passing by

passing by
Um agradecimento à/ao anónima/o “passing by” pelo oportuno texto colocado na caixa de comentários. Aqui fica a minha humilde vénia ao autor do texto.

[Note: This was written for a Philosophy class and as such is fairly dense and begins with a lot of background information that is important for the ultimate discussion about music. It's a 13 page paper (26 double spaced), so proceed at your own risk. It was posted because I thought discussing this issue is interesting (and to make all the work for this class seem more justified), and for no other reason.It was written about 9 months ago or so, and written over roughly two days. Definitely check out some of the sources cited if you like arguing about this sort of thing.]

Contemporary Music
By Ryan Mills


Music has an undeniably important role within a culture. Its prevalence throughout time in differing cultures has been an indication of differences amongst those cultures and time periods. This arises because music is a reflection of certain aspects within a society. Gracyk says that “music does not yield its meaning to listeners outside the continuing culture that gives the music its significance.” Therefore, there is a link between the music of a culture and the culture itself. Changes within the structure of a society should then be reflected by changes within the music within that culture. The predominance of classical music throughout much of history reflects the aristocracy in which it flourished. The subsequent democratization of, not only culture, but of art as well has led to the dramatic changes in what constitute popular music today. This process has also led to an increase in the variety of music and the belief that people are entitled to their own tastes, which may vary widely. The implications of this are great within contemporary music.

Important to understanding the position of music is an understanding of the conditions affecting culture. Certain issues have arisen that have had important implications on culture and therefore also on its music. The nihilistic state in which we live must be examined as well as its influence on the creation of the culture industry. The democratization of much of the world and the onset of capitalism, which is inherently competitive, also necessitate attention. The state of music today owes much to the present condition of our economy and the seemingly constant obsession over money. We will see how these changes in culture have led to the decline in interest in classical music and the rise of popular music. We will see how the culture industry has led to the commercialization of music and the inevitable decline in much of its quality which is directly resultant of this. The link between music and acceptable societal rules will be discussed as well as how certain music attempts to criticize culture and whether it can be successful as a commodity within that very culture.

Once all these pieces are in place, the state of popular music can be examined more closely. One can only dismiss all popular music if it has lost its purpose and relationship to culture. The dramatic changes in culture necessitate the vastly different musical scene of contemporary music—as music can only remain meaningful within this constantly changing culture. The other necessary component is the listener’s sympathetic response to the music. Its expressiveness is the most important element of the its content, and without the listener being able to understand this expression and have a sympathetic response to it, music fails to fulfill its purpose. Today, this problem comes in the form of the distracted or disinterested listener. Whether this problem is serious enough to discount all popular music must also be discussed.

Once the foundation for the existence of contemporary music has been established, its failure and success can be determined. We will see the serious problem of music becoming kitsch; used exclusively for profits in this way, and not for music’s sake, has had adverse impacts within contemporary music. The decline in listener’s attentiveness and lack of sympathetic response has led to the decline in popular music as well. The existence of listeners who do understand the expressiveness within the music and experience a sympathetic response to it offers some hope, but whether this staves off any claim of the death of popular music must be examined. The commercialization of the music industry has led to a decline in the quality of the mass-produced music. More broadly, the state of contemporary society has led to a state of disarray within music, and now it lies in a state of utter corruption.


The culture industry has had a tremendous impact on the role of music within contemporary life. Once a serious art activity reserved exclusively for the socially elite, it has become a mere distraction for the masses on its broadest level. The advent of the culture industry has had the greatest impact on this aspect of the musical scene. Arising out of the nihilistic state of modernity, its creation and continued existence is of critical importance.

Traditionally through history, epochs have been characterized by a general tendency toward the belief in some metaphysics. This was most deeply rooted within religion: The vast majority of societies existing throughout history have been religious in nature and this has impacted all aspects of life therein. The ancient Greeks structured their lives around the stories of the gods and actively involved them in explanations for everyday occurrences. As time passed various religions rose and fell, some having greater impact than others, but all affecting those whom lived underneath them. The rise of the Roman-Catholic church is yet another, more recent, example. The church grew in power, both economically and socially. The rise in economic power is particularly important to understanding the breadth of the church’s influence.

