Political Economy: Let a hundred flowers bloom

‘Write down one thing that you have learnt from this chapter and suggest how it might relate to music practice or music business.’

‘Marx believed that work can allow human beings to express their inherent creativity. He criticized the hierarchical capitalist firm for blocking such possibilities. He emphasized the dehumanizing and mind-numbing effects of the repetitive work that emanates from increasingly fine divisions of labour.’ (Ha-Joon. C, 2014, p.132).

This small section of the chapter ‘Let a Hundred flowers bloom’ links to McLuhan’s idea of automation – how automation means we can start making more creative decisions about the work we’re involved in, we can develop our own work patterns and priorities. We’re no longer forced into repetitive work? Within music I think this is becoming more apparent with all the noise, immediacy and widespread availability of music now. People are increasingly becoming fed up of the same thing or repetition ‘dehumanizing and min-numbing’ (even many of the artists themselves) and so are purposely setting out to be more creativity and express themselves in new & experimental ways.

Ha-Joon. C. (2014). Economics: the user’s guide. Penguin Books.

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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).

Political Economy Commodification of Worship Music: Value and Meaning

In response to recent discussion in our Political Economy lectures particularly looking at value and meaning, I have enjoyed researching into the commodification of worship music.

When preparing a set to lead at church we’ll have an idea of a journey we want to take people on when we sing. Starting with praise & declaration of who God is which then leads to a time of response or songs holding a value of introspection; how we’re feeling; where we’re at in life. Even then, as people in charge of where the music goes, we have to be careful to get the line right between leading people on a journey but not distracting them from the true meaning of what we’re doing.
As a contemporary charismatic large church with creative musicians, we want to see new things in the worship. We want to keep up with the times. We want to express our creativity and love for music into the songs we write just like in a secular band. We are inspired by so many exciting new worship albums from bands like Hillsong; Leeland; Elevation Worship and they all embrace experimental sounds, atmospheric soundscapes and synthesisers.

We do, however, have to be careful what are intentions are & what larger Christian band’s intentions are; what the meaning is behind our songs, I think even more than in a secular context. As we’re singing about God & the bible, there’s a responsibility for the songs to be theologically correct. ‘In spite of being a church and a worship band, Hillsong has arguably become a pop culture icon. (David Roark 2016, CAPC Magazine). A pop culture icon being a commercial product or culture aimed at/for the masses. Hillsong is a prime example of commodification of worship music. ‘Although advertising the Gospel is nothing new, referring to it specifically as “branding” has until recently been avoided (Einstein 2008, 61). ‘Hillsong may have started in Australia, but is now a multi-million dollar global brand with a massive following, in major cities around the world including London, Kiev, Moscow, Cape Town, New York, Paris, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Los Angeles to mention but a few.’ (Aguma, 2015). As soon as you talk about Hillsong in a church, it tends to divide opinion. The millennials tend to back them up talking about the latest album or conference that attracted thousands and how they’re doing a great job making church accessible for the masses. The others, however, question the whole ideology of Hillsong as a church.

Has the rapid growth of Hillsong and it’s mass interest seen the loss of value in their songs? Are their worship songs written out of a vulnerable place & an intimate song to God or are they now just written to become a number one hit and distract our attention or stimulate a certain appetite? Are they written with the intent to win ‘worship album of the year’ or are they written to equip churches internationally with intimate worship songs to sing? Is it wrong to want to do both?

Take ‘Good Good Father’ (Patt Barrett & Tony Brown) for example. Has its commodification, being released by one after the other of ‘celebrity worship leader’s’ meant its global success has dwarfed its original intent of being an intimate, worship song sang to get closer to God? In an interview behind the creation of the song (Worship Together with Patt Barrett & Anthony Brown), Tony shares how he’s only ever been able to call God his Father because he grew up without a dad. Pat shares how he cherishes the intimacy of the song and sings it with his daughter before she goes to bed each night. Having just won ‘song of the year’ at the Dove Awards (2016) does Good Good Father represent this intimacy that Patt and Tony intended, or has its success stolen this sentimental value and meaning whilst it’s sung again and again & paraded at Christian conference after Christian conference? Has it’s multiplication in fact created a superficial barrier between the songs original intent and it’s current meaning?

Looking at the current spectrum of worship songs, there is evidence that ‘experience’ & relevance may have taken over from the original value & intimacy of the songs. However, I believe ‘experience’ and relevance are becoming increasingly important. We live in an age where people are becoming more and more impatient so things need to be relevant.

I believe if the church and worship music wants to stay appealing and ‘with the times’, this is all important. Providing experience through conferences, concerts etc, and staying relevant. People may argue that this devalues the whole idea of the church. Takes God out of the equation. But if the origins of these songs and worship are rooted in the church, theology & experience of Christians then God will always be holding the value and meaning of the song together. They’ll be authentic. They’ll be written with meaning, intent and value.

12|10|16

Political Economy Artist Identity: Justin Vernon

After exploring artist identity in our Political economy lecture, I found an article in the guardian which inspired me to look more at the emotions and feelings which create someone’s identity rather than the superficial, man made things that we often associate with a person which then creates their identity.

Being an avid fan of Justin Vernon and following Bon Iver’s music over time, I know that he is not a ‘typical’ pop star who seems to love the limelight and may not write his own songs. He’s almost polar opposite.

Much has changed since the release of ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’. But I think Justin Vernon’s underlying identity as an artist throughout has always been his vulnerability. Particularly now having reached the bench mark of his third album as Bon Iver. Four years ago there was uncertainty as to Bon Iver’s future and then there was quiet. Vernon entered even more into a time of anxiety, panic attacks and depression, which partly stemmed from the experience of being in the spotlight.

He’s honest and open about where he is at. His music comes from a raw, vulnerable place. A hard place.

‘More than anything, 22, A Million is about Vernon getting lost, both mentally and physically.’
(Bon Iver: There are people who are into being famous. And I don’t like that’ – Laura Barton – The Guardian)

Along with Vernon’s astounding creativity and love for music which makes Bon Iver such a success, is the vulnerability that lies in the frameworks of all the carefully thought out lyrics and instrumentation.

To me, Vernon’s identity is his vulnerability. It makes his music relatable. But also so precious. Fragile & beautiful. And I believe that can only truly stem from a place of pure vulnerability.

06/10/16