Resisting the “Sound of Muzak” A month ago I finally finished my thesis, “Resisting the ‘Sound of Muzak’: Alienating effects in conceptual progressive music.”  I loved the “Aha!” moment I received during my editing process, when I realized exactly what it is about conceptual progressive music that places it at the edge of a musical revolution.  Marxist theorists have differing definitions of realist art, with classic Marxists believing that realist art simply points out the ideological structures of capitalist society.  More modern Marxist theorists, however, believe that avant-garde art is the way to create objective listeners and start an artistic revolution.  Neither definition has really instigated a revolution as of yet.  Conceptual progressive music’s subversion of popular music and its avant-garde nature place it in the modern Marxist definition of realist art.  This music also uses its lyrics in order to point out the true nature of what Adorno calls the “culture industry,” or the use of popular art to create passive consumers rather than active, objective listeners.  Conceptual progressive music straddles both definitions of realist art put forth by classic and modern Marxists, giving it the best chance to start a revolution. There have been a few requests from people to read the finished product, so I’m posting the link here so that people can read my thesis and give me any feedback.  I’ve been working on this a while, so I’m glad I finally get to share it. In case clicking the title doesn’t work:


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June 6, 2013 · 10:42 am

Proposal and current annotated bibliography

Resisting the “Sound of Muzak”: Alienating-effects in conceptual progressive music


Theodor Adorno’s term, the culture industry, refers to a society made passive by popular media.  In the culture industry, popular media such as film, music, and television are mass produced in an attempt to impress false needs (needs that can only be fulfilled through consumerism) upon members of society, regardless of economic standing.  Modern popular music tends to be co-opted by the culture industry, and has become an example of a commodified art form that serves to make society more passive and a medium to push false commercial needs on consumers of all economic standing.  Because of the culture industry’s hold on popular music, only a revolution can break through the commodified music that exists today.  A genre, which I will call “conceptual progressive music,” strives to begin a musical revolution by using Brechtian alienation-effects in order to create objective, active listeners.  In this thesis I will show the common characteristics of popular music and how popular music has been co-opted by the culture industry.  It will also focus on conceptual progressive music, and how it productively alienates its listeners using song structure, composition, and narrative style.

In his classic work The Culture Industry, Theodor Adorno discusses the co-opted nature of popular music, saying that modern popular music “seems to complement the reduction of people to silence, the dying out of speech as expression, the inability to communicate at all” (Adorno 30).  Because of the culture industry’s co-option of popular music and the production of similar types of music through mechanical reproduction, Adorno believes that music has become background noise, rather than something to be analyzed.  Adorno’s arguments focus on the popular music of the 1930s and 40s, but can be extended to the later history of rock music.  In his book, Listening to the Future: The Time of Progressive Rock, Bill Martin traces progressive music from the late 1960s and highlights the fact that early rock music represented a meld of different cultures’ music.  “Indeed, there was never a time when the social and musical experimentation of rock music was not intertwined” (Martin 23).  Nevertheless, while early progressive rock music embraced social issues, the technological advancements of the time led to the co-option of rock music by the culture industry.  As the music grew more popular, technology was used to efficiently distribute the music to the masses.  The ability to reproduce and distribute popular music in mass quantities has resulted in music becoming a commodified art form, or an art that has become nothing more than a consumer product.

If most popular music that has been co-opted by the culture industry encourages passivity in its listeners, there are some genres of music that are not commodified and exist to make people aware or the culture industry’s effect on music, art, and society as a whole.  One genre, conceptual progressive music, displays interesting similarities with Bertolt Brecht’s “epic theatre.”   In “A Short Organum for the Theatre,” Brecht identified ways in which his epic theatre could productively use alienating-effects on its audience, allowing them to objectively view the play.  Since actors in Brecht’s epic theatre aim to alienate the audience, they remain detached from the character themselves.  As Brecht puts it, the actor must “discard whatever means he has learnt of getting the audience to identify itself with the characters which he plays” (123).  An actor in the epic theatre needs to relay their character’s emotions without presenting them as their own.  Actors accomplish this through the use of Gestus, positioning themselves in a gesture or posture that relays their emotion in a particular scene.  The use of Gestus causes a break in the narrative and forces the audience to view the emotion.  In order to make the audience aware of the social situations that affect the characters, the audience must not adopt the character’s feelings as their own; they must be free to make their own analysis of a character’s feelings and motives.  The story also needs to be presented episodically.  Rather than a coherent, flowing plot, the narrative episodes “have to be knotted together in such a way that the knots are easily noticed” (131).  Just as the epic theatre has strategies to alienate its audience, conceptual progressive music can use strategies to alienate and create active listeners.  Like the narrative in Brecht’s epic theatre, concepts and parts in conceptual progressive music are knotted together, distinct sections of the same song easily identifiable.  Progressive music also differs from popular music in that it not only identifies and brings forth social issues prevalent at the time, but also foregrounds the musicianship and skill behind the music.

