Summer's almost gone
For me, the “song of summer” is the same every year: “My War” by Black Flag. Just kidding. I don’t have a personal song of summer, and I typically have no idea what the song of summer is for everybody else either until much later, when I read people referring back nostalgically to whatever they thought it was. I don’t listen to the radio and don’t have much exposure to anyone who listens to current music. The main place I hear pop music is in stores, so for me, the songs are all about shopping.
Pop songs are necessarily advertisements for themselves, so how much one enjoys them serves to index how susceptible one is to the pleasures of advertising. Some would argue that leaning into that pleasure is a way of subverting it, of substituting an intense personal feeling for what was intended as routine mass manipulation. But I tend to take the opposing view, that in resisting pop music’s appeal, I am training myself to better resist other kinds of manipulation, even though it comes at the expense of my possibly participating in something collective, of being connected to something larger than my meager self and its hemmed-in, if not altogether fictitious, autonomy.
The “song of summer” as an idea epitomizes the tension between those two positions, between the possibilities of redeeming mass culture as a form of solidarity or escaping its impostures though an act of individual refusal. In a newsletter post about the “song of summer,” Alexandra Molotkow notes that it is “both a social pastime and a content boon for media outlets,” a mode of experience that shapes people’s feelings and memories even as it is contrived and promulgated by the culture industry.
Sometimes the term culture industry is seen as an elitist abstraction devised to deride the emergent democratic tastes of the people and attribute the success of popular entertainers not to their talents and the aesthetic perceptiveness of their fans but to the requirements of large-scale entertainment businesses and their successful mass manipulation techniques. But the term is also a lament for the thorough rationalization and commercialization of feeling, such that use value needs authentication through exchange value and nothing unbranded can make us feel anything “real.”
The “song of summer” is an advertisement for a certain idea of summer and makes summer potentially enjoyable in those terms. But it also establishes summer as insufficient without a sales pitch, as just another commodity that requires special branding to speak to us, become something we can use. Molotkow posits that the idea “the song of summer holds a longing that holds a longing” — that it is a conceptual vehicle for imagining that summer will have meant something specific and memorable when it’s past. As Jonathan Richman put it, “That summer feeling is going to haunt you for the rest of your life” — a line that also feels like a slogan.
“Hit songs” are never entirely not what Adorno argues they are in “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening”: a commodity-form assault on “serious” music and the patience and aptitude to listen to it. “The more inexorably the principle of exchange value destroys use values for human beings,” he claims, “the more deeply does exchange value disguise itself as the object of enjoyment.” Connecting to pop songs is a matter of enjoying their popularity as their substance; they offer a listener the instantaneous acquisition of a piece of music as a thing.
If one seeks to find out who ‘likes’ a commercial piece, one cannot avoid the suspicion that liking and disliking are inappropriate to the situation, even if the person questioned clothes his reactions in those words. The familiarity of the piece is a surrogate for the quality ascribed to it. To like it is almost the same thing as to recognize it.
That collapse of recognizing into liking a song in itself is enjoyed as a form of reassurance; it suggests that taste is a problem that solves itself.
Such a conclusion is baked in to a recent study (mentioned in this Axios newsletter) called “Accurately predicting hit songs using neurophysiology and machine learning,” by Sean H. Merritt, Kevin Gaffuri, and Paul J. Zak. The premise of the paper is that which songs will be popular can be determined by tracking a mass of people’s neurological reactions to them, bypassing the idea that any individual’s conscious judgment has any bearing on it. In a succinct statement that presupposes of much of Adorno’s argument, the researchers declare that “people want new music, but generally prefer songs similar to those they already know.”
Adorno is primarily concerned with how that situation has come to pass, how “the listener is converted, along his line of least resistance, into the acquiescent purchaser,” buying music to participate in its popularity rather than listening to it. “The liquidation of the individual is the real signature of the new musical situation,” Adorno claims, and the neurological researches of “hit science” operationalize that assumption, that subjective conscious engagement no longer matters to the production of music, just a Pavlovian response to its familiarity. “Direct and indirect measures of self-reported ‘liking’ poorly predict aggregate outcomes,” Merritt et al. report. “Music is meant to elicit emotional responses that arise outside of conscious awareness.”
In other words, music is not meant to be cognized and appreciated rationally; it is a means by which people can be manipulated emotionally and thereby herded and controlled. In place of personal taste, we should recognize instead that industrially produced music produces “the masses” through repetition and ubiquity, until music appreciation hinges on conformity, a feeling of belonging. The yearning for a “song of the summer” — partly driven by hype, partly driven by anomie — exemplifies this.
The hit science researchers proceed as though machine learning allows them to identify timeless facts about human behavior — “people prefer the familiar” — that are already there, but Adorno insists that these facts are historically conditioned by capitalism and the encroaching dominance of the commodity form. Machine learning techniques, then, don’t uncover patterns in human behavior; they impose those patterns — automating and accelerating the imposition of the commodity form on human experience — which they then “discover,” naturalizing their own effects on the human subjects they treat as passive objects.
