here's the final draft of my answer to the third essay question of my qualifying exams:
In Roland Barthes’ Image-Music-Text, he argues that “under the pressure of the mass long-playing record, there seems to be a flattening out of technique.” (189) Explain what Barthes means by “flattening out of technique.” Is he repeating Adorno’s critique of mass produced music, or is there room in Barthes’ cosmology for music that is produced in a standardized fashion but that nonetheless contains the potential for meaning? Finally, is Barthes right?: given home studios and the democratization of music making, can we really speak of a flattening out of technique?
In order to get to the point where we can assess the meaning, let alone the veracity, of Barthes’ quote, it will be necessary to frame it within the context of the essay it’s drawn from, ‘The Grain of the Voice,’ written in 1972. This essay is in itself a study in contradictions: brief and concise but theoretically complex; forthright and passionate but analytical and ruminative; explicitly conscious of language’s incapacity to encompass musical experience, yet adamant in its desire to accomplish exactly that task. In sum, Roland Barthes at his finest and most vexing.
The “grain” Barthes refers to in the title of the essay is a term he uses to describe what he feels is most honest, passionate, and empathetic in musical performance. This quality achieves (or is achieved by) an almost mystical union between the body of the musical performer and the body of the listener, united by some common foundation in the deepest roots of language and culture. He appreciatively describes a Russian bass, for example, as having a voice that is “brought into your ears in one and the same movement from deep down in the cavities, the muscles, the membranes, the cartilages, and from deep down in the Slavonic language, as though a single skin lined the inner flesh of the performer and the music he sings” (pp. 181-2).
For me as a reader and music lover, this description brings to mind an ineffable quality which I detect in vocalists whose work I enjoy, but find absent in most popular singers from any era. Why should it be that I believe the catch in Anita O’Day’s voice but not in Diana Krall’s? Or the melisma of Chaka Khan but not that of Lauryn Hill? Or, to follow Barthes’ lead in extending the metaphor of the grain from vocal performance to instrumental, the guitar pyrotechnics of Jimi Hendrix but not those of Jeff Beck?
Bourdieu (1984) would argue that such distinctions are simply a matter of classist hierarchies predefining my cultural preferences. Cultural studies theorists from the Birmingham school of audience reception, such as Hall (Morley & Chen, 1996) and Hebdige (1979; 1987), would also argue that my judgments are subjective and have more to do with my sense of identity and my subcultural context than with any objective quality of the music per se. But there is something innately appealing, something that matches my experience as a music listener and practitioner, in Barthes’ insistence that honesty – and its absence – can be heard.
It is important to emphasize here that, for Barthes, the musical performance is not simply a frozen artifact whose level of grain-ness can be objectively determined by some system of measurement. To the contrary, Barthes makes it clear that he is not interested in codifying value judgments as Adorno (2002) does (I will continue this comparison later in the essay). He rather elegantly side-steps this conundrum by arguing that the grain is simply an extended hook, an opportunity to connect, but that real and complete musical expression exists only in a direct somatic and even “erotic” (p. 188) relationship between player and listener. In other words, it’s not so much that Anita O’Day is good and Diana Krall is bad, it’s that I perceive in the former a chance to connect that is absent in the latter, and enact that connection through engaged listening.
This still leaves the rather thorny question of whether some singers offer more grain – more of a hook – than others. Despite his unwillingness to deal in absolutes, Barthes suggests this is the case. Again elegantly side-stepping the question of value, he accomplishes this with the help of an analytical framework borrowed from Julia Kristeva, drawing a distinction between the “geno-song” and the “pheno-song.”
In this dichotomy, the geno-song represents “the space where significations germinate ‘from within the language and in its very materiality’ . . . that apex (or that depth) of production where melody explores how the language works and identifies with that work” (p. 182). In other words, the geno-song is reflexively critical of its own codes and media and therefore, through its honesty and subtlety, has the capacity to produce jouissance (orgasmic aesthetic pleasure) in the listener.
The pheno-song, by contrast, represents “everything in the performance which is in the service of communication, representation, expression . . . everything which it is customary to talk about, which forms the tissues of cultural values” (p. 182). In other words, the pheno-song is the sonic enactment of musico-social semiotics, as when a wailing electric guitar signifies the “rockness” of a pop song but little else, or when tastefully edited sounds of vinyl scratching punctuate an otherwise instrumental backing track to give a song a patina of “urban” grit. There is no opportunity for jouissance in the pheno-song, Barthes argues, only the passionless reaffirmation of existing cultural norms and expectations.
