthumanism

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On the Sociology of Music, by Alan N. Shapiro and Chris Williams

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Here we make the first presentation of our ideas about the reality of popular music in contemporary society. But what is reality? What is the relationship between reality and mediality? Between reality and virtuality? Between reality and simulations? What is music in the context of our social system of consumer culture?

These ideas about music parallel my hybrid critical-and-affirmative analyses of the reality of television – of popular storytelling television – in contemporary society, as expressed in works such as Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance and Lost: The Crash Out of Globalization and Into the World.1 To complement the study of television, which I (Alan N. Shapiro) engage in with a methodology that considers a hybrid of medium and message, of form and content, we now begin a study of the sociology of popular music. Our position is that we must go beyond the binary opposition between high-culture music and popular music, and instead see the possibilities for sublime experience as being always already embedded in the economic-cultural institutions of the reproduction of music. But what do we mean by sublime? Is there something that transcends the institutional system of the reproduction of music? Do we wish to reestablish the existence of an aura of some kind? (to make a reference to the famous essay by Walter Benjamin: “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit”, „The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility“).2 Does the sublime that may emerge from the experience of listening to music have only an individual aspect? Or does it also have a social aspect? Is the sublime related to thinking, in the sense that this sublime could be a way to think an alternative to the society of alienation? Or a way for the members of this society to find a way out of its alienation? Music does not only help us to survive in circumstances of alienation, it also contains a radical-liberal pragmatic-utopian liberatory potential, a potential for changing society.

The breakdown of the high/low binary opposition in art, culture and music is almost common sense today. But what comes after this breakdown? We can neither think of music in a purely idealist way as abstracted and independent from society, nor do we wish to reduce music to any kind of social determinism.

There is something revolutionary and transformative held within the consumer culture of music, something that needs to be radicalized through the phenomenological analysis of composition, lyrics, and fan communities.

Music has often been seen as a more unmediated, immediate and direct access to human emotions, if not to use Karl Marx’s expression: music is opium for the masses. I think that, on this point, we both agree and disagree with Marx.

Theodor W. Adorno wrote Introduction to the Sociology of Music, and we can begin by enumerating the defects in his approach.3

Already in 1977, Professor Gordon Welty of Wayne State University, writing a review in the Journal of Applied Comminications Research of the English translation of Adorno’s Introduction to the Sociology of Music, published by Continuum Books, severely criticized the quality of the English translation by E.B. Ashton. Welty writes: “There can be little question that Ashton fails to provide us with a faithful rendering of what Adorno wrote. Some parts of the translation are just clumsy; others are dubious English or are straightforwardly incorrect translations, and yet others are misunderstandings of Adorno’s thought.” Ashton translates “belasteten Thesen” as “gravid” rather than “weighty thesis”; “Merkmale” as “earmarks” rather than “criteria”; “widerstandslos” as “resistlessly” rather than “unresisting”; “Fungibilität” as “fungibility” rather than “interchangeability of parts”; “Kitsch” as “corn” rather than, well “Kitsch”; and “Volksgemeinschaft” as “people’s community” rather than the unspeakably barbaric Nazi ideal of an ethnically homogeneous Village.4

So we have to turn to the original German text, Einleitung in die Musiksoziologie, delivered as a set of twelve lectures during the early 1960s at Frankfurt University, published in 1962 by the Suhrkamp Verlag, to acquire an understanding of what Adorno wrote about the sociology of music. The book has twelve chapters corresponding to the lectures. The chapters are on the subjects of: Types of Listeners, Popular Music, the Twenty-some Functions of Music in Bourgeois Society, Classes and Strata as Music Creators and Listeners, the Bourgeois Opera, Chamber Music, the Conductor and his Orchestra, Musical Life, Public and Expert Opinion of Music, the National Questions, the Role of the Avant-Garde, and Mediation.5

In her book After Adorno: Rethinking Music Sociology (Cambridge University Press, 2003), Tia DeNora, who “counted [herself] as one of Adorno’s most ardent devotees” and who spent more than twenty years working as a music sociologist, wrote: “First, it is necessary to dispense with his cultural-evaluative stance… [For Adorno], emotional and entertainment listening is [sic] associated not only with particular strata but with particular musical genres. Second, the very typology assumed ‘correct’ modes of musical attention and in so doing failed to appreciate how music reception was often about ‘doing’ things to music – Adorno’s typology not only pre-assumed types of listeners, it also presumed contexts of listening and thus, the social significance and consequences of emotional listening… Third, … Adorno’s conception of music reception was of individual listeners and of responses unconditioned by the interactional, temporal, and spatial contexts of particular listening occasions. In other words, Adorno – whose typology of listening was hampered by being ‘merely theoretical’ – failed to realise that actual listening need not be identical with the images of listening purveyed in the ‘high-culture’ concert hall.”6 DeNora cites many other eminent sociologists of music at British and American universities who have arrived at similar criticisms of and disillusioned conclusions about Adorno’s sociology of music. The impression that one gets from reading DeNora’s very academic book After Adorno is that, after having spent several decades making a very good living from being tenured sociologists of music at ivory-tower universities working within the Adorno paradigm, they all eventually came to the conclusion that it is not so very scientific or useful as it had once appeared to be.