The necessary starting point for understanding such an evolution is within the idea of dialectical materialism. This borrows its structure from dialectical idealism, in which theses and antitheses are created and integrated into a synthesis, which thereby becomes another thesis to which another antithesis is posed and a further synthesis occurs. This continues on, furthering knowledge and perfecting it as it progresses toward the ultimate goal of truth. All of this occurs within the mind (thus it is idealistic) and depends upon earlier knowledge. Dialectical materialism incorporates the progression within this model; however, rather than occurring within the mind, this process occurs within the market. As such, ideas do not spontaneously occur to individuals as most assume; instead, they are placed there by the market. The logical conclusion of such a model is that everything which one does and everything which one thinks is a result of the market. This is a somewhat unpleasant idea for most, and as such is not generally accepted as being complete (i.e. the market may very well induce much of our behavior, but it is limited to some extent). While it is beyond the scope here to argue such a complete influence, it is also unnecessary. It is without doubt that the market economy and society in general—notably, the culture industry—influences the individuals that live beneath it and obviously exert influences upon their lives and thoughts. This influence is the catalyst for the changes that have occurred on a societal level between time periods. The church’s rise as an economic power further adds to its social influence during the time of its ascension. Its dominance in the economic sphere has the direct result of religion giving meaning to life. Throughout much of history, religion can be looked at as the metaphysics to which most ascribed.

Religion faded and was replaced by philosophical truth. Thus people went from believing in a God to focusing more upon other universal truths. These philosophical truths replaced religion as the metaphysics of the masses, but this was not as important as the fact that there still was something in which to believe. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution and unthought of progression within the sciences, belief in these philosophical truths also faded; this time, however, it was not replaced by anything else. This state of nihilism, in which there is no inherent meaning to life nor any metaphysical goals toward which one strives, has continued on into modernity. This sets the stage for the creation of the culture industry.

The culture industry essentially sells people meaning to fill the void left after the departure of metaphysical truths. Its onset occurred during the state of nihilism that arose in modernity. Along with this, it arose during a state of democratization of much of the world, putting an end to much of the aristocracy which set the rules to music and art before, and also during the rise of capitalism as the dominant market choice around the world. The end of the aristocracy led to changes in all art. Roger Scruton offers a brief outlook on the matter: “An aristocratic culture has an instinctive aversion to what is vulgar, sentimental, or commonplace; not so a democratic culture, which sacrifices good taste for popularity, and places no obstacles whatsoever before the ordinary citizen in his quest for a taste of his own.”(1) When music—and indeed the whole of art—was reserved for the socially elite, there was a natural movement from mediocre, common and bad art; indeed, this time was characterized by an emphasis on aesthetic training and understanding of art for those who were in a position to attend to art. Naturally, art, as well as music, was held to high standards of taste; a taste that was cultivated in those partaking in artistic appreciation from an early age. “In a democratic culture, people believe themselves to be entitled to their tastes.”(2) The democratization of culture, on the other hand, led to a spreading of art but at the cost of strictly upheld standards of taste.

The music championed most ardently by the contemporary scene can most readily be seen within this framework. The culture industry has turned every aspect within life into a commodity, including music. Pop music, which clearly dominates the radio and television, is the easiest example of this process. This music is entirely a commodity controlled by the culture industry and used for profits. It is marketed more as distraction or entertainment than as an artistic production. “Alternative” music and rock music have also fallen to this process, but instead of acquiescing, it takes an alternate route: it attempts to offer a criticism of the culture which promotes that very music. With this the seeds for a corrupted musical scene were planted.


With social conditions acting as such an important force on the entirety of art, changes can be seen in art throughout history which can be related to societal changes occurring at that time. More broadly, there are clear patterns art has followed with changes in culture. For the ancient Greeks, art was vastly different from its role during the Renaissance which is also different from its role currently. Art had an entirely different role for the Greeks, which can, in great part, be explained by the changing role of art as a means to understanding. In ancient societies, as it was with the Greeks, art was their highest mode of thinking: their greatest thoughts would occur through artistic mediums. Through art, they would have experiences of the divine. When looking at a statue of Athena, they believed they were standing in front of a god. That very statue was god. Art in their culture was a means to expressing their highest thinking and undergoing their deepest experiences. As Hegel argued, art was replaced by religion—and eventually that was replaced by philosophy—as the highest mode of thinking: “In all these respects, art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past.”(3) Throughout much of history during which art flourished, religion was particularly important. With the church’s power rising significantly and its economic importance peaking, much of the great art focused on divinity and the glorification of God. This eventually faded, and today, art is focused upon profits and money.

