Theodor Adorno on Popular Music

Adorno makes three specific claims about popular music, what are they?

  • Standardisation: everything is pretty much the same, parts of songs are interchangeable with others and all follow the same structure.
  • Passive listening: we don’t engage with music, we listen to it but forget the lyrics the next second.
  • Social Cement: We all listen to the same music. In one way we listen to music because we can relate to it and can feel that someone else has felt the same way that we have, and in another way we listen to music to get our feelings out, this is why we dance.

What does Pseudo-Individualization mean? 

  • The idea that we believe we’re given choice when in reality everything is the same, just repacked, rebranded, or added to.
  • Genres in music allow us to see a difference that isn’t really there.


What does Adorno mean when he says that work leads to mass culture, mass culture leads back to work?

  • Most jobs are repetitive and dull. We return home tired and cannot be bothered to engage with anything too big or too thought-invoking, instead we listen to popular music which we don’t need energy to engage with.
  • We then feel recharged for work, but only because the culture we engaged with was repetitive and dull too, leading to a never-ending cycle where each reinforces the other.

Adorno is often challenged because how can all music be the same when we have new sub-cultures arise. In my opinion, they may arise but they all basically follow the same patterns and structures, and eventually become just like all other music that has already existed. Everything repeats and nothing is new. Its very easy to apply Adorno’s theories in today’s media sphere even though he was writing in the 1940s. Nothing really has changed.

These notes are from my year two semester two lectures and seminars. I do not own the image it is from:

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