Thursday, 21 March 2013

Spiritual poverty of modern machine

Timothy D. Taylor
Sounds of Capitalism: Advertising Music and the Conquest of Culture
University of Chicago Press 345 Hbk

It is easy to think niche, experimental music can escape commodification. More often than not, this is an illusion, but it would be equally gratuitous to say all the music is merely a commodity within the late capitalism, or at least it isn’t always in the same way. In his book Timothy Taylor deals with the sounds that throughout the existence of the consumerist society (that is at least since the 1920s in America) accompanied and helped to sell things. He provides a not only extremely well researched, but also fundamentally leftist interpretation, an analysis from the perspective, but not on the account, of the admen and companies and their strategies, which in order to start selling, had to construct the audience to sell their products to. From the concept of the “masses” in the 1920 to the discovery of youth as a market to the new petit bourgeois, for whom “everything concerned with the art of living, in particular, domestic life and consumption” becomes a matter of special concern, we see the construction of society via an analysis of a single subgenre – here, the ad jingle.

Of course, such criticisms are old and their most famous exponent was Adorno, now frequently misunderstood as a one-dimensional mere critic of consumptionism. Adorno, who saw the rise of nazism and fascism, during his American years was rather concerned with the cynisism accompanying the regression process, regression of our perception of art and of the world instigated by the standardisation of the mass media. Radio and then TV simplified the way the world can be grasped and helped commodifying the consumer's consciousness. His analysis was supported by his longstanding research as a part of Princeton radio project and the Hacker Foundation he lead in 1952-53.

Not subscribing to any of the symplifying binarisms (mass culture as 'good' or a necessarily evil thing) Taylor did a meticulous research going through enormous archive of the initial development of the ad business. We’re not going to discover suddenly that in fact jingles were very sophisticated things, but we’ll see, how the development of the radio and, at the same time, performing and composing of music, which was broadcasted, has lead the Don Draper’s forbears to get the idea how music can 'animate' and make the product more desirable. With commercial use of music, the question of taste wont stop haunting us. Here, Bourdieu’s theory of taste’s relation to social class and the cultural capital comes to the rescue, enriched with gender and ethnicity brought to the agenda. What may be crucial is how this music specifically designed to sell, that is of the possibly 'lowest' sort, also in terms of "primitiveness" of the composition, is a necessary backdrop, more even – must shape the conditions in which any non-commercial, niche or artistic music is made and how it is impossible to think, within consumerist capitalism, that one can escape the influence by these modes of production, broadcasting, popularization and the necessity to sell. Taylor shows the origin of this world in motion, as it’s constituted: from the supposedly “absolute” conditions, he shows our society as built by this “shlock”.

It’s a Foucaldian, as well as traditional historical approach, in this sense, that Taylor, while remaining very close to his subject and writing a microhistory, contributes to the macro image. He analyses very practical aspects: the wages of the musicians, the evolution of the copyrights (initially no one paid anyone for playing his music on the radio and one musician could easily ‘steal’ from another) and contracts. One of the things that is debunked is the myth of the laissez-faire and competition of early capitalist stage – power-consolidating corporate ambitions of “destroying all the competition” were present in America already between the wars.

In order to appeal, product had to become “emotional”, first regardless of class, and then doing this quite despicable thing, creating consumerist groups. Early admen were all disciples of Ayn Rand and we get to read the crippled poetry of the self-proclaimed Fountainheads. A 1930s one could write that “modern commercial designs will offset in some measure the ugliness and spiritual poverty of much of this modern machine environment” and instead, will bring beauty ‘in our visual world, in our landscapes, architecture and tools and furniture with which we perform the operation of living.” There's a startling resemblance here to certain avantgarde manifestoes, as the avant-garde artists obviously were fascinated by the modern way of life, the machine age, speed, technology and the everyday. Especially some of the early commercials can be little masterpieces of a short film and animation, influenced by directly or even made by the avant-garde artists. Many included first class composers, like Raymond Scott, artists like Man Ray or filmmakers like Len Lye (although UK or Europe and eg. the achievements of GPO film unit unfortunately cannot be our concern here).

It shows, how the original admen probably really thought they are making things better and creating some sort of a new art. Hence the descriptions "art director" and many other, art-related. But exactly by comparing the art with those, who are approprating its ideas, you see, how their 'art' was something different, so often about 'concealing' rather than 'revealing', what mostly good art does. In the 20th century capitalism, at leats since Warhol, art and business has became one. There was something larger than life, pioneer, 'American dream'-like about the beginnings of the ad industry, even if that lead to quite despicable things. This brings us to what the future, ie the present, will be like: how the notion of “art” will start to support the appetites of the brand new social class of “conscious consumers”.

Their “art”, as we see it more clearly now, was rather the opposite: it was to cover the ugliness of the real ad intentions (annihilating the real reasons for the crises of capitalism and social conditions) with another illusion: that of beautiful, unproblematic life. Role of a commercial jingle was then similar to the neon light at the Broadway, to dazzle, to give shivers. But alas, their 'art', however they wanted to see it, remained 'primitive', it had contributed a lot to a regression of listening in the adornian sense.

That's why Mad Men's Don Draper, who's an idealist, can both think that he's making people believe in nonsense and believe that there's something sublime to his work, that really makes things and the world better. He wants to believe in the dream. You can see, how the development of this business could ever only happen in America, with their chaotic religion of vaguely understood Freedom, the power of the Dream (even if at the cost of killing and enslaving millions of people) and identyfying all those values with capitalism. Capitalism carries a utopian, magical aspect and that's why there's actually no contradiction. Radio, cinema and the silver screen started as dream-factories to, with the time, show their much darker side.

With time, as the initial bling wore off, and there was a discovery or rather “invention” of youth, apart from the new market, criticism of the new media arose. Yet the fights of counterculture, necessarily combined with their fights for the political issues, made the commercial appeal problematic. Unlike Don Draper, who is puzzled by the counterculture, yet desires its freedoms, corporations also didn’t understand, but counted for the eternal residuum of conservatism and backwardness of their clients, prophets of the middlebrow. They weren’t wrong, and the operation of “appropriation of the cool” into the middle of the road started. The baby boomers made the Yuppies, taught to spent their lives at nothing else but cultivating their individuality. They're best portrayed by Patrick Bateman of American Psycho, who kills to the accompaniment of the jingle of the favorite talk show, muzak dripping from the walls of the office interiors or Huey & The News. “Hating the commercials” was a sign of cultivation among the aspirational classes, and it marked the corporations’ biggest triumph, as the quality was the last thing they had to be concerned about at this point. Business has become a sort of religion anyway – definitely in America, only to bring the well known film of the 70s, The Network, to mind, where it is shown, how quite “cosmic” ambitions the corporations had become, like some inverted USSR.

Today, as the music industry sees itself in a great crisis, as we live in a dystopia from WS Burroughs, the love of the middlebrow has never been better. Ad pervades the industry more than ever, so that it’s often impossible to distinguish one from another. It is so morbidly smooth that even the surgery from a sober Marxist like Taylor, pointing out also how the notion of “work” itself evaporates in this process, still can’t kill the parasite. Advertising, which helped to create the current concept of creativity, was also the pioneer of the new “cognitive capitalism”. The catchy jingle may have been the virus that first and best helped it to spread around capitalism’s sick body. In this, commercial music may be one of the best way to show contradictions of contemporary capitalism as such.
Agata Pyzik