Theodore Adorno's notions of 'standardisation' and 'pseudo-individualism' might be applied to contemporary pop music - Do you see any problems or shortcomings from this approach?

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MC266- analysing popular music.

Basing your discussion on an analysis of at least 2 contemporary artists or bands, consider the ways that Theodore Adorno’s notions of ‘standardisation’ and ‘pseudo-individualism’ might be applied to contemporary pop music.  Do you see any problems or shortcomings from this approach?

Popular Culture has enticed much research; with the increase of media studies there are a number of minds picking apart what they see.  With icons filing up and saturating mediums such as television, magazines, radio stations to name a few, the celebrity filled industry is undoubtedly causing a stir amongst the masses.  

Theodore Adorno (1903-69) emigrated to England in 1934 to escape Nazism.  He lived in the United States of America for 10 years, (1938-48) before returning to Frankfurt, where he was a member at the ‘Frankfurt Institute of Social Research’.  Theodore Adorno was a key figure in the study of popular music and had intrinsic Marxist view on the capital nature of society.  Adorno believed that the culture industry “is the central agency in contemporary capitalism for the production and satisfaction of false needs”.  (Adorno, T and Horkheimer, M.  1977, p349).

He argues that popular music is a mass-produced and shallow standardised part of the culture industry.  This would suggest that all aspects of popular music including types of songs, song lyrics and parts of songs e.g. chorus, are all standardised.  (Longhurst, B.  1995, p5).  

Popular music is therefore divided into particular categories or genres of music such as rock, pop, rap, heavy metal and reggae etc, however according to Adorno, all popular music is standardised consisting of verse, chorus, bridge, that are interchangeable from one song to another.  The effects of standardisation are often hidden by what the industry calls pseudo-individualisation.  These are incidental differences, also known as ‘frills’ that are put within a song to disguise that it sounds the same.  

Adorno distinguishes sharply between pop music and serious music between high culture and low cultures.  Serious music, which he regards as classical, Beethoven or Mozart for example, plays to the pleasures of the imagination offering an engagement with the world, as it should be.

Especially due to this separation his theories were often attacked for being elitist.  The comparison of pop music and serious music was a main topic for him. Adorno describes individuals who enjoy popular music “corrupt by immersion and open to the domination of industrialised capitalist systems.” (Longhurst, B. 1995, p8).  This view accounts for the emotional needs that popular music may fulfil as ‘false and immature, rather than deep and/or penetrating.  “Adorno continued to equate the form with Tin Pan Alley and jazz orientated variations of it, ignoring the rise of rock and roll in the early 1950’s.  This undermined his critique and resulted in his views generally being strongly rejected by more contemporary rock analysts.”  (Shuker, R. 1994; 23).

Adorno claims that Popular music is churned into a production line where everything sounds similar, it’s an industry that exploits us for profit and social control, to accept certain conditions about the world in which we live through a capitalist society.  It would be fair to say that to some extent this is true.  We do live in a capitalist society and in the music industry the process of absorption is achieved by capitalism through advertising and marketing of a product with a pop star or pop band.  Everything about them becomes a commodity, their clothes, image, likes and dislikes etc, transcends its immediate functional use to become a key symbol of a whole lifestyle.  The argument implies that the rise of the popular music to mass status is a consequence of the symbolic strategies invested in it rather than the actual quality of the music.

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This essentially means that although the products of the culture industry are alike in most cases, some ‘individuality’ is consciously added to make it different from the rest even though essentially it is the same product.  This is pseudo individualism. Adorno uses the Hollywood star system as an example, “the more dehumanised its method of operation and content, the more diligently and successfully the culture industry propagates supposedly great personalities, and operates with heart throbs.”  (Adorn, T.  1991, p87).

A modern day example can be seen in boy bands such as ‘Westlife’, ‘Nsync’, ‘Backstreet boys’ and the most recent ...

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***** This is an excellent essay. It is written in an academic register and is thoroughly researched, using a range of apt academic quotations, correctly referenced. The only issue is that the title stipulates that TWO artists must be discussed. The section on One True Voice is much shorted than the one on Madonna - it may be good to try to say a bit more about One True Voice.