Theodor W. Adorno is one ofthe leading components the Frankfurt School which is a school of thoughtcriticizing the monopoly of Capitalism and Culture Industry.
Adorno is also oneof the major critiques towards Popular music. He had been very critical notonly for Popular music but also Jazz music. As a matter of fact, while it maybe true that some of his criticisms for popular music may have been toocritical of the music scene and perhaps a bit harsh, we must refrain fromtaking Adorno’s criticisms in isolation of his much larger theory of theCulture Industry. As such, it is imperative to try to understand his objectionsby looking at where he stands regarding popular music while confronting hisideas with a current cultural and musical subject such as the Eurovision SongContest. First of all, it is necessary to clarify what thisEuropean music contest is all about. Eurovision Song Contest is arguably thebiggest Song Contest in Europe and maybe in the world that connects musiclovers throughout the Europe continent with worldwide coverage that attractsmillions of viewers.
It presents a chance for performers to jumpstart theircareers and gain global recognition. For fans, Eurovision is credited forunifying masses maybe due to how it brings together adventurous fans in onecountry to bond together as well as online communities. This musical andcultural event has been around since 1956. It all started when a journalistfrom Switzerland named Marcel Bezençon conceptualized this idea,and also being the director of the European Broadcasting Union, his vision wasto see how far live television broadcast technology would go. (Eurovision.tv)The inauguration took place in Lugano, Switzerland with seven countiesparticipating. Notably, this was a live orchestra show that was broadcasted onthe radio since television sets were not available to all households at thattime (Eurovision.
tv). As at 2017, 42countries participated in the Eurovision Song Contest 2017 held in Kiev,Ukraine with Portugal representative, Salvador Sobral, winning the Contest andowning rights to host the event in 2018 in Lisbon. Despite not being in Europe,Australia became the latest country to join the list of participating in 2015,and after their success in that edition, they were invited to attend in thefollowing editions. Eurovision Song Contest is divided into two semi-finalswhich are then followed by a grand final (Eurovision.tv). In the recent past,most fans and participants have voiced their concerns regarding the traditionof having the so popularly known big five qualify directly to the grand finalwhich are Germany, United Kingdom, France, Spain, and Italy, (and the hostingcountry).
These five countries co-founded Eurovision and are understood to paythe most significant contributions to the European Broadcasting Union. Upon reflecting on Adorno’s criticism on popular music,one cannot help but wonder if the Eurovision Song Contest is either an arrogantshowcase of musical clichés or if it is merely a stage to present to theworld the realities of a new Europe. From a specific point of view, this eventcan be perceived to be a social indicator that reveals fascinating aspects ofnational identity. According to Theodor Adorno, music can be divided into twodifferent spheres which are “serious” and “popular” music. Moreover, he heavilycritiques popular mainstream music to be standardized for the mass society bysaying: “The whole structure of popular music is standardized, even where theattempt is made to circumvent standardization. … The general types of hitsare also standardized: not only the dance types, the rigidity of whose patternis understood but also the ‘characters’ such as mother songs, home songs,nonsense or ‘novelty’ songs, pseudo-nursery rhymes, laments for a lost girl.
” (Adorno p. 438) Adorno’s initial impactful contribution towards thesociology of music appeared in a paper he published in 1932 titled ‘On theSocial Situation of Music.’ On this essay, Adorno evaluated the moderndevelopments regarding the production and reproduction of ‘serious’ musictogether with the social condition of ‘light’ music.
(Witkin p. 83) It is alsoin this paper that he identifies the basic argument that he would later developfurther with Horkheimer in the ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’ regarding theCulture Industry (Witkin p. 83).
Additionally, Adorno states on ‘Essay on Music’:”The techniques of radio and sound film, in the hands of powerful monopoliesand in unlimited control over the total capitalistic propaganda machine, havetaken possession of even the innermost cells of musical practices of domesticmusic making.” (Adorno p. 391). Therefore, he understands and believes that the”capitalistic propaganda machine” has indeed changed the way people get andconsume music in a way like never before. Regarding the social situation ofmusic, it is important to say that the development of the kind of serious musicthat Theodore Adorno composed was only appreciated by the intellectual elitewho are a minority of individuals (Witkin p.
