The Atlantic Recording Company’s history strangely parallels the Jewish-American elite’s cultural revolution after World War II. This elite promoted Frankfurt School teaching in a effort to weaken the middle classes — their political nemesis. Atlantic Records prides itself on plugging the same socially destructive behavior.
This article explores a possible connection between Theodor Adorno and Atlantic Records. The connection: An unnamed German professor helped Atlantic Records devise its signature sound in 1947. When this professor could no longer work with Atlantic, he was replaced by a research assistant from the Manhattan Project. I argue that this professor was Theodor Adorno.
The significance of this connection is that Atlantic Records was one of the most influential recording companies during the sexual revolution, the Civil Rights movement, and era of immigration reform. A connection with Adorno would suggest that the company at its origins was intent on tapping the expertise of one of the greatest propagandists of the 20th century.
The Frankfurt School
Adorno was the Frankfurt School’s music critic. His forte was analyzing the psychological and political impact of music on listeners. He was also interested in how new recording technology changed the listening experience. Of course the point of all this interest in the technical side of music was Adorno’s passion for finding out how to use music to achieve the Frankfurt School’s leftist political aims.
Adorno knew what made music intellectually challenging, as well as what made it appeal to the masses. Very broadly, popular music appeals to our expectations about what sounds should follow one another; intellectual music challenges those expectations.
In general leftist intellectuals during the 1930s and 1940s were hostile to mass produced culture, including all forms of popular music. Both the New York Intellectuals and the Frankfurt School saw mass culture as the result of manipulation by elites, whether it was in the Soviet Union, National Socialist Germany, or capitalist, bourgeois United States. According to Adorno, mass culture appealed to base pleasures, propped up the status quo, and led to a pervasive conformity which denied the individuality and subjective experience of the masses.
Adorno considered Jazz to be one of the worst forms of popular music. He though Jazz reconciled erotic urges with traditional Western Culture: that it transformed people into insects.
He was both right and wrong. Any music with a strong, steady beat tends to absorb the listener’s attention — the beat has a focusing effect on music. The jazz of the 1920–1930s was often made from traditional tunes played loudly with a syncopated beat — an easily produced commodity that wasted energy that Adorno thought should be spent in revolution. Everything about big-band music went against Adorno’s philosophy. Fun-loving jitter-buggers indulging in their base instincts were not good revolutionary material. Rather than expressing their individuality, they were doing little more than conforming to a cultural fad.
Adorno’s desire for a socialist revolution led him to favor Modernist music that left the listener feeling unsatisfied and dislocated — music that consciously avoided harmony and predictability. He believed that only discord could usher in what Herbert Marcuse would later describe as the “return of the repressed.” This is why Adorno endlessly praised the work of Arnold Schoenberg, his coreligionist and avant-garde composer.
A recent collection of Adorno’s music criticism, Essays on Music contains the essay Why is the New Art so Hard to Understand?, originally published in 1931. In his usual opaque style, Adorno explains why the general public instinctively rejects Schoenberg and “the new music”:
The difficulty of understanding the new art has its specific basis in this necessity of consumer consciousness to refer back to an intellectual and social situation in which everything that goes beyond the given realities, every revelation of their contradictions, amounts to a threat.
In other words, in order to understand this music, people had to get beyond their consumer consciousness and realize the contradictions of middle class life. The omniscient Frankfurters were very proud of their ability to reveal to “stupid” consumers the contradictions in the Western society and the psychological inadequacies of the middle class.
Plato thought that new art styles could trigger social revolutions. This is why Plato believed that the State should carefully censor the arts to make sure they preserve the values that society is based on. Adorno and the rest of the Frankfurt School wanted to use the “new music” to undermine Western middle class values, as described more fully in my essay, The Difficult Class.
Adorno’s goal was to present his political message as the solution to the feelings of dislocation that “the new music” invoked. Adorno thought that these feelings of dissatisfaction could be used against Western Culture: He wanted listeners to associate these negative feelings with traditional lifestyles, and look toward the Frankfurters for something “better.”
Adorno’s hopes for the revolutionary potential of Schoenberg’s music were dashed because very few people wanted to listen to it. Schoenberg’s music has never been popular outside of academic circles, partly because you have to be highly musically trained to find it even interesting, much less beautiful. Even if one can appreciate the studied discord of his pieces, listening to Schoenberg is hard work.
After World War II it became clear that Adorno’s hopes for Schoenberg’s work were unfounded. The most widely respected Frankfurt School historian, Martin Jay, says that Adorno had stopped publicly criticizing contemporary popular music by 1960. This suggests that he may have changed his mind on the revolutionary potential of popular music even before that time.
Atlantic Records was founded in 1947 by Ahmet Ertegun, a Turkish-American, and Herb Abramson, who was Jewish. Much of the growth of Atlantic occurred after 1953 when music producer Jerry Wexler, also Jewish, joined the firm.
