Theodor W. Adorno is one of the leading

Theodor W. Adorno is one of
the leading components the Frankfurt School which is a school of thought
criticizing the monopoly of Capitalism and Culture Industry. Adorno is also one
of the major critiques towards Popular music. He had been very critical not
only for Popular music but also Jazz music. As a matter of fact, while it may
be true that some of his criticisms for popular music may have been too
critical of the music scene and perhaps a bit harsh, we must refrain from
taking Adorno’s criticisms in isolation of his much larger theory of the
Culture Industry. As such, it is imperative to try to understand his objections
by looking at where he stands regarding popular music while confronting his
ideas with a current cultural and musical subject such as the Eurovision Song

            First of all, it is necessary to clarify what this
European music contest is all about. Eurovision Song Contest is arguably the
biggest Song Contest in Europe and maybe in the world that connects music
lovers throughout the Europe continent with worldwide coverage that attracts
millions of viewers. It presents a chance for performers to jumpstart their
careers and gain global recognition. For fans, Eurovision is credited for
unifying masses maybe due to how it brings together adventurous fans in one
country to bond together as well as online communities. This musical and
cultural event has been around since 1956. It all started when a journalist
from Switzerland named Marcel Bezençon conceptualized this idea,
and also being the director of the European Broadcasting Union, his vision was
to see how far live television broadcast technology would go. (
The inauguration took place in Lugano, Switzerland with seven counties
participating. Notably, this was a live orchestra show that was broadcasted on
the radio since television sets were not available to all households at that
time (  As at 2017, 42
countries participated in the Eurovision Song Contest 2017 held in Kiev,
Ukraine with Portugal representative, Salvador Sobral, winning the Contest and
owning 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 the
following editions. Eurovision Song Contest is divided into two semi-finals
which are then followed by a grand final ( In the recent past,
most fans and participants have voiced their concerns regarding the tradition
of having the so popularly known big five qualify directly to the grand final
which are Germany, United Kingdom, France, Spain, and Italy, (and the hosting
country). These five countries co-founded Eurovision and are understood to pay
the most significant contributions to the European Broadcasting Union.

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            Upon reflecting on Adorno’s criticism on popular music,
one cannot help but wonder if the Eurovision Song Contest is either an arrogant
showcase of musical clichés or if it is merely a stage to present to the
world the realities of a new Europe. From a specific point of view, this event
can be perceived to be a social indicator that reveals fascinating aspects of
national identity. According to Theodor Adorno, music can be divided into two
different spheres which are “serious” and “popular” music. Moreover, he heavily
critiques popular mainstream music to be standardized for the mass society by
saying: “The whole structure of popular music is standardized, even where the
attempt is made to circumvent standardization. … The general types of hits
are also standardized: not only the dance types, the rigidity of whose pattern
is 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 the
sociology of music appeared in a paper he published in 1932 titled ‘On the
Social Situation of Music.’ On this essay, Adorno evaluated the modern
developments regarding the production and reproduction of ‘serious’ music
together with the social condition of ‘light’ music. (Witkin p. 83) It is also
in this paper that he identifies the basic argument that he would later develop
further with Horkheimer in the ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’ regarding the
Culture Industry (Witkin p. 83). Additionally, Adorno states on ‘Essay on Music’:
“The techniques of radio and sound film, in the hands of powerful monopolies
and in unlimited control over the total capitalistic propaganda machine, have
taken possession of even the innermost cells of musical practices of domestic
music making.” (Adorno p. 391). Therefore, he understands and believes that the
“capitalistic propaganda machine” has indeed changed the way people get and
consume music in a way like never before. Regarding the social situation of
music, it is important to say that the development of the kind of serious music
that Theodore Adorno composed was only appreciated by the intellectual elite
who are a minority of individuals (Witkin p. 86).  This type of music was heavily criticized by
most critics pointing out its “intellectual coldness” and lack of warmth.

            By critiquing popular culture and music, we witness
themes that are quite familiar when it comes to the Eurovision Song Contest.
Adorno is mainly concerned with two things: what individuals are given to
consume as music and art in a late capitalist society and secondly, the rising
of cultural supremacy spreading the industrialization of culture. Without a
doubt, Eurovision is a perfect example of Culture Industry, more particularly
the culture standardization of Popular Music which is producing the same music
over and over just to “fit” consumers’ needs. As witnessed in Eurovision, the
Culture Industry is responsible for producing and feeding what they consider
people should consume. Additionally, people understand from Adorno’s
fundamental critiques that popular music stimulates passivity to the consumers
in the aspects of how listeners are exposed to mass produced cultural hits
without even having to listen to them at all. Meaning that consumers already
know a song by only listening to it once without putting any effort in it or
sometimes without even listening to the song because a given artist produces
the same standardized “light” music.

            At the heart of their work, Adorno and Horkheimer are
dissatisfied by the nature of the current capitalist society. Remarkably,
capitalism is fundamentally exploitative, and it requires to be overthrown to
focus on helping humanity rather than the greed of some individuals or
corporations. Therefore, Adorno and Horkheimer saw the introduction of new
forms for mass media communication primarily on the entertainment industry and
argued that emerging trends would have a significant impact on the future.
Looking at the Eurovision Song Contest, it is a perfect example of what Adorno
and Horkheimer were referring to regarding the commoditization of cultural
forms. Concerning production and reproduction, Adorno seems to allude to the
structure of Eurovision by stating that “One aspect is the reintroduction into
the composition of those who are reproducing it. In ‘artistic music’, both the
composition and those who are reproducing it are hopelessly alienated from one
another; the instructions for playing the ‘New Music’ allow no room for freedom
in the process of reproducing it- indeed, the interpretation disappears
completely behind the mechanical reproduction (T. Adorno 1989: 55).” (Witkin p.