86). This type of music was heavily criticized bymost critics pointing out its “intellectual coldness” and lack of warmth. By critiquing popular culture and music, we witnessthemes that are quite familiar when it comes to the Eurovision Song Contest.Adorno is mainly concerned with two things: what individuals are given toconsume as music and art in a late capitalist society and secondly, the risingof cultural supremacy spreading the industrialization of culture. Without adoubt, Eurovision is a perfect example of Culture Industry, more particularlythe culture standardization of Popular Music which is producing the same musicover and over just to “fit” consumers’ needs. As witnessed in Eurovision, theCulture Industry is responsible for producing and feeding what they considerpeople should consume. Additionally, people understand from Adorno’sfundamental critiques that popular music stimulates passivity to the consumersin the aspects of how listeners are exposed to mass produced cultural hitswithout even having to listen to them at all.
Meaning that consumers alreadyknow a song by only listening to it once without putting any effort in it orsometimes without even listening to the song because a given artist producesthe same standardized “light” music. At the heart of their work, Adorno and Horkheimer aredissatisfied by the nature of the current capitalist society. Remarkably,capitalism is fundamentally exploitative, and it requires to be overthrown tofocus on helping humanity rather than the greed of some individuals orcorporations. Therefore, Adorno and Horkheimer saw the introduction of newforms for mass media communication primarily on the entertainment industry andargued that emerging trends would have a significant impact on the future.Looking at the Eurovision Song Contest, it is a perfect example of what Adornoand Horkheimer were referring to regarding the commoditization of culturalforms. Concerning production and reproduction, Adorno seems to allude to thestructure of Eurovision by stating that “One aspect is the reintroduction intothe composition of those who are reproducing it. In ‘artistic music’, both thecomposition and those who are reproducing it are hopelessly alienated from oneanother; the instructions for playing the ‘New Music’ allow no room for freedomin the process of reproducing it- indeed, the interpretation disappearscompletely behind the mechanical reproduction (T. Adorno 1989: 55).
” (Witkin p.165) Adorno highlighted that an aspect called standardizationencompasses popular music. Rarely do we see “serious” music being played at theEurovision Song Contest with the recent entries all following the same order asonce predicted by Adorno. He argues that unlike popular music (Eurovision musicin this case), ‘serious music’ and composers put out work that is synonymous inthe aspect of “the more highly organized the work is the less possibility thereis of substitution among the details.” (Adorno p.
442). As such, Eurovisionembraces a certain familiarity with published content for its listeners,therefore, enhancing the concept of standardization. Through imitating theirprevious works, Eurovision promotes a music industry that is competing withinitself. This puts another perspective on Adorno’s understanding especiallysince Eurovision calls the listener’s attention and produces content of whatuntrained music listeners would refer to as “natural” music.
This leads to anindustry where Eurovision gives to its audience the same kind of music over andover again creating a mechanism that prevents individualism in a free society. Nevertheless, the fact that modern music is isolated fromthe society does not necessarily mean that modern music that embraces goodquality music does not exist. Adorno claims that “for modern music to meet itsresponsibilities to society in an alienated world and to remain high in truth-value, it must take alienation into the inner cells of the work of art where itis transmuted into the coded language through which the subject expresses thesuffering of a life disfigured by it. Adorno insists that the task of music isnot to comment on society, not to tell a story about or to reflect on societyas a content.” (Witkin, 87)Social issues manifestthemselves in the process of construction of music.
