Critical Review of: ‘On Popular Music’ by Theodor W. Adorno (1941)

This essay will be an evaluation of Adorno’s article ‘On Popular Music’, in which he critically analyses the culture industry and highlights the differences between ‘popular music’ and ‘serious music’, as his speciality was music composition and culture consumption. Adorno was one of the key philosophers in The Frankfurt School of thought that was founded in 1923, Germany, at the Institute for Social Research (IEP, 2020) But since then, critical theory has spread worldwide and been highly influential on contemporary sociological literature and debate, such as Frank Furedi and David Held. The school included other critical theorists such as Horkheimer, Benjamin, Marcuse, and Habermas, and as a whole, they took inspiration from philosophers before them such as Nietzsche, Hegel, and Marx. So, their main concerns centred around modern capitalism, politics, and mass culture – and Nazism (IEP, 2020). Most of The Frankfurt School were exiled from Germany due to their Jewish descent in 1934. So, Adorno moved to England, and then after, continued his research in America, until he returned to Frankfurt when the war was over (IEP, 2020).

To briefly summarise the article, Adorno argues how popular music has become ‘standardised’ due to the rise in consumerism e.g., successful hits are imitated and reproduced so companies continue to make a profit. As listeners, he believed we are unaware of this process of standardisation and have a false sense of ‘free choice’, which is known as ‘pseudo individualism’. As media companies only promote and distribute content that they know consumers ‘want’. Overall, the standardisation of music and entertainment and these feelings of pseudo individualism, mean that little attention and effort is required during our leisure time. Therefore, the culture industry ensures we ‘keep inline’ and continue working in our mechanised job, as well as distracting us from our unhappiness or thinking critically about the world we live in. Throughout this critical review, we will delve deep into these concepts to gain a true understanding of his argument. Additionally, we will assess the strengths and weaknesses to his argument, its disciplinary impact, contemporary relevance, as well as linking to contextual factors and key sociologists to support these claims. 

To start with, Adorno gives us an introduction into ‘The Two Spheres of Music’, where he assesses the key differences between ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ music. Adorno’s main argument is centred around the idea of standardisation, as he believed this was the main feature of popular music. He thought the structure (the chorus consists of 32 bars, the song lasts around 3 minutes and the lyrics are repetitive) as well as themes and characters – nursery rhymes, home, and love were standardised (Adorno, 1941). Adorno seems well versed in music composition and uses jargon to reflect this knowledge e.g., octave and scherzo (p. 304). This gives his article a sense of validity and credibility because complex vocabulary is usually associated with higher intelligence. However, these lexical choices may have been a barrier for working-class at the time, as the higher class were more likely to receive a formal education, and therefore be able to understand the complexity of the article. Even working-class people reading this today may struggle to understand if they lack the cultural capital (knowledge) due to their ascribed status (Bourdieu, 1981). This highlights the contradictory nature to his argument, which is shown through the quote “primitive musical language sets barriers to whatever does not conform to them” (p. 307). Furthermore, the use of the adjective ‘serious’ to describe one sphere of music showcases a sense of superiority. It’s likely that he labels classical music as ‘serious’ because it was the norm during his young life. The feeling of superiority is highlighted when he suggests that classical music has more ‘meaning’, is ‘absolute’ and requires more attention span than popular music (p. 310). This is merely a reflection of his personal opinion and likely due to a positive association with childhood memories – he thinks so highly of classical ‘serious’ music because it reflects a ‘better time’ before his exile and the horrific treatment of Jewish people in Germany. Hence, why he struggles to accept the inevitable musical shift taking place and how his argument around the classification of music holds little objective value. 

