Theodor Adorno presents the theory of standardization and replication of popular music as a critical theory of popular culture. In many ways, Adorno’s theory of the standardization of popular culture stands true today, however there are some ways that his theory does not prove to be entirely persuasive. For many chart-topping hits, it is evident that there is a very confining and standardizing element, but how then can we account for the greatly varying tastes across classes?
Theodor Adorno’s theory about mass culture is a part of the critical theory paradigm stemming from the Frankfurt School (Storey, 62). With the help of Max Horkheimer, Adorno attempts to disprove that there is chaos and randomness in mass culture (Negus, 105). Adorno constructs a theory that the mass culture, or popular culture, is a homogeneous apparatus that recreates culture that is repetitious and predictable. This production of culture is what they term “culture industry” and has become institutionalized within the modern “mass culture” phenomenon (Negus, 70). Adorno and Horkheimer believe that just as the process of industrialization has changed the production of goods into a mass production, it has also changed the production of culture into a mass production characterized by homogeneity and predictability (Negus, 70; Waldman, 41). Adorno argues that not only does mass culture and the culture industry produce a homogenous culture, but it also work to limit imagination and creativity. Adorno sees that the culture that is being produced is designed to reproduce a passive society. In doing so, the people of the society are unaware of their true existence as the politics are masked and the imagination needed to realize the possibility for change is non-existent (Storey, 63).
The most common example that Adorno used to prove his theory is popular music. Adorno argues that popular music is a product of the standardizing effects of the culture industry (Storey, 65). A series of musical notes or chords that have been well received by the public, are replicated and used over and over by the music industry. “Once a musical and/or lyrical pattern has proved successful it is exploited to commercial exhaustion, culminating in ‘the crystallization of standards’“ (Storey, 65). To keep society interested and to hide the fact that the music is being replicated and standardized, some songs have the standard successful chords mixed in with musical aspects from other songs. In reality, the music has been “pre-digested” and the outcome is predictable, just as the outcome of production in factories is predictable (Storey, 67). I argue that this part of Adorno’s theory is still true today.
An example of standardization and replication of music is best highlighted by a band called “Axis of Awesome” who entertain audiences with their performance in a YouTube video called “4 Chords Song”. In the video, 4 chords song the band plays a variety of well-known music from past 50 years which all exhibit standardization. They all use the four same chords C, G, A minor and F. in the song “4 chords song” they use songs ranging from Bob Marley’s “No Women No Cry” to “Barbie Girl” by Aqua to Elton John’s “Can you feel the love tonight.” The artists in Axis of Awesome claim that all you need to write a popular pop song is these 4 chords. This blatantly shows exactly what Adorno’s theory of standardization is all about. In connection with Adorno, it also shows that it is quite true that “Today any one who is capable of talking in the prescribed fashion, that is of effortlessly reproducing the formulas, conventions and judgement of mass culture as if they were his own, is threatened of being an idiot or intellectual” (Storey, 64). What this is trying to say is that anybody that reproduces the same media that has been reproduced for some time is either seen as a smart person or a dumb person depending on how the product is reacted to by the public.
Another example of the standardization of music and how the music industry has replicated the formula for successful songs is addressed in another YouTube video titled “Pachelbel Rant”. This video shows a singing comedian who shares a similar view as Adorno when analyzing popular music across time. The classical song Pachelbel’s Canon in D, has been re-tooled and regurgitated at various points in time in many rock songs from Avril Lavingne to Aerosmith, to the Vitamin C graduation song. The artist of the song “Pachelbel’s Rant” Rob Paravnian calls it “the original one hit wonder” and says that “all punk music is actually baroque.” This is because Pachelbel’s Canon in D is from the Baroque era and a lot of the punk songs are using the same sequence of chords that Pachelbel’s song is using which are D, A, B, F sharp, G, D, G, A. This is also showing that there has been little progression and creativity between the baroque era and today as far as popular music goes. Like Adorno, Paravnian is obviously annoyed by the fact that these replications are so common and that mass society seems not to catch on to it. Although both of these examples fall in line with Adorno’s theory of the standardization of popular music, there are a couple of issues with this theory.
Adorno’s theory is much too confining in that it does not account for the many differences in taste of music and consumption of media in general. He presents that all popular culture is decisively homogenous and that it desensitizes the audience to a point where they are actually blind to their social, economic and political realities. If pop culture is so homogenous and desensitizing, how is there any room for the differences in taste that is represented in Bryson’s article entitled “Anything But Heavy Metal”? Bryson studies the differences in taste and how they coincide with class distinctions. Bryson does this by specifically looking at the dislikes of groups of people. She found that majority of people dislike harsh music like heavy metal and rap. Although this seems to support Adorno’s theory in that it confirms that people enjoy listening to music that is easy to listen to, it does not account for the fact that these type of music remain popular among certain classes and races of people. If there is a massive dislike for a particular genre of music, there must be a reason it is still around. There is a power for less-popular music to remain in production and still have a presence in popular culture. Furthermore, Bryson’s findings show that there are distinctions within mass culture that make it not as homogenous as Adorno might believe. Adorno overlooks the possibilities of individualism within the seemingly homogenous mass culture and does not account for the differing tastes among different social classes. This is a major short-coming in Adorno’s theory and shows that his theory is too confining (Bryson).
The Youtube videos of Axis of Awesome and of Rob Paravnian work to prove that Adorno’s theory of standardization is viable. While it is obvious that the standardization of music is well supported by many repetitious hit songs across many generations, it is less persuasive that they represent a homogenous mass culture in which every part of society is equally affected by the culture industry. The many tastes in music of the different classes in Bryson’s study prove that mass culture, while it may be standardized and in some ways predictable, it is not homogenous. I would also argue that the trends of popular music will eventually have to follow a new form of standardization as the main consumption of music is changing to online sources which are cheaper and not connected to major record labels. This will provide some room for creativity in the production of music in that cultures will coincide internationally on the internet. This can last for a time until it will inevitably become a true culture industry with standardization effects of its own.
Overall, Adorno’s theory is mostly correct and can be easily supported with many findings today. However, it cannot be overlooked that Adorno’s theory left out explanations for differing tastes within popular culture and what those tastes say about social status. Also, he has not addressed the possibility of cross-cultural communication (via the internet) and how this could affect the production of culture. To Adorno, I would say, a standardization of popular culture, yes, but a homogenous society with no hope of creativity in the future, no.
Bryson, Bethany. “Anything But Heavy Metal”: Symbolic Exclusion and Musical Dislikes.” American Sociological Review 61.5 (1996): 884-99. Print.
Negus, Keith “The Production of Culture” in Dugay, Paul ed. The Production of Culture: Cultures of Production. London: Sage 1997 pps. 68-118
Storey, J. (2006). Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction. Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press.
Waldman, Diane. “Critical Theory and Film: Adorno and “The Culture Industry” Revisited.” New German Critique 10 (1977): 39-60. Print.
“YouTube – Axis of Awesome – 4 Four Chord Song (with Song Titles).” YouTube – Broadcast Yourself. Web. 05 Mar. 2011. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5pidokakU4I>.
“YouTube – Pachelbel Rant.” YouTube – Broadcast Yourself. Web. 05 Mar. 2011. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JdxkVQy7QLM>.