The Idea of the Hit

Agnès Gayraud, trans. Robin Mackay, D.C. Miller & Nina Power , Dialectic of Pop

Urbanomic, 470pp, £25.00, ISBN 9781913029555

reviewed by Dan Barrow

The first book from musician and philosopher Agnès Gayraud starts from what seems like a Quixotic and unproductive project: to develop a theory of pop music as an ‘aesthetic form’ beginning from the work of the philosopher and musicologist Theodor Adorno. His writings on the ‘light music’ of the 1930s are notorious for their unceasing assault on what even sceptical critics took to be harmless or edifying styles like hot jazz and swing. He’s thus become the great bogeyman of academic pop music studies, which has usually been an outgrowth of cultural studies: the untiring enemy of straightforward pleasure, the Satanic deflater of the artistic claims academics have consistently made for pop on behalf of subaltern groups (women, racialised populations, sexual minorities etc.), the mandarin advocate of a grey, ‘serious music’. And yet, Gayraud’s study illuminates central aspects of pop music, in all their double character, that scholarship centred on its redemptive and culturally representative character ignores. In refusing to wish pop music’s infernal aspects away, it takes pop seriously in a way that even the most nuanced and reflective boosterism doesn’t.

The book’s first part, after a short prologue, is devoted to a rehearsal of all Adorno’s arguments against pop. Adorno believed that, like all products of the ‘culture industry’, popular music had no ‘autonomous’ aesthetic character to speak of. The music that became hegemonic in the first half of the 20th century emerged from various sources — music hall, folk song, jazz crooning, cowboy ballads, Appalachian bluegrass, above all the blues — denatured and re-engineered, so Adorno claimed, according to the imperatives of combined capital. Where modernist art estranged and disenchanted the world, the culture industry’s products kept people in a state of artificial primitive reaction. The constrained jerking motions of the jitterbug dances of the 1920s made palpable the automatism of this ‘reflex character’. Pop songs’ rigid verse-chorus-verse structure, the repetition of the ‘hook’ and its reiteration between hit songs, the constant churn of the same genre elements, bespeak a frozen, dead time, always appearing as the ever-new. The supposed Dionysian release of pop music is a strategy of containment, encasing people in the false freedom of their individuation: ‘“fun” is the steel bath whose liquid heat marries with the movements of bodies only to better paralyse them in place once they cool off and harden.’ But this also involves outlining the moments where Adorno’s arguments admit of the aesthetic power of pop music.

In the book’s long second section, Gayraud outlines what she sees as the core aesthetic figures that structure pop music. The book feels like it departs here from the remarkable vocation of its beginning, and the four chapters can sometimes seem repetitive and unnecessarily complex in their structure. But Gayraud sums up familiar features of pop music, in their social stakes and contradictions, in a way that seems to bring them into a new focus and clarity. She emphasises the strange temporality of pop music, which recreate the vanished past of folk and vernacular music, but only through the recording and distributive technology of modernity. The uprooting and destruction of folk cultures finds its way into pop music not just as a globally plundered array of instruments and melodic material, but as a redemptive dream of art for the mass societies that replaced them. Anyone, Gayraud emphasises, can write a pop song: what makes a pop hit great is unpredictable and unclassifiable. Hence, the ‘pop subject’ is unprecedented in the history of art, a partial realisation of the 20th-century avant-garde’s idea that art and life should become one. Pop is branded by being the work of particular individuals, invested with their ‘embodied’ characteristics of race, gender and so on, but it always gestures towards universality: a pop record wants to be bought by everyone. This finds its realisation in the twin figures of the fan and the star, with the former always having the potential to become the latter. But the existence of pop stars is only ever realised through a dependence on a vast majority of ordinary fans to work for money to buy the records. As Gayraud puts it, in lines that cleave closest to the dialectical character of pop in the book, ‘this celebrity is something of a betrayal of pop embodiment. . . The chance of idiosyncrasy lay in its incommensurable character, the small difference of the being of one thing in so far as it is not another. Once established as a “famous personality” this individuality only establishes types of individuals.’

The remaining two chapters, on song form and pop’s relationship with concepts of musical ‘progress’, are unfortunately the weakest. The latter in particular often seems to wander very far from Adorno, getting bogged down in what feels like a literature review. But it culminates in a remarkable defence of pop as an aesthetic form continually in flux. If measured according to modernist standards, Gayraud notes, pop music will always be on the back foot, as the revivified body of ‘expired tonal material’. The claim that one era’s pop music can be judged less innovative or compelling than that of the past — an argument made anew in the last decade, against considerable resistance, by Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds — makes no sense when viewed from the point of view of the aesthetic form of pop itself. Pop’s is an ‘off-ground modernism’, one dislocated from the soils of high art nostalgia on which it first grew. As Gayraud concludes, ‘[i]t is not in the history but in the historicity of pop — the ways in which subjectivities produce narratives of this history — that the idea of progress finds its meaning.’ And yet this would surely include the accounts of ‘those countless figures in pop who impugn the idea of the hit’ (a category which — full acknowledgement — Gayraud includes myself in) and attack the current contents of the charts on behalf of the idea of pop. While Gayraud ends by showing how pop’s increasing self-consciousness internalises this moment of the negative in pop’s history, it otherwise seems to disappear or be dismissed. Against the idea of pop’s historical decay or slow collapse, she sets the knowledge that ‘so long as human finitude still has something unique to offer, be it a sigh or ‘just a little blip’, popular music and its joyous possibilities will still remain desirable’ — a claim that, by the time it arrives, can seem like a pep talk rather than the rousing culmination it should be. The dialectical element of Dialectic of Pop unfortunately seems to wane as it goes on, falling into a presentation of pop’s aesthetic power and its essentially tragic aspect — its damnation by its origins in the culture industry — in the style of ‘on the one hand / on the other hand’.

I have one major reservation about Dialectic of Pop, which concerns the translation. Nina Power, until recently a respected philosopher and policing activist, has rebranded as a free speech advocate who seems focused to an abnormal degree on the rights of transphobes and anti-feminists; D.C. Miller, a former blogger who reemerged in connection with the LD-50 gallery’s platforming of political racists, is a populariser of fascist mystic Julius Evola and has established himself firmly as a figure of the alt-right. It would be unfair to see Dialectic of Pop as tainted by this association. Certainly on such key issues as race and gender, Gayraud’s positions are far from the fixations of the alt-right and its ‘post-left’ or ‘anti-woke’ gendarmes. But beyond a serious hesitancy about endorsing anything that might accord Power and Miller more attention, it does introduce doubts about the book and sharpen focus some of its less satisfying aspects: what, we’re led to wonder, would they grasp at in it? For example, the crucial Marxist stratum of Adorno’s aesthetic thinking — admittedly only present in heavily mediated form in much of his writing on music — seems somewhat recessed in Gayraud’s account and barely present in the second section, which leads perhaps to its increasingly positivist presentation. None of these flaws is fatal, but they cling to what is otherwise one of the most daring, intelligent and determined attempts in recent memory to rescue pop music from its most stalwart defenders.

Dan Barrow is a writer and researcher based in Sheffield. He has written for The Wire, Sight and Sound, Tribune, LA Review of Books and others.