THEODOR ADORNO'S THEORY OF LISTENER REGRESSION
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Theodor Adorno’s theory of listener regression describes the process by which music industry forces transform listeners from independent social creatures into passive, compliant consumers of musical product. Listener regression is the basis of the broader theory of culture industry consumer regression which Adorno later developed, by which the culture industry creates and reinforces the passive compliance of consumers of all cultural products. By further extension, it is my theory that listener regression is the key to understanding how the phenomenon of culture industry dominance over its consumers applies to the whole range of non-cultural as well as cultural consumer products. In the second chapter of this paper I discuss how listeners of music industry output are made to regress: through the standardization of musical form, the repetition which flows from standardization and the attention to musical detail which has no formal function. I consider those childhood traits which constitute listener regression. Freud’s theory of regression is discussed and distinguished. It is important to filter out the negativity which infuses much of Adorno’s writing on listener regression. That negativity arises arguably either from Adorno’s own acute musical perception which exceeds the average listener’s or from the era of growing totalitarianism in which he formed his views. That negativity unnecessarily clouds the significance of the relationship between the music industry and average listeners, between the larger culture industry and its consumers, and between the exponentially larger consumer industry and all consumers generally. Country music as the epitome of the kind of “popular music” which Adorno argues results in the regression of its listeners is the topic of the third chapter. I conclude that country music does meet Adorno’s criteria for listener regressive music. I also conclude that within the confines Adorno finds so soul-depriving is amazingly creative music and musicality which responds to some of humankind’s most basic needs. In the last chapter, I discuss music as a fundamental component of human society which responds to some deep social need. By showing us how one segment of the consumer industry has turned that need to its commercial benefit, Adorno’s theory can help show parallels with those profit-motivated forces within other segments of our consumer society, for instance with the manipulation of the basic need for sustenance by the fast-food industry. The paper concludes with a number of observations about the manipulative nature of the powerful commercial pressure put on us as consumers, and offers a suggestion or two for dealing with that pressure.