It is through addressingthe problems of how music is structured both in a formal and informal aspectespecially on the development of music that the composers are able to addressissues from the society and social conditions effectively. This is shown whenAdorno states that “music is able to do nothing but portray within its ownstructure the social antinomies which are also responsible for its ownisolation. Music will be better, the more deeply it is able to express– in theantinomies of its own formal language – the exigency of the social conditionand to call for change through the coded language of suffering. It is not formusic to stare in helpless horror at society. It fulfills its social functionmore precisely when it presents social problems through its own material andaccording to its own formal laws – problems which music contains within itselfin the innermost cells of its technique” (Adorno p. 393). There is no doubt that a lot has happened since the timeAdorno wrote these essays. There have been many changes within the musicindustry.
However, Adorno’s thinking can be interpreted under the lenses ofEurovision in this manner: the standardization of popular music has sinceexpanded, and due to multiple music genres, this standardization is present inminor genres. For example, with the growth of the internet, we witnessed thearrival of sub-genres such as chill out, ambient or even psychedelic music. Theother crucial aspect involves music concerts and more so events like theEurovision. While Theodor Adorno predominantly focuses on the inner elements ofmusical texts, it is equally important that they also focus on popular music’sessential feature, the music industry.
Concerts have since become anindispensable part of the music industry as witnessed through Eurovision andthis further means that music creates a door of profiting through the creation ofcontent of how corporations produce music. Lastly, it is evident that Adorno’scontribution has left an indelible mark in regards to music and concerts andwhether people agree with him or not, he has started a crucial dialogue thatbrings together academics, music scholars, and content creators. Therefore,Eurovision Song Contest is not only a massive production and reproduction ofpopular music but also the standardization of cultural identity as a TV Showwith hundreds of millions pouring in every single year and a multi-millionmarketing campaign and new visitors coming in from various countries joiningthe Culture Industry process criticized by Adorno and Horkheimer. When visitorsreunite during the Eurovision week (Semi-finals and Final), people spend a lotof money on hotels, flights, restaurants, Eurovision tickets, tourism tickets,which are all variables reinforcing the idea of capitalism. For this reason,Eurovision Song Contest can only exist in western society, more precisely inEurope where capitalism comes from. The European Broadcasting Union has other minorEurovision events held annually such as the Junior Eurovision Song Contest,Eurovision Young Musicians, Eurovision Young Dancers, etc.
It shows how the EBUby definition is itself part of the Culture Industry being a union ofbroadcasting organizations. Therefore, one cannot but think that EurovisionSong Contest is just another (yet the most successful) European TV Show. Thereare other concrete examples of Eurovision classified to be part of CultureIndustry and are the following: Australia in the Contest as a special guestsince Australia is not an active member (but associate) of the EuropeanBroadcasting Union, therefore, cannot officially participate into the contest.Then, the recent launch of the Eurovision Asia Song Contest 2018 (firstedition) which will be the Asia-Pacific counterpart of the popular Europeanshow. Lastly, Jon Ola Sand, the ESC Executive Supervisor, recently said duringan interview that “We also want to see if it’s possible to create an Americanversion of the Eurovision Song Contest, although we haven’t concluded that yet.This is a long-term strategy for sure to see how far outside of Europe thebrand can reach.” and he also added during the interview that “For everyone whoknows the TV business in the US, it’s very different from Europe and so it hasto be a different show adapted for the market.
Still, if it carries the brandof Eurovision Song Contest one way or another we have to make sure it carriesand is recognizable, and is not just a competition” (Vautrey, Jonathan)That means Eurovisioninclude itself to be part of the Culture Industry as a standardized musicshowcase. Theodor Adorno (with Horkheimer) has already predictedthe future of music by analyzing and dividing it into two spheres. It is clearthat Adorno indeed knew that the future of music was through television andcorporate industries. For this reason, Eurovision perfectly embodies thestandpoint of Adorno regarding music and especially, popular music. However,while Adorno realized that much of the “modern” music is also “serious,”he failed to note that in a modern post-capitalism era, even the so-called “serious”music is now mixed and blended with the standardized music. Therefore, the nowadayslistener fails to recognize what music is “serious” and which one is “standardized”because both spheres are now considered to be part of the “natural” music;hence, nobody will ever be able to make a distinction from these two spheres.