In my sociological theory class recently, I was teaching about critical theory (i.e., “the Frankfurt School”). Specifically, students were reading excerpts from Theodor Adorno’s and Max Horkheimer’s work on “The Culture Industry,” excerpted from their 1944 book The Dialectic of Enlightenment.
We talked about how the production of mass cultural commodities (books, films, TV, music) is the same as all mass production. It is geared toward making a profit by minimizing the costs of production and maximizing consumption (i.e., “audience”). The result is homogeneity and predictability.
As Adorno and Horkheimer observed back in the 1940s, “As soon as the film begins, it is quite clear how it will end, and who will be rewarded punished or forgotten. In light music [popular music], once the trained ear heard the first note of the hit song, it can guess what is coming and feel flattered when it does come…The result is a constant reproduction of the same.”
In his essay “On Popular Music,” Adorno refers to the rules of standardization in popular music, the best know of which is that “the chorus consists of thirty two bars and that the range is limited to one octave and one note.” Mind-numbing.
To make this point, I usually just refer to Katy Perry and Jessie J. and whoever the latest pop star is, but this year one of my students pointed me to a song by the group, “Axis of Awesome” which makes this point much better than I could with my limited understanding of music. Check out the video for their song “4 Chords” below: