Political Economy of Music


—In popular culture…surface and style, playfulness and jokes, and what things look like are said to predominate at the expense of content, substance and meaning. As a result, qualities such as artistic merit, integrity, seriousness, authenticity, realism and intellectual depth and strong narratives tend to be undermined’ (Strinati, 2004)

How true is this quote? Is it fair to say that everybody chooses style over substance? Does nobody care about the actual content and meaning anymore?

The focus on style over substance in the music industry is closely linked with the need to increase profits in the age of the mass market.  It has been argued that there has been a ‘dumbing down’ of various media forms such as TV, Radio and newspapers over the last 30 years or so (Marchia, 2012).  This reflects the need for the corporations selling content to reach as wide an audience as possible.

Style over substance in music is the idea that the content of an artist’s music is pushed aside for the image of that person or group and is a characteristic associated with postmodernism.  Dominic Strinati said “Media images encourage superficiality rather than substance, cynicism rather than belief, the thirst for constant change rather than security of stable traditions, the desires of the moment rather than the truths of history” (Strinati, 1992).  An example of this would be the most viewed and liked video ever on YouTube – Psy’s Gangnam Style.  This is a song that is sung completely in Korean.  By the end of 2012, the song had topped the music charts of more than 35 countries including US, Germany, Italy, Spain, Australia, Canada, France, Russia and the UK (Ultra Tech Talk, 2013).  It became the first video to ever reach one billion views even though the majority of people listening to it don’t know what any of it means.  However, it has a dance which people can imitate wherever they may hear it and so in turn has become extremely popular.  That is a prime example of style over substance.  The content of the song has been pushed to the back for the comedic dance and image of the singer.  The dance has become the most popular part with universities, military squads and even people like Barack Obama imitating it.  It was a hugely successful song but owes more of its accolades to the imagery than the song itself.

The idea of ‘dumbing down’ media is often talked about in the current state of MTV.  Many people are confused as to why MTV, which means music television, now consists of programmes that have nothing to do with music.  Over time it has become less orientated around music and instead it targets a teenage and young adult audience, airing programmes such as 16 and Pregnant, Geordie Shore and Teen Mom.  What was MTV all about in the first place though?  It was for artists to showcase their music with the use of visual elements.  When this idea is talked about, style over substance becomes relevant.  It can be said that using a video means people remember an artist for their style instead of the merits of the music itself.  An artist instantly has two layers instead of one.  The problem with music videos is that the artist’s music may be pushed aside because the visual elements are far more memorable.  People are talking about the video and not the song anymore and this becomes problematic for the musician who wants recognition and success from the music they write and perform.  Psy’s Gangnam Style could be used as an example again here.

Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), who coined the term ‘culture industry’, was a German philosopher and a founding member of the Frankfurt School for Social Research.  Adorno’s work offers a consistent critique of contemporary culture and society aimed at resisting its ideology and deep irrationality (Cox & Warner, 2004).  They believe that all genres are standardised products.  Adorno went on to become a well known philosopher after writing his book ‘On Popular Music’, which criticized popular music and split up music into two spheres.  These spheres were popular music and serious music.  He believed that popular music was not capable of being serious and therefore was different.  First we must ask – what is popular music? Something memorable, something catchy or something else?  For Adorno, popular music would always be a ‘carbon copy’ of something else.  It always uses the same formula.  It follows things like the verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus layout as well as lacking a real sense of effort or planning.  Serious music on the other hand is capable of far more according to Adorno.  Nothing can be repeated or copied and nothing follows the same formula.  The piece of music is free flowing and always developing, growing and changing.  He says every detail derives its musical sense from the concrete totality of the piece”, and arguing that even if one detail is omittedall is lost(Welty, 1984).  One of Beethoven’s symphonies or a piece of music by Arnold Schoenberg would be examples of what Adorno would call serious music whereas an artist such as Robbie Williams for example would be popular music.

The reason so much music can’t be taken seriously by Adorno is because it is standardised.  Adorno’s theory of standardisation focuses on the production, form, and consumption of popular music and how production of music is simply reduced to reproduction and even the responses and reactions of the audience are conforming.

With more and more television programmes focusing on the music industry and finding the next big star, such as the X Factor and Pop Idol, it is easy to see why contemporary music can be seen as standardised.  Adorno said “Once a musical and/or lyrical pattern has proved successful it is exploited to commercial exhaustion” (Storey, 2006).  These shows base their decisions on whether or not they think a person could be a potential star.  However, to be the sort of star they want, you must fit a certain formula.  You tend to do much better if you are young, slim and attractive.  It is very unusual for someone who doesn’t fit this formula to go far in these competitions.  There have been cases however, such as Susan Boyle, whose voice impressed everyone so much she went on to finish as the runner up in Britain’s Got Talent, even though she was not young, not slim and did not fit the mainstream definition of attractive.   It is not impossible to win if you don’t fit the formula and the ‘underdog’ sometimes prevails but these situations are very rare.  These shows want to find someone who will look good on the front of magazines and who doesn’t sound too different from anything else that is currently popular.   They choose the people they know will be successful.  For instance, the boy band One Direction were put together on this show and promoted because they were guaranteed to sell, particularly to teenagers and this is largely because of how they look.  Although to the teenagers they appeal to they seem fresh and different, the same formula has been used in the past with older boy bands such as N Sync or The Backstreet Boys.  These shows stress individuality but on the X Factor for example, contestants are usually laughed at and judged before they sing if they look out of the ‘ordinary’.  Even with new ideas like having the judges turn away from the performers on the ITV programme ‘The Voice’, it still comes down to image in the end.  As the singers progress, they are sculpted into the ideal product to be advertised and sold worldwide.

