The serious music.” (Adorno, On Popular Music,
The concept of the experimental to many artists, musicians and authors became popular. “Thewhole structure of popular music is standardized” (Adorno, On Popular Music, 256).Producing things which wouldn’t be considered as the mainstream or popular was somethingin which The Velvet Underground did. The Velvet Underground, a very unpopularexperimental rock band from the mid-60s later became the staple and influence of manybands after them. However, what was it which made them so popular during the 60s and 70s,was it this deviance from the popular norm and if so what was the popular norm? Throughthe analysis of Theodor W. Adorno’s work of On Popular Music, the comparison of this textand the actions and attitude in which the Velvet Underground had in their music and towardssociety, critically determine whether the Velvet Underground produced a new branch ofpopular through the digression of the popular itself.Popular Music was conjured up as a response to popular modernism which was introducedwhen the capitalist system really prospered after the Second World War. “By its very nature,popular culture impinges on people unceasingly; it is part of their environment, part of theirbackground noise…” (Riesman, Listening to Popular Music, 4).
It was inescapable, beingsurrounded by the aspect of the popular became a very normalized and unnoticeable thing.Popular music was a type of music which helped many genres and was favourable by most ofthe population, and as Theodor w. Adorno states “…is usually categorized by its differencefrom serious music.” (Adorno, On Popular Music, 256). He continues with the idea in whichpopular music has characteristics in which makes it distinguishable from what he calls”serious music”.
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Adorno does not necessarily define popular music and neither do a lot oftheorists and writers, however, a lot of them define it by describing what it does to thepopulation and how it differs to music in which was popular before this influx of theimportance of the commodity. He defines popular music by comparing it to ‘serious music’but what is serious music? A rather broad term, people may define serious music assomething entirely different, but here he is referring it to music such as Beethoven. Underthis expansive terminology for popular music, the Velvet Underground comes under the term,however, delving in deeper into Adorno’s definition and explanation of the term, it becomesclear that overall this term is not entirely applicable to Velvet Underground.2The split is much more between, on the one hand, music which accepts its characteras commodity, thus becoming identical with the machinations of the culture industryitself, and, on the other hand, that self-reflective music which critically opposes itsfate as commodity, and thus ends up alienating itself from present society bybecoming unacceptable to it. (Max Paddison. “The Critique Criticised: Adorno andPopular Music.” Popular Music 2 (1982), 204)This quote supports the notion of the comparison and use of ‘serious music’ In Adorno’sessay explaining how serious music and popular music can be comparable and one of theways in which he is defining them both is through the commodity and how successful it inthe new popular era.
However, this also supports the idea in which the Velvet Undergrounddidn’t necessarily make music which accepts itself as a commodity, they did in fact makemusic in which alienated themselves from a lot of music in that decade, but doesn’t comeunder the definition of ‘serious music’ in which Adorno is intending. This proves that puttingmusic under two terms in strictly unfair and not reliable enough, these two terms don’texactly cover the band entirely. On the other hand, if they really wanted to follow thefootsteps popular music such as of Elvis Presley, James Brown and Chuck Berry then theywould have followed the ‘standardized’ formula in which Adorno puts forward forsuccessful, popular music.As mentioned in the introduction, Adorno refers to a characteristic of Popular Music asstandardization, this one word describes popular music as a whole, again broad and not reallythought about. A lot of songs from the fifties till now do admittedly have the same formulationas verse, chorus, verse, chorus etc. but there have been some outstretch from this structure but”popular music is standardized even where the attempt is made to circumventstandardization.” (Adorno, On Popular Music, 256) so all music of this period is popularmusic? The Velvet Underground did not “circumvent from the standardized” but followed theevolving genre of rock and roll and produced sounds that were innovating and influential to alot of later bands and producers. They were experimenting with the rock and roll soundswhich already existed not intending to sound as if they were evading the standardization ofpopular music.
Robert W. Witkin analyses Adorno’s opinion and thought on popular musicand states “In Adorno’s treatment, standardization is an entire theory of popular culture initself” (Witkin, Adorno on Popular Culture, 98) Adorno is not looking at the whole spectrumbut only the popular songs in popular music so overall this subjectivity is not entirely reliable- solidifying the fact that the Velvet Underground do not come under this term popular music3but are experimenting with the popular. Witkin also states the unfairness of using the wordstandardized, and compares it to genres of art and classical music “they all exhibit theirregular features in different works.” (Witkin, Adorno on Popular Culture, 99). Like art andclassical music, all popular music is different, they may follow a certain formula, chordstructure or theme in the lyrics but this could be for that certain genre of music in which isbeing produced. It should not be different for music if it’s the same in art and literature.
