‘pop music can be described as standardised and formulaic. Critically assess this claim.’
With numerous reality television shows focusing on the music industry, such as Pop-Idol and Fame Academy, it isn’t difficult to imagine why ‘popular music’ can be described as standardised and formulaic. These shows base themselves on finding the right formula of image, sound and charisma in order to become successful in the popular music market, suggesting that success in the market is reliant on conforming to a specific formula. However, ‘Popular Music’ itself is a contested term, and so I shall begin this essay by examining two varying definitions, that of the Positivist and that of the Essentialist. I will offer a very basic definition of ‘popular music’ for the purpose of this essay, and will also show how ‘formula’ and ‘standardisation’ are intrinsically linked to one another. I will then introduce the work of Theodore Adorno, discussing his use of the terms ‘culture industry’ and ‘commodity fetishism’, and showing their relevance to the popular music industry. Adorno’s theory of standardisation reflects the production, textual form, and consumption of popular music, and so next I shall show how production of music is simply reduced to reproduction, how structurally the textual form is standardised, and even the responses and reactions of the audience are conforming and standard. I will introduce the concept of pseudo-individuality, and will show how this masks standardisation for the purpose of the listener. Finally, I will draw on the criticisms of Chambers, Gendron and Middleton to show why Adorno’s theory may not be as convincing as it would first appear.
Music is an art form whose medium is sound and silence that are organized in time in a special way. Its common elements are pitch (which governs melody and harmony), rhythm (and its associated concepts tempo, meter, and articulation), dynamics, and the sonic qualities of timbre and texture. In the historical context the development of music is inseparable from the active development of person’s ...
The term ‘popular music’ encourages considerable debate. It was first coined in the first half of the nineteenth century, and was used to describe songs for the bourgeois market that were well liked by those whose opinions were believed to be superior. However, the term in this instance was replaced by the term ‘folk’, and ‘popular’ music came to mean those songs associated with the mass market around the 1930’s and 1940’s. Middleton (1990) outlined two approaches to defining ‘popular music’. Firstly, he demonstrates the Positivist approach, focusing on a song’s success in the mass market, typically judged through the pop charts, radio/television airplay, sales, etc.. Positivists take as their ‘Primary level of analysis to be that characterised by the question of size and by the phenomenal form of the series’ (Middleton, R., 1990, p.5).
To Positivists, commercialisation is crucial to understanding what is meant by the term pop music. There are problems with this approach, though, for it is an approach based on measurement, but the implements used to measure ‘popularity’ (charts, radio/television, sales, etc.) are, at best, unreliable. Also, by solely focusing on measurements, Positivists are ignorant of the wider social context of popular music. The second approach outlined by Middleton is that of the Essentialist, and is more based in sociology. They see popular music as being associated with a particular social group, either from ‘above’ or from ‘below’, and this has an effect on its meaning and usage. From ‘above’, popular music is seen as manipulative and exploitative, from ‘below’ it is set as mass or commercial. What is common in both fields is that the meaning of popular music is reliant on comparison with the absent Other, with what it is lacking. However, this approach ignores the wider cultural processes of society, especially historically. For the purpose of this essay, I feel a simple, straightforward definition of ‘pop music’ would be most suited. Therefore, at its most basic, pop music is ‘Commercially mass produced music for a mass market, and including the variety of genres variously subsumed by terms such as rock ‘n’ roll, rock, dance, hip hop and R. & B.’ (Shuker, R., 1994, p.x).
What surprised you? Use specific examples. In the music business unit, I learned about the various careers involved in the record industry, such as: the producer, song writer, artist, A&R, and record executive. The producer is the middle man between the artist and record company and is the one to call all the shots. The A&R is the one to find the potential artists (usually on youtube). ...
All forms of popular music contain elements of other styles, traditions and influences, thrown together in a commercial salad. There is also traditionally a tension between the creative elements of music making and the productive elements, with a simple compromise often being reached. The term ‘standardise’ literally means ‘To make or become standard’ (Collins Dictionary, 1993).
When applied to popular music, ‘standardisation’ refers to the growth of the music market into a mass market whereby all products follow the same basic structure. The term ‘formula’ is the means by which the music industry becomes standardised. The ‘formula’ is based on the standards and fashions of the day in order to sell songs, and must adhere itself to public desires.
