UBC TV Show Discussion

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Pairing #1: Is this TVIV? On Netflix, TVIII and binge watching (Jenner, M) AND Squid Games

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Pairing #2: The Frankfurt School (Strinati, D) AND Taylor Swift

*Writing on an article and object of analysis not listed above will result in a grade of zero.

Your Critical Reading Response MUST include ALL of the following:

1) Explain the MAIN arguments in the article. Don’t get distracted by details and examples: what is the most important material, why does it matter? Find the authors thesis.

2) APPLY the main arguments to the object of analysis it is listed with. Think: how can we better understand this object or conversation with the theory and ideas from the reading? This is about applying the author’s main argument; you MUST be critical and thoughtful in your analysis. It is also possible that there is something missing from the theory; if so, why is this important? Critical thinking is not about agreeing or disagreeing; it’s about a thoughtful analysis and evaluation based on the information available.

3) CONNECT the argument with other course material. There are going to be times when the readings and the arguments connect. Seeing these connections, and working with them, will help you immensely with your exams.

541523
research-article2014
NMS0010.1177/1461444814541523new media & societyJenner
Article
Is this TVIV? On Netflix,
TVIII and binge-watching
new media & society
2016, Vol. 18(2) 257­–273
© The Author(s) 2014
Reprints and permissions:
sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav
DOI: 10.1177/1461444814541523
nms.sagepub.com
Mareike Jenner
Independent Scholar, Germany
Abstract
This article explores the relationship between television and video on demand (VOD),
focusing specifically on Netflix and its recent move to produce and distribute original
serialised drama. Drawing on a number of conceptualisations of contemporary media,
this article positions Netflix within a contemporary media landscape, paying particular
attention to how it relates to branding strategies of multi-platform serialised content
and subscription cable channels in the United States. It considers Netflix-produced
season 4 of Arrested Development (Fox, 2003–2013, Netflix, 2013) as a case study to
explore how Netflix positions itself in relation to contemporary ‘quality’ and ‘cult’ TV
and associated viewing practices and draws on theories of post-postmodern capitalism
to understand its function within a broader socio-political context. As such, it places
Netflix within discourses of VOD, TVIII, branding, contemporary viewing practices and
consumer practices in post-postmodern capitalism.
Keywords
Arrested Development, binge-watching, cult TV, digital television, new media, postpostmodernism, TVIII, video on demand
In 2007, online DVD rental service Netflix announced the introduction of a video-ondemand (VOD) service. By 2014, Netflix not only offers a large online library of film
and TV in North and South America, the Caribbean, Denmark, the United Kingdom,
Ireland, Sweden, Norway, Finland and the Netherlands, but even offers original content
in the form of serialised drama and comedy, featuring a number of stars ranging from
Kevin Spacey to Will Arnett, directors like David Fincher or writers like Jenji Kohan.
Corresponding author:
Mareike Jenner, Independent Scholar, Ringstr 36, Berlin 12205, Germany.
Email: mareike.jenner@gmx.de
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new media & society 18(2)
Netflix has moved into territory that sets it apart from familiar structures of production,
broadcasting or branding of television.
Netflix does signal a change within the digital television landscape. How permanent
and significant this change actually is, only time will tell (though with companies and
VOD platforms like Amazon and Hulu now offering original content, Netflix’ impact
seems both permanent and significant). As such, the title question of this article, is this
TVIV?, is clearly hyperbole. As Derek Kompare (2005) argues,
… it is impossible to gauge exactly what ‘television’ will be in another decade or so […]. However,
it is clear that the centralized, mass-disseminated, ‘one-way’ century is largely ceding to a regime
premised instead upon individual consumer choice, and marked by highly diversified content,
atomized reception, and customizable interfaces. […] These changes around television are also
part of a larger conceptual shift across all media, as the aesthetic, technological, industrial and
cultural boundaries between previously discrete forms (text, film, broadcasting, video, and sound
recordings) are increasingly blurred, challenging established practices and paradigms. (p. 198)
This article is concerned with issues of how to conceptualise Netflix in light of its
relatively new role as producer and distributor of original content rather than ‘just’ VOD
and DVD rental service. It is argued here that Netflix (as representative of VOD as producer of original content) signals a significant shift in a new media landscape and problematises known terminologies. The first part of this article will explore how Netflix
relates to periodisations of television history and the concept of television itself. It will
then move on to discuss what Netflix is and how it is positioned in its current media
environment. In a third step, this article will consider how Netflix deliberately positions
itself as similar, but also decidedly different from other media, by looking specifically at
the case study of Arrested Development (Fox, 2003–2013, Netflix, 2013), season 4, the
concept of independent scheduling and binge-watching. In a last step, Netflix and associated viewing practices are tied to Jeffrey T. Nealon’s conceptualisation of post-postmodern capitalism as one way to understand Netflix as media form and business model
designed to accommodate the way consumption and identity construction are tied
together in contemporary capitalism.
What is TVIV?
To answer the question of whether or not Netflix signals a change significant enough to
allow for the use of the term of TVIV would surely be premature, in particular as the
division of television history into such eras is never unproblematic. Roberta Pearson
(2011) summarises the ‘periods’ of US television as follows:
In the United States, TVI, dating from the mid-1950s to the early 1980s, is the era of channel
scarcity, the mass audience, and three-network hegemony. TVII, dating from roughly the early
1980s to the late 1990s, is the era of channel/network expansion, quality television, and network
branding strategies. TVIII, dating from the late 1990s to the present, is the era of proliferating
digital distribution platforms, further audience fragmentation, and, as Reeves et al. (2002)
suggest, a shift from second-order to first-order commodity relations. (Location 1262–1266)
Jenner
259
While TVIII is marked by certain technological advances and connected branding and
programming strategies, what is signalled by Netflix and other VOD platforms exclusively available online is a move away from the television set. One significant marker of
TVIII is its move towards multi-platform forms of distribution and storytelling, but it has
always kept some (however tenuous) link with the technology, branding and programming strategies, and social connotations television traditionally carries. Constructions of
‘television’ associated with TVI and TVII have frequently been subverted in the TVIII
era by technological developments (ranging from DVD box sets to TiVo or illegal downloads), audience behaviour (in accordance with the possibilities of new technology) and
industry (particularly, Home Box Office [HBO]’s efforts to redefine serialised drama as
‘high culture’), but has still sought to align itself with the familiar medium. Yet, Netflix
seems to signal a move away from the medium, its branding strategies, associated viewing patterns, technologies, industry structures or programming.
