Article: Martin Morris (2013) Communicative Power and Ideology in Popular Music. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 37(2) 113–127.
You don’t often come across sentences, let alone articles, that combine Adorno with that most maligned form of contemporary music, heavy metal. So kudos to Martin Morris who presents a spirited account of the place of heavy metal music in the political economy of late capitalism. To be fair, I’m not sure if there any other takers for such a task, but anyone who continues Adorno’s debate on popular mass-produced music deserves a mention at the very least. Here’s the abstract:
Music constitutes communities in an aesthetically distinct way because it relies so centrally on bodily innervations. Such bodily innervation resonates with cognition and affective life and creates communities of listeners and producers. Following Theodor Adorno’s critical theory of music, however, we must distinguish these musical communities within the political economy of late capitalism. I examine this communicative power of music by considering Adorno’s critique of popular music in the political-economic context of the “informatization” of popular music under post-Fordism. Informatization has changed popular music production and consumption in important ways, but I seek to demonstrate that Adorno’s critique of music can still help us understand these changes. I emphasize the community constitutive power of music and I consider the non-Culture Industry form of heavy metal music as resistant music in the Adornoian critical theory tradition.
Morris uses the music of the band Mastodon to clarify his argument, and via their songs he makes some big claims for the value and status of heavy metal, for example:
The songs allow for the expression of rage at the socioeconomic powerlessness of the fans in the face of post-Fordist precarity by offering scenarios of madness and violence that are blamed on a virtually unnamable, dominating, and evil other (p.123).
He qualifies such statements later on by saying that bands and fans probably are not aware of such a sub-text (well, you never know …), but even still it might be a bit of a stretch to make any kind of counter-hegemonic claim for the heavy metal army. While it might be the case that,
Since its inception around 1970, heavy metal has been considered socially resistant or, more commonly, condemned as deviant, nihilistic, and socially and psychologically dangerous …
… it is also the case that much heavy metal has been viewed as both boneheaded (by music critics) and a powerful consistent money-spinner for multi-national music conglomerates who rely on ‘outsider’ status to make their profits. There’s clearly an interesting argument presented here regarding the communicative power of music and the technical aspects of heavy metal (still getting my head around ‘disjunctive rhythm variations’), but let’s not forget the industry that lies beneath such deviance and non-conformity.