So, what did Adorno mean by ‘culture industry’?  Adorno talks about industry in a similar way that we would talk about the industries that manufacture large quantities of consumer goods for the masses. When using the term ‘culture industry’, he means industry that manufactures large quantities of culture and imposes them on society.  So, the culture industry is effectively an ‘Assembly-line’.  For Adorno, the culture industry moulds the masses’ tastes to its own benefit.  In this way, it encourages conformity instead of critical thinking and is extremely deceptive.  In terms of the music industry, this lack of critical thinking on behalf of the audience leads to the loss of the ability of the audience to respond critically to music.  Adorno called this ‘regressive hearing’.  ‘Culture’ is exploitative by nature, and by calling the music industry a ‘culture industry’, Adorno is highlighting the exploitation of the masses by the production, reproduction, distribution and consumption of popular music.

He said “In all its branches, products which are tailored for consumption by masses, and which to a great extent determine the nature of that consumption, are manufactured more or less according to plan.  The individual branches are similar in structure or at least fit into each other, ordering themselves into a system almost without a gap.  This is made possible by contemporary technical capabilities as well as by economic and administrative concentration” (Adorno, 1963).

Next, he talked about the concept of pseudo-individualisation.  This basically means that although popular musicians have some differences in their music, they are not all that different.  However, this is hidden from the listeners as they do not listen to the music themselves but instead it ‘is already listened to for them’.  In reality all of the music is mass produced in the same standardised form but the average listener would not notice this.  Pseudo-individualisation is therefore a result of the need to stylistically differentiate something that is functionally similar.  We are encouraged to believe that stylistic differences make the actual products different, but that is not the case.  It glamorizes the style instead of the real content of something.  An example of pseudo-individualisation could be taken from the Rage Against The Machine Christmas number one campaign from 2009.  This campaign saw the band defeat the X Factor’s Joe McElderry to the number one spot.  This campaign was launched after people had grown bored of the X Factor winner automatically getting Christmas number one every year.  To most people, it seemed rebellious, anti-establishment and strong.  However, the reality of it was that Rage Against The Machine were in fact signed by Sony Music, which had links to Simon Cowell and so somewhat undermined the point of the campaign.  The rights to the song are owned by the same company the campaign was started against. The fact is that the majority of popular music can be dressed up in any way, shape or form, but it is still just a product with the intention to make a profit.

Taking everything into consideration, style is, in many cases, just as important as substance.  Many contest that style and substance blend into one thing and cannot really be separated.  Within all music, there is style, with or without visual aids.  The substance is in fact the style and vice versa.  Who decides what music has style and what music has substance?  Perhaps it all comes down to a matter of personal opinion.

Some of Adorno’s ideas were too much to have ever worked whilst some ideas still hold strong today.  He does not seem to take into account the different aims and situations of performers, broadcasters and audiences in different societies to those he analysed.  In the consumerist society that we live in, what Adorno called serious music would be a product.  Like all other music, it is commercialized, advertised and sold.  In an ever growing commercialised world, style becomes just as important if not more important than substance.  Adorno’s views, although interesting, are too broad and the terms ‘serious music’ and ‘popular music’ cannot be the only two categories to put all music into.  He based his opinions on his own ideas of culture and already had a very low opinion of what he called popular music.  To some extent, certain aspects of popular music are standardised but to say that all popular music is standardised is a massive generalisation.  There are simply too many styles within ‘popular music’ to be compared.  Attempting to put all of the contrasting styles present in modern music into one category is never going to work and instead we should focus more on the individual aspects of each one and how we react to them.



Adorno, T (1963). Culture Industry Reconsidered. New German Critique, 6, Fall 1975, p12-19 (translated by Anson G. Rabinbach)

Cox, C. Warner, D (2004). Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. England: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd… p73.

Marchia, G. (2012). The “Dumbing Down” of Media Discourse. Available: http://intellectualyst.com/the-dumbing-down-of-media-discourse-123/. Last accessed 7th April 2013.

Storey, J (2006). Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction. 4th ed. Prentice Hall. p53.

Strinati, D. (1992). Come on Down? Popular Media Culture in Post-War Britain. Routledge.

Strinati, D (2004). An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture. 2nd Edition. Routledge.

Ultra Tech Talk. (2013). Gangnam Style Success: It Finally Hits One Billion Views. Available: http://ultratechtalk.com/gangnam-style-success/. Last accessed 4th April 2013.

Welty, G. (1984). “Theodor Adorno and the Culture Industry”.Available: http://www.wright.edu/~gordon.welty/Adorno_84.htm. Last accessed 9th May 2013.


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