What Adorno (in)famously said about jazz was terribly flawed – or so it appears to be. As J. Bradford Robinson wrote in Popular Music (also published by the Cambridge University Press) in 1994: “Theodor Adorno’s writings on jazz remain at best a puzzle, and to many an acute embarrassment. To jazz historians they merely contain ‘some of the stupidest pages ever written about jazz’ [Eric Hobsbawn] and are generally dismissed without further comment.” Adorno scholars like the European Intellectual Historian Martin Jay say that these early writings are unimportant, mere precursors to later, more sophisticated, works. In a preface written for his collected works (volume 17), Adorno himself dismisses his own earlier writings on jazz. Yet J. Bradford Robinson – against Adorno’s detractors, defenders, and Adorno himself – sees something of great value in what Adorno wrote about jazz, provided that we “remove two misconceptions associated with Adorno’s use of the term ‘jazz’: first, that it referred to what we regard today as jazz, and second, that the music it referred to was American. Neither was the case. Because of the peculiar manner in which American popular music was introduced into Weimar Germany, Adorno could not have known that when he took up his pen to polemicise against jazz he was writing about a specifically German brand of music. Adorno’s jazz writings, although post-dating the Weimar Republic, must be read within the context of Weimar Germany’s commercial music scene as a whole, a context largely forgotten today and, due to the predations of recent history, extremely difficult to reconstruct.”7 From Robinson’s analysis, emerges an Adorno who was the most astute observer of the popular music of his time.

Also very interesting for an emancipatory theory of music is the recently published incomplete notes and texts of Adorno’s brought together under the title Toward a Theory of Musical Reproduction. We will explain what we think is so interesting about this work. It was first published in German by the Suhrkamp Verlag in 2001 as Zu einer Theorie der musikalischen Reproduktion: Aufzeichnungen, ein Entwurf und zwei Schemata.8 We cite some passages here taken from the English translation published by the Polity Press in 2006.

From the Detailed Contents: Fidelity to the letter. The ideal of silent music-making. Non-intentionality of the musical text. Works unfold within time. Objectivity of reproduction. Intentionality in music and language. Polyvalence of the texts. Objectivity through an increase in subjectivity. On determining what is ‘musical’. The idiomatic element. Against the separation of emotion and intellect. The compositional antagonism between the parts and the whole. Against recognizing a difference between traditional and new music. Composer’s intention not canonical. In a certain sense interpretation reverses notation. Rule: go towards extremes. True interpretation and experimentation.

Reproduction is a confrontation, an encounter, an Auseinandersetzung between creativity and a written code. And what is the notated composition, the musical code, in relation to this social interpretation which is the reproduction? Music as sensuality or sensual presentation that is not a representation. Only the fixing of music in writing can bring the tension between creativity and the code to a plateau of repose. One must pay attention to the qualities and tonalities of the smallest of units, the precision and focus of a micrological work. “Phrasing, agogics, dynamics, timbre.” (TTMR:1-2)

“Begin with the question: what is a musical text. No set of performance instructions, no fixing of the imagination, but rather the notation of something objective, a notation that is necessarily fragmentary, incomplete, in need of interpretation to the point of ultimate convergence. What is the relationship between musical notation and writing? One of the most central questions, inseparable from: what is the relationship between music and language?” (TTMR:3)

“The dignity of the musical text lies in its non-intentionality. It signifies the ideal of the sound, not its meaning… a memorial trace of the ephemeral sound, not … a fixing of its lasting meaning.” (TTMR:4) Life stays flexible and there is a new non-attachment to the signifier.

In these notes, Adorno gives a certain privilege to the act and flexibility of interpretation. An interpretation related to realization and performance. “Caccini, in Le nuove musiche, expressed his main idea of interpretation in the watchword, una certa nobile sprezzatura di canto – a ‘certain noble subordination of the song’. The singer’s task was to speak musically, as it were.” A considerable contrast exists between notation and performance. “We see how rhythm is altered in the performance; script and execution are strikingly inconsistent [in a musical notes illustration by Muffat].” (TTMR:14)

There must be feeling in playing music, and not just imitation. Mere imitation would be a kind of simulacrum. “As Lohlein in his Supervision in Violin Playing, Sulzer in his General Theory, and others have concluded, it is only when the performer fully experiences the composer’s feeling that he is capable of arousing the corresponding emotion in those who listen to his performance.” (TTMR:16)

Adorno praises the applied discipline of phrasing. “Phrasing is a feature common to both speech and music: it serves the same purpose in the language of words as in the language of tones. What may be called articulation in music is equivalent to diction in speech.” (TTMR:17)

To illustrate our new theory of the sociology of music, we will elaborate two examples. The first example is the study of the music and fan communities of the rock group Led Zeppelin. The second example is a brief examination of the use of the music of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in contemporary socially critical films such as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007) (loosely based on the 1927 novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair).