Viewed from this perspective, a performance with grain is simply one in which the performer (and the listener?) emphasize the geno-song over the pheno-song. But why should this matter, and what does it have to do with long-playing records or the “flattening” of technique? The answers are merely suggested by Barthes, never stated outright. The grain of the voice, he offers, can “hold in check the attempts at expressive reduction operated by a whole culture against the poem and its melody” (p. 184, emphasis in original). This oblique comment suggests that Barthes believes in an ongoing social dialectic in which people desiring to express themselves to one another – to communicate and achieve jouissance – are being intentionally prevented through a policy of control over aesthetic expression.
As a result of this social-aesthetic imposition, Barthes feels that people’s control over their own culture (and the quality of their emotional lives) is being lost and abdicated to commercial and political interests, that “the ‘truth’ of language” (p. 184), expressed through the grain of the voice, is ever less evident in popular cultural forms. This is a theme he explores in ‘Musica Practica’ (published 1970, same volume) as well, in which he bemoans the growing gap between music producers and consumers, embodied in a commercialized aesthetic passivity that “relieves the listener of all activity, even by procuration, and abolishes in the sphere of music the very notion of doing.” (p. 150).
This dialectic is very similar in some ways to the one described by Adorno (2002) in his anti-popular music screed ‘On Popular Music’ (published 1941). In this essay, Adorno applies his and Horkheimer’s larger critique of the “culture industry” to music in particular. According to Adorno, the process of mass production necessarily produces a popular music aesthetic that mimics the repetitiveness, standardization, and soullessness of the industry that formed it, and its listeners are necessarily duped and brainwashed into an infantilized state of helplessness. Given this process, Adorno’s alarm over such music’s potential role in clearing the way for fascist politics to emerge in the West is completely understandable.
Although Barthes, like Adorno (2002), is concerned about the aesthetic passivity inherent in mass produced music, and its potential to undermine the cultural and political power of the masses who consume it, his model differs in some significant ways. Adorno is a structural determinist – in his conception, industrial and aesthetic logics overlap completely and with total isomorphic causality. Barthes allows a bit more wiggle room, more room for agency. Structural forces cannot directly account for the processes he describes, nor can simple technological change. He isn’t suggesting that the “flattening out of technique” (read: the rise of the pheno-song) is a direct byproduct of advances in recording technology, or of any given system of labor-capital relations. In fact, the only mechanism he ever suggests for the dominance of the passive aesthetic and waning of the grain in popular music is one of “censorship by repletion” (p. 185) in which the market is flooded with so much pheno-song that it squeezes out the geno-song aesthetic.
Yet there is also something sinister about Barthes’ model that is lacking from Adorno’s (2002). For Adorno, industrialization and class warfare go hand-in-hand; the dominant classes necessarily inculcate a culture of passivity among the lower classes because that’s how the system works. For Barthes, the absence of a direct causal mechanism suggests intentionality: the forces of consolidated power are attempting to “inoculate pleasure” (p. 185) and eradicate jouissance by reducing aesthetic experience to mere semiotic communication. This, in turn, represents an institutionalization of opinion and a monopoly over meaning production (what Barthes calls the “tyranny of meaning”, p. 185). The benefits of this process to the consolidated political and commercial forces are a more predictable, more manipulable mass of citizens/consumers. The costs to the (French) masses are nothing less than the loss of music as “a space of pleasure, of thrill, a site where language works for nothing” (p. 186).
Adorno (2002) and Barthes differ in other important respects, as well. As I mentioned above, Adorno believes in the proposition that there is “good” music and “bad” music, and that its possible to analyze the difference between the two based solely on the formal qualities of the music. He also believes that the good/bad music split maps directly onto the generic distinction between “serious music” and “popular music.” Barthes, however, eschews absolute value judgments and formalism for the more fluid and ambiguous geno-song/pheno-song model, which takes the performance and the listener into account, in addition to the formal structure of the music. And far from drawing an inviolate line between art music and popular music, Barthes explicitly allows for “mass ‘good’ music” (p. 187) – in other words, “serious music” that succumbs to the deadening logic of the pheno-song – while admitting that “some popular singers have a ‘grain’ while others, however famous, do not” (p. 188).
Barthes’ willingness to discover a grain in the voices of popular singers gives definitive proof that there is, in fact, room within his cosmology for meaningful music produced by a standardized industrial and technological apparatus. Furthermore, his enthusiastic response to Panzera’s singing (the very epitome of the grain in the voice) despite (or because of) his “artificial” (p. 184) vocal technique indicates a theoretical willingness to hear the grain even through technological intermediation.
But is Barthes right? Does the geno-song/pheno-song model make any sense? Is the grain in the voice truly on the wane, and, if so, is it part of a deliberate strategy of social control and the eradication of pleasure? There is no hope for me definitively to answer these questions in the next few pages or hours, so I will review a few other related texts that bear on the issue, and weigh in with my own take in the process.
Grossberg (1992) expands on one of Barthes’ core assertions, arguing that conservative politicians’ calls during the 1980s and early 1990s to regulate and censor rock music are part of a larger plan to “constrain, police and even regulate . . . the production, distribution and consumption of art and popular culture in the United States” (p. 9). The political function of this movement, he argues, is the regulation of pleasure, which in turn becomes an instrument of social control and the maintenance of a given social order.
At the heart of such an argument is an assumption about the power of aesthetic experience, and music in particular, that is very similar to Barthes’. Grossberg (1992) believes it has the power to transform “passive reception into active production [and is] the most powerful affective agency in human life” (p. 153). Note how Grossberg’s thesis here presents a mirror image of the arguments made by Barthes and Adorno (2002). The two earlier theorists are primarily concerned that popular music will inculcate passivity among its listeners; Grossberg, on the other hand, extols its capacity to produce activity.
I agree with Barthes and Grossberg (1992) that the regulation of aesthetic expression serves an obvious political agenda – not just in our society but throughout human culture. However, I believe that there is more to be considered than simply music’s ability to produce pleasure in its listeners or to moderate their level of activity/passivity. With Attali (1985), I also believe that music has the capacity to change people’s ideas, to express, amplify and alter the dominant social organizational paradigms of a given place and time.
This potent combination of powers – social, cognitive, and affective – makes music very similar to another cultural agent whose use has historically been regulated by authoritarian social institutions: namely, controlled substances. This is a metaphor I have found very useful to explore in my own recent theorizations of music, and plan to use in my dissertation (as this idea is both still inchoate and somewhat tangential to the question at hand, I will avoid expanding on it here – but I would be happy to discuss further during the oral component of this examination).
As to the flattening out of technique, there is abundant academic literature attempting to assess whether the music in the mainstream marketplace has become more aesthetically homogeneous or heterogeneous as the structure of the music industry has changed – primarily towards market concentration and vertical integration. Peterson and Berger (1975) initiate the debate, analyzing Billboard chart data over a span of 26 years and ultimately coming to the conclusion that consolidation has produced a trend towards aesthetic homogeneity. Their findings are supported and augmented in later work, such as Rothenbuhler and Dimmick (1982), Christianen (1995) and DiCola and Thomson (2002), but refuted by scholars including Lopes (1992), Alexander (1996) and Dowd (2004). For theoretical, methodological, and ideological reasons, I tend to put more weight on the arguments showing a connection between industry consolidation and aesthetic homogeneity (although I am more sympathetic to Barthes’ tendential model than to Adorno’s  absolutist one). However, it is only reasonable, on reviewing the literature, to concede that the question has yet to be answered definitively.
As I wrote above, I am also very sympathetic to Barthes’ geno-song/pheno-song model. While it is under-theorized (in his essay, at least) and prone to all the standard pitfalls of theoretical models based on strict binaries, I am intuitively attracted to it, because it matches my experiences as a musician and my observations as a music theorist.
I have long dreamed of conducting some form of mass audience research examining in depth the roles music plays in people’s lives and the ways in which they understand it to operate. Music industry consumer research I conducted as a market analyst consistently showed behavior, taste and consumption habits could divide the total population in to rather neat, discrete segments, often with very little crossover in either membership or defining traits. However, the questions I asked were always instrumental (“Have you downloaded a song from the Internet in the past three months?”) and attitudinal (“Would you be willing to pay for x, y, or z?”), offering only the slightest glimpse into my subjects’ inner lives. I have often wondered: if we could take a measure of people’s musical souls, at the ways in which they live in music, would we find neat, discrete segments? Are there some people who simply thrill to the aesthetic experience, the geno-song, while others hear only the cultural symbolism of the pheno-song?
Psychoacoustic research (Perrot & Gjerdigan, 1999) has shown that most people can accurately predict whether they will like a song or not after hearing it for as short a time as 250 milliseconds. Aucouturier and Pachet (2003) argue that this means “humans can judge genre by using only an immediately accessible ‘surface’” (p. 89). If this is the case, then clearly we are all under the sway of the pheno-song, doomed to judge music for its cultural connotations before we ever have the opportunity to experience it aesthetically.