The story about Atlantic’s first sound engineer is intriguing. Atlantic moved out of Washington, DC. and into a building at 234 W 56th Street in New York in 1947. There a “German Professor” helped the young businessmen record their first jazz albums.
Ertegun told this story many times, but no one ever found out who the “German Professor” actually was.
There are clues though. According to Ertegun, “the studio had this German professor who did the bulk of the engineering.” The professor was “a little middle-aged German doctor” who was “really difficult to work with.” Ertegun claimed that, the professor “wouldn’t let us turn up the bass, or touch anything, but we were told he was a master, so we put up with him.”
Ertegun also claimed that the professor “didn’t know anything about popular music” but that that he was “technically reliable.”
There are only so many German professors with knowledge of music recording and a negative attitude toward jazz and popular music in any city — but especially so in 1940s New York. The publicly available evidence points to Adorno being that mysterious sound engineer.
Ertegun recorded music that more established performers like Count Basie considered “ignorant.” Ertegun specifically wanted to produce music that appealed to the masses, not the musically trained. As noted above, Adornoreally disliked this type of mass production and made a point of telling us so in his essays, particularly On Popular Music (1941) and On the Fetish-Character in Music (1938). See my Adorno as Critic for more information on this.
Nevertheless, Adorno was a brilliant music analyst who had been thinking in terms of multi-track recording for a long time. He understood recording technology and its effect on music and he knew the music industry inside-out. Adorno knew a lot about how music affects people’s thinking and he had written extensively on the dumbing-down effect of pop culture.
There would seem to be two possibilities. One is that Adorno helped Ertegun achieve a popular musical sound even though Adorno himself hated popular music for all the reasons noted above. This would seem to be unlikely. Why would the Adorno as a self-conscious revolutionary participate in something he saw as reactionary?
The second possibility is that by the late 1940s Adorno understood that popular music could be used to further the cause of revolution. Adorno and the other Frankfurt School theorists and New York Intellectuals were well aware that popular music could be used to manipulate the masses in communist, fascist, and capitalist societies. As alienated intellectuals living in New York in the 1930s and early 1940s, they had excellent reasons to dislike popular culture: In the US, it upheld the capitalist status quo. In National Socialist Germany it reinforced anti-Semitism and racialist ideology. And in the Soviet Union, it was part of Stalinist repression.
But it’s a completely different ballgame when they had the power to influence popular culture, as they did after World War II. If these leftist intellectuals had the power to influence popular culture, they could use it to manipulate the masses in the directions that they wanted — toward liberal cosmopolitanism, breaking down racial barriers, and promoting Black cultural icons.
Atlantic Records was certainly involved in these trends. By all accounts (including Ertegun’s), Atlantic Records led the way breaking down racial segregation in 1950s America. Ertegun says he promoted Black music when nobody else would. (He used a stage name so he wouldn’t embarrass his family.) Ertegun is credited with having set America on course for appreciating Black culture and replacing White cultural icons with Black ones.
This is only a half-truth. According to Ertegun’s partner Jerry Wexler, Atlantic was in the business of “taking the gospel songs and putting the devil’s words to them.” They weren’t representing Black culture, but a self-destructive Black sub-culture. They were promoting icons that spoke for society’s underbelly: unrestrained sexuality, violence, and drugs.
The message that Ertegun promoted is the same message that Herbert Marcuse plugged in Eros and Civilization and Adorno pushed in The Authoritarian Personality. Based on psychoanalysis, their message was that socialism could only develop if people free themselves of their sexual repressions. In The Culture of Critique, Kevin MacDonald described the basic ideas as follows:
In Eros and Civilization Marcuse accepts Freud’s theory that Western culture is pathogenic as a result of the repression of sexual urges, paying homage to Freud, who “recognized the work of repression in the highest values of Western civilization—which presuppose and perpetuate unfreedom and suffering” (p. 240). Marcuse cites Wilhelm Reich’s [he oforgone energy fame] early work approvingly as an exemplar of the “leftist” wing of Freud’s legacy. Reich “emphasized the extent to which sexual repression is enforced by the interests of domination and exploitation, and the extent to which these interests are in turn reinforced and reproduced by sexual repression” (p. 239). Like Freud, Marcuse points the way to a nonexploitative utopian civilization that would result from the complete end of sexual repression, but Marcuse goes beyond Freud’s ideas inCivilization and Its Discontents only in his even greater optimism regarding the beneficial effects of ending sexual repression. (Ch. 4)
Clearly the Frankfurt School intellectuals had come to find virtue in appealing to base pleasures and unrestrained sexuality. Such views fit well with Eric P. Kaufmann’s emphasis on the role of leftist intellectuals in the rise of expressive individualism as a theme of the 1960s counterculture that in many ways remains dominant today. Such views are quite opposite to those of Plato who believed that they would weaken the state and pave the way for tyranny.
Atlantic branched out into rock music in the 1960s, and by the 1990s they were into “gangsta rap.” I can’t think of a better example of “polymorphouslyperverse” sexuality than The Rolling Stones, or a more degenerate icon than Snoop Dogg.
