In 1944, Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer published their article, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” This article introduced the world to the theory of culture industries from the Frankfurt School. Adorno and Horkheimer developed this theory from living in Nazi Germany, where they witnessed people unthinkingly conform to whatever roles the government prescribed. They also saw how U.S. culture was thriving in Europe. Both theorists saw blind subjugation authority as a danger to the general population; hence, they constructed the idea culture industries. This theory is still important and relevant to today’s communications and media scholars; it can apply to many situations in the everyday world.
According to Adorno and Horkheimer the culture industries have two defining characteristics: homogeneity and predictability. These two characteristics create the mass production of mass culture. This commercial marketing of culture is structured around human nature (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2002). It creates standardization among the masses to fit people’s ‘need and desires’ as directed by elites. By advising individuals of their wants and desires, elite systems in charge of the culture industries erase individualities. They then no longer have genuine experiences People cannot freely decide what brings them pleasure; they are told indirectly what they need and it is reinforced continuously. This creates what Adorno and Horkheimer call ‘social cement’ (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2002). ‘Social cement’ is when a person loses curiosity and passively accepts what is happening; people become so comfortable that they no longer wish question the elite system (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2002). When we believe the system is providing a choice of being an individual, this is a false choice (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2002), which has led us to believe we are unique. But, in effect, we are still promoting homogeneity and predictability. According to Adorno, this is present in popular music.
In his article, “On Popular Music,” Adorno differentiates ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ music. Adorno (1941) considers serious music as ‘highbrow,’ meaning a more refined taste, and popular music as “lowbrow,” meaning it is for simpler tastes or no tastes at all. To distinguish between serious music and popular music, Adorno uses the category of standardization. Standardization is the process that creates regularity and repetition (Witkin, 2003, p. 98). This constructs homogeneity among the masses as every song has the same formula in its length, range, themes, dances, and etcetera. (Adorno, 1941). Each song has the same elements that appeal to what masses seem to ‘want’ and think they are getting a variation of; but in reality, they are hearing the same song repeatedly.
This was prevalent during the British Invasion of 1964. Bands from England flew over to America gaining popularity quickly. These bands all had the same sound called the ‘Mersey Beat.’ This music was made by all-male groups. It had mixtures of early American Rock ‘n’ Roll from the 1950s with barely any influences from the Anglo-Celtic area (Schweitzer, 2018). The first band to “invade” was the Beatles. The band was made up of four members: John Lennon (lead guitar), Paul McCartney (rhythm guitar), George Harrison (bass), and Ringo Starr (drums). The band seemed ‘rebellious’ at the time as they were breaking the old mold of the music industry standards by not being professional musicians (Schweitzer, 2018). After seeing the Beatles perform so well with American audiences on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 7, 1964, many other ‘Mersey Beat’ groups followed in their footsteps (Schweitzer, 2018). The bands coming over to the United States included Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Hollies, and more. These bands did not copy the Beatles exactly, but developed very similar songs with lyrics and sound of the Fab Four (Schweitzer, 2018). Each band dressed the same and looked like the Beatles. They dressed in slick suits that matched the other band members in their groups and had the same haircuts. The music industry was using popular music, British Rock, to promote homogeneity and predictability among the mass fan culture that the British Invasion was creating in America.
Popular music, according to Adorno has many differences within its ‘details’ from serious music. Chord sequences, melodic themes, harmonies, rhythmic motifs, the breaks, blue notes, dirty notes, and many other sounds create the form (Adorno, 1941). Choruses will have 32 bars and are limited to one octave and one note (Adorno, 1941). Even when a song has a different construction, it will return to the same standardized pattern that was created by the elite system. Nothing new is actually introduced that affects how the song turns out (Adorno, 1941).