In the conceptual progressive music that is my focus in this thesis, we find groups using a narrative concept in their lyrics as a thread through a particular album, or set of albums.  The composition of the song, or the written music which includes timing, structure, and chord progressions, as well as the overall length of the songs, the lack of repeating parts, the technical performance of the music, and the narrative concept also contribute to the alienation of the listener, allowing them to hear not only the skill and musicianship that makes up the composition of a conceptual progressive album, but also the social issues being brought up in the narrative.  Conceptual progressive music’s use of alienation-effects put it in the position to begin a musical revolution.  In his work, Literature and Revolution, Leon Trotsky describes the creation of art following a class revolution.  While Trotsky does not refer to conceptual progressive music in his work, his ideas are transferrable.  In progressive musicians we have “the revolutionary man, who is forming the new generation in his own image and who is more and more in need of this art” (Trotsky 229).  As music continues to be co-opted, the need for revolutionary music continues to grow.  In order to create revolutionary music, the artist needs to take the audience’s interests into account and provide them with an objective view of the culture industry.  While revolutionary music can be presented to an audience, it is up to the audience to make connections to relevant social issues.

Chapter one will offer a theoretical overview of the culture industry and how it functions and co-opts music.  This chapter also introduces the notion of conceptual progressive music as a Brechtian revolutionary art form.  Chapter two will analyze the early conceptual progressive album and film The Wall by Pink Floyd.  I plan on analyzing the alienating-effects used in the album, including the separation of the album into two distinct halves, marked physically by two two-sided vinyl albums and two discs in the CD version and the use of sound effects and theatrical elements to keep the narrative flowing.  I will also look at the more modern Porcupine Tree conceptual progressive albums Fear of a Blank Planet, In Absentia, and The Incident, focusing on song length, composition, and technical performance.  The analysis of both bands will look at the alienating-effects employed in order to bring social issues and musicianship to the foreground.  Chapter three gives an overview of Trotsky’s theories on revolution and art, and how they can be applied to music.  I will also explain how progressive music makes up the early attempts at this revolution.


Annotated Bibliography

Adorno, Theodor.  The Culture Industry.  New York: Routledge, 1991.  In this book, Theodor Adorno addresses what he terms “the culture industry.”  The culture industry refers to the mass production of consumer goods that forces society into a passivity with regards to art.  Adorno argues that the culture industry has commodified art and makes it readily available to the masses.  Commodified music, or music that has been reproduced and sold to the masses as a consumable, has reduced its listeners’ necessity for critical thinking with regards to the music.  Adorno’s first chapter deals with the increasing commodification of music and the use of music as a means of marketing commercial needs to its listeners of any economic standing.  I plan on using Adorno’s work to demonstrate how popular music has become co-opted by the culture industry and the role it plays in today’s society.


Anesthetize.  Dir. Lasse Hoile.  Perf. Porcupine Tree.  Kscope, 2010.  DVD.  Porcupine Tree’s live recording of their Anesthetize tour.  The live performance of their music also contains alienating-effects, including the use of visual cues and videos synced to their live music.  Audience members are also used as an alienating-effect, standing motionless while listening to the performance.  Adding to the performance, no audience member has a phone or camera out during the show.  Today, it is nearly impossible to go to a live music performance without seeing the glow of phone or camera screens attempting to get a shot of the band.  In Anesthetize, there are no audience members holding up glowing screens, reminding the person watching the DVD that this is more than just a recording of a live show.


Benjamin, Walter.  “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”  Illuminations.  New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.  Walter Benjamin’s term, mechanical reproduction, refers to the mass production of art for the masses, resulting the loss of what Benjamin calls the aura.  By reproducing and taking the art out of context, it loses its originality.  The loss of aura results in mechanical reproductions altering an audience’s perception with distractions.  However, Benjamin also argues the loss of aura to be a good thing, possibly opening art to political interpretation and use.  I plan on using Benjamin’s piece to look at the mechanical reproduction of music, as well as how popular music distracts its audience from the missing aura.  I will also be using Benjamin’s work to demonstrate how conceptual progressive music does not attempt to distract or control the listener’s perception, but invites analysis instead.


Brecht, Bertolt.  “A Short Organum for the Theatre.”  Marxist Literary Theory.  Ed. Terry Eagleton and Drew Milne.  Cambridge: Blackwell, 1996.  Bertolt Brecht’s essay on the theater identifies alienation-effects the theater can use in order to get audiences to view the play objectively.  These alienation-effects serve to remind the audience that they are watching a play and must not empathize with any part of it.  In order to gain an understanding of the motivations of the characters and the social situations, the audience must be alienated from the characters onstage.  One way this is accomplished is through the actors.  Their goal is not to get the audience to identify with their character, but question what it is that motivates the character.  The actor should not attempt to become their character; they should instead realize that they are portraying another’s emotions and feelings.  In order to accomplish this, actors would use Gestus, or an elaborate gesture representing a character’s feelings at a specific moment.  The actor would get set in a position, causing a break in the play’s narrative and reminding the audience of the character’s emotions.  Brecht writes, “At no moment must he go so far as to be wholly transformed into the character played” (123).  There are different techniques an actor can use to separate himself from his character, including playing double roles.  Brecht applied alienation-effects to the theater, but I intend to use some of his techniques to analyze conceptual progressive music and the moves it makes to alienate the listener and hear the music objectively.


Marcuse, Herbert.  One-Dimensional Man.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1991.  In his book, Marcuse argues that advancements in technology have resulted in the loss of certain freedoms.  Marcuse claims that individuality has become suppressed by society, including “the concentration of individual enterprises in more effective, more productive corporations” and “the regulation of free competition among unequally equipped economic subjects” (3).  As Marcuse describes, the “intensity, the satisfaction and even the character of human needs” are preconditioned.  The preconditioned nature of human needs allows those needs to be manipulated and created.  We have become a society focused on what Marcuse terms “false needs,” or needs “which are superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his repression” (7).  These false needs only give the illusion of happiness and help to disguise their shallow nature from the consumer.  These false needs tell consumers what to buy, how to feel, how to have fun, and what to like or dislike, all the while allowing the consumer to feel that the urges for these needs is their own.  I plan on using Marcuse’s argument to show how the culture industry uses false needs in popular music to keep listeners passive and accepting of what’s placed in front of them.  I also want to show how the nature of the culture industry and false needs sets up a cycle of consumerism which conceptual progressive music strives to break.


Martin, Bill.  Listening to the Future: The time of progressive rock, 1968-1978.  Chicago: Open Court, 1998.  Martin’s book provides a history of progressive rock, as well as gives some insight and possible reasons to the co-opted nature of popular music.  He also discusses the origins of rock and progressive rock music.  Martin also looks at progressive music from 1978-1998, outlining differences between more modern progressive music and early progressive music.  In order to explain progressive rock’s relationship to popular music, Martin constructs a theoretical conversation between Adorno, Benjamin, Jameson, and other Marxist theorists.  I plan on using Martin’s book to look at the structures of earlier progressive music, as well as where the genre has progressed, and what has changed.  Martin’s synthesis of Marxist theorists will also help to expand my explanations of the culture industry and modern popular music.


Martin, Bill.  Music of Yes: Structure and vision in progressive rock.  Chicago: Open Court, 1996.  Martin’s book offers a study of the progressive rock band, Yes.  Martin offers a history of the band and its members, and how the members of the band contribute to the progressive feel of Yes.  He traces their “main sequence” of albums, ranging from 1971 to 1977 and looks in-depth at the composition and structure of the albums.  Martin also gives the origins of progressive rock, defining the term as “visionary and experimental music played by virtuosos on instruments associated with rock music” (39).  Martin’s “experimental rock” is “the idea of an avant-garde arising from and on the basis of the elements of rock music” (39).  Martin’s definitions of progressive rock will help to clarify the alienating-effects I equate with Porcupine Tree and Pink Floyd, as they share many of the characteristics presented by Martin.


Pink Floyd.  The Wall.  Colombia Records, 1979.  Music album.  Pink Floyd’s conceptual progressive album telling the story of the protagonist, Pink, and the events in his life leading to his isolation from society.  After the death of his father in World War II, Pink has problems with authority figures in his life, each run-in with authority contributing to his isolation.  The story is a partial autobiography of singer and bassist Roger Waters’ life.  I want to look at The Wall and analyze the lyrics as well as the alienating-effects used in the album, such as the more theatrical song “The Trial” and the sound effects used to give the album a more coherent feel in terms of the narrative.  The album is also divided into two halves, forcing the listener to pause during listening.  In addition, I also want to analyze the tour that took place in 1980 and how that performance also used alienating-effects, such as building a literal wall onstage to separate the band from the audience as the show progressed.


