Political Economy: Adorno, Standardisation and Pseudo-Individualisation

Theodor Adorno was a German philosopher, sociologist, and composer known for his critical theory of society. He was a leading member of the Frankfurt School of critical theory and proposed the theory of Standardization. ‘In capitalist society, popular culture (and, by extension, popular music) is standardized, using the same formula to appeal to the masses. Adorno noted that all popular music contained a verse, chorus and bridge, and that these elements were interchangeable without damaging the song. However, this formula did not apply to “serious music”, saying that “every detail derives its musical sense from the concrete totality of the piece “, and arguing that even if one detail is omitted “all is lost”’ (Darbyshire. D, 2011). Adorno also implies that Pseudo-Individualization is the corresponding idea to Standardization. ‘By Pseudo-Individualization we mean endowing cultural mass production with the halo of free choice or open market on the basis of standardization itself. Standardization of song hits keeps the customers in line by doing their listening for them, as it were. Pseudo-Individualization, for its part, keeps them in line by making them forget that what they listen to is already listened to for them, or “pre-digested”.’ (Adorno and Leppert, 2002, p.445).

An artist/group that I think symbolize Adorno’s ideas of standardization are Little Mix, who I’m using as a particular example to represent standardization along the lines of the generic ‘boy band/girl band’. ‘Of the top ten singles of the week beginning Sunday, 14 November 1999, five of those acts represented are either boy or girl bands, former members of boy or girl bands or current members of the Spice Girls exploring a solo project. The key thing about these acts is that they all fulfil the music industry’s formula for what constitutes a top-selling band. Style, image and sex appeal are key factors. From a critical perspective original songs and lyrics appear, at times, to be a little more than after-thoughts.’ (Miles. S, 2011, p.30). You could suggest times have slightly changed looking at the top ten singles of the week beginning Friday, 4 November 2016; there are a few solo artists such as Bruno Mars, Sia or Drake in some of the top spots. However, the number one post is still taken by a group/girl band (Little Mix with ‘Shout out to my ex’) and the top ten is still predominantly groups, who to a lot of people sound the same. Little Mix’s latest single ‘Shout out to my ex’ (SOTME) to me, perfectly portrays Adorno’s theory of standardization. Little Mix have received heavy criticism that SOTME sounds extremely similar to GRLs (an American girl group) song ‘Ugly Heart’. Particularly the melody and instrumentation of the chorus but also, the production of their performance on The X Factor of the song was seen to be very similar to the video of GRLs ‘Ugly Heart’. Although this is an extreme example and could almost be looked into in regards to plagiarism, it shows how prophetic Adorno was with his theory of standardisation. I believe the standardisation of pop music, particularly boy bands/girl bands, has come to such a head, that even the ownership of work and originality of the music is now being completely dwarfed. All the ideas sound the same? Everyone’s copying each other?

Although you can see the idea of standardization across a lot of music today, I believe that it doesn’t apply to all music. ‘Frank Ocean is trying to defy the laws of consumption in a generation that can barely get through an hour album.’ (Donaldson. E, 2016) I believe in this case that standardisation comes under the hat of consumption as Donaldson goes on to say, ‘He’s an artist, far more than just a musician, so his messages are dense and tough to pinpoint without dissecting his work to pieces’. Frank Ocean is creating pieces of art. He’s trying to evoke new responses and trying to challenge the norm of mass consumption and immediacy. This was shown with the release of ‘Blond’, Frank Ocean’s 2nd and latest album released in August 2016. Ocean had been quite mysterious about the release date of ‘Blond’ suggesting dates and an album name that weren’t correct. He then released a short visual film and advertised four pop up shops in different locations across America & the UK where you could buy his magazine and with it, receive a copy of the album. ‘This was an act of swaying us away from technology, if only for a moment, to bring us into Frank’s reality. One where Frank still visits Barnes & Noble weekly for his favourite magazines and listens to all his music via a CD in his car.’ (Donaldson. E, 2016). Whilst you could argue that Frank’s focus was challenging consumerism, I believe that he is an example of an artist who is fed up of standardization of music and in turn, fed up of the consumerist culture in which standardization feeds? ‘The consumer of popular music is not happy unless he or she receives the same musical dish time after time, and the irony is that by wallowing in such predictability popular music listeners are able to convince themselves that they are actually in control.’ (Miles. S, 2001, p, 30). Ocean is serving sushi in Nando’s. Being slightly controversial with his release and his music, he is removing the ‘control’, creating a different norm and doing what he wants to do as an artist rather than copying everyone else. Ocean is not an example of standardization and his song ‘Be Yourself’ off ‘Blond’ is great proof. The song spanning just over 80 seconds, is solely a voicemail message from his mum which he has then named ‘Be yourself’. ‘Fertilizer’ a 40 second song on his first album ‘Channel Orange’ is also proof that standardization does not apply to all popular music.