Adorno further sees popular music as a distraction, a type of ‘social cement.’ After working long hours, people want to escape the frenzy and boredom of life, so they turn to activities that provide amusement and diversions. In the culture industry, “commercial entertainment induces relaxation precisely because it is patterned and pre-digested” (Witkin, 2003, p. 106). It provides entertainment so people no longer need to create their own leisurely activities. This creates a demand for standardized goods like popular music. This activity is “[molded] by the same mechanical, rationalized, disciplines that characterize the world of work” (Witkin, 2003, p. 107). Adorno believes the culture industries has hijacked society’s ‘leisure’ time so people are always under the system created for them and never have individual freedom (Witkin, 2003, p. 107). This in turn makes people yearn for individual freedom. They then seek to have their needs satisfied through things like popular music, but this creates the opposite of what was intended. The more people are stimulated by popular music, the higher the demand for the cycle of commercial interests under the culture industry.
Adorno argues that ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures result in people turning to popular culture for their ‘guilty pleasures.’ People use these ‘guilty pleasures’ as a way to relax and escape their busy lives. He believes everyone deserves pleasure, but not in the way the culture industry provides as “a faint copy of pleasure disguised as the real thing; repetition disguised as an escape; a brief respite from [labor] disguised as luxury” (Hulatt, 2018). By giving society ‘guilty pleasures,’ the culture industry takes away individual freedom, as there is no place for imagination because it fortifies certain thought patterns. Popular culture is “a kind of training; it engages us in, and reinforces, certain patterns of thought and self-understanding that harm our ability to live as truly free people” (Hulatt, 2018). The only solution, according to Adorno, is to destroy both ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture (Hulatt, 2018). But, this is nearly impossible because the culture industry prevents society from realizing what opportunities it can seize.
A guilty pleasure of today is reality TV. It is considered ‘low’ culture, so people don’t normally share that they watch the show. Many television networks play reality tv in a variety of formats such as dating shows (The Bachelor/Bachelorette), competitions (The Voice), travel (Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous), and more. These shows are targeted at mass audiences to create homogeneity. Each show has a particular pattern of what it does, creating predictability. For example, The Voice, goes from auditions to a finale where one winner is selected by the audience every season and is signed to a record label to make an album. The show has gained such a large audience many countries in the world have their own version of the show. It is mass produced around the world with the same results every time. People tune in every week and season to watch the show, even though it never changes. They never break their ‘social cement. Thus, the elite system continues to promote homogeneity and predictability.
Adorno and Horkheimer believe the world must be balanced to allow people to have a choice, something the culture industry does not provide. In this world of culture industry, people are exploited to promote homogeneity and predictability for profit and control. For Adorno, popular music was another product of the culture industry that suppressed spontaneity and creativity and constrained choice. This promotes the interests of the market over the individual and is toxic as it permits the suppression and manipulation of society.
Adorno, Theodore W., & Horkheimer, Max (2002). The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. In Gunzelin Schmid Noerr (Ed.), Dialectic of Enlightenment (p. 94-136) (Edmund Jephcott, Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University.
Hulatt, Owen (2018). Against Popular Culture. Nigel Warburton (Ed.), Aeon . Retrieved from https://aeon.co/essays/against-guilty-pleasures-adorno-on-the-crimes-of-pop-culture
Schweitzer, K. (2018). The British Invasion (Class Lecture). Chestertown, MD: Washington College, MUS 106.
Witkin, Robert W. (2003). On popular music. In John Urry (Ed.), Adorno and Popular Culture (p. 98-115). New York, NY: Routledge. Retrieved from http://www.verlaine.pro.br/txt/witkin-adorno-pop-culture.pdf
Image Attributions: “The Beatles in America” by United Press International (cc: Public Domain); “Gerry and the Pacemakers group photo” by Paul Schumach, Metropolitan Photo Service, New York City (cc: Public Domain); “The Voice” by Alatele fr, Licensed under ShareAlike 2.0 (CC BY_SA 2.0). https://www.flickr.com/photos/130163120@N03/16485765766
Written by Jillian Horaneck, 2018