As Pearson also points out, while the division of television history into certain periods
is certainly helpful, they can only be understood as broad guideposts in a complex discursive formation of what we understand as television. Matt Hills (2007) argues in an
article on DVD culture that the medium of television is discursively constructed and
unfixed itself, making narratives of transformation where the introduction of new technologies supposedly transform the medium somewhat problematic:
Narratives of transformation are themselves called upon to discursively characterise, and so fix,
the earlier attributes of the object said to be undergoing change. In other words, […] to argue
that TV has been radically altered, first by video and then qualitatively again by DVD, it is
necessary for the ‘television’ of the pre-recording-technology era to be discursively fixed in
place as an artefact. […] The identification of these guiding metaphors is helpful in establishing
that TV has, of course, never quite been a stable object of study, and therefore cannot undergo
wholesale destabilisation by DVD culture. Rather, it is a case of competing discourses, with
discussions of ‘TVIII’ (or other rival periodizations) themselves working to foreclose and
delimit ‘TVI’ and ‘TVII’ as stable discursive objects. And if one of the points of contrast
between these discursive constructions and ‘TVIII’ is taken to be television’s newfound
permeability and reconstitution as a medium (into a transmedial ‘network’ of texts which move
across ‘converged’ digital media), then it is worth noting that ‘TVI and II’ were also alwaysalready permeable and transmedial. (pp. 43–44)
Netflix does not change existing modes of broad- or narrowcasting. It does not even
draw into question the role of DVDs and DVD culture, as Netflix does not offer any
‘extras’, such as commentaries, photo galleries, gag or blooper reels, cast and crew interviews, making-offs and so on, nor does it offer an alternative to the (possibly fetishised)
object of a DVD and DVD box sets. However, it does draw into question previous
notions of multi-platform as television, due to its independence from more traditional
modes of a branding infrastructure that links online streaming to existing television
channels (as will be discussed in more detail later on).
Michael Curtin (2009) argues that the Hollywood writers’ strike in 2007 and 2008,
which was dominated by questions of writer’s shares of the profits gained through distribution via DVD and Internet and through the sale of material based on their diegetic
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universes, such as video or online game tie-ins, signalled a significant shift in the contemporary media landscape:
The 2007–2008 TV season therefore proved to be something of a tipping point for the industry,
a moment of crisis when executives and creative talent were again forced to revisit the issues
of synergy and intermedia strategy. In part, they needed to recalibrate daily practices, audiencemeasurement techniques and revenue-sharing formulas, but at a deeper structural level they
needed to rethink the spatial logic of electronic media. […] Yet during the 2007 season, primetime audiences for each of the four leading networks averaged roughly 5 per cent of television
households, only a fraction of what they had attracted during the classical era. Interestingly,
daily television viewing remained high – in fact, higher than in the 1960s, at 4 hours 35 minutes
– but it was coming from more centres and flowing through more circuits than ever before: via
DVD, cable, satellite and broadband; via Telemundo, Spike, Netflix and Youtube. (pp. 12–13)
In light of this proliferation of media outlets through which audiences consume television content, Curtin argues for an understanding of television, particularly post-2007
television, as matrix media. The advantage of this term is that it acknowledges the everincreasing complexity of the medium. Furthermore, it moves beyond a periodisation of
television that proves to be quite limiting when discussing shifts in such a complex media
landscape. Netflix actually is a perfect example of the disruption of distinctions between
film, television, DVD and online video platforms such as Vimeo or YouTube: ‘the matrix
era is characterized by interactive exchanges, multiple sites of productivity and diverse
modes of interpretation and use’ (Curtin, 2009: 13). As argued above, the periodisation
of television is always difficult and changes in the media landscape are part of complex
discourses, and significant ‘milestones’ or transformative moments are almost impossible to pinpoint and always nationally, or even regionally, specific (as difficult as the
‘local’ is to define in light of virtual private network [VPN] and proxy servers). Yet,
Curtin’s argument that a significant shift happened around 2007, further away from more
‘traditional’ concepts of industry, audience behaviour and the medium of TV, is not without its merits as it signals that there is a difference between the TVIII of the early 2000s
when premium cable channels became more dominant and 2007, incidentally also the
year Netflix moved its content online, National Broadcasting Company (NBC) extended
its multi-platform presence and in the United Kingdom, British Broadcasting Corporation
(BBC) iPlayer was launched. However, trying to pinpoint a specific moment when a
change or shift in the discursive formation of television happened seems to work against
the advantage the term matrix media has in relation to a periodisation like TVI, II, III and
IV. Yet, possibly, TVIV can be understood as an era of matrix media where viewing patterns, branding strategies, industrial structures, the way different media forms interact
with each other or the various ways content is made available shift completely away
from the television set. The term matrix media to describe what TVIV could be also
emphasises the fluidity of the term.
What is Netflix?
Netflix started out in 1997 as an online-based DVD rental service. The majority of its
business is still to stream content that was previously shown in cinemas or on television.