An artist that symbolises Adorno’s ideas of pseudo-individualization is Jack Garratt. ‘Blending fragments of R&B, rock and any other genre that springs to mind into his dense, multi-layered electronic soundscape, Jack Garratt makes music that defies easy categorization.’ (Wass. M, 2015). Although Garratt’s music ‘defies easy categorization’, under Adorno’s strict and to be honest quite brutal categorization of “serious” music and not, Garratt would easily be categorized under standardized and is proof of pseudo-individualization. Initially his creativity and ‘one-man band/producer’ quality projects a newness and individuality about him, but really, if you listen to one of his songs, for example, ‘Worry’, it could sound alike any other electro, down-tempo, R&B pop song in regards to its chord structure and lyrics. Jack Garratt speaking in an interview says ‘The word ‘performance’ brings with it this idea or stigma that there is a thing to show off, a thing to prove, from the person onstage. Actually, the way I think about it is the exact opposite – I am the least important person when I’m in that environment. Even though I’m the only one there. The most important people are the people who are watching me. The crowd.’ (Murray. R, 2016). Could this also suggest that Garratt is much similar to a lot of other current artists at the moment? With so many artists now it’s all about the image; all about what will make money; what does the audience want? Wearing the hat of Adorno, what makes Garratt different to any other artist out there at the moment?

Wolfgang Tillmans, a fine art photographer recently released some music which completely goes against the norms and is very different. How could he possibly fall into being pinned as someone who’s an example of pseudo individualisation? He’s proof that pseudo-individualization does not apply to all popular music. One of Wolfgang Tillmans’ songs called ‘Make it up as you go along’ just repeats the words ‘make it up as you go along’ for five minutes. There is no typical chord pattern or song structure. It’s just completely random; utterly bonkers. I get excited by Wolfgang Tillmans’ music as it feels like he set out to challenge some of the ideas of standardization and pseudo-individualization in popular music. To me there’s an obvious difference in the sound of a song or an album when you can tell someone is authentically expressing creativity & what they want to do compared to someone who’s being forced into this ever-present cycle of standardisation and genericism who’s in it for the money or to fit into a certain stereo-type.

Bibliography:

Darbyshire. D. (2011). Culture Industries and Adorno’s Theory of Standardisation. Available at: https://loudmimedave.wordpress.com/2011/10/12/culture-industries-and-adornos-theory-of-standardisation/ (Accessed: 15October 2016).

Adorno. T. and Leppert. R. (2002). Essays on Music. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press

Miles. S. (2001). Social theory in the real world. SAGE Publications Ltd.

Donaldson. E. (2016). Frank Ocean’s ‘Endless’ & ‘Blond’ Create Two Vastly Different Realities. Available at: https://medium.com/@SermonsDomain/frank-oceans-endless-blond-create-two-vastly-different-realities-121c72be02a#.3jlw7s20v (Accessed: 15 October 2016).

Wass. M. (2015). Jack Garratt On New EP ‘Synesthesiac,’ Touring America & The Creative Process: Idolator. Available at: http://www.idolator.com/7594796/jack-garratt-interview-synesthesiac-ep-american-tour-songwriting (Accessed: 15 October 2016).

Murray. R. (2016). Going through phases: Jack Garratt. Available at: http://www.clashmusic.com/features/going-through-phases-jack-garratt (Accessed: 15 October 2016).

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