Music Blocks (Adorno)

(Handed Down Musical Materials)

No matter where you stand on this, it’s obvious that all facets Rock’n’Roll, be it prog, Metal, blues, indie, etc face a mounting artistic problem: that almost everything about it is a foregone conclusion: from the intro riffs to the choruses all the way down to the lyrics. Getting new is harder and harder because there’s too much desire to be the same.

There are riffs and there are bridges and there are choruses And this wouldn’t be so bad if was in service of a larger musical idea. But no. But all we get is well worn references linked together with forgettable filler. A greatest hits medley of what the philosopher Theodor Adorno calls ‘the handed-down musical materials of history’ — which are the genres, tonalities, structures and other musical traditions that we all grow up with.

Things that already have meanings, rules and associations tied to them. So music is always reified to a certain degree. While writing the music for their albums, The Black keys or QOTSA or the Foo Fighters draw from a large range of well known sources. There’s heavy referencing of Led Zeppelin, Canned Heat, Jim Kimborough, Bachman Turner Overdrive etc. While Patrick Carney grew up on punk groups like The Clash and the Cramps, Dan Auerbach came up on bluesmen like Junior Kimbrough and southern rockers like Lynyrd Skynyrd. Throw in Steppenwolf, T. Rex, and Captain Beefheart/.

I’m not saying that Black Keys or QOTSA are plagiarists or hacks because the artistry in their music is in combining musical ideas with pre-existing meanings to form new meaning, breathing life into the original genres and conjuring a sense of otherworldliness and fantastical adventure. Like all music, there is a certain degree of reification going on, but it’s creative.

So the problem then is one of degrees. In other words, there comes a point where a piece of music is so reified that it’s glued up completely; where its meaning is so obvious that there’s no room for maneuver. This can be illustrated by looking at the newer albums QUOTSA, FOO FIGHTERS — which for me sit here on the reification-o-metre (pretty reified,-very reified).

Since so many big moments rely on pre-existing material. And the problem with reusing pre-existing material is one of diminishing returns. At its worst, rehashed music can descend into meaninglessness. To give an example of what I mean, let’s look at the use of Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ in film.

When used in Apocalypse now it was a deliberate artistic juxtaposition — drawing from the original meaning of the music to provide a subtext of false glory and horror. It was done to make us think. Now let’s look at it’s reuse in the film ‘Watchmen’ directed by Zack Snyder.

The music here isn’t appropriate at all because the intention of this part of the story, written by Alan Moore, was to illustrate the complicated inner struggles and regrets of one of the main characters. But Snyder, as always, employs the lowest common denominator approach: ‘since Apocalypse Now takes place in Vietnam and this scene takes place in Vietnam let’s just use the Apocalypse Now music.

The music is now super-reified. Ride of the Valkyries isn’t being used for any deeper meaning — it just means ‘Vietnam — but also, remember Apocalypse Now?’ And it’s this meaninglessness that Rock’n’Roll is in danger of going towards with most bands lifting well worn constructs we’ve heard a million times and placed them at strategic moments to achieve maximum cliche.


Keith Richards proposes that Chuck Berry developed his brand of rock and roll by transposing the familiar two-note lead line of jump blues piano directly to the electric guitar. Country boogie and Chicago electric blues supplied many of the elements that would be seen as characteristic of Rock and Roll. Perhaps it’s time to consider organizing rock’n’ roll in a different way. It doesn’t have to be based on guitars. It could be a different think.

65 years later and there is never a moment when I feel it is being used as a storytelling device as much as a dog whistle. Music that stands for Late Stage Capitalism. Pretending to be something a human would write. No matter how hard it tries, it just can’t help but reflect the banality and inauthenticity of the corporation that uses it .It doesn’t provide any kind of deeper meaning or allow me to ponder or interpret what is going on. Its sole function is to point out when something rock related is happening, which I already knew about because I’m listening to the album. This is extreme reification and it hurts the songs, it hurts the bands and it hurts the fans.

The music is now telling you what to feel. It isn’t earned. It’s cashing in that cheque written by the original generation. Eventually, this theme will lose its potency completely, it will become a known artefact that disallows interpretation. Being different is dangerous but it’s the only way to achieve new heights. What’s left of the music industry is too afraid to deviate from customer expectation and choosing bands who are happy to churn out very similar material over and over again but what about Indie?

It is up to you to decide to what extent this is happening but it seems to me pretty obvious that it is, at least, happening.

Perhaps it’s time to consider organizing rock’n’ roll in a different way. It doesn’t have to be based on guitars. Or it could be different guitars. Think King Gizzard and the Lizzard Wizard microtonal guitars.

Tchaikovsky was working on the first movement of his 4th symphony in 1877 when he was suffering from depression and alienation. He wanted to express his emotions in a way that didn’t sit well with some Romantic composers at the time. We should not as audiences expect to be pandered to by relentless reference to stuff we know. The original tunes were, well, original. That’s the only thing that has any hope of delivering a truly breathtaking new Rock’n-Roll experience.Ric Amurrio