The German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno (1903-69) was a member of a group called ‘the Frankfurt school’ who critiqued ‘genres’ in the 1940’s, and concluded that all genres are standardised products. It was Adorno’s analysis of the working class ‘false consciousness’ that led him on to producing a critique of popular music as a genre in ‘On Popular Music’ (1940).
As a result of this critique, Adorno has enjoyed more influence in the sociology of music than any other philosopher’s critique, theory or analysis. To understand Adorno’s critique, we must first be clear about what he means when he uses the term ‘culture industry’. In this term, Adorno refers to industry in much the same way that one would talk about the industries that manufacture large quantities of consumer goods for the masses. By talking about a ‘culture industry’, he means exactly that – an industry that manufactures large quantities of culture and imposes them on society. According to Adorno, the culture industry is merely an ‘Assembly-line (and characterised by a) synthetic, planned method of turning out its products’ (Adorno as cited in Negus, K., 1996, p.37) for the purpose of Capital gain. For Adorno, the culture industry shapes and moulds the masses’ tastes and preferences to its own benefit. In this sense, the culture industry is a huge blanket of deception encompassing all of society, and encourages conformity as opposed to critical thinking. In terms of the music industry, such a lack of critical thinking on behalf of the audience leads directly to what Adorno termed ‘regressive hearing’, the loss of the ability of the audience to respond critically to music. As all other industries operating under a Capitalist society, ‘culture’ is exploitative by nature, and by setting the music industry as a ‘culture industry’, Adorno is highlighting the exploitation of the masses by the production, reproduction, distribution and consumption of popular music. Marx, and more specifically Marx’s theory of ‘commodity fetishism’, heavily influenced Adorno’s work on genres, and has been adapted to apply to the analysis of popular music. At its most basic, ‘commodity fetishism’ is ‘Over-concern, indeed, zealous distraction with the objectified alien world of the products of human labour’ (http://noumenal.net/exiles/Adorno.html).
1. The most important characteristics of digital music player industry are dynamism and commercial profitability. As it is shown in the case study, by 2004 sales of Mp3 players had reached $270 million, which accounts for 147,5% increase, comparing to year 2003. Many economists describe digital player market in terms of economic boom, which in recent history can only be compared to the commercial ...
There is a degree of irony in the fact that objects and products in our postmodern consumer society are capable of taking on value exceeding that of human life, and yet it is human labour that is required to create these products in the first place.
Adorno asserts that commodity form dominates contemporary cultural life, and that ‘standardisation’ is merely the imitation of previously successful commodities via a specific formula, completely lacking any genuine innovation. With the onset of technological advances in the early part of the twentieth century, music was now able to be mass-produced, leading to the formation of present day pop music. Because of mass-production, originality and high standards were sacrificed in favor of cheap goods and high profits. Adorno claims that ‘The production, textual form and audience reception of popular music are all standardised’ (Longhurst, B., 1995, p.8).
There are a number of reasons why production, according to Adorno, is simply reduced to reproduction in popular music. Firstly, it would be fair to say that pop music hasn’t actually invented anything new, but has borrowed rhythms and formula from various other forms of music, such as Jazz, Black music and Western Art music. However, what is borrowed is generally reduced to a simple mechanical process, for the benefit of mass production. Secondly, as a matter of economics, if all songs followed the same formula, production would be easier and cheaper. Also, if a particular style of song becomes successful and financially rewarding, record companies will reproduce that style for their own commercial benefit. Unfortunately, this has the effect of making record companies over-cautious, choosing a definite hit in a reproduced style over an out-of-the-ordinary, inventive and original song. Another factor to consider is the fear of record companies that, if they were to put something musically unusual out and the audience liked it, mass-produced popular music may become ignored, suggesting potential financial loss. Marxists would point to the Capitalist element of the mass music industry as a cause of the standardisation of production.
The displacement of an original genre of music is thought to be what creates a subgenre of music. This displacement may have been brought on by cultural, economical, or political changes in society, or the displacement may bring these changes within society with the new music. Pop punk is a subgenre of punk rock and pop music. It was created by the merging of punk rock and the music that was ...