Pink Floyd: The Wall.  Dir. Alan Parker.  MGM/UA, 1982.  DVD.  The film adaptation of Pink Floyd’s album also contributes alienating-effects and helps to expand on the issues brought forth by the album.  The movie still follows Pink, the protagonist from the album as he isolates himself.  The film is presented in both live-action and animated sequences, which help to keep the audience separated from the film.  Another important aspect of the film is the music used; not all of the songs are taken directly from the album.  Some songs are re-edited and extended, some songs were added, and others are cut completely from the film.  The film will allow me to look at another medium that can be co-opted by the culture industry and how it relates to the album.  I plan on analyzing the different film styles used and how they serve as alienating-effects and how the song list differs from the album.


Porcupine Tree.  Fear of a Blank Planet.  Atlantic Records, 2007.  Music album.  Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet is a conceptual progressive album and takes issue with today’s media and the effect it has on society, especially teens.  Social issues are presented through a detached narrative, forcing the listener to hear the lyrics objectively.  Fear of a Blank Planet also uses some of Brecht’s alienation-effects in the composition of the music as well.  “Anesthetize” is one song that uses length as an alienation-effect.  Its running time is 17:20, and is made of different sections, cutting down on the number of repeating sections (chorus and verse, for example).  Porcupine Tree also released this album on vinyl, separating it from the mass market of CDs and music downloads.  The vinyl itself is used as an alienating technique, in that it contains tracks that are not available on the CD or mp3 formats.  I plan on analyzing the different alienation-effects used by Porcupine Tree, including song length and composition, as well as the presentation and concept of the album.  In order to trace the concept of the album, I will be looking at the lyrics of the songs and any musical themes that are prevalent in the album.


Porcupine Tree.  In Absentia.  Lava Records, 2002.  Music album.  In Absentia is another conceptual progressive album that uses Brecht’s alienation-effects.  Some techniques are similar to those used years later in Fear of a Blank Planet, but there are different techniques as well.  The use of song length, for example, is not as prevalent as an alienation-effect on In Absentia, as it is on Fear of a Blank Planet.  Social issues are still apparent, however, and Porcupine Tree uses their progressive music to bring them to the foreground.  One song, “The Sound of Muzak,” seemingly follows the rules of modern popular music, repeating the verse and chorus sections and using rhymes at the end of a line of lyrics.  In order to make this song progressive and alienating, Porcupine Tree uses the composition of the song to bring attention to the shortcomings and future of popular music.  Lyrics such as “Music of the future will not entertain / It’s only meant to repress and neutralize your brain” and (in the pre-chorus) “Soul gets squeezed out / Edges get blunt / Demographic / Gives what you want…”  Despite its deceptive mainstream sound, In Absentia delivers alienating techniques that focus the listener on the lyrics and their message, as well as the composition of the music.


Trotsky, Leon.  Literature and Revolution.  New York: Russell & Russell, 1957.  Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution (written in 1924) discusses art after a revolution.  Trotsky argues that bourgeoisie art rose from the time and resources allotted by the class.  A proletariat revolution needs to strive to create a society that allows for the creation of its own art and culture.  Following a revolution, art must organically emerge from the people, not the government.  While Trotsky did not believe that revolutionary art existed, he did admit to there being “attempts” at it.  He also mentions the existence of “the revolutionary man, who is forming the new generation in his own image and who is more and more in need of this art” (229).  While Trotsky’s work existed far before conceptual progressive music, I believe his ideas of revolutionary art are relevant to music today.  I will use Trotsky’s book to show how conceptual progressive music offers the best attempts at the beginnings of a revolution, but may be held back by the society in which it was created.

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I started this WordPress account as part of a class last year and it’s been idle ever since. But I had an idea that would put this to use and actually help me a great deal as well.

This is my last year in my master’s program and after my last graduate course next week, I’ll be focusing on writing my thesis for my MA in literature (assuming my proposal gets approved today). Going into the master’s program I knew my thesis had to be somewhat about music. I always kept conceptual progressive music in my thoughts, due to the occasional narrative style, and continued to try to think of a way to connect the genre to literature. Marxist theory provided that connection. Beginning with Bertolt Brecht, Theodor Adorno, and Leon Trotsky, I started looking closely at the commodification of popular music today and its effect on listeners, identifying Brechtian alienating-effects in conceptual progressive music, and making conclusions about how those alienating-effects set up a musical revolution moving away from modern popular music. The conceptual progressive albums I chose to focus on are Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Porcupine Tree’s In AbsentiaFear of a Blank Planet, and The Incident.

That’s the simplified version. I’ll post my proposal today, as it does a much better job of laying out my thesis. Over the next few months I want to use this WordPress account to lay out ideas and concepts, analyze music, and synthesize conversation between theorists. If people are interested and want to follow my progress, awesome. I can’t wait to hear feedback and answer any questions.

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