Monday, January 31, 2011

M&Ms: Metal and Mass

... Communication, that is.

I'm surprised that no one's latched onto Adorno's "A Social Critique of Radio Music." It remains shockingly accurate almost 70 years later, perhaps indicative of the sort of "commodity listening" (p. 212) which radio technology has permanently instilled. His claim that the "commodity attitude" of radio-friendly music occupies a space which is veiled "under a cloak of culture and erudition" (p. 212) is decent, especially considering how lauded some of our more contemporary popular music icons are despite their often-limited musical abilities. Nonetheless, they establish precedent within a market of fickle consumers. The concepts of "good music," or music with the most number of listeners (radio play), and good music, requiring a degree of musical acumen beyond which would be marketable, are not the same things.

I want to make a clear demarcation here between Adorno's "good music" and good music. I might point to the myriad three-distorted-chords bands who have come and gone with various degrees of success over the decades, though a more recent example might include Lady Gaga (admittedly an oft-employed example). She's certainly no slouch on the piano, but to compare her playing to the complexity of a Liszt or a Chopin is to veer far away from popularized notions of music-that-sells; it works because it's simple, and the persona is interesting to many. And she would not be popular today were it not for many years of precedent set by radio-friendly artists who came before her, who they themselves would not have been popular without the mass communication enabled by the radio itself.

So, in terms of its implications for mass communication, we can reasonably surmise that good music to Adorno, as opposed to "good music," is that which is likely nowhere near the radio airwaves. We could draw similar parallels to messages through any mass medium; by simple virtue of their accessibility, their quality is inherently diminished, and we lose the ability to distinguish between "good" and good. My public speaking students are often shocked when I show them the difference in quality between any of the "big three" (CNN, MSNBC, Fox News) and sources of independent, non-profit journalism. Both transmit through mass channels, but one is bereft of syndicated cable channels, and what it trades in terms of accessibility is returned in the form of significantly more depth and cognitive reward.

Adorno concludes by asserting that, "Entertainment may have its uses, but a recognition of radio music as such would shatter the listener's artificially fostered belief that they are dealing with the world's greatest music" (p. 214). It may be a function of seeing my favorite late-80s thrash band Rigor Mortis for their 25th anniversary reunion show in two weeks (OH GOD I CAN'T WAIT) but what better way to show this than through everyone's favorite misaligned genre of music: death metal. This level of musicianship is exceedingly rare on popular radio (the occasional Rush song, Metallica once every, like, 10 years), but it's expected in metal circles, especially thrash/black/death subgenres. It requires a certain level of appreciation for camp, irony, and technical proficiency, often prevalent not just in its listeners but the bands themselves. Surely we can draw numerous connections to public discourse through mass channels with this.

Yes, the song is called "Frantic Disembowelment." Like I said, camp and irony.

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