But this begs an important question: what’s wrong with using music instrumentally for its cultural connotations? Is the geno-song somehow more legitimate than the pheno-song? Suddenly, Barthes’ argument strikes me as yet another bourgeois re-affirmation of the individualist, art-for-art’s-sake philosophy decried by Benjamin (1968) and so many more recent cultural theorists. If music is rooted in community and collectivity, then the pheno-song has always played a role vital to society – one inextricable from the function of the geno-song. Maybe devotees of the geno-song (such as myself) are simply a bunch of cultural aphasics who can’t see the forest for the trees.
I can’t resolve this dilemma in this essay because I have yet to resolve it in my own mind. Clearly, both the geno-song and the pheno-song – individual aesthetic expression and cultural convention – exist for a reason, and probably could not exist independently of one another. If this is the case, then the pheno-centric music industry and geno-centric snobs of the academy are equally at fault for missing the point. And the mythical “masses”, far from being cultural dupes or heroic freedom fighters, are the only ones who really understand music because they live in it non-ideologically, sometimes connecting with its emotive power, at other times wearing it like a fashion accessory. I don’t know, this answer also seems a little too pat. I am still struggling with it.
I realize I have now reached the end of this essay without addressing the question of home studios and the democratization of music-making, so I will attempt to treat this in brief. I share with Barthes and Attali (1985) a sense of disappointment and apprehension at the historical trend towards a division of labor between music producers and consumers. I love making music, and I think the world would be a better place if more people had access to the skill, perceived self-efficacy, and cultural institutions that are necessary for music production. I believe that we are both strategically (i.e. conservative censorship) and systematically (i.e. industrial capitalism) discouraged from acquiring these resources, and also believe that people’s innate need to express themselves, to communicate aesthetically, endures as a latent source of resistance against these forces.
Thus, when a new technology for decentralized music production (i.e. home studios) or distribution (i.e. peer-to-peer file sharing networks) emerges, it is no surprise that this shift in the environment would have a democratizing effect on musical practices. However, I am very hesitant to start proclaiming full-scale revolution for a number of reasons. First, like Barthes, I shy away from structural and technological determinism – in other words, these changes are no more certain to liberate people than prior conditions were certain to enslave them. Any macro-level effect is emergent and tendential at best.
Second, I think that the dominant aesthetic of our culture is still determined by the marketplace, and that this dynamic is unlikely to change unless and until the decentralization of information flow or other forces of change destabilize and re-order the flows of capital and power in our society. Right now, no amount of grainy (in both senses of the word), independently-produced music available on Grokster is going to dislodge the hegemony of smooth, flat commercial music pumped into our aesthetic environment by billions of dollars in marketing and promotion. And as long as this aesthetic persists, so will the division-of-labor ethic it promotes, thus discouraging people from forming musical community on any massive scale despite the democratization of access to the means of production.
Finally, I am not confident that this democratization is a meaningful, long-term trend. I mean this in two senses. First, I don’t believe that the production and distribution of music has been democratized in any absolute sense. Even the poorest, most disenfranchised individuals have always have the capacity to sing to one another. Rather, I see the rising availability of home studio technology as something akin to technological escalation in an arms race. The music industry considerably raised the bar for recorded music quality in the 1970s with the invention of modern studio techniques and the compact disc (which, incidentally, followed the last democratized music movement – i.e. folk/rock in the 1960s). Now that modern studio equipment and CD-burners are available cheaply and easily to consumers, the industry is feverishly exploring other bar-raising options (such as high-definition, surround-sound discs and new levels of studio wizardry embodied by “super-producers” such as the Neptunes). I see no reason for this cycle to stop now.
Second, I am not at all convinced that the technologies behind our current wave of democratization are here to stay. As I have argued elsewhere (e.g. as an expert witness in a file-sharing lawsuit), I have no doubt that the peer-to-peer genie is out of the box, and that no amount of legal action can ever put it back in. However, a concerted effort by the media and technology industries (itself no mean feat) could theoretically erect several additional barriers to file sharing, fragmenting its user base. While this would have very little effect on the availability of free Britney Spears MP3s, it would force independent musicians looking for an avenue of distribution to work exponentially harder to reach a large audience (a conspiratorially-minded person could potentially conclude that this is, in fact, one of the strategic purposes for industry action against P2P communities), essentially forcing them back into the waiting arms of the centralized, commercial music marketplace, and into the cultural logic of the pheno-song.
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