To address another weakness, I found his tone quite patronising – “most listeners of popular music do not understand music as a language in itself” (p. 310). Adorno fails to acknowledge the creativity and agency of individuals and how they can actively participate in and consume culture. For example, people are often aware of standardisation and can choose to boycott certain aspects of the culture industry or use it as a way to spread political messages instead. This has been done recently in songs such as ‘Black’ by Dave, ‘This is America’ by Childish Gambino and ‘Lockdown’ by Anderson Park, which shows how contemporary music artists are taking advantage of the rise in technology and consumerism to draw attention to topics such as police brutality, racism, and other current affairs. This is reflected through the philosophy of Pluralism, as Pluralists believe consumers “are free to select, reject and re-interpret a wide range of media content, and they increasingly take advantage of new technologies and new media to produce their own content” (Thompson, 2019). However, Adorno would suggest that even when the production of music is individualistic, the promotion and distribution of popular music is industrial (pp. 306-307). Therefore, even if artists write meaningful lyrics, the consumers are unable to pay attention because popular music has a primary function of reproducing the consumers working capacity (p. 310). This draws inspiration from Marx’s work as he believed that “the bourgeoise cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production” (Jones, 2002), which shows that through technological advancements and mass media, the bourgeoisie have found new ways to control the proletariat, instead of relying on the division of labour in industrial work like they used to. So, ultimately consumers are unable to devote their full attention to the lyrics due to the capitalist function of mass culture.

Furthermore, Adorno is overly critical of jazz throughout his article – “the most drastic example of standardisation of presumably individualised feature is to be found in the so-called [jazz] improvisations” (p. 308). He believed these improvisations created a sense of pseudo individualism because fans felt flattered due to the exciting stimuli, even though the improvisations were also “confined in the walls of the harmonic and metric scheme” (p. 308), which created a paradox or “backwardness” to the mass production of music. This shows how the “illusion of choice” was imperative to ensure standardisation was not questioned. Adorno fails to acknowledge the positive impact of popular music during the 1940s, such as increased social solidarity and self-expression. For example, jazz originated in the New Orleans in the early 1900s and was used to express pain, injustice, and adversity – the positive beats and jazz improvisations reflected freedom and hope that African American’s had little of during a time of segregation, hate crime and lynching. Furthermore, jazz music was considered “America’s classical music” (National Museum of American History, 2020), which highlights the societal differences between Germany and America at the time that Adorno disregards. However, Adorno’s ideas around pseudo individualism and standardisation were well ahead of the time and still possess contemporary relevance. Or even more so, due to technological advancements and a further rise in consumerism. For example, ‘pop’ songs are all around 3 minutes long, have similar themes such as ‘love’ or ‘heartache’ and follow a repetitive structure with similar beats – consider ‘Sweet Melody’ by Little Mix. And most people believe they have a choice over the culture they are consuming.

Expanding on earlier, we come to Adorno’s final argument around leisure time. He argued that popular music maintains its hold on the masses through distraction and inattention – “listeners are distracted from the demands of reality by entertainment which does not demand attention either” (p. 310). He believed that people use their leisure time as an escape from mundane work and due to fear and anxiety over low income, unemployment, and war (p. 310), which was justifiable with the political and economic climate at the time. So, people indulged in “non-productive” leisure time due to the boredom of work and societal strains, which leaves them with no energy to consciously engage their minds or think critically of the world they live in. All of this is possible because features of music and TV are already “pre-digested”, so little effort and attention are required to follow along (p. 310). This shows how the culture industry upholds capitalism by ensuring workers continue to get up and go to work every morning without question. Adorno’s argument around leisure time is significant and relevant to today’s society because people indulge in non-productive activities even more than they used to – the rise in technology and modern-day strains such as mental health, education, flexible work contracts, in-work poverty, and more recently, COVID, has led most people to become obsessed with their gadgets and social media, as a way to escape these issues and relax after work. Few people choose productive activities such as reading or learning a new language in their leisure time because they are too physically and mentally drained from the demands of modern capitalism. Adorno believed that this is only possible because “mass consciousness can be moulded by the operative agencies only because the masses ‘want this stuff’” (p. 310). This links to the ‘Drip-Drip Effect’, as the more time people spend watching TV, the more likely they are to internalise character portrayals and perceive the world in accordance with this internalisation (Preiss et al., 2011) e.g., the idea to carry on working, which reflects the passiveness of consumers. So, we continue to indulge in these materialistic items due to the powerful influence of the media. Media companies create advertisements targeted to our innate human desires e.g., human beings are social creatures who yearn for intimacy and affection (Edgley, 2020), so they often include ads that show friends having fun alongside the product they are trying to tell. The exploitation of our unhappiness and insecurities leads us to buy more ‘stuff’ we do not need, as we think it will give us happiness and success, which is known as ‘false needs’. This links to William Davies book ‘The Happiness Industry’, as he explains how happiness has become a commodity – “the market must be designed as a space in which desires can be pursued but never fully satisfied, or else the hunger for consumption will dwindle” (Davies, 2015). His argument seems more developed than Adorno’s because he draws on the work from many other critical theorists and Marxists before him, unlike Adorno. Also, the use of statistical economic data and links to neuroscience throughout his book make it appear much more reliable and credible, as Adorno’s work was subjective and contained no evidence. But it does highlight the lasting impact that Adorno, and The Frankfurt school in general, have had on contemporary sociological debate – because since then, many critical theories such as critical race theory, queer theory, cultural theory and previously mentioned media focused theories, have developed around The Frankfurt School’s ideas. A direct reference to Adorno’s work was made in David Held’s ‘Introduction to Critical Theory’, as he gives an in-depth history into The Frankfurt School, explains their key ideas, and offers some critiques of critical theory. For example, he believed an “excessive amount of time was spent studying superstructural phenomena’ – aesthetics and culture – thus further detracting from serious engagement with the key determinants of social life” (Held, 1991), which shows Adorno may have been more focused on criticising the culture industry instead of researching how to solve the issues he presents. 