In his analysis, Adorno also claimed that all aspects of musical form were standardised. Indeed, the musical sense and experience would not depreciate in value if any detail was omitted from the context, for the listener is capable of supplying his own framework within which the song can be understood. In pop music, pentatonic scales are composed of five notes, as opposed to eight notes in standard musical scales. As a result, the complexity of pop music is very limited and this ‘Explains the lack of melody, the lack of variation in the music, and the standardisation and formularisation of much pop music’ (http://www.birchmore.info/muzak/html/the_case_against_pop__rock.html).
Structurally, pop songs are very basic, generally having two verses, a chorus and a bridge. There is no movement between keys, no complexity of musical organisation and no sense of progression by the end of the song. ‘From the ‘plan’ to the details, songs were based around the repetition of 32-bar sequences, regularly recurring refrains, choruses and ‘hooks’’ (Negus, K., 1996, p.37).
The actual writing of songs has been reduced to mere mechanical process, with commercial gain and social manipulation at the forefront of the writer’s mind. Because standard patterns are more easily distributed, promoted and recognized in an already saturated market, writers are under constant pressure to conform to formulas. As a result of the standardisation process, sections of songs can be lifted out of an original and placed into other songs without upsetting the overall structure of the latter. Indeed, there is a degree of irony in the fact that popular music remains so basic and simple, despite the onset of great technological advances. The language used in pop music is also very simple and limited, with the effect of expressing only limited ideas and feelings. Because of the limited language of pop music, phrases and rhymes are repeated throughout numerous pop songs (e.g., ‘Wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care’).
... Music Can Be Popular. ” Popular Music 21 (2). 195-208. DeNora, T. , Adorno, T. W. (2003). After Adorno: Rethinking Music ... of folk songs. Essentially, folk songs were the types of songs that were popular during this ... interacts with various feelings that form an imagination. Music is something that is created ... influence and it tolerated “decadent” pop music but amazingly, they were able to ...
Also, because of the limited language, pop music is only really capable of operating at one emotional level, allowing the audience to know exactly what kind of reaction is expected from them.
However, it is not just the production and the textual form of popular music that is standardised, but also the reactions and responses of the listener of popular music. It could be argued that a symptom of the postmodern consumer world that we live in is that people are now over-concerned with slick advertising and enhanced technology, at the expense of quality and substance. Another effect of living in a postmodern society where instant gratification is everywhere, is that ‘The complacent, the familiar, the readily-accessible-without-effort cultural product becomes that which is selected’ (http://www.birchmore.info/muzak/html/the_case_against_pop__rock.html).
Also, by ridding society of the individual, the music industry ensures the dominance of regressive hearing in its audience. Living in a society overwhelmed with the ‘normative’, the public demands something that differs from the ‘norm’, but upholds the supremacy of the ‘norm’ over difference. Pop songs have a strong contradictory element whereby they have to be the same as all the other current hits, as well as being different to them. ‘A song must be not only ‘familiar’ but also ‘new’ (Middleton, R., 1990, p.49).
Adorno refers to this phenomenon as ‘pseudo-individuality’. Pseudo-individuality is ‘The type of variation that exists between standardised products’ (Longhurst, B., 1995, p.5).
Early History of Jazz Jazz is a style of music that began and has been revolutionized within the United States. Jazz music first appeared in the city of New Orleans and eventually moved onto Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, and New York City. Jazz unites different elements of African, African- American, religious, brass brand, and blues style of music. The music of Jazz, and its changes through ...
Whilst on the surface there may be variation, the basic structure will remain the same, and so the tune will still be predictable. Basically, pseudo-individualisation hides the process of standardisation, so the apparent uniqueness of the product is intact in the listener’s mind. This has the effect on the audience of making the tune predictable, without allowing the audience to know exactly what comes next. In the rapidly changing society that we live in, predictability becomes a comfort to the audience. In a competitive market, such as the music industry, such slight differences are singled out and highlighted as unique and hence superior. Pseudo-individuality is an attempted deception by record companies to trick the consumers into thinking they are purchasing products with claims to ‘originality’. One aspect of music highlighted by Adorno as falsely claiming individuality is that of the improvisation. Whilst it may seem on stage that a musician is improvising a piece of music, that bit of ‘spontaneous’ playing would have actually involved extensive practice prior to the performance. According to Adorno, such deceptions are characteristic of the culture industry. Popular music also serves as a distraction from the demands of reality on behalf of the audience, whilst at the same time allowing the listener to relax without having to concentrate on the music. According to Middleton, ‘They (listeners) are a passive mass which is prepared to accept standardised forms precisely because it is the product of the same processes as the musical forms themselves’ (Middleton, R., 1990, p.57).
