Under monopoly all mass culture is identical, and the lines of its artificial framework begin to show through. The people at the top are no longer so interested in concealing monopoly: as its violence becomes more open, so its power grows. Movies and radio need no longer pretend to be art. The truth that they are just business is made into an ideology in order to justify the rubbish they deliberately produce. They call themselves industries; and when their directors’ incomes are published, any doubt about the social utility of the finished products is removed.

Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer, 1944

It became apparent on New Years Eve, whilst watching the umpteenth ‘top songs of the decade’ show that the general pop music landscape was unchanged from 2000 to 2009. The majority of it was cultural product designed off the back of market research and demographic profiling. What was interesting however was the process by which these acts came into being. Whereas the early part of the decade still ran the process of designing and manufacturing a pop group in the background, only to release them to the world in a flurry of doves and multimillion dollar marketing budgets, the latter part of the decade was more transparent. What we now find is that although the acts are produced in much the same way as they were before, the process of producing the act is itself a lucrative entertainment empire. The target audience is actively encouraged to become complicit in the construction of the next big hit, and that construction is as much pop culture as the final end product.

The observations regarding the increasing transparency of manufacturing pop are nothing really. A blip, a grain in the decades of actions that Adorno and Horkheimer first recognised in the 1940s. The quote from them is one of my favourites. It is a quote that I truly believe should be read by as many people as possible, if only once. It is clear concise and blunt, but most importantly it is sixty-six years old and is truer today than the day it was written. I find it strangely beautiful in the vehemence it conveys, I often wish academia had some more of this passion left.

If you feel inclined you can read the entirety of Adorno and Horkheimer’s essay on the Culture Industry online.

Resistance is Futile: The Xmas No.1 and the Culture Industry

It’s Christmas time again… why I have to point this out to you I don’t know, it just seems the standard thing to say December 1st onwards. With Christmas comes the Christmas number 1 in the UK, which every year generates more political banter than any actual political event. This year of course the assumption is that Mr. Simon Cowell will be selling the country his next piece of forgettable cultural commodity and it’s probably quite a good assumption. If we go back through the last five years we will see a general trend emerging in the Xmas no.1 spot…

2005 – Shayne Ward – ‘That’s My Goal’

2006 – Leona Lewis – ‘A Moment Like This’

2007 – Leon Jackson – ‘When You Believe’

2008 – Alexandra Burke – ‘Hallelujah’

2009 – Joe McElderry – The Climb (Probably)

All the Christmas number ones of the last five years have been products of the X-Factor TV show, a brand that has become so out of control I recently saw X-Factor popcorn and X-Factor chocolate, to eat whilst watching the X-Factor I presume.

None of these songs have been written by the performers. Shayne Ward’s song ‘That’s My Goal’ was written by Jorgen Elofsson. Elofsson was also the same man that wrote the song ‘A Moment Like This’ for Kelly Clarkson’s debut single after winning the first American Idol; the same song Leona Lewis covered for her X-Factor xmas number 1 in 2006. Leon Jackson’s xmas topper was “When You Believe’ written by Stephen Schwartz for Dreamwork’s Prince of Egypt movie 9 years previously.

Then for many it got personal with the Alexandra Burke cover of Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen. As many of you will know this brought about a variety of resistance movements, one to get the original Cohen version to the top spot, another to get Jeff Buckley’s cover, which is widely respected as being ‘authentic’. Obviously the X-Factor endorsed version took first position but ironically the Buckley cover took second place, leaving Cohen’s original at 36th.

This year we have another resistance movement in a bid to place ‘Killing in the Name’ by well known group Rage Against the Machine above the X-Factor product of Joe McElderry’s rendition of ‘The Climb’. ‘The Climb’ was originally written by a country music duo for Miley Cyrus in her role as Hannah Montana. Hannah Montana is Disney’s odd reality bending celeb-commodity that took the fictional pop star out of the TV-show and made her an actual pop star before then marketing her simply as Miley Cyrus. The song itself was written for Hannah Montana: The Movie, another branch of the Montana franchise.

Now ‘The Climb’ comes to us in the X-Factor packaging and the resistance movement that has sprouted up is equally interesting. Whereas the ‘Hallelujah’ movement could be described as a bid to supplant an inauthentic cover with a more authentic rendition, the RATM v McElderry saga appears to be more about the X-Factor coup of the xmas no. 1 itself. RATM are well known for their anti-corporate sentiments and highly politicised music and this appears to be less about the music, and more about the increasingly corporatised processes of musical production.

So what can the xmas no.1 tell us? Well if we take a critical perspective, one put forward by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, we see two processes going on here. We have the culture industry at work, a system of self referential self-perpetuating culture that is produced purely for profit. All but one of the songs on that list were written purely as commodity, either as an X-Factor product, as an American Idol product or as a film soundtrack. Back in the 1940’s when Adorno and Horkheimer became concerned that culture itself had become commodity that was used to make people subjects to the processes of capitalism, they didn’t have X-Factor, they were in fact rather prescient. In our current time period of hyper-mass-media where we are saturated with culture produced purely to make money, many people have come to similar conclusions without decades of sociological study behind them. They may not have the same language to express it, but a recognition of the inauthenticity of the culture produced by the culture industry is fairly widespread.

The resistance that is attempting to supplant the major label’s dominance of the musical landscape, even if its just at one landmark moment, can be seen as an expression of this dissatisfaction with culture’s authenticity. However it has been recognised in a lot of critical work that is concerned with the processes of capitalism, that any resistance to capitalism is always eventually subsumed into it. A great example of this is the Che Guevara T-shirt. His image has been reproduced so many times onto so many different commodities that his actual message has been lost from those commodities and he is now simply a pop art icon. There may be a relative few that wear their t-shirt with full support of the ideology Guevara represented, but there are many more who don’t.

I am sad to say that this expression of resistance is no different. Regardless of any attempt to subvert the UK charts for just a moment the major labels will win out. McElderry is now signed to Simon Cowell’s music label, SyCo, a subsidiary of Sony Music Entertainment. ‘Killing in the Name’ is on RATM’s self-titled album which was released under the music label, Epic. Guess who Epic are a subsidiary of…