Overall, Adorno expanded on theorists before him such as Hegel and Marx and produced a well-structured and coherent argument that was useful in explaining the negative effects of consumer culture and the standardisation of music on the public. It was a unique observation at the time, as few people owned a TV and radio. His ideas around the standardisation of music, the illusion of choice and skewed function of leisure time are still widely applicable and relevant to today’s society, due to increased consumerism, technology, and modern-day strains. We also see how his work has sparked further sociological debate and influenced the introduction of modern critical theorists who criticise our media and government, such as David Held and William Davies. On the other hand, there were some significant weaknesses and absences to Adorno’s argument. For example, his argument was repetitive, it lacked evidence and objectivity, included personal biases and complex vocabulary choices that acted as a barrier to the working class at the time. He also failed to acknowledge how consumers actively play a part in consuming culture and constructing their agency and finally, he was overly critical of popular music without mentioning any solutions to these issues. Despite these weaknesses, the disciplinary impact alone makes the argument significant – as Adorno raised questions and concerns that other critical theorists could later expand on. And The Frankfurt School as a collective, have inspired others to think critically about how economic, politic, and cultural systems shape who we are.

References:

Adorno, T.W. (1941) ‘On Popular Music’, Studies in Philosophy and Social Sciences, pp. 301- 313.

Bourdieu, P. (1986) The Forms of Capital in Richardson, J., Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education Westport, CT: Greenwood, pp 241-58.

Davies, W. (2015) The Happiness Industry. 1st edn. Verso, p. 58.

Edgley, R., 2020. The Art Of Resilience. 1st ed. London: Harper Collins, pp.215-216.

Held, D. (1991) Introduction to Critical Theory. 1st edn. Polity Press, pp. 356-357.

Jones, G. (2002) The Communist Manifesto. 44th edn. London: Penguin Classics, p. 222.

Preiss, R. et al. (2011) Mass Media Effects Research: Advances Through Meta-Analysis. New York: Routledge, p. 200.

The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory (2020). Available at: https://iep.utm.edu/frankfur/ (Accessed: 8 November 2020).

Theodor Adorno (2020). Available at: https://iep.utm.edu/adorno/ (Accessed: 8 November 2020).

Thompson, K. (2019) The Pluralist View of the MediaRevise Sociology. Available at: https://revisesociology.com/2019/07/31/pluralist-media-sociology/ (Accessed: 8 November 2020).

What is Jazz? (2020). Available at: https://americanhistory.si.edu/smithsonian-jazz/education/what-jazz (Accessed: 8 November 2020).

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