When Merritt et al. claim that it is necessary to “directly measure neurophysiologic responses to music” rather than allow people to put their feelings about music into their own words, they presume that people are externally programmed; the neurological data they collect is reimposed as a kind of human programming language until subsequent data confirms their presumptions, and humans have become as docile and passive and malleable as they expected, and which an entertainment business based on scale needs them to be.
In other words, the point of “AI” is not to create a form of intelligence but a mode of discipline. Its mission is to make taste and consciousness irrelevant so that entertainment can be mechanically generated and administered to audiences that automatically and predictably respond to it. It is meant to rationalize conformity and establish statistical measures by which it can be imposed — whether as a matter of a generative model’s weighted parameters or correlated neurological data to steer human behavior with stimuli. In Adorno’s terms, holistic works of art are disarticulated into fetishized fragments.
Irrelevant consumption destroys them. Not merely do the few things played again and again wear out, like the Sistine Madonna in the bedroom, but reification affects their internal structure. They are transformed into a conglomeration of irruptions which are impressed on the listeners by climax and repetition, while the organization of the whole makes no impression whatsoever.
Audiences orient themselves to the fetishes — sonic fragments, colorations, and discrete hooks, as well as information about how music has been made, which genre it fits into, what its influences and precursors are, and how popular it is — until “no causal nexus at all can properly be worked out between isolated ‘impressions’ of the hit song and its psychological effects on the listener.” But from the point of view of machine learning, causes are beside the point and correlation is sufficient. The inability of a listener to articulate their tastes confirms the idea that it is epiphenomenal anyway, that it needs to be predicted first before it can subjectively rationalized after the fact.
Or even better, we will cease to bother with trying to understand ourselves. Adorno offers this cheerful assessment of aesthetic alienation:
It suffices to remember how many sorrows he is spared who no longer thinks too many thoughts, how much more ‘in accordance with reality’ a person behaves when he affirms that the real is right, how much more capacity to use the machinery falls to the person who integrates himself with it uncomplainingly, so that the correspondence between the listener’s consciousness and the fetishized music would still remain comprehensible even if the former did not unequivocally reduce itself to the latter.
Isn’t it just better to learn to love what the machines can readily make? Isn’t it better to sing along with the summer song? Or for contrarians, to know exactly what you must reject and thus have the very form that one’s resistance takes pre-conditioned? As the hit science researchers triumphantly declare, “Forecasting one's own behavior based on reflection is fraught and using self-report to predict market outcomes of entertainment is nearly always a fool's errand.” Don’t try to choose for yourself; don’t try “listening,” as if we still can manage it. Just let the data decide.
“That it happens, that the music is listened to, this replaces the content itself,” Adorno writes. Every song is about the extent of its market penetration. Yet there is still those moments when a song is heard by a certain someone, different moments that, despite industry aspirations, are never quite harmonized into being the same for everyone. The coalescence of a “song of summer” suggests that it can transcend its ephemerality, at least for a season, and become a lasting symbol of ephemerality itself, of how what is memorable about a moment in time is also elusive and self-canceling, common and impersonal as well as intimate and idiosyncratic. One’s personal experience is blurred into the generic ubiquity of the song, which years later can return an immediate feeling of the past as an abstract shared experience, a banal reference point, but also with a private, ineffable mystery tucked inside that can’t actually be articulated as a hook or a tagline.
Adorno dismisses such interpretations as a kind of “magical ritual, in which all the mysteries of personality, inwardness, inspiration and spontaneity of reproduction, which have been eliminated from the work itself, are conjured up” and “injected into it from the outside.” He argues that the victims of consumerism are doomed to “need and demand what has been palmed off on them. They overcome the feeling of impotence that creeps over them in the face of monopolistic production by identifying themselves with the inescapable product.”
But even if I fully accepted that view, it doesn’t obviate that summer feeling, which indeed haunts me now, as Richman predicted. Molotkow cites a writer who likens the “song of the summer” to a madeleine, but perhaps a more appropriate Proustian reference point would be “the little phrase” by Vinteuil that Swann fetishizes.
For Swann the little phrase continued to be associated with the love he felt for Odette. He was aware that this love was something that did not correspond to anything external, anything verifiable by others besides him; he realized that Odette’s qualities did not justify his attaching so much value to the time he spent with her. And often, when Swann’s positive intelligence alone prevailed, he wanted to stop sacrificing so many intellectual and social interests to this imaginary pleasure. But as soon as he heard it, the little phrase had the power to open up within him the space it needed, the proportions of Swann’s soul were changed by it; a margin was reserved in him for a bliss that also did not correspond to any external object, and yet, instead of being purely individual, like the enjoyment of that love, assumed for Swann a reality superior to that of concrete things. The little phrase incited in him this thirst for an unfamiliar delight, but it did not give him anything precise to assuage it.
Perhaps ideally, a song of the summer works like this, poignant in its inadequacy, protecting a treasured illusion with its overfamiliarity. But then again, how would I know? Like I mentioned before, I usually don’t hear these songs until their time has passed.
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