What does it mean for children to say that adults have become like them? (Some thoughts on Adorno, Kidz Bop, and “regression” inspired by @musicalurbanism)

Leonard Nevarez, blogging at his site Musical Urbanism, has a fascinating post up about Kidz Bop, which is an ongoing topic of interest for me. This post is the first of a series, and it focuses on Kidz Bop’s history and the contexts of it’s production (economic, corporate, technological, etc). It’s incredibly thorough — I don’t think I’ve seen all this material assembled in one place, and it’s telling a fascinating story already about the role of children’s music in a changing commercial music environment. The post is a masterful overview and history of Kidz Bop — definitely a much better introduction to the topic than my own published work is.

Nevarez pulls a quote from Adorno’s essay on the “regression of listening“:

The counterpart to the fetishism of music is a regression of listening. Not only do listeners lose, along with freedom of choice and responsibility, the capacity for conscious perception of music, but listeners come to stubbornly reject the notion that any such perception is possible. They listen atomistically and dissociate what they hear. They are childish. However, their primitivism is not that of the undeveloped, but that of the forcibly retarded.

I’ve always kind of loved this piece of Adorno’s in particular, mostly because I think it’s remarkably insightful about how commodity fetishism works as listening practices. (One of my main goals in my MA thesis on karaoke was to find some empirical verification for Adorno’s account of listening here.) Funnily, however, I haven’t returned to that one since I’ve started working on children and music, and so I forgot the role that “childishness” and a sort of age- or development-based “regression” played in its structure of values.

Also, lately I’ve been sort of collecting statements by prominent cultural theorists who say that the (adult) world is becoming childish somehow — things like Lauren Berlant’s “infantile public sphere” or Benjamin Barber’s jeremiad against consumer culture as puerile, infantilizing, juvenile, etc. (For the record: the former is wonderful and in the best tradition of feminist critique of the figure of the child and reproduction; the latter is a deeply reactionary and sensationalist howl of unreconstructed prejudice.) In principle I take these with a grain of salt, but I also enjoy ironically repurposing them to justify my own interests: if the adult world is being infantilized, what does that mean for children?! So it’s pretty wonderful to return to this piece by Adorno that once influenced me very deeply and see exactly the same thing!

The questions for me are (1) whether Adorno and other critics are correct that the phenomena they identify are somehow characteristic of children or childhood, (2) whether that’s good or bad or something else, and (3) whether such an account of adults provides some insight for understanding children. I think (1) remains an open question that probably depends on too strong a definition of “childhood” to ever be really answerable. And personally I’m happy not to confirm it because from some neurosis built as a scholar of childhood I take a lot of pleasure in letting major theorists assert the importance of childishness for me.

Regarding (3), Nevarez suggests that Adorno’s references to childishness and development make it clearly relevant to a product like Kidz Bop, but I’m not so sure. It seems a bit circular to talk about kids and the regression of listening, so long as “childishness” (or worse, “retardation”) is what makes regressive listening regressive. If Adorno’s right and commodity music reflects the regression of adults, then shouldn’t it be developmentally appropriate for children themselves? But if anything it seems like the popularity of products like Kidz Bop would reveal more the similarities rather than developmental differences between kids and adults (or at least older youths), which is that everyone loves pop music (it’s great!), while younger kids have been artificially excluded from participation as pop audiences for a long time. That is, it’s not teenagers and young adults who are turning to a childish medium, it’s children who are being provided with a genre associated with older people. That’s not obviously infantilization. (I also disagree somewhat with the “getting-older-younger” thesis, but that’s for a different post.)

Regarding (2), I think we need a critique of capitalism that doesn’t require that childhood or disability (regression as “retardation”) be definitionally abject. Cultural critics have been discovering the infantilization of adults or public culture or what-have-you for long enough that it would seem to reflect more on them than on any actual cultural development. Or, to say the same thing, regressive listening is only bad if we think childhood and disability are bad. I tend to think that the more convincing answer is that adults (especially parents) are stodgy ideologues desperately consolidating their own elevation above the vulgarities of consumer culture by deciding that their children’s pleasure must be either abject, unsophisticated, or inauthentic (manipulated). I’ve been looking for an excuse to post this video, which I think illustrates the point as well as anything could:

(edited July 2017 with new video link. For some reason the Ad Council took down the original?)

So I love Adorno’s essay because I think it’s correct about a lot of empirical questions about how pop music works, but it evaluates them through a set of liberal/enlightenment (rather than properly Marxist) values around ability/maturity that I don’t think hold up to scrutiny. To the extent that someone like Adorno (or Benjamin Barber) is correct that the world is becoming childish, it is important to at least ask if that might reflect something desirable — an openness to relations of care and dependence, an emphasis on pleasure and consumption over against “productive investment” and the classic capitalist traps of wage labor, relations like “friend” rather than “spouse” or “coworker,” valuing silliness over seriousness, etc. (And as music scholars we’re supposed to always end up hating the music we study, but to be honest I like kids’ music more and more. The Super Duper Party Troopers in that video above are really good! Maybe kids’ music in general is good? [For the record: I do know that the answer to these questions is that I have no taste, but I still can’t help but raise them.])

Anyways, none of this should be read as a critique of Nevarez’s piece, since he doesn’t really develop his Adornian critique so much in that first post. More this is a welcome opportunity for me to return to an essay by Adorno that I haven’t read in a while and be pleasantly surprised how relevant it still is. I’m looking forward to seeing how he explores these question in the text/consumption posts to come.

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5 thoughts on “What does it mean for children to say that adults have become like them? (Some thoughts on Adorno, Kidz Bop, and “regression” inspired by @musicalurbanism)

  1. The Super Duper Party Troopers ARE really good. I first saw this post in my WordPress “reading” feed, and it just posted the video with the title of your post, so I watched it thinking this was an actual group that you were sharing because it’s awesome. When all the very “grown-up” shaming over oral health erupted, I was like, WHAT THE HELL. I think I shall abstain from brushing my own teeth for a week in protest.

  2. ^^ Isn’t that video amazing!? (Thanks for the validation. This can be a lonely slog.) I think if I were able to articulate all the things I need to say about it then this “tween music” book would already be written and submitted.

    ^ Excellent. Just pulled it off the shelf — that’s perfect. It’s really Kant who I want to hold responsible for the destructive fetishism of “maturity.”

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