Music has other important roles in society. Jacque Attali proposes that “musical organization is a species of political organization.”(4) What follows from this is the “notion that ‘the code of music stimulates the accepted rules of society,’ for the conditions underlying the existence of a musical culture are the conditions for the creation and consolidation of every community.”(5) In this sense, music becomes a politically charged item; an item of the body politic, which can be a measure of the acceptable social norms within that particular culture. In the same sense as the culture industry exists, it comes into this role acting as a societal machine influencing and controlling the masses. It becomes a method of control: “When an individual develops a taste for the musical organization typical to that individual’s culture, she literally subordinates herself to the body politic.”(6) Under this reasoning, a liking for contemporary music would thus be an affirmation of cultural domination over one’s life. As a part of a social framework which sets the rules to music and governs the conditions under which it is created, music obviously reflects influence from culture and portrays particular norms and social ideals in this way.

Classical music, which arose in the presence of aristocracy, reflects the cultural and political ideals of such a time. In these aristocratic cultures, social restraint and orderliness were stressed. In politics, subordination to current rulers and an acceptance of the social institution was stressed, and these very ideals are found within the music of the time. Classical music, which follows strict forms and necessitates certain elements, radiates those ideals stressed in the realm of politics at the time. A sense of restraint and subordination to rules permeates the music. This sense of adherence to strict rules is so strong that a simple C sharp in Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony “could scandalize an entire European socio-economic class.”(7) Obviously with classical music, political and societal values were conveyed through the music, but this same process continues on today with contemporary music.

The subsequent democratization of culture and, ultimately, of art led to changes within music’s role within society. It still was a medium of the expression of social norms and political viewpoints, but the change of these also necessitated the change in music to accommodate the new social order. The new found democratic nature of art led to the development of a wide array of tastes (to use the term loosely) and an ever-evolving music scene. Art now being available to everyone, and most people involving themselves somehow with it, caused the democratization of tastes. This led to much musical variety and new found styles of music arose. An important aspect that became rampant within modernity was the addition of a simple, but important, element within most music: noise. Music was inundated—and still is—with not only melody but also noise. Music, traditionally emphasizing melody and harmony, now stressed noise over these long-time held ideals. Why would music move in this direction? This goes back to the changing social structure. Democracy stressed the ideals of freedom of thought and differences in beliefs; but along with this came a tendency to value individuation and rebelliousness. Idealized characters in movies and mainstream entertainment threw off traditionality and embraced rebellion and nonconformity. This was embodied within music with noise.

This process is not without its problems, however. The culture industry takes this attempt at dissonance and rebellion and commodifies it. That ideal character supposedly representing defiance only represents conformity. “Pseudo individuality is rife: from the standardized jazz improvisation to the exceptional film star whose hair curls over her eyes to demonstrate her individuality. What is individual is no more than the generality’s power to stamp the accidental detail so firmly that it is accepted as such. The defiant reserve or elegant appearance of the individual on show is mass-produced….”(8) The entire idea of alternativeness or individuality became cliché: everyone was “alternative”; everyone was different; the whole of it became counter to its nature and spirit. “The most intimate reactions of human beings have been so thoroughly reified that the very idea of anything specific to themselves now persists only as an utterly abstract notion….”(9) Noise in music may attempt to offer criticisms of culture, but oftentimes it ultimately fails, as it is nothing more than a commodity within that very structure, perpetuating and furthering it. The broad-sweeping culture industry leaves nothing unturned in its path: overtaking and commodifying all pseudo originality and rebellion and selling it back to the masses as nothing more than a profit-generating tool. The noise, rife in contemporary music, falls victim to this same process. A song like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which attempts to critique contemporary culture, specifically youth apathy within modernity, becomes nothing more than a commodity exploited by the culture industry. It was marketed as such a representation of rebelliousness for youths and immediately soared to the top of popular music charts everywhere, selling an abundance of copies. Such a mass-produced and distributed commodity could most certainly never offer a true critique of culture, for it is nothing more than a tool of that system.

Now with the democratization of art and music nothing was inherently “bad,” but people simply had differing tastes. Everyone suddenly believed themselves entitled to their own tastes and believed anything to be “good art” so long as they enjoyed it. It did not follow that aesthetic training was upheld in all those participating in the artistic appreciation (which was now everyone) as it had been in the aristocracies beforehand; instead, the vast majority of people approached art with little understanding of the basic fundamentals and rules underlying it. The wide-spread interest in art arose because of the masses desire to partake in this activity that was traditionally a pastime for the socially elite. Greenberg describes this process as it initially occurred: “The peasant’s who settled in the city as proletariat and petty bourgeoisie learned to read and write for the sake of efficiency but they did not win the leisure time necessary for the enjoyment of the city’s traditional culture. Losing, nonetheless, their taste for folk culture whose background was the countryside, and discovering a new capacity for boredom at the same time, the new urban masses set up a pressure on society to provide them with a kind of culture fit for their own consumption.” As time passed, leisure time for the masses increased as well; at this point, it is no longer a matter of lacking the leisure time to appreciate art or music, but a lack of training in doing so. Most youth of today receive no aesthetic training and lack an understanding to the appreciation of music.