John Bonham, Led Zeppelin’s drummer, died on September 25, 1980. For members of the fan community, his death not only ended the life of rock’s best drummer, it also pulled the plug on Led Zeppelin, rock’s best band. Despite his death, the funkiness, pure sex, power, and the grandeur that its music embodied continues to live. These attributes may be found in the band’s recordings, among its popular fans, and enshrined within the global, spatially dispersed, Led Zeppelin fan community. Members of the fan community honor the band and its music. For them, its status within the rock pantheon is unassailable. As students of rock meaning, however, they understand that the type of music they honor is not always acknowledged or respected within the contemporary musical world.

In the film documentary about Led Zeppelin, The Song Remains the Same, towards the end of a guitar solo by Jimmy Page, the camera pans a section of the audience from left to right, following a large balloon bouncing from outstretched hand to outstretched hand. The camera stops panning. At the left and center of the screen are long-haired teenage fans, listening and smiling. At the right, the viewer gets a brief glimpse of a uniformed security guard. His neatly groomed appearance contrasts sharply with the fans around him. Unlike them, he is neither smiling nor partying. Instead, his eyes are riveted on stage; his jaw hangs wide open. The shot lasts no more than five seconds, but its impression lingers. The security guard is transfixed by the intensity of the band’s performance. The security guard is oblivious to his surroundings – the pot smoke and everything else. All was secondary to the band’s music. Community meanings sanction the connection between the “integrity” of Led Zeppelin and the intensity or power of the listening experience. It is a transcendent experience. These meanings also give license to the notion that excellent music can forge a sense of community among people or groups as disparate as short-haired security officers and long-haired Led Zeppelin fans.

The Led Zeppelin fan community is a spatially dispersed, global transcultural group. The transcultural group can be conceptualized as an interpretive community, of the type usually associated with readers of literature. We wish to take concepts from literary studies, literary criticism, and literary theory, and apply these concepts to post-literature cultural artefacts such as television and music. Members share a nostalgic and heroic interpretation of Led Zeppelin and its musical times. Within the community, the sensual pleasure of listening to the band, debating musical issues large or small, trading concert tapes, or attending Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s “reunion” concerts, is discussed and debated endlessly. Technologies of musical and video reproduction allow members to “relive” that period repeatedly. Members have a ritual relationship to the band. This relationship is embodied in community practices that express and represent the place of the band within the members lives and within the community, maintaining the transcultural group over time and space.

The band Led Zeppelin emerged at a transitional period in popular music. Partisans and critics alike hold it responsible for changes that characterized rock music in the 1970s. We do not characterize the Led Zeppelin fan community as being a subculture. The membership of this transcultural subgroup draws from a diverse democratic base. Conceptualizing it as an interpretive community allows us to account for its spatial dispersion and meanings ‘read’ and ‘written’ in common. The book by Dick Hebdige called Subculture: The Meaning of Style, published in 1979, has been very influential in the field of the sociology of culture.9 Hebdige’s concept of subculture is too related to a conventional Newtonian paradigm of linear time and physically locatable space. By introducing the notion of transculture or a transcultural group, we can study music fan communities in a much more contemporary context where time has become chaotic, space has become virtual and non-locatable, and the clear distinction between time and space has been destabilized. The study of Led Zeppelin’s music and its fan community would be a first and exemplary study, the methodology of which could then be appropriately extended and ‘applied’ to many music fan communities of today, in a much less ‘knowable’ and more uncertain field that is the proper object of inquiry of a quantum physics sociology, the successor to conventional sociology.

Led Zeppelin was formed in 1968 and disbanded in 1980. During that interval, there were dramatic changes in rock music: its mythologies, the industry, and its audience. Through circumstance, design, and luck the band occupied a central position in some of the most significant of these developments. The band’s impact on rock music was much the same as Babe Ruth’s on baseball. Like the “sultan of swat,” Led Zeppelin rewrote all the record books. All subsequent bands were measured by the standards it set.

Unlike baseball, however, rock has multiple score sheets, each with its own hierarchy. For its partisans, the band is responsible for having single-handedly changed the course of rock music for the better. It was among the first to demand and receive complete artistic control over its music, among the first to refuse to release singles, among the first to engage in large-scale touring, and among the first to complement its concert performances with elaborate visual effects. For its detractors, it is viewed as responsible for virtually everything this is rotten in rock music today.

Led Zeppelin was formed by Jimmy Page in late 1968. It rose from the ashes of the Yardbirds, a blues-rock bank that, along with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, was one of the first-generation British groups. Despite the fact that it had been extremely successful in the United States, the group had little success in its native country. One of the band’s central claims to fame was that it employed in succession Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. Today, these musicians are revered as the holy trinity of white, English, rock-blues guitarists. Page, a highly regarded session guitarist who played on numerous British hits, selected the musicians who would form his band. He first recruited another accomplished session musician, John Paul Jones, to play bass and keyboards. Discovering that his first choice for vocalist, Terry Reid, was unavailable, he selected the relatively unknown Robert Plant. Plant, in turn, suggested a friend and former band-mate, John Bonham – “Bonzo” affectionately – to play drums. In their first rehearsal together, the four played the Yardbirds’ “The Train Kept a ‘Rollin.” The session has been described as “magic” by all present. The rest, as they say, is history.

