In this essay, I will outline the Frankfurt School’s theories on mass media and popular culture; including Adorno’s ideas on popular music, and the effect that the consumption of the culture industry has on one’s place in society. In addition, I will discuss modern examples and flouts of the school’s views, as well as strengths and weaknesses of their theories.
The Frankfurt School was a group of German-Jewish intellectuals who came from the institute of social research at the University of Frankfurt in 1923. As a result of the rise of Nazism in Germany, the group fled to California in 1933, eventually returning to Germany in 1953 following the aftermath of the second world-war. The Frankfurt School revolved around four key thinkers, namely Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer and Walter Benjamin.
Their years in California shaped the views of the Frankfurt School when it came to popular culture and mass media. The group gained notoriety for their pessimistic views of culture amongst the masses. They believed that popular culture is not only bad for you, but it also reinforces one’s lowly place in the class system. The school believed that popular culture brainwashes us through constant reinforcement of dominant capitalist authority. According to Questioning the Media – A Critical Introduction (John, Mohammadi, & Sreberney-Mohammadi, 1995), this pessimism can be justified. They say that ‘the Frankfurt School had lived through futile bloodshed in World War One and had also observed the failure of the working-class revolution that had spread across Europe after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and were questioning the potential of these movements to bring about progressive social change’.
The Frankfurt School identified seven reasons for the non-realisation of Marx and the failure of these working-class revolts. These included capitalist brainwashing, the failure of the Russian revolution and the rise of fascism. In addition, they blamed the dominance of elite interests over those of the working-class, attributing blame to big government, big business and the ‘production-line society’. Next, they assigned blame to the proliferation of technology and science. The group stated that it was no longer a quest for truth or progress but an instrument of social control and domination lead by powerful elitist groups. Lastly, blame fell at, what they named, ‘the rise of consumer society’ or ‘the one-dimensional man’ as Herbert Marcuse said. This involved the creation of standardised individuals, rigid thinkers with blind submission to authority – unable to enact the kind of revolts that the Frankfurt School was discussing.
Popular culture and mass media, neologised by the group as ‘the culture industry’, came under constant and scathing attack. In their view, the culture industry is not something created by the people for the people, but something administered and imposed from above. They noted at the time that the culture industry was dominated by a monopoly of profit-seeking corporations. This is something that is still applicable today – specifically, in the newspaper industry. According to Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, in Capitalist democracies, it is ‘essential to control what people think in order to support consensus and the major financial and political forces in society’. They continue to say ‘the mass media is filled with sport and human-interest stories as they aim to dull people’s brains and distract them from the things that matter’ (Chomsky & Herman, 1988). The idea of monopolisation in the newspaper industry becomes apparent in an article from USA Todayentitled ‘What does Rupert Murdoch own? A little bit of everything’. Here, we see a list of the news corporations owned and controlled by media mogul Murdoch and his family of business tycoons. These range from smaller news outlets in Australia to global media powerhouses like Sky (Balakrishnan, 2015). This monopoly can have a dangerous effect. News is a commodity, and, in this instance, Rupert Murdoch has the means to perpetuate or secrete anything he chooses. This was evident in January 2018 when Ofcom (Office of communications) announced that Murdoch’s bid to take a majority stake in Sky would ‘not be in the public interest’ (Sweeney & Ruddick, 2018). This self-damaging information was scarcely reported by Murdoch’s media emporium.
The Frankfurt School also describes the culture industry as being a form of ‘escapist entertainment’ (Bottomore, 2002). This is certainly true in the modern day. People consume media as a means of diversion or relaxation. As the Frankfurt School says, it is an opium – an addiction. They would continue by arguing that popular culture is nodiversion, it merely encourages conformity and consensus. Netflix is a strong example of the culture industry as an escape. According to CNN Business (Fiegerman, 2019), Netflix is ‘quickly approaching 150 million subscribers’; each of them eager to watch the latest boxset and discuss it with friends and colleagues – desperate not to be left out of the conversation. Their recent addition of the ‘Skip Intro’ button reinforces the views of the Frankfurt School. Viewers now have the option to skip past the title sequence of whatever they may be watching, allowing them to reach the programme quicker, taking thirty seconds off the run-time(Davenport, 2018). Some title sequences can be a work of art on their own – to skip them is to ignore the hard work that was involved in constructing them. This option though feeds straight into the Frankfurt School’s narrative of mass media being an opium. The audience are desperate to get their next fix, and the ability to get to it more quickly is enticing. They have no interest in the artistic presence of a title sequence that I spoke of earlier, they are solely concerned with getting their next hit of popular culture.