As such, Netflix has always been more associated with the medium of DVDs and the
Jenner
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Internet (as the name already suggests) rather than broadcasting and original programming. It may not be too surprising that, along with television broadcasters offering multiplatform services, it was the struggling business of video rental services that now
dominates the business of VOD services, thus re-inventing itself for a new era in film and
television distribution. As Cunningham and Silver (2012) point out
[In 2007] Netflix placed 10,000 titles from its 90,000 film library on-line in ‘Watch Instantly’
mode as a free value-added service to its large base of existing Netflix customers who had to
use their ID and password to watch those films. In 2010, it transformed its core business model
from a monthly subscription for DVDs-delivered to the home, migrating its customers to a
U.S.$7.99 monthly subscription service for unlimited movie and TV downloads via Watch
Instantly, plus an extra $2 monthly fee for unlimited DVDs delivered to the home. Netflix is
clearly focused on preparing its customers for the digital transition and eventual demise of the
bricks and mortar video store when VOD replaces DVD optical discs as the second window
after cinema release. (Location 1581–1587)
Netflix’ strategy to grab customer’s attention involved a move away from its original
business model as exhibitor of film content. Orienting itself more towards Hulu, ‘a joint
venture between NBC-Universal, Fox Network and Disney through its ABC TV network
subsidiary’ (Cunningham and Silver, 2012: location 1593), which streams mostly television content, Netflix has now moved into the business of being producer of serialised
drama. Most other streaming services are linked to a television branding infrastructure
and offer a chance to catch up with missed programmes, but Netflix now offers the first
– and for long periods of time only – chance to watch its original dramas. The streaming
service thus moves away from its previous business model where it only provided film
and TV dramas that had already been shown elsewhere and are often already available
on DVD, to being the first in the chain of media exhibition. By turning the familiar chain
of first, second and third market distribution on its head, Netflix offers a distinctively
different form of media distribution. Of course, this change does not come out of
nowhere: online dramas are now a common occurrence on YouTube and many TV series
offer webisodes to extend the diegetic universe, for example, critically acclaimed cable
TV drama Battlestar Galactica (SciFi, 2004–2009). Yet, the individual instalments distributed online tend to be between 2 and 5 minutes long, thus constituting a format significantly different from most TV drama. While Netflix may not copy the format, it
certainly takes a cue from a system of distribution where the online form is the first link
in a chain.
Often hyped as a ‘new HBO’, and comparing itself to HBO (Hastings and Wells,
2013), Netflix actually offers a different kind of TV revolution than previously associated with the premium cable channel: Netflix is simply not TV (p. 7). Where HBO revolutionised television aesthetics and narrative structures, the slogan ‘it’s not TV. It’s HBO’
implied a promise of content that was somehow different from the familiar ‘mainstream’
fare commonly associated with the medium rather than a rejection of the technological
infrastructure. Netflix offers content in the form of serialised dramas, but it is hardly this
aspect that serves to set it apart from cable channels such as HBO, American Movie
Classics (AMC), Showtime, Fox eXtended (FX) or even network channels like Columbia
Broadcasting System (CBS), American Broadcasting Company (ABC) or NBC. The
VOD service offers none of the more ‘traditional’ television genres, such as news, game
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shows, sporting events or other programmes associated with TV’s live aesthetics.
Furthermore, it is largely disconnected from the technological or branding infrastructure
associated with television – network or cable. Catherine Johnson (2012) describes a
brand as an
… interface/frame [that] manages the interactions between consumers, products and producers.
[…] In relation to the television channel, the brand is communicated to the viewer through
programme production and acquisition, scheduling, on-screen advertising and ancillary
products related to the channel and/or its programming. (pp. 17–18)
While the BBC iPlayer, for example, also offers the streaming of content, and channels in most western countries offer similar services, they tend to be linked with the
brand identity of a specific channel which serves as frame or interface: in order to watch
a programme on iPlayer, cbs.com or RTL Now, viewers have to familiarise themselves
either with this particular channel’s schedule or be familiar enough with the brand to
know that they may find content they are interested in on their website. Alternatively,
audiences may go directly to websites such as thedailyshow.com or colbertnation.com in
search of a specific programme. Thus, these streaming services are inherently linked
with the medium of TV and its cultural connotations, even though the technological
infrastructure is different and the streaming of content implies a disconnect from TV
schedules.
On the other hand, Netflix certainly draws on television’s branding strategies. Johnson
(2012) points out how branding in US television became important as the market was
de-regulated in the 1970s and 1980s and new cable channels emerged:
Even with the developments in satellite technology, these cable channels could not hope to
compete with the reach of the free-to-air national networks. As a consequence, they focussed
on offering differentiated programme services to specialized niche audiences. This was
important, as cable was funded by a combination of advertising and subscription, and so cable
operators and networks had to persuade audiences that it was worth paying the extra subscription
for their services and advertisers that they could offer valuable audience segments to justify the
lower ratings that they gained than network television. (p. 16)
Netflix does not have to justify itself to advertisers in a ‘traditional’ sense, the information on the company on the New York Times Business website states that ‘The
Company obtains content from various studios and other content providers through
fixed-fee licences, revenue sharing agreements and direct purchases’ (The New York
Times, 2013). Thus, while Netflix is accountable to shareholders and its partners in revenue sharing, it tends to be the company that advertises itself to subscribers rather than
advertisers:
The Company markets its service through various channels, including online advertising,
broad-based media, such as television and radio, as well as various partnerships. In connection
with marketing the service, the Company offers free-trial memberships to new and certain
rejoining members. (The New York Times, 2013)
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263
However, by offering creative and budgetary freedom to television auteurs like Mitch
Hurwitz and Jenji Kohan, hiring actors like Robin Wright or Jason Biggs or directors like
Joel Schumacher or Jodi Foster, Netflix seems to follow HBO’s example of creating a
brand identity where ‘quality’ content helps construct the brand:
… over the second half of the 1990s HBO developed a brand identity as the home of quality
television in the USA that drew on a wide range of its programming, but was centred on the
shift towards producing adult, edgy, authored and high-budget original drama series. While the
brand identity was initially constructed through the promotional efforts of HBO itself, and then
increasingly depended on these signature shows to stand in for the network, it also increasingly
depended upon critical acclaim within the media more broadly to support its claim to be the
home for creative talent. (Johnson, 2012: 32)
As more and more cable channels have adapted this strategy, HBO’s brand faces
increasingly harsh competition. Netflix only recently adapted the strategy by offering its
own original drama, relying mostly on (social) media buzz with original programming
shaping the brand identity. Thus, while drawing on familiar formats and marketing strategies from TVIII, Netflix is also clearly positioned as something other than television
through forms of distribution, business model (assumed), viewing practices and
marketing.