            Adorno highlighted that an aspect called standardization
encompasses popular music. Rarely do we see “serious” music being played at the
Eurovision Song Contest with the recent entries all following the same order as
once predicted by Adorno. He argues that unlike popular music (Eurovision music
in this case), ‘serious music’ and composers put out work that is synonymous in
the aspect of “the more highly organized the work is the less possibility there
is of substitution among the details.” (Adorno p. 442). As such, Eurovision
embraces a certain familiarity with published content for its listeners,
therefore, enhancing the concept of standardization. Through imitating their
previous works, Eurovision promotes a music industry that is competing within
itself. This puts another perspective on Adorno’s understanding especially
since Eurovision calls the listener’s attention and produces content of what
untrained music listeners would refer to as “natural” music. This leads to an
industry where Eurovision gives to its audience the same kind of music over and
over again creating a mechanism that prevents individualism in a free society.

            Nevertheless, the fact that modern music is isolated from
the society does not necessarily mean that modern music that embraces good
quality music does not exist. Adorno claims that “for modern music to meet its
responsibilities 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 it
is transmuted into the coded language through which the subject expresses the
suffering of a life disfigured by it. Adorno insists that the task of music is
not to comment on society, not to tell a story about or to reflect on society
as a content.” (Witkin, 87)

Social issues manifest
themselves in the process of construction of music. It is through addressing
the problems of how music is structured both in a formal and informal aspect
especially on the development of music that the composers are able to address
issues from the society and social conditions effectively. This is shown when
Adorno states that “music is able to do nothing but portray within its own
structure the social antinomies which are also responsible for its own
isolation. Music will be better, the more deeply it is able to express– in the
antinomies of its own formal language – the exigency of the social condition
and to call for change through the coded language of suffering. It is not for
music to stare in helpless horror at society. It fulfills its social function
more precisely when it presents social problems through its own material and
according to its own formal laws – problems which music contains within itself
in the innermost cells of its technique” (Adorno p. 393).

            There is no doubt that a lot has happened since the time
Adorno wrote these essays. There have been many changes within the music
industry. However, Adorno’s thinking can be interpreted under the lenses of
Eurovision in this manner: the standardization of popular music has since
expanded, and due to multiple music genres, this standardization is present in
minor genres. For example, with the growth of the internet, we witnessed the
arrival of sub-genres such as chill out, ambient or even psychedelic music. The
other crucial aspect involves music concerts and more so events like the
Eurovision. While Theodor Adorno predominantly focuses on the inner elements of
musical texts, it is equally important that they also focus on popular music’s
essential feature, the music industry. Concerts have since become an
indispensable part of the music industry as witnessed through Eurovision and
this further means that music creates a door of profiting through the creation of
content of how corporations produce music. Lastly, it is evident that Adorno’s
contribution has left an indelible mark in regards to music and concerts and
whether people agree with him or not, he has started a crucial dialogue that
brings together academics, music scholars, and content creators. Therefore,
Eurovision Song Contest is not only a massive production and reproduction of
popular music but also the standardization of cultural identity as a TV Show
with hundreds of millions pouring in every single year and a multi-million
marketing campaign and new visitors coming in from various countries joining
the Culture Industry process criticized by Adorno and Horkheimer. When visitors
reunite during the Eurovision week (Semi-finals and Final), people spend a lot
of 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 in
Europe where capitalism comes from.

            The European Broadcasting Union has other minor
Eurovision events held annually such as the Junior Eurovision Song Contest,
Eurovision Young Musicians, Eurovision Young Dancers, etc. It shows how the EBU
by definition is itself part of the Culture Industry being a union of
broadcasting organizations. Therefore, one cannot but think that Eurovision
Song Contest is just another (yet the most successful) European TV Show. There
are other concrete examples of Eurovision classified to be part of Culture
Industry and are the following: Australia in the Contest as a special guest
since Australia is not an active member (but associate) of the European
Broadcasting Union, therefore, cannot officially participate into the contest.
Then, the recent launch of the Eurovision Asia Song Contest 2018 (first
edition) which will be the Asia-Pacific counterpart of the popular European
show. Lastly, Jon Ola Sand, the ESC Executive Supervisor, recently said during
an interview that “We also want to see if it’s possible to create an American
version 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 the
brand can reach.” and he also added during the interview that “For everyone who
knows the TV business in the US, it’s very different from Europe and so it has
to be a different show adapted for the market. Still, if it carries the brand
of Eurovision Song Contest one way or another we have to make sure it carries
and is recognizable, and is not just a competition” (Vautrey, Jonathan)

That means Eurovision
include itself to be part of the Culture Industry as a standardized music

            Theodor Adorno (with Horkheimer) has already predicted
the future of music by analyzing and dividing it into two spheres. It is clear
that Adorno indeed knew that the future of music was through television and
corporate industries. For this reason, Eurovision perfectly embodies the
standpoint 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 nowadays
listener 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.