Greenberg saw an increasing dependence upon content within art which coincided with a situation in which creativity was dwindling, which he referred to as “Alexandrianism.” This generally took the form of a lack of creativity within art and a deference to the old masters within their art form for the larger questions. Art essentially became a perfecting of formal qualities following the rules set by past masters. There was no creativity; instead, all art became was this test of perfecting minute details within formal properties without any thought into the medium itself or why such formal properties were being used. Along with Alexandrianism came a revolution within art toward more emphasis on content and clear-cut messages within the art itself (especially within music). Music became simply another medium for the expression of ideas; but they became so blatantly obvious that the music essentially explained itself, taking one of the most important aspects away from what it truly should do. There was a movement, which Greenberg refers to as kitsch, in which art becomes self-explanatory because those for which it is made do not have the means, the time or the training to work through true art to see the true meaning. Instead, the art does this all for the onlooker. Greenberg calls kitsch “popular, commercialized art and literature, with their chromeotypes, magazine covers, illustrations, ads, slick and pulp fiction” and so on. In other words, kitsch is the commercialization of art to exploit it and use it as nothing more than a profit-generator. This only came about alongside the increase in literacy and free time among the average person. With this rise in literacy and time came kitsch which was for “those who, insensitive to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide.” Thus, kitsch is for the common man who has neither the time nor the understanding to appreciate “genuine” culture and art, but still yearns for those as diversions. Kitsch comes in to fill this gap: It becomes the commercialized art to satisfy the desire of those who cannot appreciate the genuine culture but wish to have some part in it. Kitsch is thus merely a commodity and nothing more, just as any other profit-center is; it is not produced for its own sake or for the progression of art but is produced to realize a profit. Thus, in some sense, kitsch is not even art, but a corruption of true art and a deception to those who accept it as art. Kitsch is manipulated to whatever is thought to have the best chance at earning the highest profit. The art or music itself becomes simply a means to a profit and is sacrificed without thought to its ultimate end: commercialization. In this sense, kitsch is not even truly art; it simply a form of entertainment for the masses.

Contemporary music can easily be seen in this light. The most blatant example of this lies with the pop music of today. Characterized by mundanity only eclipsed by the musician’s lack of skill, the pop music of today has wholly become commodified within our society. Radio grew in importance and popularity as technology cheapened stereos and they became commonplace within modern automobiles. Along with this came increased focus upon the economic potential of exploiting the radio. Later came the rise of importance of television, culminating in the birth of MTV, which, to this day, has profound impact on the music being created. With the conglomerates owning these immensely popular mediums focusing solely on profits, music was judged on how well it could attract and keep the attention of the casual listener who was perhaps browsing the stations while driving to work. Music was no longer about the music; it was about grabbing the attention of the distracted listener and thus drawing a profit from them. Its importance grew to the point at which it became an instrumental means to becoming successful within the music industry. At this point, most musicians became willing to sacrifice any artistic vision to conform to what was popular at the moment; for what was current craze was the simplest way to stardom, success and money. This “radio rock” has undeniably altered the way musicians look at and create music. For most it is now a mere matter of determining what would give a quick fix to the distracted listener and thus appeal to radio audiences—all leading to the ultimate goal of money and fame. Even the bands appealing to a wholly separate audience—one which ignores or entirely shuns the radio—still fall subject to such a process. They still attempt to create music to appeal to an audience; however, this audience views themselves as “alternative,” and as such desires music of differing formal properties than the radio-following masses. The underlying process governing such fringe markets is the same as those for mainstream markets.

Contemporary music thus runs the risk of denying its existence as a true art form. While, quite arguably, it falls as kitsch, this could have two possible implications. One is that the music of today is simply bad music while maintaining itself as a legitimate art. The other is that music has become wholly corrupted by the culture industry and profit-seeking that the actual medium is of little importance and contemporary music is thus simply a means to profits; as such, the music loses any importance and it could not even be said to be truly art. Problems arise with the latter: Although it may indeed be the case that all contemporary music has become corrupted, denying its connection to art is dangerously short-sighted. “Castigating all popular music is not merely counter-productive; it shows the very same atrophy of judgment as the surrounding popular culture.”(10) Thus, it is obviously justified to argue that music has become corrupted, but it can be dangerous to deny all contemporary music its roots as music.