In the years following World War II the music recording industry was massively consolidated. In 1967 Atlantic Records was bought by what is now the Warner Music Group, although Atlantic continued to operate under its own label.
But Atlantic Records/Warner Music Group isn’t just an unfortunate anomaly. The preponderance of the modern recording industry promotes lifestyle choices that the Frankfurters came to identify as being conducive to social revolution. EMI,Universal and Sony have signed a corps of artists who espouse the same morally weakening messages. As I discussed in The Difficult Class, this revolution has concentrated power in the elite and disenfranchised the middle class.
The Columbia University Connection
The Frankfurters had been revolutionary propagandists since the beginning of the Institute for Social Research in Germany in 1923. Refugees from National Socialist Germany, the Frankfurt School moved to Columbia University in New York City in 1934.
Columbia University was also very important to the scientific side of Roosevelt’s war effort. The Office of Scientific Research and Development recruited heavily from Columbia for the Manhattan Project. The OSRD was also interested in psychology and psycho-acoustics — topics that were more in tune with Adorno’s research.
It is also noteworthy that during World War II, several Frankfurters, including the sociologist Herbert Marcuse, joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) which became the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947.
The connections between the Frankfurters, Columbia University, the OSS/CIA and the OSRD are important because when the “German Professor” was called away from Atlantic Records in 1947, he was replaced by Tom Dowd, a Columbia University student straight from the OSRD’s Manhattan Project. Dowd’s high-level connections made him a likely candidate to replace the prickly Adorno once Atlantic had established its signature sound.
The German Professor suddenly stopped helping Atlantic Records in 1947. Ertegun recalled only that Dowd had been sent to help Atlantic “because the professor can’t make it.” No one seems to how Dowd got the job.
Tom Dowd was a classically trained musician as well as a Manhattan Project researcher. Dowd stated that his bomb work was paid for by the OSRD, which was closed in 1947. He claimed that he couldn’t continue studying nuclear physics at Columbia because he knew a lot of very current, sensitive information on the bomb project and didn’t want to have to sit through lectures that were a decade old. (See Tom Dowd and the Laugage of Music, a film by Mark Moormann.) Fortunately for Dowd, Adorno was unhappy at work.
The Bomb and Personality Profiling: Closer Than You Think
John Marks, author of The Search for the Manchurian Candidate: The CIA and Mind Control, shows that there were many links between the Manhattan Project and the CIA’s “mind control” initiative known as Project MK-ULTRA. MK-ULTRA was organized along the Manhattan Project model, and Manhattan Project contractors were hired by MK-ULTRA for top-secret research into psychotropic drugs.
The MK-ULTRA program was also interested in profiling personalities — work that the Frankfurt School had been concentrating on for the US Government since the final years of the war.
I have been through the MK-ULTRA files at the National Security Archives. I would like to clear up a common misconception about them. The LSD research was only a part of this organization’s interests. Their main goal was to figure out the most efficient way to manipulate people. The LSD projects were simply the most sensational and not even the most effective.
Many of the MK-ULTRA programs were designed to analyze different personalities and how they are likely to respond to certain situations. MK-ULTRA teams tried to map out the beliefs and insecurities of certain ethnic groups, like Blacks; and social groups, like lower-class inner-city residents; and religious groups like Evangelical Christians. They were building a database of how to manipulate ethnic politics and special interest groups.
The Frankfurt School’s work on “authoritarian personalities” in the 1930s was repackaged for American audiences as Studies in Prejudice, including the landmark The Authoritarian Personality and other books that attempted to develop psychological profiles of White Americans. In general, these works aremore ideological than scientific, typically relying on psychoanalysis as a very pliable means of attaining its political goals of depicting White Americans with ethnocentric tendencies as victims of variously formulated psychiatric disorders.
The CIA’s MK-ULTRA program picked up where the Frankfurters left off by analyzing politically-organized minority groups. Tom Dowd belonged to a very select group of students who had the security clearance to be exposed to the type of work that the Frankfurters were doing through the US government. Tom Dowd would have been an obvious choice to replace Adorno at the recording studio.
In this article I have not provided evidence proving that Atlantic Records is an offshoot of Frankfurt School social engineering. I have provided circumstantial evidence that shows cooperation between the two organizations was very likely. Much of what the Frankfurters were doing was beyond public scrutiny. But when an entire industry devotes itself to ideals espoused by a handful of aging leftist radicals, it is a strong indication that something is amiss.
Governments have always existed to control society. Humane philosophers recognize that a legitimate government exercises control in a way that benefits its citizens. Anything else is tyranny. Music companies like Warner promote behavior that is corrupting and damaging. Just ask the joker in the White House.
Elizabeth Whitcombe (email her) is a graduate of MIT in Economics with a concentration in International Economics. She is a financial analyst and free-lance writer living in New York City.