What will be considered in more detail here is Netflix’ production and distribution of
season 4 of Arrested Development. Through this, Netflix managed to position itself in
relation to the ‘cult’ TV show, offered an original approach to the series through a slight
change in format, a changing narrative perspective and a different narrative structure. In
the run-up to the season’s publication on Netflix, what seemed to be particularly highlighted in press statements and interviews was the text’s suitability for the practice of
binge-watching, which now seems to be an encouraged mode of viewing all Netflix
series, as recent reviews of the second season of House of Cards (Netflix, 2013-) seemed
to confirm. Although the season brought in a disappointing number of new subscriptions,
the textual strategies employed by season 4 of Arrested Development are quite telling in
terms of how Netflix positions itself within the broader television landscape.
Arrested Development, binge-watching, ‘cult’ TV and not TV
Season 4 of Arrested Development was premiered on the 26 May 2013 on Netflix. This
was significant in a number of ways: first, the series had previously run on network channel Fox, but had been cancelled after only three seasons in 2006 due to low ratings. Yet,
the series has managed to attain a ‘cult’ status (as disputed as the term is), and a follow-up
film has been rumoured for years. Second, all 15 episodes of the season were put online
at once. Netflix argued at the time that this was a response to assumed viewer behaviour
of the so-called binge-watching, supposing that viewers would wish to watch more than
one episode in one sitting or, at least, schedule their Arrested Development consumption
as they pleased. Third, the text of season 4 seems aware of this transition in viewer behaviour: the narrative structure is different from the first three seasons, seemingly responding
more to the needs of self-scheduled, rather than scheduled, television. Arrested
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new media & society 18(2)
Development, season 4, functions well as case study as it shows how Netflix positions
itself in relation to TVIII, ‘cult’ or ‘quality’ TV and encourages specific modes of viewing.
More so, by building on a familiar ‘cult’ text and associated (assumed) practices of watching the series, Netflix seems to also ‘teach’ its audiences how to watch Netflix.
Seasons 1–3 of Arrested Development were well received by critics, and the series
was nominated for and won a number of prestige awards during its run.1 With its indie
film aesthetics, its often outrageous humour that sometimes made it seem like a parody
of itself and its witty commentary on contemporary politics, it seemed to function as a
network counterweight to a still emerging cable ‘quality’ TV market. Yet, due to low ratings, Fox cancelled the series in 2006, which possibly contributed to its ‘cult’ status as a
series whose worth had not been recognised by the network or ‘mainstream’ audiences.
This narrative that Arrested Development has been wronged by Fox and cancelled in its
prime, leaving fans to imagine what could have been, contributed to its ‘cult’ status.
Furthermore, some of the actors’ following projects were more in independent rather
than mainstream films (as much as such a distinction is possible), cementing their status
as ‘indie’ stars (though this may not be true for all of them any more) with Michael Cera
and Jason Bateman both starring in the indie-hit Juno (Reitman, 2007), while Will Arnett
starred in 30 Rock (NBC, 2006–2013), a sitcom that, along with The Office (NBC, 2005–
2013), seems to have taken the place of Arrested Development as original and somehow
‘quality’ network sitcom. The cast has often re-enforced this ‘cult’ narrative in interviews
and repeated it in the run-up to season 4 (see, for example, Kelly, 2013).
Yet, while this narrative has been used as marketing strategy for the DVDs of the
series and its Netflix season, these complaints are not unwarranted. In 2005, a Chicago
Tribune article by Maureen Ryan (2005) claimed,
The conventional wisdom says Fox’s Emmy-winning comedy ‘Arrested Development’ is a cult
success but a commercial failure. The conventional wisdom may well be wrong. The critically
acclaimed show, which returns from Fox’s baseball break with two episodes featuring guest
star Charlize Theron on Nov. 7, is indeed ratings challenged, but it’s surprisingly dominant in
another arena. Fox won’t release sales totals, but executives at the company’s home-video
division say ‘Arrested’, which chronicles the misadventures of the dysfunctional, formerly rich
Bluth family, has sold very well on DVD. […] Season 2 of the show has spent much of the past
week at the top of Amazon.com’s boxed-set best-sellers chart, where the Season 1 boxed set
can usually be found among the chart’s top 40 releases. And that commercial success, along
with critical praise, a shelf-full of industry awards and a ferociously supportive Internet fan
base, has helped keep the show alive, at least for a while.
Thus, Arrested Development can be viewed as part of a general movement in the early
2000s where DVD box sets of TV series became increasingly popular and, in some cases,
even seemed to replace the scheduled television experience. While hardly a ratings-hit in
its original run on Fox, the series seems to have an active afterlife (even before its resurrection on Netflix) on DVD, through online streaming and (often illegal) downloads and
with an avid fan base. As Hills (2007) argues,
DVD culture encourages audience-text ‘closeness’ and, at the same time, operates at the level
of textual valorisation (both technically, with regards to digital image quality, and symbolically,
Jenner
265
with regards to isolating out and bounding texts). It is therefore relatively unsurprising that
DVD technology has been most welcomed by those groups of audiences already invested in
(differential) types of close reading – namely, academics and fans […]. If DVD culture works,
partly, on television to re-position many of its texts as symbolically bounded and isolatable
‘objects’ of value, then as a machinery of valorisation stressing the ‘total system’ of TV serials
and series, it works to popularise ‘close reading’ and the artistic re-contextualisation of some
TV content. But this is seemingly true only in so far as these reading tactics (characteristic of
fan and academic subcultures) can be made to fit with commercial strategies of branding and
value-generation. (pp. 48–49)
Arrested Development fandom may already be grounded in DVD culture and the viewing practices that come with it. Yet, this seems to have happened at a time when Fox was
at a loss at how to take commercial advantage of a series that fails to attract audiences
through ‘conventional’ channels, but manages to have an almost immediate ‘cult’ appeal,
attracting an enthusiastic and active fan base and sells well on DVD (a fate Arrested
Development seems to share with Fox contemporary Firefly; Fox, 2002–2003).
