The Who and What of The Culture Industry — Atlantic Records and Bad Religion

A discussion board post exploring The Who and The What of critical theorist Theodor Adorno’s “Culture Industry” through the lens of Bad Religion’s anti-nationalist song entitled “American Jesus.”

“The Who” — Atlantic Records

(All images taken from Atlantic Records’ website)

When we look at Adorno’s ideas, the “culture industry” is just another word for “mass media.’ When we take in that idea and understand its concept, we can see why Adorno didn’t like corporations such as Disney and the big record labels of the day such as Elektra Records. To him, the idea of using parts of culture like art to maximize profit and produce the heck out of, took away from the meaning of the art itself.

Adorno actually said, “The entire practice of the culture industry transfers the profit motive naked onto the cultural forms,” (Adorno, 1975, pg. 12). This can be translated in many different ways, but the way I see it, Adorno was basically saying that capitalism killed art, and now many, if not all, art forms are corrupted and meaningless.

Actually, I do think Adorno just came out and said that straight up. Let me find the quote… Here it is: “Cultural entities typical of the culture industry are no longer ‘also commodities’, they are commodities through and through,“ (Adorno, 1975, pg. 13). Honestly, it’s a good point on his part. Mind you, it’s a very pessimistic one at best.

This brings me to my “who” in the culture industry, Atlantic Records.

You’re probably asking why they’re a major player and to that I say this: They help produce, redistribute, and market pieces of art, in the form of music, for money. Throughout the rise of rock n’ roll, Atlantic Records helped to create the trends of RNR’s day and commodify counterculture music. Therein, they created a market where they could profit off rebellious acts like Cream, Led Zeppelin, Rush, The Rolling Stones, The Velvet Underground, and Twisted Sister. While Atlantic Records was profiting off the “rebellious acts of the day,” they still had family-friendly performers like Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Roberta Flack, and Big Joe Turner to promote. Meaning, they had all their bases covered.

Another way to look at this is the record company didn’t really stand for anything politically, they just wanted to be with the times so they could make money off multiple demographics with varying political ideologies. If that meant embracing the political ideology of the day, an ideology that those within the record company didn’t agree with or like, so be it. Of course, Adorno would hate this type of thing, because it’s just a mask to generate profit or as Adorno said, “What parades as progress in the culture industry, as the incessantly new which it offers up, remains the disguise for an eternal sameness; everywhere the changes mask a skeleton which has changed just as little as the profit motive itself since the time it first gained its predominance over culture,” (Adorno, 1975, pg. 14).

Adorno’s main criticism is that the big players in the culture industry did this “try and get in on every market” thing a lot. Hence, the example of Disney from the class (Module 6, 2021, slide 2).

This is probably a good segway into “The What” part of the discussion.

The What— Bad Religion’s Recipe For Hate — “American Jesus”

Okay, we’re coming into the 1990s. Atlantic Records was sinking their teeth into the new emerging markets derived from genres like hip hop, rap, and something called grunge, a new scene coming out of Seattle, Washington that blended the harsher sounds of punk with the melodic and harmonic sounds of rock n’ roll.

At the time “American Jesus” was released, grunge was getting huge. Acts like Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, The Smashing Pumpkins, Alice In Chains, and Pearl Jam were taking the mainstream by storm. Atlantic Records wanted a piece of the action, but they only managed to sign Stone Temple Pilots (which is not a bad signing). Like many players in the culture industry at the time, they wanted more artists that kind of pushed the boundaries of what grunge music was. This is where the hardcore punk rockers Bad Religion came into play.

Before Bad Religion signed with Atlantic Records in the early 1990s, they were having a lot of success on guitarist Brett Gurewitz’s label Epitaph Records. That said, the label had yet to break out to become what it is today, the biggest and most commercially successful independent record label of all time. At the time, Bad Religion wanted to have more of a mainstream reach and Atlantic Records was willing to give them that. Both sides saw there was a fit and they came to terms on a deal.

To a big portion of Bad Religion’s fans, they saw the band as sellouts. To these fans, Bad Religion chose money and fame over the message of their music and protested the mainstream culture that they sung about in songs like “21st Century (Digital Boy).” Now, let’s be real, Adorno would say they made that choice way before they linked up with Atlantic Records. In the sense that art which is sold already loses its meaning and value. Bad Religion was selling their music way before the Atlantic Record deal. That’s how they got noticed in the first place.

Moving along.

The first record they recorded for AR was Recipe For Hate and the biggest hit to come off the thing was “American Jesus.” Quoting directly from the song’s Genius page, “‘American Jesus’ was a response to President Bush and his belief that God will assist America in the Gulf War. It’s about how people think God treats America differently than other countries,” (Genius, 2021).

In the song’s lyrics, it has a very anti-nationalist vibe. Some critics called “American Jesus” anti-American, which is rich, because if you look into some of the artists that Atlantic Records had signed to their label at this time in the 1990s, those artists were writing songs that praised the USA and all the values it stood for as a country. This can especially be seen with more of their “family-friendly” acts who may or may not have been country singers. Once again, this kind of speaks to how much of a crapshoot the culture industry was in America in the 1990s. Like listen to “American Jesus” and then go and listen to Ray Charles’ stuff from the ’90s. Two totally different vibes and messages.

Moving along.