The Frankfurt School continue to criticise the culture industry by describing it as ‘bland, stereotyped and conservative’, whilst performing the function of ‘stabilising the capitalist system’ (Bottomore, 2002). This is something that Theodor Adorno certainly emphasised when he wrote about popular music. When forced into exile, it is said that Adorno was ‘dismayed by the vulgarity of the commercial culture of jazz, dance and radio’ – this is where his attack on popular music stemmed from (John, Mohammadi, & Sreberney-Mohammadi, 1995). He outlined three criticisms of the popular music industry. The first is that all popular music is ‘standardised’. He claimed that ‘once a music or lyric pattern has proved successful it is exploited to commercial exhaustion’. Adorno’s second point is that popular music promotes ‘passive listening’. In essence, this is when music, often used as an escape from the monotony of work, proves to be just as dull and monotonous and thus leaves little energy for real escape. For Adorno, ‘the culture industry is nothing more than an assembly line producing standardised products’. Refuge from work is often sought from popular music but, ‘the passive and endlessly repetitive nature of it confirms the world as it is.’ Adorno continues with his third criticism of popular music. He notes that the function of said music is to adjust the listener to the societal role that they play – in other words, maintaining their class status. Adorno states that there are two types of listeners that play a part in this function: the ‘rhythmically obedient’ type that dances in distraction to the rhythm of their own exploitation, or the ‘emotional’ type that wallows in lyrical misery, oblivious to the real conditions of their existence. (Bottomore, 2002).
This idea of standardisation in popular music could still be apparent today. Justification comes from the Official Singles Chart(The Official Charts, 2019). The website allows us to see all of the UK Number One singles from decades gone-by. What we see here is that very few outlast a week at the top of the charts. Harnessing Adorno’s perspective, this couldbe because much of it sounds the same, and music is constantly being reproduced using an identical ‘musical or lyrical pattern’, eventually topping the chart and displacing a similar version from the week before. Although Adorno’s ideas of music being standardised and regurgitated are certainly applicable today, I feel that links to capitalist suppression are an overstretch in modern society. However, with the ‘recent rise of zero-hour contracts in the UK’ (Partington, 2018), the idea of ‘dancing in distraction’ to one’s exploitation could be more relevant now than ever before as workers look to overcome their work-based dismay. This though, is another example of the Frankfurt School’s pessimistic view of mass culture.
For Adorno, this was not the essence of music. It was not an example of high culture. He stated that good music must be ‘difficult and demanding. It must challenge us and demand complete attention’. He continues by saying ‘popular music only provides a form of diversion and prepares workers for the next day of drudgery’ (John, Mohammadi, & Sreberney-Mohammadi, 1995). This idea of high culture is something that is prevalent throughout the Frankfurt School’s thinking. Everything is judged against it; culture has to be difficult, critical or avant-garde.
The culture industry then, specifically popular culture, is ‘cultureless’ in the eyes of the Frankfurt School. They describe popular culture as having a binary list of functions. Namely: to enforce obedience to authority, the indoctrination of masses, promoting one-dimensional thought, creating false-needs and pseudo individualism, and finally, to perpetuate the class system.
In modern thinking, the Frankfurt School’s writing can be both criticised and lauded (Bottomore, 2002). In many ways, it was visionary and can be associated with much of the culture we consume today. Firstly, they identified that the culture industry legitimates and perpetuates capitalist society – a tenuous link with some forms of media, but this is quite appropriate in terms of news media and its monopolous nature. Once more, the link that the Frankfurt School forged between economic and cultural power rings true. Those who control the institutions control the stories, and, as Plato said, ‘those who tell the stories rule society’. Thirdly, they highlight the empty nature of much commercially produced culture. As explained in Adorno’s opinions on music, this again is true of todays standardised and monotonous composition.