Netflix’ choice of Arrested Development seems to consciously draw on the fandom
and related viewing practices. The practice of binge-watching associated with the DVD
culture becomes central. Debra Ramsay (2013), in a blog post on CST online, addresses
one quite significant problem with the marketing of a TV series (or season) as material
for binge-watching:
Just what constitutes a televisual ‘binge’? Does it involve watching more than one episode of one
series concurrently, and if so, how many constitute a ‘binge’? Or is it watching an entire season or
more – sometimes described in somewhat more respectable terms as ‘marathon’ viewing – in an
uninterrupted session? Why would watching consecutive hours of television, but viewing different
programmes during that time, not be considered a ‘binge’? Which raises the question of why an
extended period of consuming television should be considered ‘binging’ in the first place.
In her blog post, Ramsay admits to watching a whole season of Supernatural (CW,
2005) in 1 day, but for those who do not watch TV professionally, anything above four
episodes may seem excessive, though they may also describe themselves as bingewatchers. A recent survey by Harris Interactive conducted on behalf of Netflix seems to
define a binge as watching 2–3 episodes in a row (see Spangler, 2013). At any rate, what
exactly constitutes a binge is likely to be different for everybody and defined through
highly individualised terms and practices. In this, binge-watching as viewing practice fits
well into the structures of post-postmodern capitalism where consumer habits and identity
construction are intertwined (as will be discussed later on). A major factor of binge-watching is that it is disconnected from scheduled television. As Jason Jacobs (2011) argues, such
viewing practices serve to remove any ‘pollution’ of the text through advertising breaks:
The difference between the VCR – the earliest domestic weapon against interruption and
chronological authority of the broadcast schedule – and digital television technology seems to
be that the various ways to own, time-shift or otherwise mine texts are promoted as the obvious
and routinized ways to interact with the medium rather than viewing the schedule in real time.
‘Who wants to watch adverts, promos and the rest of the connective tissue of the television
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flow?’ seems to be the compelling appeal to common sense that digital television marketers
deploy most frequently. (Location 3125)
The practice of binge-watching implies not only viewers’ desire for autonomy in
scheduling when they want to watch what, but also a wish for a ‘pure’ text (as Jacobs
terms it) that is distinctively not part of the television flow.
Another factor in binge-watching is the text itself. The kind of attention demanded by
some series seems to make it necessary for viewers to consciously make a decision to
focus entirely on the series, something only possible if viewers can schedule autonomously. Jason Mittell (2010) argues,
Complex comedies like Arrested Development encourage the freeze-frame power of DVDs to
catch split-second visual gags and pause the frantic pace to recover from laughter. These
televisual strategies are all possible via scheduled flow, but greatly enhanced by viewing
multiple times via published DVDs. Having control of when and how you watch also helps
deepen one of the major pleasures afforded by complex narratives: the operational aesthetic.
Jacobs (2011) also points to a link between viewing practices and text:
Viewers might set aside time for the concentrated watching or rewatching of a DVD or
download, a trend seemingly acknowledged in the genre of contemporary television drama,
with its foregrounding of incremental characterizations, backstory rationing, and enigma
webbing, which precisely reward frequent attentive viewing or reviewing. (Location 3171)
While seasons 1–3 of Arrested Development already rejected the familiar sitcom formula, relying on complex jokes and storylines that easily extend beyond one episode or
even season, season 4 complicates the matter further by developing an even more complex narrative structure. Kathrin Rothemund (2013) suggests that complexity can be
defined through a large number of storylines, a variety in the nature of these storylines
(both can be summarised under the term diversity), an emerging sense of connection
between these diverse storylines (to a ‘whole’), non-linearity, openness (polysemic
meanings of the narration as intertextual and multi-platform storytelling) and contingency (pp. 55–78). In all of these aspects, season 4 seems to be even more complex than
the first three seasons. Each episode focuses on one character of the Bluth family who,
after falling out in the last episode of season 3, all went their separate ways. The individual storylines intersect at varying points, leaving ‘mini-cliffhangers’ in the middle of
episodes. In light of this, it is particularly the first episode, ‘Flight of the Phoenix’ (04/01)
that seems confusing as it provides a number of scenes that are difficult to de-code without the information provided later on. These various ‘intersections’ or connections
between narrative threads create a sense of a ‘narrative web’, or, as Jacobs terms it,
‘enigma webbing’, where it is never immediately clear exactly how the storylines are
connected. Hollywood Reporter reviewer Tim Goodman (2013) even compares the narrative structure to Rashomon (Kurosawa, 1950), thus placing it distinctively in a ‘high
culture’ context. As such, season 4 of Arrested Development, demands more attention
from viewers through its narrative structure.
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The case of Arrested Development shows quite clearly how Netflix positions itself in
relation to DVD culture, fandom and associated viewing practices. The season seems to
mostly function as a way to ‘teach’ audiences how to watch Netflix in the long term. It is
hard to measure how successful this idea of ‘teaching’ viewers using a familiar text as
starting point has been. Furthermore, nothing akin to ratings has been published by
Netflix (possibly because the figures could be disproportionate to media buzz). However,
other than Netflix, original dramas such as Orange is the New Black (Netflix, 2013-) and
Arrested Development garnered a lot of media and fan attention before it went online.
Thus, its success was measured by the audiences it attracted instantly rather than over a
long period of time as with House of Cards or Orange is the New Black. The failure to
attract numbers of new subscribers proportionate to the preceding media buzz immediately translated into a drop in share prices (see Brown, 2013). Quite possibly, it was this
aspect (along with a mixed review in the influential New York Times by Mike Hale, 2013)
that fed into an overall impression that critics remained unimpressed, though most
reviews in the mainstream press seem to echo the title of Dan Zak’s (2013) review in The
Washington Post that it is ‘A Chore to Watch and a Delight to Decrypt’.2 This suggests
that an immediate desire for viewing numbers akin to Nielsen ratings, in other words a
‘traditional’ way to measure commercial success in a TVI, II and III era, proved to be
destructive to Netflix’ brand and the text, possibly eliminating chances for a film revival
or another season of Arrested Development and silencing long-term media buzz. Thus,
the season’s supposed failure also serves as an argument why ‘traditional’ ways of measuring the ‘success’ of serialised drama and conceptualising the audience and their viewing practices seem insufficient in an era of self-scheduled binge-watching. After all, a
major aspect of viewer autonomy is that it should not matter if audiences watch the season on the day it is released or months, even years, later. Thus, Arrested Development
seems to fall victim to changing concepts of how to measure audience reactions and
commercial ‘success’ once again. Yet, the series’ resurrection positions Netflix as a corporation that panders to binge-watchers in general (even though they may not be attracted
by this particular text).3
Post-postmodern capitalism and television?