The response to kitsch within art has been the emergence of the avant-garde. At least the vast majority of contemporary music has become kitsch. “Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensation. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our time. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money—not even their time.” Much of contemporary music has fallen to this exactly: it is formulaic, simply following the rules of what may satisfy their consumers; it falsifies emotion and does so simply because it is this that appeals to the masses; and, most importantly, much of it is created for the distracted listener—the listener who lacks the knowledge, time or will to appreciate subtleties within music and instead desires simplistic and easily digestible music. Avant-garde music attempts to change all this.

The avant-garde attempts to battle kitsch by a radical return to form and a total immersion within the medium of the art. The content is wholly eliminated and is seen as a mode through which true art becomes kitsch. This new found direction has not been immune to the commercialization associated with kitsch, however, and even avant-garde art has become integrated within common society and essentially become kitsch. The inability to escape commercialization has become the crisis of modern art, as it seeks new ways to break the bounds of the socially mundane. But how does the avant-garde escape the grip of the culture industry—or least attempt to do so? Japanese noise music is one example of avant-garde music. Ranging in intensity from The Boredoms to something much more violent, such as Masonna, it attempts to shock and offend the listener. The Boredoms combine traditional aspects of various styles of music into their songs, but add elements that are obviously quite nontraditional, such as the noise of hitting body parts. Underlying such music seems to be an utter lack of normative musical structure and a sense of chaos. The purpose of such a structure (or lack thereof) is quite simple: a return to the medium through which the art is conveyed: sound. The nontraditional nature of the music causes one to focus wholly on the medium: the sound. Japanese noise artists seek to eliminate any attempt to form concepts around their music and limit it as such; instead, they wish to give a basic, stripped musical experience of just sound. It seems radical because almost all music of today has concepts prepackaged with it, most notably in the form of lyrics. The shock they wish to instill is only necessary because without such radicalism concepts are immediately thrown onto the music; but with such a strong visceral reaction to the music, as is the case here, the music is heard just as sound. It thus attempts to transcend popular music by throwing off all traditionality within music and thus creating music that causes a true experience within the listener. With popular music, concepts have been predetermined and prepackaged with the music; how the listener is meant to feel and what it is conveying are already determined and expressed to the listener. This complements a distracted listener as this type of music requires no thought or reflection to understand. Simply listening gives all the answers. Kitsch comes with all the answers; avant-garde comes with the questions. For the casual listener, avant-garde music demands too much: it demands their time and their attention. With Japanese noise music, the listener is forced to face the music and make sense of it herself; there are no easy answers or shortcuts because the experience has not been built into the music. In this sense, the avant-garde is the polar opposite of popular music, but it cannot wholly escape the culture industry either.

The problem that befalls avant-garde music is its eventual commodification. Japanese noise music may have been a fringe market, unknown to most listeners, for some time, but this is not so anymore. Even the most extreme examples of this music slowly become popularized and commodified—though obviously appealing to a separate and smaller group of listeners—and thus becoming nothing more than another tool for the culture industry’s manipulation. This necessitates the ever-changing nature of this extreme music as it attempts to find new ways to elude conceptualization. While it may serve its purpose for some time, it inevitably falls victim to the same process as popular music, at which point it must evolve. While it remains separate of popularized music, it escapes some of the pitfalls pertaining to it; however, while the movement itself may evade the problems surrounding contemporary music, the individual examples within it do not and eventually fall to the process.