Led Zeppelin, along with Blue Cheer, Black Sabbath, and Grand Funk, was a progenitor of the musical style known as “heavy metal” rock. As the name suggests, the genre features loudly amplified music that emphasizes the bottom register. Live or on a good stereo, its heaviness has a distinct somatic component – the throb of the guitar, bass, and drums can all be felt in the listener’s gut. The emergence of heavy metal was more than the forging of a new pattern or inflection of sounds. It needs to be understood, instead, as a new cultural form with its own sites of distribution, institutional bases of support, and stylistic codes. The genre came to prominence during a time of significant and sweeping change within and without the rock music industry. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the American Record Industry was becoming increasingly centralized. The smaller, independent record labels, free-form FM radio stations, underground presses, and local concert venues that had supported the 1960s psychedelic genre were either going out of business or being bought out by larger firms.

The oligopolization of the record industry did not result in the standardization of musical product (Will Straw).10 It did, however, result in the domination of the industry by elites who took a conservative approach towards the recruitment of new musical talent. Rather than search for grass-roots acts, the industry tended to recruit from established musical talent.

Led Zeppelin was assembled by Jimmy Page, a highly regarded British rock veteran, at a time when record labels were ferociously competing to sign the next “supergroup.” The enormously successful Cream had just disbanded, and other “heavy” acts such as Vanilla Fudge and Iron Butterfly were selling albums at a staggering rate. The latter group’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” for example, remained on the charts for several years and become the first album awarded platinum status.

Audition tapes in hand, Led Zeppelin’s manager, Peter Grant, negotiated a five-album, £200,000 package with Atlantic records in late 1969. The band was given complete artistic control over its music and album cover design. This was an unprecedented deal for a band that had yet to release a single album, and said as much for the negotiating skills of the principals as it did for the label’s expectations of the group’s potential for commercial success. In a move bound to raise more than a few eyebrows, the band removed the “a” from Lead Zeppelin, reportedly so that American fans would not mispronounce it.

Page used his guitar and electronic wizardry to explore the coloristic possibilities of distortion. Plant, on the other hand, used his voice like an instrument. This upset the vocal technique traditionally used by blues singers, which had required them to project emotion. Writing of this practice, the music critic Robert Christgau argues: “Its influence on popular singing has been so widespread that, at least among males, singing and emoting have become almost identical – it is a matter of projection rather than hitting the notes.”11 Thus singers like Bob Dylan or Neil Young who, by their own admission, possessed little vocal talent, could be excused, or even revered, because of their ability to communicate not only lyrical content, but feelings. Plant’s vocals, by contrast, were devoid of feeling in the traditional sense. The expressive possibilities were found in the sound of his voice rather than in the lyric’s meaning.

No longer chained to lyrics, Plant used his voice as a sound rather than to express emotion, which meant that a song’s lyrical content was obscure or indecipherable.

By the mid-1970s, Led Zeppelin’s audience had become more varied. While still holding much of its traditional audience base, new groups such as Boston, Aerosmith, or Kansas competed with the band for the allegiance of young listeners. By contrast, its music became part of the mainstream. In 1976, the daughter of the President of the United States, Susan Ford, said on the Dick Cavett Show (a TV talk show) that Led Zeppelin was her favorite group. Speaking at the National Association of Record Manufacturers convention, Jimmy Carter “reminisced about listening to Led Zeppelin records during all-night session when he was governor of Georgia.” (Stephen Davis, Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga)12 Led Zeppelin was, arguably, the most commercially successful rock bank of the 1970s, all the while maintaining an aura that made its young audience feel as if it were part of a secret society. This is one of the keys to understanding the operational logic of the media consumer society: the system operates to make you feel like the most unconventional of individualists, while, at the same time, you are consuming the very same cultural artefact as millions of other fan-consumers.

The Led Zeppelin fan community is a global, spatially dispersed transcultural subgroup. At its center lies the image and music of a rock bank that has been “dead” for over thirty years. Community members are nostalgic for the band and the musical climate of the 1970s. They envision the decade as having been a heroic time when “dinosaurs ruled the earth”. What bound rock stars with their audience was the notion of authenticity. In contrast to pop, where the relationship between a performer’s public persona and private self was largely kept out of the spotlight, rock conventionalized the notion that the relationship between the two should be direct. Rock’s convention of authenticity emphasized the star and the audience’s common footing in a shared community. Just think of any common image of a live rock concert and the mise-en-scène of the intense “existential” relationship between the star and the audience that resonates with “authenticity.” From Lionel Trilling’s book Sincerity and Authenticity to Adorno’s critique of existentialism, The Jargon of Authenticity, to Baudrillard’s theory of simulations and simulacra dominating contemporary culture, there is a tradition of great cultural philosophers looking down from their high horse at the supposed “fakeness” of this alleged “authenticity.”13 But is this radical elitist skepticism completely justified? We think not.

Preoccupations with rock’s “depth” have been sanctioned by its original association with the student protest movements and countercultural struggles of the 1960s. Simon Frith, in The Sociology of Rock (1978), argues that, for a time, the genre and radical politics were so intermixed that rock was obliged at every turn to present itself as political, or risk not being taken seriously.14 Listening to rock became the signifier of a subversive act and a sign of membership in a progressive community.