Netflix, thus, builds on models of individualised viewing practices and self-scheduling
of TV. This heavy emphasis on individual preferences is in line with what Jeffrey T.
Nealon (2012) argues is post-postmodern capitalism:
Post-postmodernism marks an intensification and mutation within postmodernism […]. So the
initial ‘post’ in the word is less a marker of postmodernism’s having finally used up its shelf life
at the theory store than it is a marker of postmodernism’s having mutated, passed beyond a
certain tipping point to become something recognizably different in its contours and workings.
(Location 75–81)
In other words, Nealon (2012) observes an epistemological shift in which we cannot
speak of a new epoch, but rather of a ‘stage’ within postmodernism where some of the
aims have been achieved (as much as this is possible with such a disunified ‘project’), but
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also some of the problems with postmodernism have intensified. One quite remarkable
shift is that postmodernism, with its celebration of the fragmented, the chaotic or the pluralistic, seems to make the formulation of ‘alternative’ systems to capitalism impossible,
a factor heavily criticised by Frederic Jameson (1991: 17) or Jean Baudrillard (e.g. 1988
or 2000 [1991]). Instead, rather than one common political goal within a nation state
(often globalised), movements develop concerning the rights of specific social groups
(e.g. the Human Rights Campaign). While other groups or individuals belonging to other
social groups may show solidarity with these campaigns and even join into the effort, this
seems more like a celebration of ‘otherness’ and an embracing of the equality of all the
different ‘fragments’ of society than an imagining of alternative economic, social or political systems. Partly, this may also be due to a capitalist system that has adapted to postmodernism so much that this led to an intensification of it rather than abolition:
Indeed, when Led Zeppelin plays over Cadillac commercials and a Rolling Stones tour can be
brought to you quite literally by the housing bubble (the Stones’ 2005 official tour sponsor was
now-defunct Ameri-Quest Mortgage), you have to assume that the cultural rebellion narratives
of the ‘60s, which often revolved around the liberation of an individual’s or group’s desire in the
face of various social repressions, can now officially be pronounced dead. Under an economic
logic that is in fact dedicated to the unleashing of multifarious individual desires and floating
values (broadly speaking, a corporate-nation-state model), rather than desire’s dampening or
repressive territorialisation on a gold standard of univocal value (broadly speaking, the traditional
nation-state model) the role of ‘normalization’ (previously the purview of the state’s Ideological
Apparatuses) needs to be rethought from the ground up. Put simply, a repressive notion of
‘normalization’ is not the primary danger lurking within contemporary capitalism. […] There are
myriad social and political dangers latent in the neoliberal truisms of finance capital, but the
rigid normalization of cultural options isn’t paramount among them. (p. 21)
In light of calls for stronger regulation of financial markets, chief among them calls
for a less unequal distribution of capital; it is rarely capitalism itself that is questioned or
alternative economic or social systems that are imagined. Capitalism as the freedom to
express one’s identity through consumer behaviour (e.g. socially or ecologically responsible consumption) and a ‘fair’ capitalism that serves all the fragments of society seem
the ultimate goal of the political left and groups such as the Occupy movement, rather
than an idea of a unified nation with common goals.
The contemporary media landscape feeds into this current state where consumer
behaviour and individualised identity construction are intrinsically linked. Jacobs (2011)
argues that
It is true, however, that digital television threatens the universal experience of television’s
social function. Digital television’s promises of control imply disconnection and separateness
from the usually nationally socialized presence of television. (Location 3225)
Yet, these moments of socialising can happen online as one’s viewing behaviour is shared
on Facebook or tweeted. Thus, viewing behaviour (and consumer behaviour) is projected as
part of one’s (online) identity and can be commented on by others. Furthermore, the ‘watercooler’ moment in other social interactions is hardly gone as viewers are still likely to
Jenner
269
discuss their viewing experiences, despite the fact that these are not synchronised. Thus,
what you watch (or rather, what you publicly share about it) may take on a different meaning, in particular as middle-class tastes have strongly gravitated towards serialised drama
with high production values and complex narrative structures, such as House of Cards.4
As such, the blurring of lines between production, distribution and exhibition may
only be a logical consequence of a marketplace that panders to consumers who link consumer habits and identity construction. In other words, Netflix’ tailor-made product can
only function in a system of distribution where this process is also individualised.
Conclusion
This article has explored how Netflix’ move to producer, distributor and exhibitor of its
own content links in with a TVIII media landscape, consumer behaviour and viewing
habits of serialised content and a contemporary capitalism and social sphere. In this, it
analysed the ways Netflix fits neatly into the way we use the terminology of TVIII, but
also how it is decidedly different from existing formats (with other corporations like
Amazon quickly following its example). As such, the shift Netflix signals may be significant enough to allow for a terminology of TVIV.
The company also ties in with a discourse in contemporary capitalism where media
corporations never appear to be exclusively producer, exhibitor and distributor of content, but additionally seem to be linked in with other markets, as with the ubiquitous
Amazon. Recently, even the online version of the renowned Spiegel started offering the
streaming of films in Germany, blurring lines between news magazine, news website,
television and cinema. As such, Netflix may be best understood as a signifier for shifts
within the media industry where the understanding of clearly differentiated media forms
becomes obsolete. After all, Netflix as a company may not survive in the long run against
competitors like Amazon or in the face of battles surrounding ‘Net Neutrality’ in the
United States (meaning that Internet providers need to provide the same bandwidth for
all content, a rule under revision at the time of writing), but as a business model that
introduced ‘independent’ (disconnected from established television channels) VOD, it is
likely to have a long-lasting legacy.