In “American Jesus,” lead singer and songwriter Greg Graffin uses a lot of sarcasm to get his message across. Graffin does it in a very in-your-face, time-to-face-the-facts type of way. For example, let’s review the second verse of the song.

“I feel sorry for the earth’s population

’Cause so few live in the U.S.A

At least the foreigners can copy our morality

They can visit, but they cannot stay

Only precious few can garner the prosperity

It makes us walk with renewed confidence

We’ve got a place to go when we die

And the architect resides right here,” (Bad Religion, 1993, track 3).

The verse is basically saying “screw everything America stands for” in a very passive-aggressive way. Obviously, the song also takes a not-so-subtle anti-capitalist stance.

Furthermore, Graffin continues this “screw everything America stands for” message in the chorus:

“We’ve got the American Jesus

(We’ve got the American Jesus)

See him on the interstate

(We’ve got the American Jesus)

We’ve got the American Jesus

(We’ve got the American Jesus)

Exercising his authority

We’ve got the American Jesus

(We’ve got the American Jesus)

Bolstering national faith

(We’ve got the American Jesus)

We’ve got the American Jesus

(We’ve got the American Jesus)

Overwhelming millions every day

(Ah-ah-ah) Yeah,” (Bad Religion, 1993, track 3).

Fans of Bad Religion were used to Graffin’s way of songwriting and building his choruses. Critics, on the other hand, were mixed about his songwriting tendencies for Recipe For Hate. They thought maybe he could be a little less political. After signing the big record deal, these types of lyrics lost their meaning because they bought into what they were against for so many years (ie. capitalism and nationalism). Yet, there were a lot of consumers in the mainstream that ate this song up, because at around this time, there were plenty of folks that didn’t like the idea of how America always tried to shove its beliefs and morals down the throats of its citizens when the country’s military was out in the Middle East trying to overthrow governments so they could gain access to oil-rich land amongst other things.

To these citizens, America’s actions seemed two-faced and hypocritical. Now there’s a song on the radio like “American Jesus” saying exactly what folks had been thinking in a way they wished they could articulate. In other words, the song conformed with the political thinking of the working-class people of the time. Therein, thanks to a major player in the culture industry making sure it got on the radio, “American Jesus” became more than a cult hit and essentially help put Bad Religion on the map nationwide.

Now, this is where a lot of people will draw a line with Adorno.

Some critics might say this is a good thing that Bad Religion gets their anti-nationalist, anti-capitalist messages out through the song “American Jesus.” To those making that argument, there’s a new narrative in the mainstream. Minds can be opened and thoughts can be changed.

Adorno wouldn’t think that way though. In fact, Adorno wrote: “The concept of technique in the culture industry is only in name identical with technique in works of art. In the latter, technique is concerned with the internal organization of the object itself, with its inner logic. In contrast, the technique of the culture industry is, from the beginning, one of distribution and mechanical reproduction, and therefore always remains external to its object,” (Adorno, 1975, pg. 14).

In other words, the idea that a band like Bad Religion could separate itself from the culture industry is complete hogwash. “American Jesus” is just another song, in a long list of them, that’s being commodified for commercial use and distribution. It has no cultural meaning and conforms to the capitalist system in the sense it’s being sold for a profit. Bad Religion may have its own different sound and its own unique messages in its music’s lyrics, but at the end of the day, “American Jesus” was just another anti-nationalist, anti-capitalist song in a market where there’s many to choose from. It’s like a modern-day hashtag, it’s nothing more than just that, a hashtag.

What’s my opinion on this debate? As much as I hate to say it, I think Adorno has a point.

Look, bands like Bad Religion might write songs like “American Jesus” that are critical of their homelands’ political ideologies, but a person can argue that these bands don’t really practice what they preach in their music. For example, a big message in Recipe For Hate was to resist conforming to an American society that lost its way by getting lost in itself (if that makes sense?). Yet, the band is signing lucrative record deals, traveling the world making big bucks touring, performing on mainstream TV stations like MTV and BBC, they were capitalizing on all their momentum by selling merch, and knowingly turning their art into a commodity. Not that there’s nothing wrong with that, but it defeats the purpose of firing back against the culture it hates, which is why Adorno said cultural products such as counterculture music end up being meaningless. It doesn’t practice what it preaches. The songs are just facades and we’re lost in them as consumers. (Don’t tell Rage Against The Machine’s famed guitarist and Harvard graduate Tom Morello that.)

In the end, the only people that really win the “idealogy war” are the folks at the record label, because they’re selling the dream that both the creators and consumers of music who go against the culture industry are jamming the culture when they’re really not. If they were truly jamming the culture as some say, record labels wouldn’t be making absorptive amounts of money off these acts, and capitalism wouldn’t be king. To Adorno, the biggest danger is for society to believe that idea and embrace it full-heartedly because that’s when people truly become brainwashed within the system of the cultural industry. Our eyes then become closed and we’re ripe for the picking from folks like the “American Jesus.”

“The power of the culture industry’s ideology is such that conformity has replaced consciousness. The order that springs from it is never confronted with what it claims to be or with the real interests of human beings,” (Adorno, 1975, pg. 17).

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Christian Holmes

Christian Holmes

31 Followers

Isn’t it amazing where life takes you? One day you’re learning about how to throw a hip check. The next you’re writing about it! Low key fan of sarcasm.