What draws fans to the band is their belief that Led Zeppelin was one of a small group of 1970s rock bands that committed itself to creating music that would last forever. Unlike pop, which was governed by musical fashion, or punk whose goal was to produce corrosive sounds, the band’s music lives on to this day. This goal was acknowledged by the band’s vocalist and principal lyricist, Robert Plant, who proudly affirmed: “What we talk about is creating something as notable as Beethoven’s Fifth. Not just something that would be remembered in 50 years, but something so mammoth and superb that it would last forever.”15 From the perspective of community members, the singer’s statement was no idle boast. It was a statement of fact.

Fans idolize the band, but at the same time believe themselves to be on an equal plane with those whom they worship in a believed-in “I and Thou” relationship. One informant in a sociological investigation of Led Zeppelin fan communities wrote that there “was a power and force” in Jimmy Page’s guitar playing that she had never heard in anyone else’s. Unlike others who just play notes, she believes that Pagey is able to “communicate his own emotions and feelings. Watching him play confirms this; the guitar is like an extension of his own body and spirit. It’s like hearing him tell me something personal.” The guitarist’s virtuosity transforms him into a cyborg man-machine hybrid who is at one with his guitar which is something like his emotion chip as a becoming-android-therefore-becoming-more-intensely-alive-human.

There are three sides to every question. For Simon Frith, rock ideology sanctioned a belief that a historically specific relationship between musical entertainers has an ontological status. By rejecting commericialism, rock artists were able to create music that had meaning, according to Frith. Lester Bangs, in contrast, in his 1970 Rolling Stone review of Led Zeppelin’s third album, and in his 1972 Creem review of Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, argued that the belief in an unmediated emotional relationship between the artist and audience was based upon institutionally supported conventions. Bangs interpreted Robert Plant’s voice and the band’s acoustic work as not emoting in the traditional sense. It was just undifferentiated noise, “the tonal equivalent of a 1933 Nuremberg rally.” By taking their roles oh, so seriously, musicians and their audiences perpetuate the apparently-progressive-yet-in-fact-conservative institutions of “progressive rock”. Without the myth of intimacy and the institutionalized categories that govern the relationship between entertainer and audience, “the whole damn pompous edifice of this supremely ridiculous rock ‘n roll industry,” writes Bangs, “set up to grab bucks by conning youth and encouraging fantasies of a puissant ‘youth culture’, would collapse, and with it would collapse the careers of the hyped talent-less non-entities who breed off of it.”16

While community meanings are informed by the rock ideology, they are not its product. Our position in the sociology of music, with respect to a music fan community like that of Led Zeppelin fans, is a third position. We believe that meanings are the property of the fan community. While available to all rock fans in principle, the interpretations wielded by community members exhibit a cohesiveness and depth of knowledge that distinguish them from the band’s quantitatively very large coterie of popular fans. We are interested in the passion and knowledge of the “true fan.”

In interviews, correspondence, and informal discussions, we find testimony of the longing for an experience of community that transcends the ages. These meanings go beyond empirical evidence, as their source is the interpretive community that members share. The mythical community is clearly the product of social conventions. But is this bad? We think that it is good. It turns out that the core Led Zeppelin fans have a self-critical awareness, and a distance from believing in an identity or taking themselves too seriously. They do not crave an identity. This is a community of those who do not believe in community.

The fan community’s meta-narrative of rock history has striking parallels with those informing the historical assessments of the Frankfurt School Institute for Social Research critical theory luminaries such as Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, and with those of the founder of sociology Max Weber. Members appear to share with those thinkers a historical interpretation that foregrounds the narrative of the consolidation and eclipse of an integrated subjectivity – whether musical (in the case of the Led Zeppelin fan community members) or “bourgeois” (in the case of the great twentieth century German thinkers). We are indeed living “after the fall.” But the Led Zeppelin fan community members do not share the tragic vision of those illustrious sociological figures. We Led Zeppelin freaks are more like Albert Camus. After he wrote the novel The Fall, he went on to write the novel The First Man.17 Adorno and the others tended to focus on personalities rather than on structures. Fans live in a dualistic universe. Their connection to past events in their lives is through a cultural imaginary, rather than strictly biographical in the unmediated sense, the old-fashioned idea of a direct neuro-physiological memory. The Led Zeppelin fan community members could never see themselves as wounded in the way that Adorno saw himself. Minima Moralia was subtitled: Reflections from Damaged Life.18 The narrative of Paradise Lost and Refound, the experience of reliving the original period of ecstasy and wholeness, can be enacted at any time by replaying a Led Zeppelin CD. Yet we are aware that the band’s greatness can never be replicated. We are aware that any recorded or digitalized music is a simulation-becoming-a-simulacrum, while the reality of heart and soul disappears beneath the model and the code. With Bonham dead, there can be no Led Zeppelin.