Jacobs (2011) argues that
Television […] must continually solicit the attention of the potentially distracted viewer and
effectively aggravate that potential by deploying programming breaks to incorporate commercials
and promotional or other connective material. It is little wonder that a major appeal of the digital
distribution and consumption of television programs is precisely in the avoidance of that aspect
that threatens an already precarious maintenance of attention. (Location 3149)
Yet, if television is defined less through the technology used and more through formats (particularly, it seems, the format of serialised drama) and we can schedule it ourselves, then the way to ask for our attention changes significantly. In other words,
increasingly complex narrative structures demand our attention in a way scheduled television rarely can. In this sense, Netflix may be viewed as part of a television matrix, but,
apart from offering serialised content, it signals a further move away from what is still
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understood as television. A key aspect here is Netflix’ independence from branding infrastructures that link television with online media. Instead, orienting itself more towards
much more prolific online-based companies like Amazon or Google, Netflix builds its
own brand, a premium online channel independent from more ‘traditional’ forms of
channel branding in network and cable television with even smaller ‘niche’ audiences
with the autonomy to build their own schedule. Arrested Development, season 4, shows
just how much Netflix ties in with an already existing discourse surrounding ‘cult’ and
‘quality’ TV and viewer autonomy.
The shift signalled by Netflix concerns issues of technology, but maybe more importantly, branding and programming strategies, viewing practices independent from scheduling that lead to a complication in how audience behaviour needs to be understood and
‘success’ of a programme measured, and how familiar associations with the concept of
television are not ‘merely’ subverted, but changed completely. In a matrix media and
(potentially) TVIV landscape, this does not eliminate existing and familiar concepts of
what ‘television’ is, but it extends them significantly and introduces a range of other
media forms and discourses to this matrix.
Funding
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or
not-for-profit sectors.
Notes
1.
2.
3.
4.
During its original run, Arrested Development was nominated for 22 Primetime Emmys and
won 6, 3 Golden Globe awards and winning 1, nominated 3 times for a Screen Writers Guild
award and was nominated and won a number of other awards.
metacritic.com, looking at 21 (US) reviews states that the critical reception of the season has
been overwhelmingly positive, with no negative reviews and only 6 mediocre ones, scoring 71 (not much below House of Cards’ score of 76). This still places season 4 as the least
popular of the series among critics and also in fan ratings, but the overall response seems to
be positive, though not overly enthusiastic.
In this, Arrested Development would not be the first series to be resurrected to help introduce viewers to a different kind of television viewing. Other examples would be Dragnet
(National Broadcasting Company [NBC], 1951–1959 and 1967–1970) or Battlestar Galactica
(American Broadcasting Company [ABC], 1978–1979 resurrected by SciFi, 2004–2009).
The first two episodes of the second season of House of Cards were even shown at the
Berlinale film festival in 2014, securing its position as ‘high culture’. Some aspects that play
into contemporary notions of ‘quality’ are a willingness to challenge the norms of television, often through a supposed transgression of social norms (see, for example, Ritzer, 2011:
26–53 or Akass and McCabe, 2007b: 66), an association of creative staff with cinema or other
‘Quality TV’ or ‘high art’ (see, for example, Thompson, 1996: 59 and 150–152 or Feuer,
2007: 146–157), or a pandering to the so-called ‘quality demographics’, described by Ellen
Seiter and Wilson (2005) as
A quality demographic is young, affluent viewers, with money to spend, and with the cultural
capital that translates into recognition by industry tastemakers with Emmys and other prestige
awards. The label ‘quality’ indicates audiences that would not otherwise want to be associated with the debased television form or the audiences that regularly watch it. (p. 140)
Jenner
271
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Author biography
Mareike Jenner passed her PhD in Television Studies in November 2013 at the Department of
Theatre, Film and Television Studies, Aberystwyth University. Her PhD was titled ‘Follow the
Evidence? Methods of Detection in American TV Drama’. Her monograph on American Detective
Drama will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2015. She has published on issues of US television, television genre and gender. More works on US television, genre, postmodernism and politics are forthcoming.
Chapter 2
The Frankfurt School and the
culture industry
The origins of the Frankfurt School
47
The theory of commodity fetishism
50
The Frankfurt School’s theory of modern capitalism
53
The culture industry
55
The culture industry and popular music
59
Adorno’s theory of popular music, Cadillacs and doowop
The Frankfurt School: a critical assessment
Benjamin and the critique of the Frankfurt School
64
68
75
THOSE FAMILIAR WITH THE study of popular culture
might well ask if it is worth bothering any longer with the
Frankfurt School. Even if it still has something relevant to say,
there are now better ways of saying it. The School’s
perspective, it is often argued, has become both narrow and
outmoded. This view is not quite so prevalent as it would
have been a few years ago.1 But it is not unusual for critiques
of elitist views of popular culture to use the work of Theodor
Adorno, one of the School’s key figures, as a prime example of
the target at which their criticisms are directed. This stance is
even less surprising when it is realised how much common
ground the School shares with mass culture theory.
The debate between the Frankfurt School and the other
theories discussed in this book, as well as the influence it has
had, indicate its continuing significance. Along with mass
THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL AND THE CULTURE INDUSTRY 47
culture theory, the work of the Frankfurt School has set the
terms of debate and analysis for the subsequent study of
popular culture. The contemporary analysis of popular music
still occasionally traces its heritage back to Adorno’s theory,
however critical it now is of his arguments. And his name is
sometimes used to invoke a whole way of thinking about
theory and culture. It would be very difficult to understand the
study of popular culture without understanding the work of
the Frankfurt School.
In this chapter we shall first place the School in context, as
this may help us understand some of its ideas. This context
will only be discussed insofar as it is relevant to the School’s
analysis of popular culture. Next, we shall look briefly at the
School’s general theory, before outlining in more detail its
cultural theory and analysis. The discussion will generally be
restricted to Adorno’s work, although other representatives of
the School, such as Herbert Marcuse, will also be considered.