There have been many criticisms of Adorno’s theory of the standardisation of popular music. Iain Chambers took a Culturalist approach, claiming that popular music is ‘polysemantic’, suggesting that popular music has numerous meanings. He says that ‘The music industry cannot simply churn out standardised products with a sole meaning and only one possible use’ (Negus, K., 1996, p.27), and that it is up to the audience to extract whatever meaning suits them from a pop song. A listener’s reaction will depend on their mood, social situation, general beliefs, etc., and so there can’t be one universal, all-encompassing meaning and value of a pop song. Chambers maintains the belief that popular music can actually teach us about the way our society accepts and uses different cultural forms. Gendron also disagrees with Adorno, saying that popular music isn’t always the same, and points to stylistic changes to demonstrate his point. However, Adorno would probably counter this by again pointing to pseudo-individuality, this time as a cause of such stylistic changes. Gendron also claimed that the increased use of technology in the production of music is actually capable of creating greater variation in music. An example of such technology is the internet and the readily available programs allowing one to download any music of one’s choice. Middleton provides another critique of Adorno’s analysis of popular music. He claims that ‘Adorno’s theory of standardisation, which wants to be a total theory, is in fact strictly limited in its applicability’ (Middleton, R., 1990, p.53-54).
Whilst Adorno intended on applying his theory of standardisation to all forms of popular music, Middleton insists that this leaves no room for diversity through national, ethnic or class traditions. Middleton shows Adorno’s theory in its historical context, looking at the Tin Pan Alley songs prevalent during the 1940’s, and showing their effects on Adorno’s theory. He then goes on to demonstrate the huge array of diversity that has come to the forefront since those days, such as rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950’s and the counter/sub cultures of the 1960-70’s, and insists that such diversity cannot be upheld by a single theory. ‘It is not always easy to decide what is fundamental, and what is superficial, textual variation’ (Longhurst, B., 1995, p.12).
It could also be claimed that independent music labels find, record, produce and sell new forms of music, such as rhythm and blues, salsa and punk, flying in the face of Adorno’s criticism. However, more often than not the independent labels will be absorbed by the big corporations and in the process will become formulaic, so that more records of the same style can be produced. Therefore, ‘Forms of music that may not have had their origins strictly ‘within’ the modern culture industry were subsequently subjected to its industrial commercial logic’ (Negus, K., 1996, p.39).
It is important to also point out that different people do experience different forms of popular music in different ways, contrary to Adorno’s assertions. For example, it would be hard to imagine a Marilyn Manson fan getting the same pleasure from their choice of music as an S-Club 7 fan would with theirs, and so a theory encompassing all forms of popular music would appear misleading.
In conclusion, I would agree with some of Adorno’s theory, but not all of it. Whilst it is undeniable that certain aspects of popular music are indeed standardised, to claim that all popular music is standardised is a generalisation that doesn’t hold up on closer inspection. Whilst pseudo-individuality is also very convincing, I feel that Adorno tried to adapt it to too many instances, claiming that anything that differed from the norm was a result of such a process. There are simply too many contrasting styles under the term ‘popular music’ (e.g. Thrash-Metal and Bubblegum-Pop) to explain the differences as ‘slight variations’ of the one structure. I believe that, though seeming rather extreme at first, the term ‘popular music’ is no longer necessary. In fact, to the contrary, I feel there is a case to argue that the term is a hindrance to the study of musical forms, distracting attention away from other areas worthy of analysis. I think that with the vast variety of musical forms present in society, trying to group them all together under the one heading is futile and ultimately problematic. Instead, a more focused examination of each specific form, taking into account their production, textual form and consumption, much as in the way they have been in the study of popular music, would produce more rewarding results.