We also love the music of Pink Floyd. At the official Pink Floyd website (, you can click on “MUSIC”, then you see the available music divided into two categories: “RECORDED” and “LIVE.” This is definitely a meaningful distinction, if one considers only the content, i.e., the content of “the source”. But there also exists a widespread myth of “live music” that results from an overemphasis on content and a neglect of form, i.e., the form of the “sink” (see source and sink in communications theory), i.e.2., the form of the recording technology, i.e.3, the digital-binary technology. The music recording technology is a digital technology, it removes us from the “track of ‘reality’” of music via the digitization process and, INSOFAR (as one might say in German), it doesn’t matter a damn whether the music that has been digitized ‘happened’ at a concert or in a recording studio. Considering this certain dimension of music technology, every single fucking music CD in the entire fucking music store resembles every other music CD, thanks to the REDUCTIONIST technology of digital recording, the rendering of everything in the whole great big wide world into an endless string or series of 0s and 1s, as it is done according to the Alan Turing – Emil Post paradigm of the digital-binary code. Every single CD by every single “recording artist” has more in common with all the other CDs than they have differences from each other. Anna Netrebko and Snoop Dogg are the same.

The hell of the same, as Baudrillard might say.

Baudrillard (from Pataphysics of the Year 2000, EGS edition, Charles Dudas translation): “Third hypothesis, third analogy. But we are still dealing with a point of disappearance, a point of evanescence, a vanishing-point, this time however along the lines of music. This is what I call the stereophonic effect. We are all obsessed with high fidelity, with the quality of musical ‘transmission’. On the console of our channels, equipped with our tuners, our amplifiers and our bafflers, we mix, regulate and multiply soundtracks in search of an infallible or unerring music. Is this, though, still music? Where is the threshold of high fidelity beyond the point of which music as such would disappear? Disappearance would not be due to the lack of music, it would disappear for having stepped beyond this boundary, it would disappear into the perfection of its materiality, into its own special effect. Beyond this point, neither judgement nor aesthetic pleasure could be found anymore. Ecstasy of musicality procures its own end.”

Baudrillard (from Seduction, Krokers edition, Brian Singer translation): “A bewildering, claustrophic and obscene image, that of Japanese quadrophonics; an ideally conditioned room, fantastic technique, music in four dimensions, not just the three of the environing space, but a fourth, visceral dimension of internal space. The technical delirium of the perfect restitution of music (Bach, Monteverdi, Mozart!) that has never existed, that no one has ever heard, and that was not meant to be heard like this. Moreover, one does not ‘hear’ it, for the distance that allows one to hear music, at a concert or somewhere else, is abolished … Now it is by this fourth dimension which they have added to music, that they castrate you of all musical pleasure. Something else fascinates (but no longer seduces) you: technical perfection, “high fidelity,” which is just as obsessive and puritanical as the other, conjugal fidelity. This time, however, one no longer even knows what object it is faithful to, for no one knows where the real begins or ends, nor understands, therefore, the fever of perfectibility that persists in the real’s reproduction.”

To further illustrate our new theory of the sociology of music, we will now elaborate a second example. This will be a brief examination of the use of the music of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in contemporary socially critical films such as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007) (loosely based on the 1927 novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair).

I (Alan N. Shapiro) acquired a lot of information about Arvo Pärt and his music by reading The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt, edited by Andrew Shenton, published by the Cambridge University Press in 2012. On the back cover of this book we read: “Arvo Pärt is one of the most influential and widely performed contemporary composers. Around 1976 he developed an innovative new compositional technique called ‘tintinnabuli’ (Latin for ‘sounding bells’), with which he has had an extraordinary degree of success. His music is frequently performed around the world and has been used in award-winning films, and pieces such as Für Alina and Spiegel im Spiegel have become standard repertoire.” In the Introduction to the book, we further read: “Around 1976 Pärt did something extraordinary and unexpected: he developed an entirely new technique for composing music.”19

In “Perspectives on Pärt after 1980,” Jeffers Engelhardt writes: “Since the early 1990s, directors and music editors for film and television have ineluctably been drawn to the popular currency and evocative potential of Pärt’s sound, so much so that some suggest that using Pärt’s signature tintinnabuli works is clichéd, the sign of lazy direction and music editing. Whatever the case, the marriage of Pärt and moving images in films such as Lessons in Darkness (Werner Herzog, 1992), Wit (Mike Nichols, 2001), Heaven (Tom Tykwer, 2002), and Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore, 2001), among dozens of others (not including Pärt knock-offs in dozens of film scores), gets at something vital about Pärt as the ‘soundtrack of an age’ (to borrow the title of a 2010 conference on Pärt in London). There is a “‘natural’ invocation of Pärt in particular cinematic and televisual moments of spiritual intensity, nostalgia, tragedy, mortality, and remembering, to name a few.”20 Other films which have used Pärt’s music include The Lovers on the Bridge (Leos Carax, 1991) Mother Night (Keith Gordon, 1996), Little Odessa (James Gray, 1996), Winter Sleepers (Tom Tykwer, 1997), The Insider (Michael Mann,1999), War Photographer (Christian Frei, 2001), Since Otar Left (Julie Bertucelli, 2003),  Gerry (Gus Van Sant, 2003), Dead Man’s Shoes (Shane Meadows, 2004), The Giant Buddhas (Christian Frei, 2005), Times and Winds (Reha Erdem, 2006), The Unforeseen (Laura Dunn, 2007), and There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007).