Brought together in 1965 in New York, it was evident that they were there to make money,”They see New York as a spot solely for making money and throwing it around” (Witt, TheVelvet Underground, 1) but they were very unsuccessful at first, not being able to sell theirfirst few records well. “The First Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, buteveryone who bought it formed a band.” (Canosa, The Factory Factor) This quote from BrianEno sums up entirely the idea of Velvet Underground, the invented was something thatintrigued the listener this was a new avenue that music had taken.
Andy Warhol was one of the most heard of figures in the popular era, he was known for hispop art pieces and work on consumerism and commodities – he knew a lot about this. Asstated earlier, popular modernism was based on the capitalist system after the Second WorldWar, the technology, and the economy boomed after the war and was benefitting societygreatly. Andy Warhol played on his knowledge of the consumerist market and what thepopulation wanted, he noticed that rock and roll was on the rise so he became involved theVelvet Underground, he knew they could do well in the rock and roll scene. “Rock and rollwas a necessary part of Warhol’s activities because of its public impact and money-makingpotential.” (Frith and Horne, Art into Pop, 112). Rock and roll was surrounding thepopulation, everyone was listening to it with many different bands entering the sphere, allsounding similar, and he knew he needed something odd and avant-garde. Warhol designedtheir first and self-titled album, with his famous pop-art that everyone recognized. Obviousnow, this was a way in which to advertise the band, to make them well known, he producedshows which included them such as Exploding Plastic Inevitable and added the up andcoming actor, model and singer Nico again all for the mass audience.
They didn’t developthrough Warhol, in fact, they were “commercially unsuccessful” (Frith and Horne, Art intoPop, 112), he went about managing them in the wrong way, maybe he thought he couldmanage them the same way he produced art.4However, the Velvet Underground were not mainstream or that palatable to the mass yet,their experimental and avant-garde production of music was new but marginal.But mass art is designed to elicit mass consumption and, though being produced bymass medium makes this possible in one sense, it is not, in and of itself, enough todischarge the function of engaging mass audiences.
For avant-garde art can beproduced and distributed by a mass medium, but avant-garde art is typically designedto frustrate or problematize mass consumption… (Noël Carrol, The Philosophy ofMass Art, 202)Even though new avant-garde music tried to avoid the capital and consumption, this aspect ofthe new can also help the capitalist system by producing a new pathway in which to help sellproducts:The act of experimentation set the notion of avoiding the capitalist system but findingthe ‘new’ gave the system more ways in which to make money and strengthen theeconomy. “The powerful and central presiding value of the New as such has alwaysseemed to constitute the fundamental logic of modernism.” (Jameson, A SingularModernity, 151)To the mass, they were more for a specific group and that group developed and wererecognisable to more the “Art school music scene” (Frith and Horne, Art, 112). This nichescene became bigger and churned out many artists influenced by this avant-garde and uniquesound which the Velvet Underground were famous for.
They found a new market in rockwhich aided the capitalist system, making their experimental tendencies popular to theaudience and other musicians.Cold war, Vietnam war, space race and civil rights movements were the main events whichwere happening during the Velvet Underground’s era of music making. Drugs weresomething that influenced and affected the Velvet Underground directly, they becameglamorized and consumption increased over the years. From cannabis to heroin, teenagers toadults were doing it was induced into an epidemic of drug use and addiction.”The 1960s were a time of change for the United States. During the 1960s, politicaland cultural upheaval resulted in changes throughout the nation. Princeton Universitystates that the hippie subculture also developed during the mid-1960s, which gave rise5to concerns regarding substance abuse.” (Calabro, The History Of Drug Use In TheUnited States).
Then later in the 1970s the ‘harder’ more addictive substances became more popular andmore widely used due to the messages to do with the side effects of the drugs became moremisconstrued and as a protest, the population started ignoring these messages and tooksubstances such as heroin. The idea of taking drugs was not entirely a fashionable and soughtafter thing to do but like music, the strange and non-talked about the subject of drugs developedto be more talked about and used by people, making not just music.More and more bands relied on heavy drug use to perform most nights of their career as wellas help them with songwriting, and this is still prevalent today but not as much. During laterin the seventies a lot more bands and people became more involved in drugs and it became apopular thing to do, bands such as Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Jimi Hendrix. Of course, the Velvet Underground dabbled in narcotics throughout their career, dedicating a songabout a drug in which Lou Reed and Nico used heavily in the band, the song was called’Heroin’ with the lyrics in which explain the feeling and the experience of injecting it intotheir veins to the feeling of euphoria in which overcomes their bodies. Directly, writing songsabout drugs was not the standard practice in music at this time, there were usually nicknamesand metaphorical stories given to the drugs and their effects in songs.