Perhaps the most condemning evidence against popular music lies within the necessity for avant-garde music and all that it embodies. In a culture where music is music and is treated as such, the avant-garde has little place. When music (as the avant-garde music does) demands attention for its own sake and the common listener deems this unnecessarily burdensome, it becomes quite apparent that music has transformed from its roots into a mere distraction. Since music’s audience has shifted from the aesthetically trained and discriminating bourgeoisie to the masses—aesthetically untrained and uninterested in classical standards of music—instead of raising the masses to the level of true music, it has brought it down to their level. This is a result of the masses lack of training and disinterestedness. When music is made for an untrained listener, it disregards traditional musical structures and rules and instead appeals to simplistic, easily understood and quickly appealing structures. As commercialization has taken an even greater hold in society, people devote less and less time to truly understanding and appreciating something like music, and as such it is merely a distraction. It is the increasingly demanding nature of economic competition within modernity that triggers such a movement: if it does not somehow relate to the furthering of prosperity, which has become directly linked to happiness and fulfillment, it becomes a mere distraction—entertainment to be taken as lightly as possible. “The postmodern world denatures music only because it denatures everything, in order that each individual might have his chance to buy and sell.”(11) The rise of the culture industry alongside the thriving competition of capitalism has commodified life such that only that which directly relates to its processes becomes lost as a mere distraction. As such music has lost most of its traditional qualities and instead seeks to appeal to this distracted listener and exploit her for profits. Music’s fundamental purpose has shifted from artistic expression to profit exploitation.

This process inevitably leads to music that is predigested or “easy.” Music traditionally necessitated a response from the listener. “Our response to music is a sympathetic response: a response to human life, imagined in the sounds we hear.”(12) This sympathetic response is important to traditional music for through it one joins in with the music. It becomes an experience of meaning: through the sympathetic response, one truly begins to understand and experience the expressiveness within the music. In the postmodern world, however, this kind of response is absent, and as such, the listener never truly experiences the meaning within music. Scruton argues that this “tells us much about the moral transformation of modernity”; but more importantly, it has come about through the changes in modern culture, and has altered music: now music is made without the demands of a sympathetic response or any effort to discovering the expressiveness. Music easily conveys very certain emotions which require little to understand; combined with these also come parts that serve little purpose to this end. “Writers who look for the ‘meaning’ of Heavy Metal tend to argue in the manner of Robert Walser, referring to the alienation and frustration expressed by this music—while making no real distinction between the expressive and the inexpressive instances, so removing the term ‘expression’ from the context of aesthetic judgment.”(13) The nature of music has changed from necessitating attention to discover the meaning behind the music to only offering expression occasionally, and when it does, it is blatantly obvious so as to make its understanding easy for the distracted listener.


Since music’s expressiveness is the most important element of its content, how it has changed and what devices it uses are important to understanding the transformation of music through history. Traditional classical music expressed its ideals through its orderliness and strict formal properties. The lackadaisical structure of modern music is unfit to the expression needed within music. It is not the sole element attempting to convey meaning, however. The advent of “noise” has had an important impact on the expressiveness of modern music. Any hints of traditionality are accompanied by excess noise amongst which it is hidden. The noise becomes the central focus in much of the music, attempting to offer a critique of culture or some sort of rebelliousness. Its success in doing so is somewhat limited by the processes it must undergo and can vary widely among different music.

The noise offers not only a critique of culture, but may serve as a reminder of the struggles of humanity in building such a culture. “… [A]n important ideal is expressed by the abrasive eruption of beats and sounds that is characteristic of recent rock music. The ideal is the ideal of music as an expression of ordered living….Rock music offers a more earthbound metaphor for life. Rather than ‘reminding’ us of utopia, rock offers a continuing metaphor for the struggle to build human community.”(14) Gracyk goes on to use “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana as an example of the noise in modern rock music. Two versions of the song exist: the original by Nirvana and a piano-based version by Tori Amos. While finding melody in the latter is fairly easy as it is presented by a classically trained pianist, the same is not true for the original. The difference, quite simply, is Nirvana’s version adds excessive noise. Any melody present is hidden amongst the noise of the guitars and pounding drums. Gracyk says that this noise is added to “make the listeners work to hear [melody],” but beyond that, the song offers a critique of modern culture and attempts to offer up a metaphor for life in this culture. The expression of anger toward teen apathy in modernity is only compounded by the chaotic sense one feels from the music. This is where it runs into problems, however. Nirvana may have wanted to offer a critique of culture, but not only did they play a role in the progression of modern culture and further strengthening its position, they also directly appealed to the group they were critiquing. Nirvana, like many influential bands of our time, resided on a major label, producing records that would be marketed and sold specifically to a younger audience—all done as a part of a perpetual capitalistic struggle to earn more profits. Does the fact that Nirvana’s position played directly into the schema they so vehemently oppose adversely affect the music and its message? It seems difficult to ignore. The song may have directly struck out at teen apathy, but the record also went on to sell an unimaginable number and become incredible popular with that very age group. It also was recently named the third most influential rock song of the past forty years. And what did it influence? The standards of success for a rock outfit? Raising the bar for the number of records sold before one can be called influential? Because it most certainly did not exert any influence on teen apathy, which is perhaps even higher a little over ten years later, nor did it affect any change. Any sort of critique it may have offered seems dead in the water—only used to further record sales and offer angst-ridden, disillusioned teens a means to feel rebellious. Taking any critique and recycling it into the culture industry, exploiting it, and offering it for sale may be one of the most urgent crises of modern music.