Then there is the subject of the use of Pärt’s music at social media websites. Engelhardt continues: “There are countless examples of photomontages and short video pieces on social media platforms such as YouTube, Dailymotion, and Vimeo that use Spiegel im Spiegel, Fratres, Für Alina, and other early tintinnabuli as their soundtrack… Spiegel im Spiegel seems to iconically evoke or represent nostalgic adult imaginings and commemorations of middle-class American childhood pleasures – the surprise trip to Disneyland and backyard sledding on a snowy day.”21

Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore’s film about September 11, 2001 and the creeping totalitarianism in American society, politics and the news media that developed in it aftermath, was a courageous oppositional act against those totalitarian tendencies. It was an important artistic and cultural expression. Since at least the beginning of the Reagan years, the U.S. political system has become increasingly akin to the Soviet model of channeling immense resources into the military establishment, and concomitantly engaging in the under-development of civilian society. What must be addressed is the obsession with slick and abstract projections of power beyond our frontiers while the actual conditions of life for most non-elites within U.S. society continue to deteriorate. In her contribution to The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt, called “Arvo Pärt in the Marketplace”, Laura Dolp writes of a certain moment in Fahrenheit 9/11: “the screen suddenly cuts to black, leaving its disoriented audience with the threatening sounds of physical impact at the site of the Twin Towers. Another wrenching edit introduces hand-held footage of bystanders staring upwards in disbelief. Instead of reuniting images and sound in this moment, Moore makes a crucial aesthetic decision and one that serves as the catalyst for this chapter: he aligns one of the most challenging events of the new millennium, in its surreal horror, with the ethereal sound world of [Arvo] Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten (1977)… Pärt’s music fulfills a potent role in its narrative and critical function. Like so many filmmakers since the early 1990s who have utilized Pärt’s precomposed music – especially the tintinnabuli style – Moore capitalizes on its effectiveness to express a singular, sustained idea within a narrative process.”22

The popularity of Pärt’s music, and its inclusion in many subsequent films, was catalyzed still further and accelerated by the fantastical success of Fahrenheit 9/11, which had the largest audience and dollar income numbers of any so-called documentary in American cinema history. This success was in many ways due to the withdrawal of support for the film by the Walt Disney Company, and the controversy that ensued from this act. “It placed Pärt’s music front and center in a heated discourse involving a paradigmatic political shift of a generation.” (Laura Dolp)23

“Pärt’s music,” continues Laura Dolp later in her essay, “is easily appropriated in part due to its superficial alignment with the conventions of soundtrack instrumentation as well as its pseudo-tonal language, sparse textures, ostinatos, and repetitive rhythms.”24 We think that it is possible, and even legitimate, to take an Adorno-like stance that the use of Pärt’s music in so many contemporary critical films and social media videos exemplifies the increasing “standardization” of music by the culture industry, the industrial process of acclimation of the vast audience’s listening ear to a dumbed-down simplification or vulgarisation of musical experience. “The whole structure of popular music is standardized,” wrote Theodor W. Adorno in his essay “On Popular Music” in 1941, “even where the attempt is made to circumvent standardization.”25 One could argue that the apex of human creativity in music happened in Europe in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, and that Arvo Pärt’s ‘tintinnabuli’ or ‘sounding bells’ invention is more of a gimmick than a spiritually deeply-inspired creativity. It is a good thing that some commentators will take this Adorno-like position. We respect it. It is food for thought. It is a component of my own thinking (Alan N. Shapiro). Yet ultimately it is not my position. I prefer to follow Jacques Derrida’s advice of “deferring.” I defer to the judgment of these great filmmakers whom I respect: filmmakers like Moore, Herzog, Nichols, Mann, Van Sant, Anderson, and the others. Many great creative filmmakers each independently made the decision to incorporate Arvo Pärt’s music in their films, and to question it would be to imply that I know better than them, and I don’t know better. Personally, I like Arvo Pärt’s music a lot, and I find it spiritually inspiring. I listen to it very often these days, along with Falco, Pink Floyd, Johnny Cash, and America.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s film There Will Be Blood (2007) is loosely based on the 1927 novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair. Daniel Plainview, the character played by Daniel Day-Lewis, is on a ruthless quest for wealth and personal gratification during the oil boom in California at the beginning of the twentieth century. Day-Lewis won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance. Plainview adopts the son of one of his workers as his own after the boy’s father is killed in a drilling accident. Nine years later, Plainview unscrupulously acquires land in the area of Little Boston, California, where rich oil deposits are believed to be in place. A deep rivalry exists between Plainview and Eli Sunday, played by Paul Dano, a local pastor and a member of the family that owns the first significant property that Plainview acquires. Plainview pays $10,000 to Eli’s brother Paul, also played by Dano, for the Sunday Ranch. William Bandy, played by Hans Howes, is the lone holdout in the area who does not want to sell his property to Plainview. The misanthropic driller makes a deal with Union Oil and constructs a pipeline to the Pacific Ocean, although not possessing Bandy’s land continues to be a major inconvenience.