This idea ofexperimenting became more prominent and used in a lot more songs after a few bandsincluding the Velvet Underground who were one of the first who trial and errored it a fewtimes. It really helped the audience understand the struggle of drug consumption, it was notjust glorifying it or going against the government which, admittedly it does sound like that’swhat they’re doing, but perhaps just making the population more aware. This deviance fromthe popular subject of songs such as love or a trying to win over someone started to disappearand follow this new unheard of way of writing. It developed further and further over the yearsincluding subject such as rebellion such as the punk era, more open songs about sex andmundane subjects.
Adorno stated how popular music has a standardized way of writing lyricswith not much of an array of subjects that are written about. However, to write songs aboutthe standardized subjects making them come under the umbrella of popular music, but overallhave influenced many other artists to write songs in which do not come under this bracket.The opening song to their self-titled album, “Sunday Morning”, musically a sweet and gentlesong featuring the voice of Nico, a German model whom was introduced to the band by Andy6Warhol. That wasn’t the only thing that Warhol introduced to the song but he also wanted thesense of paranoia and they did this successfully.
Not being aware of the lyrics the melody istwinkling, calming and relaxing, subtle drums and a quiet base. However, the lyrics to thisare amplified, during the lyrics the voice is dream-like and distorted. Listening to the lyricsclosely, it’s not to do with the standardised model of love or finding love, more to do withdisturbance and uncomfortableness of the society in which they lived in; the lyrics strangelyjuxtaposes the music. Not following the popular of the society, yet brought in the underlyingissues of the public then, this gave influence to the genres such as punk.
This is against whatAdorno put forward about popular music, this was the stereotypical calm song it had a harshsubject matter to it in which was easy to grasp when the lyrics were listened to.An example of one of their songs from their first self-titled album is ‘Heroin’. Again hasfamiliar themes in the lyrics with the ideas that are usually supressed in the other songs of theera, such as drugs and addiction.
. “The general types of hits are also standardized… but, alsothe “characters” such as mother songs, home songs…laments for a lost girl” (Adorno, OnPopular Music, 256), the lyrics avoided that of the ‘standardized’. Addiction was whatfuelled Reed’s lyric writing and the lyrics were somewhat unpleasantly poetic and the musicadds to the ominousness of the song. The slow and naked beginning of the guitar and drumsgives you the sense of the emptiness but then builds up and speeds up, like the feeling oftaking heroin, your heart rate raises and the sense of euphoria is overwhelming. Thecontinuous droning of the viola in the background gives this feeling of eeriness which is andmaybe referring to the real life in which is always there in the background during the high ofheroin during the point when he says “And thank your God that I’m not aware, And thankGod that I just don’t care” the viola starts shrieking in the background causing this distressingsound, but at the same time its enjoyable. Most people believed that lyrics were not the mostcrucial part of the song but the textures of the music comes first. In Rhythm and Noise it isstated that when Lester Bangs saw the Velvet Underground playing ‘Sister Ray’ he couldn’tmake out the lyrics at all, but could just hear the organ droning in the background and thisdidn’t ruin the experience at all, “Rock lyrics can be indecipherable, poorly articulated, orlost in the mix.
” (Theodore Gracyk, Rhythm and Noise An Aesthetics of Rock, 104).Although at the beginning they didn’t come under the bracket as popular, later they hadinfluences on later bands. In 2007, LCD Soundsystem’s ‘New York, I Love you but you’rebringing me down’. Throughout the song there is a piano chords being played sort ofromantic and slow, but James Murphy the front man of the band, is singing about the7negativities of the city such as “Your mild billionaire mayor’s now convinced he’s a king”and “To the cops who are bored once they’d run out of crime”, here he is mostly talkingabout corruption, money, crime and jobs, similar to what The Velvet Underground did. Thisis again going against what Adorno stated about popular music, however, proves the pointthat by the Velvet Underground experimenting with the Popular and it made a new form ofpopular music, inspiring future artists.At first the Velvet Underground were not popular at all, no one really listened to them butheard of them through Warhol.
Warhol, made their name recognisable but didn’t make theirmusic enjoyable it was themselves who achieved that during the seventies. The ideology ofthe popular rejected their songs, theirs sounds and the way in which they ran the band,however, their way of doing things became the popular, their experimentation with soundswhich people had never come across before. Adorno’s term of popular music did not allowthe band to come under the definition but they manage to overcome it and make a part of itthemselves. They managed to deviate from the standardized and familiar to somethingtasteful, innovative and refreshing. These arguments confirm the idea that the VelvetUndergrounds deviance from the popular made their idea of music and their experimentationthe new popular.
Look at people such as Patti Smith, Talking Heads and across to the UK inthe likes of Sex Pistols and Joy Division. They brought a future to rock and roll.