Music has progressed even further since Nirvana’s time. Dissonance is rampant in music today and comes in all different shapes and sizes, all with differing degrees of success. Dissonance can be found in mainstream music as well as within the underground. While the underground scene tends to offer up more extreme examples of dissonance, in the end, they both attempt to accomplish the same goal. Two examples will be looked at: within mainstream music, Tool; within underground music, The Dillinger Escape Plan.

Tool has become a tremendously successful hard rock band in recent years. With numerous records under their belt, headlining a number of tours and having a number of tribute albums, they are by all means a successful band. While their aggressive style alienates much of the population (they are most popular with teenagers and twenty-somethings), they are popular within the group of listeners who prefer harder music. What sets apart Tool from much of the hard rock pack is not only their higher technical proficiency, but their lyrical content. More intelligent and reflective than most bands in the genre, many songs blatantly deal with modern culture and attempt to offer critiques of it. Take one of their songs, for example, which starts with a distant, distorted guitar, which is then accompanied by pounding drums shortly after. Maynard comes in abruptly with only slightly reserved, guttural bellows, singing: “I met a boy wearing Vans, 501s, and a dope Beatie T, nipple rings, and new tattoos that claimed he was OGT.” Immediately pointing to hypocrisy within people and their images, he goes on: “And in between sips of Coke / He told me / He thought we were selling out / Laying down / Sucking up / To the man.” This immediately paints a clear picture of the music scene of today, in which some listeners claim to be outside the process and accuse bands of selling out (essentially playing directly into the culture industry’s hands). Maynard adds a twist to the song, however, playing directly into the claim: “Well now I’ve got some advice for you little buddy / Before you point the finger / You should know I’m the man / And if I’m the man, then you’re the man / And he’s the man as well.” With this he draws lines that bound together the self-proclaimed elitist, the artist he claimed was selling out, and all of society. With that connection, he goes on: “All you know about me is what I sold you / I sold out long before you ever heard my name / I sold my soul to make a record / And you bought one.” With the connection between him and the rest of the world already established, they boldly claim that not only did they sell out long ago, but so has everyone else. To further implicate all of society, they end with: “All you read and / Wear or see and / Hear on TV / Is a product / Begging for your fatass dirty dollar / So shut up and / Buy my new record / Send me more money / Fuck you, buddy.” Maynard has essentially described the process of the culture industry and its effect on society, creating a circular flow of life in which people trade their life for money in order to obtain goods they have been indoctrinated to believe they need and that will make them happy. Throughout this entire song, the drums and guitars remaining driving and Maynard’s voice remains at a steady, angry growl. But does the critique succeed or fail? Surprisingly, it succeeds, much more so than is common, especially amongst popular music. Instead of claiming to be outside of the cycle he describes, Maynard fully recognizes he is a part of the cycle. By doing so, the critique becomes more than a standard condemnation, but a reflection on the state in which everyone lives. So often, a critique of society is short-sighted and limiting, attempting to exclude certain members of the society; by avoiding this, Tool has actually created a song that can successfully offer a critique of society. A success such as this leaves hope for popular music, and shows that, done properly, music of today can indeed offer a critique of culture.

The Dillinger Escape Plan offers another example within contemporary music. Unlike Tool, The Dillinger Escape Plan offer their critique in a more similar fashion to the avant-garde: through unbridled noise. Often described as jazz-infused hardcore or progressive metal or even “math-rock” for their complexity, these labels do little justice to the actual music. Extremely individualistic and sounding unlike any other band, they offer their critique through controlled chaos. Their record Calculating Infinity begins with a few scales played at an incredibly fast speed, only to explode moments later. The two guitarists play off each other, often employing classical elements within their music, and consistently using scales throughout the songs. The vocals are consistently brutal, offering little variety from a full-on, harsh scream. This only complements that chaotic feel offered through the music. Unlike avant-garde music, which tends to offer random noise, The Dillinger Escape Plan offers their chaos with the utmost precision. Whether this critique is successful is less clear: Although they take classical elements and add an abundance of controlled noise in such a fashion as to disgust listeners of most popular music, they do have a large following, and fall back into the cycle of the culture industry without recognizing it.