Many years later, in 1927, Eli Sunday visits Daniel Plainview in the latter’s large mansion. The two converse in the bowling alley that Plainview has built in his finished basement. Plainview is now extravagantly wealthy (although still a horrible bore), and Eli, although now a radio host and head of a larger church, is bankrupt. Eli explains that William Bandy is dead, and that it is now possible to make a deal to acquire Bandy’s land, with Eli brokering the deal. Before agreeing to engage in any serious business discussion, Plainview humiliates Eli by forcing him to say out loud many times: “I am a false prophet; God is a superstition.” Next, Plainview explains that the Bandy ranch is of no value anymore because he has long ago already drained all the oil from the property through surrounding wells. “Drainage! Drainage! Eli, my boy. Drained dry. I’m so sorry. Here, if you have a milkshake, and I have a milkshake, and I have a straw. There it is, that’s a straw, you see? You watching? And my straw reaches across the room, and starts to drink your milkshake. I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!” Plainview goes berserk and beats Eli to death with a bowling pin.

“In 1934, H. John Eastman and George Failing were credited for saving the burning Conroe Texas oil field with the use of an innovation developed in 1931 by Failing. By means of quickly drilling “slant” relief wells, there was a resulting fall in gas pressure, and crews were able to put out the fire… The East Texas Oil Field was bathed in scandal [in 1962] when [it was revealed that] slant drilling by one company [that had been going on since the 1940s] crossed their lease borders and allowed them to siphon oil from another company’s land. In all, 380 deviated directional wells were found and closed… But that is nothing compared to the international incident that resulted in the [Persian] Gulf War (1991). The year before Iraq had declared that Kuwait was ‘stealing oil’ by means of slant drilling across the border and tapping Iraqi reservoirs. Iraq annexed the smaller country, and maintained control over the area for seven months. There had been condemnation and sanctions from across the world, and finally in August, 1990 a U.N. force lead by the US responded and by February 1991 had eliminated Iraq from the area. The boundaries of Kuwait were enlarged to include the wells it was supposedly stealing from.”26

A gas explosion occurs at one of Daniel Plainview’s oil wells, and his adopted son H.W. is seriously injured. From the accident, the boy is left deaf for life. During this dramatic scene from There Will Be Blood, Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres for Cello and Piano” (1989) is played. It is a cello version performed by the Flanders, Belgium Orchestra “I Fiamminghi”, conducted by Rudolf Werthen.


1 – Alan N. Shapiro, Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance (Berlin: AVINUS Verlag, 2004). Alan N. Shapiro,

2 – Walter Benjamin,

3 – Theodor W. Adorno, Introduction to the Sociology of Music (translated from the German by E.B. Ashton) (New York: Continuum Books, 1988).

4 –

5 – Theodor W. Adorno, Einleitung in die Musiksoziologie (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1962).

6 – Tia DeNora, After Adorno: Rethinking Music Sociology (Cambridge University Press, 2003).

7 – J. Bradford Robinson, “The Jazz Essays of Theodor Adorno: Some Thoughts on Jazz Reception in Weimar Germany,” Popular Music (1994: 13:1).

8 – Theodor W. Adorno, Toward a Theory of Musical Reproduction: Notes, a Draft and Two Schemata (edited by Henri Lonitz, translated from the German by Wieland Hoban) (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2006). Zu einer Theorie der musikalischen Reproduktion: Aufzeichnungen (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2001).

9 – Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Routledge, 1979).

10 – Will Straw, “Characterizing Rock Music Cultures: The Case of Heavy Metal,” in Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin, eds., On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word (New York: Pantheon, 1990).

11 – Robert Christgau, “A Power Plant,” Newsday (June 15, 1972).

12 – Stephen Davis, Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga (New York: Ballentine Books, 1985).

13 – Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972). Theodor W. Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity (translated by Knut Tarnowski and Frederic Will, foreword by Trent Schroyer) (London: Routledge, 1972). HAVE YOU NOTICED HOW GOOGLE BOOKS DOES NOT CREDIT TRANSLATORS UNTIL YOU SCROLL ALL THE WAY DOWN TO THE VERY BOTTOM UNDER “BIBLIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION”? Jean Baudrillard, “Simulacra and Simulations,” in Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings (ed. Mark Poster. Stanford University Press, 1998, pp.166-184).

14 – Simon Frith, The Sociology of Rock (London: Constable, 1978).

15 – John Rockwell, “Led Zeppelin and the Alchemy of a Rock Group,” New York Times (June 5, 1977).

16 – Lester Bangs, “Review of Led Zeppelin III, Atlantic SD 7201,” Rolling Stone (November 26, 1970). Lester Bangs, “Mighty War Machine, Familiar as a heartbeat,” Creem (February 1972).

17 – Albert Camus, The Fall. Albert Camus, The First Man. (many editions).

18 – Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (many editions).

19 – The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt, edited by Andrew Shenton (Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge University Press, 2012); back cover, p.1.
20 – Jeffers Engelhardt, “Perspectives on Arvo Pärt after 1980,” in The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt; p.30.
21 – Ibid., pp.30-31.
22 – Laura Dolp, “Arvo Pärt in the Marketplace,” in The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt; p.177.
23 – Ibid.
24 – Ibid.; p.190.
25 – Theodor W. Adorno, “On Popular Music,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Sciences, no. 9, 1941. Reprinted in Essays on Music (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002).

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