The Frankfurt School’s thinking does attract some criticism, however. Many, accurately, describe the school’s thinking as elitist. They tar all popular culture with the same brush and condemn it as bad. Mass media as an escape is no bad thing, because it isn’t challenging or difficult does not detract from its useful place in society. It is understood that they also overstate the standardisation in mass media, particularly music. Of course, not all songs to come under the umbrella-term of ‘popular’ are carbon copies – Adorno ignores the nuances of popular music and instead, once more, condemns it all. Thirdly, the Frankfurt School assume that all audiences are totally passive and unable to repel manipulation. This, obviously, is untrue – as David Gauntlett says ‘the media’s suggestions may be seductive but can never overpower contrary feelings in the audience’ (Gauntlett, 2007). In addition to this, the school are criticised for being overly pessimistic – ignoring the possibility for a working-class revolt.
One thing that the Frankfurt School could not have envisaged though, was the conception of social media. The Evening Standardreport that around ’64 percent of young people in the UK regard social media platforms as an essential part of achieving social change’ (Heathman, 2018). This is an example of a complete subversion of the Frankfurt School’s lowly ideas of popular culture and its ability to inspire working-class uprising. In this instance, social media can be harnessed to implement the types of working-class revolts that the school were discussing in the 1950’s. According to KimGarst.com, social media has been influential in ‘four major revolutions across the world’ (Hunt, 2014). Social media is guilty though for embellishing our consumerist nature, leading to the creation of pseudo-individuals. However, its ability to give a platform to all people and inspire social change cannot be repudiated.
To conclude, the Frankfurt School’s opinions on the culture industry, although elitist and relatively outdated, are relevant today. Their scathing attacks on popular music and mass media as an opium do ring true in modern society. As I mentioned though, it seems that links to capitalist suppression are somewhat overstretched. Social media provides an explicit example of the Frankfurt School’s archaic views, and their inability to accept popular culture’s influence on the possibility of working-class revolutions. Finally, despite its lack of nuance, the value of popular culture as a diversion can never be refuted, and many would argue that, in our hectic, modern society, this is its primary purpose.
Balakrishnan, A. (2015, June 11). What does Rupert Murdoch own? A little bit of everything. Retrieved from USA Today: https://eu.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2015/06/11/what-rupert-murdoch-owns/71089066/
Bottomore, T. (2002). The Frankfurt School and its Critics.London: Routledge.
Chomsky, N., & Herman, E. S. (1988). Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.New York: Pantheon Books.
Davenport, C. (2018, May 17). Netflix now lets you skip boring intros when watching shows on a Chromecast. Retrieved from Android Police: https://www.androidpolice.com/2018/05/17/netflix-now-lets-skip-boring-intros-watching-shows-chromecast/
Fiegerman, S. (2019, January 18). Netflix add 9 million paying subscribers, but stock falls. Retrieved from CNN Business: https://edition.cnn.com/2019/01/17/media/netflix-earnings-q4/index.html
Gauntlett, D. (2007). Creative Explorations: New Approaches to Identities and Audiences.London: Routledge.
Heathman, A. (2018, September 24). Young people are using social media to push for change. Retrieved from The Evening Standard: https://www.standard.co.uk/tech/demos-facebook-young-people-social-media-a3942121.html
Hunt, T. (2014, February 5). 4 Instances When Social Media Fueled a Revolution. Retrieved from Kim Garst: https://kimgarst.com/4-instances-social-media-fueled-revolution/
John, D., Mohammadi, A., & Sreberney-Mohammadi, A. (1995). Questioning the Media – A Critical Introduction.London: SAGE Publications.
Partington, R. (2018, April 23). Number of zero-hours contracts in UK rose by 100,000 in 2017 – ONS . Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/apr/23/number-of-zero-hours-contracts-in-uk-rose-by-100000-in-2017-ons
Sweeney, M., & Ruddick, G. (2018, January 23). Rupert Murdoch’s Sky bid is not in public interest, says regulator . Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/jan/23/rupert-murdoch-sky-bid-blocked-21st-century-fox-cma
The Official Charts. (2019, February 15). All the Number One Singles. Retrieved from The Official Charts: https://www.officialcharts.com/chart-news/all-the-number-1-singles__7931/#2010s