Critiquing society is not necessarily the only purpose of music; in fact, more often than not, this has been a secondary objective. While the Eroica Symphony is an example of how classical music may shock and horrify the public, most music was not orientated toward this goal. However, with the changes in society—from an aristocratic society to a democratic one—this role of music has grown in importance, so much so, that I contend it is of more importance than any other goal. Certainly there are elements of traditional music to be found sporadically throughout popular music (whether it be melody, harmony, etc.), but they are always also accompanied by the addition of noise. Most of this fails, simply following tired and true formulas of what listeners desire and what will make money; some do succeed in offering a critique of culture, but this is the exception and not the rule. Expecting music to follow the same formula it has in the past is erroneous, however, and should not be expected nor desired; the changes in culture necessitate changes within music. This has occurred, but the majority of music has simply become a means to profits instead of successfully completing its goals, whether it is offering a critique of culture or not. This music has become wholly corrupted.


The changes within culture have necessitated changes within music, but this cannot be used as a justification of all that has occurred within contemporary music. Certainly the importance of critical music has developed, but along with this has come music falsely offering a critique. The democracy of modernity, and the freedom it affords its citizens, has widened the spectrum of musical tastes, but it has also created a situation in which music is treated as a mere distraction to most. Along with this came the exploitation of consumers within the music industry (as well as other industries). Since the majority of listeners treated music as a distraction, lacking aesthetic training or the ability to appreciate traditional elements within music, the majority of music lowered its standards to cater to this group, creating easy, simplistic, and formulaic music. In this sense, aesthetic judgments have lost their place in much of society, instead desiring fair treatment over critiques: “This is the culture whose ‘political theology’ has been so carefully constructed…the culture in which ‘conceptions of the good’ belong to the private sphere, and the public sphere has no other business than to guarantee the fair treatment for everyone, without regard to private tastes.”(15) The entire popular music industry thus becomes “part of the ‘false consciousness’ with which capitalism distracts us from the truth of our condition.” It is simply an extension of the culture industry creating music purely for profits. And while diversity within music is necessary and desirable within a democratic framework, the pseudo individuality presented through the culture industry is anything but diverse. Popular music created in this sense is corrupted by our capitalistic system.

The listener of modernity differs from the listeners in the aristocracies before in their lack of aesthetic training. Beyond this, their excessive fixation on all that which the culture industry sells as meaning for their lives distracts the listener from the music and thus music is made for such a distracted listener. The “quick fix” music that is presented lacks much of traditionally important elements in music, but also lacks any sort of critical judgment of culture as it is simply a commodity within it. Offering the individual seeking individuation from her peer a pseudo solution through “alternative” music which is anything but alternative further corrupts music and its credibility. There are exceptions to this however, and some music does successfully critique culture. This offers some hope for a corrupted music industry, but these examples are becoming rarer.

All art faces this challenge of the culture industry and its attempts to commodify everything. In this sense, contemporary music can be no more corrupted than modern art in general. Even the forward-thinking avant-garde art falls to this process eventually. Thus the restrictions modern society has placed on music has applied to all aspects of life and it may be unfair to expect music to break from the pattern when nothing else has done so. And although the modern music industry may be corrupted, there are still examples of transcendence from these issues and examples of good music. Modern classical music offers all the traditional elements of music, while examples of successful critiques of culture can be seen elsewhere. The corruption in which music lies is a reflection of the corruption of our society as a whole; without change within culture, there is little chance for change amongst contemporary music.

(1)Roger Scruton, “The Decline of Musical Culture,” Arguing About Art: Contemporary Philosophical Debates (New York: Routledge, 2002), 127.
(2)Scruton, 127.
(3)Georg Hegel, Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, trans. Bernard Bosanquet (New York: Penguin Group, 1993), 13.
(4)Theodore Gracyk, “Music’s Worldly Uses, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and to Love Led Zeppelin,” Arguing About Art: Contemporary Philosophical Debates (New York: Routledge, 2002), 144.
(5)Gracyk, 145.
(6)Gracyk, 145.
(7)Nick Smith, “Why Hardcore Goes Soft: Adorno, Japanese Noise, and the Extirpation of Dissonance,” Cultural Logic 2 (2002), 1.
(8)Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1997), 154.
(9)Horkheimer and Adorno, 167.
(10)Scruton, 127.
(11)Scruton, 132.
(12)Scruton, 121.
(13)Scruton, 127.
(14)Gracyk, 144.
(15)Scruton, 127.