To Those Who Think Adorno's Critiques on Cultural Industry are Outdated

“But while popular music may, as Adorno argued, exhibit features of commodification, reification, and stan-dardization, which may in turn have retrogressive effects on consciousness, such a theoretical optic cannot adequately account for the genesis and popularity of many forms of popular music such as the blues, jazz, rock and roll, reggae, punk, and other forms of music connected with oppositional subcultures.” Kellner. p. 14

Is Adorno’s classical critical theory still valid for cultural and media studies today? In terms of the quote, Kellner examines the music industry, and uses rebellious forms of popular music to confute Adorno’s arguments on his so-called retrogressive music industry. The passage reflects the main argument that Kellner attempts to make, which is that although Adorno’s analysis of the function of mass media and culture contribute significant insights and valuable critiques, many of his concepts are contradictory, one-sided and overly negative. For instance, in the quote he suggests that all forms of popular music are commodified, reified and standardized, therefore, popular music would only deliver a retrogressive effect to the audience.

However, as Keller counter argues that rebellion or subculture forms of music, such as jazz, rock and roll, reggae, and punk essentially provide a platform for people who are marginalized or oppressed to express their feelings, anger, and concerns in the society. These subcultural forms of popular music go against the standardization and conformity. In the sense, they are not singing to restrict audience’s opinion in any way, rather such music is made to arouse public’s concerns on social issues like racism, social inequality and discrimination. According to Kellner, the contemporary forms of punk and hard rock and roll could even offer young fascists and conservatives a forum to advocate for their political approach. Additionally, it might even advance political mobilization and social progress, since many subculture music concerts are dedicated to political protests. Therefore, it is clear that by pointing out Adorno’s critiques on the cultural industry appear to be too pessimistic and extreme, the quote consolidates Kellner’s core argument.

Anyhow the blog suggests that it would be inadequate to claim that commodification, conformity and standardization do not exist inside of the subcultural or rebellious music forms, such as hip-hop. Exclusively founded by African American youths, Hip-hop is a subcultural music form that promotes equal right, anti-racial discrimination, drug use, sex and sexuality among the black communities in the States. Such musical genre would undoubtedly fit into Kellner’s subcultural music category, which fights against standardization and commodification. However, it has been the opposite of what Kellner would imagine, in the sense that hip-hop music today features a huge subject to commodification and standardization in the music market. As Neil Strauss argues that hip hop artists have a long history of sampling, rapper Puff Daddy’s three major hits in 1997 “I’ll Be Missing You”. “No Way Out” and “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems” are all based on prior hits by other artists. Earlier examples can be drawn on M.C Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” which is taken from “Superfreak” composed by Rick James. Musician Vanilla Ice’s rap song Ice Ice Baby” shares the same soundtrack with Queen’s “Under Pressure”.

A more recent example of hip-hop artist sampling from existing songs is Kanye West. From sampling other people’s music, kanye West has made himself famous, but by borrowing others works and following the same style, he contributes to the standardization in the hip-hop music industry. Aside from this, many hip-hop artists have signed contracts with major music record labels like Sony Music and Warner Music Group. Also the music industry has been increasingly concentrated in terms of the ownership, more and more hip-hop artists are creating music not for the sake of advocating rights or expressing their feelings but to make a larger commercial success. Given the fact that many hip-hop musicians today are subordinated to music companies, and their artworks have been commodified, the blog argues that despite Kellner’s critiques, Adorno’s insights on commodification and standardization of music still remain highly relevant in today’s cultural industry.
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