The specific examples of Hollywood cinema and popular
music (especially Adorno’s theory of the latter) will be used to
clarify and illustrate the School’s ideas. Adorno’s theory of
popular music will also be used to develop a critique of these
ideas. The conclusion will evaluate the School’s contribution
to the study of popular culture by looking at some of the
arguments presented by Walter Benjamin, another member of
the School but one whose work is not that representative of its
approach.
The origins of the Frankfurt School
The Frankfurt Institute for Social Research (the Frankfurt
School) was set up in 1923. Its founders tended to be left-wing
German, Jewish intellectuals drawn from the upper and
middle classes of German society. Among its activities was the
development of critical theory and research. This work aimed
to reveal the social contradictions underlying the emergent
capitalist societies of the time, and their typical ideologies, so
as to construct a theoretical critique of modern capitalism.
Among the many prominent intellectuals at one time or
48 THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL AND THE CULTURE INDUSTRY
another associated with the School, the most important are
Adorno (1903–1969), Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) and
Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979). An equally important figure,
but one more marginal to the major tenets of the School’s
theory, is Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) who will be considered
more fully at the end of this chapter.
The Nazi party’s rise to power in Germany in the 1930s, its
racist oppression of Jews, and its totalitarian repression of the
left all meant that members of the School were forced to flee to
other parts of western Europe and North America.2 In the
early 1940s the School was temporarily situated in New York
although some members spent time in Los Angeles, including
Hollywood. It eventually returned to Germany in the late
1940s, along with leading figures such as Adorno and
Horkheimer. Some members stayed on in America after the
war and, turning to liberalism and empirical social science,
renounced the School’s theory and politics. By contrast, others,
in particular Marcuse, extended the School’s analysis of
modern society to post-war American capitalism. The fascist
state of Nazi Germany, Soviet, Marxist totalitarianism, and
American monopoly, consumer capitalism were crucial
features of the context in which the Frankfurt School’s
analysis of popular culture and the mass media emerged and
developed. In the eyes of the Frankfurt School, ‘it seemed as
though the possibility of radical social change had been
smashed between the twin cudgels of concentration camps
and television for the masses’ (Craib 1984:184).
There are now a number of books which present a detailed
history of the School and its work.3 Here it is merely useful to
make a few general points about the School’s relevance to the
study of popular culture. For a start, it is useful to note what
the School was reacting against in developing its own
perspective. It was engaged in a critique of the
Enlightenment. It thought that the promise of the
Enlightenment to extend human freedom through scientific
and rational progress had turned into a nightmare because
science and rationality were instead stamping out human
THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL AND THE CULTURE INDUSTRY 49
freedom. For Adorno, ‘the total effect of the culture industry is
one of anti-enlightenment, in which…enlightenment,
progressive technical domination, becomes mass deception
and is turned into a means of fettering consciousness.’ As
such, ‘it impedes the development of autonomous,
independent individuals who judge and decide consciously
for themselves…while obstructing the emancipation for which
human beings are as ripe as the productive forces of the epoch
permit’ (Adorno 1991:92).
This critique of the Enlightenment is linked to the theory of
modern capitalism and the culture industry which Adorno
and others began to develop in the 1930s and 1940s. This
theory rejects the prospect of rational emancipation offered by
the Enlightenment but also involves a critique of Marxism.
The argument here is more complicated because the School
draws upon while at the same time criticising Marxist theory.
The Frankfurt School’s perspective is an obvious variant of
Marxism. But its distance from orthodox Marxism can be
gauged by its attempt to get away from the emphasis placed
upon the economy as the major explanation of how and why
societies work as they do; and by its development of a theory
of culture relevant to the contemporary phase of capitalism.
The concept of ‘the culture industry’ captures the
continuing commitment to Marxism (industry as the basic
power of capitalism) and the original character of the School’s
contribution (culture as a causal factor in its own right). In
emphasising the position and importance of culture and
ideology, the School can be seen as trying to fill in a part of the
picture of capitalism Marx did not deal with. However, in
doing this it broke with some of his major arguments. In
particular, as the twentieth century progressed, the School
became increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for a
working-class, socialist revolution in the West. An important
objective of their analysis was to explain why such a
revolution had not occurred and was unlikely to occur in the
future.
50 THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL AND THE CULTURE INDUSTRY
This critique of Marxism coincided with the critique of the
Enlightenment. The potential for extensive and effective social
control produced by scientific rationality, as outlined by the
School’s idea of anti-enlightenment, undermined Marxism’s
political optimism. Historically, the School was confronted
with a situation in which the erosion of the revolutionary,
working-class movement was accompanied by the rise of
fascism. The latter’s political logic represented one type of
rational domination identified by the critique of the
Enlightenment. The historical and political context of the
School’s work fostered a concern with the decline of socialism
and working-class radicalism. This was seen to result from the
increasingly centralised control exercised over ever larger
numbers of people by the expanding ‘totalitarian’ power of
modern capitalism. The School’s understanding of popular
culture relies upon its theory of modern capitalism and the
control it sees the culture industry exerting over the minds
and actions of people. Before turning to this we need to note
the School’s indebtedness to a particular aspect of Marx’s
work.
The theory of commodity fetishism
Adorno once wrote that ‘the real secret of success…is the mere
reflection of what one pays in the market for the product. The
consumer is really worshipping the money that he himself has
paid for the ticket to the Toscanini concert’ (1991:34).
Few statements could more graphically summarise the
relevance of Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism for
Adorno’s attempt to use the idea of the culture industry to
understand modern popular culture. For Adorno and the
Frankfurt School, commodity fetishism is the basis of a theory
of how cultural forms such as popular music can secure the
continuing economic, political and ideological domination of
capitalism.4
Adorno’s argument is that money—the price of
commodities or goods, including a ticket to a concert—defines
and dominates social relations in capitalist societies. The
THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL AND THE CULTURE INDUSTRY 51
inspiration for this view is Marx’s theory of commodity
fetishism, which suggests that ‘the mystery of the commodity
form…consists in the fact that in it the social character of
men’s labour appears to them as…a social natural quality of
the labour product itself, and that consequently the relation of
the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented
to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves,
but between the products of their labour.’ Thus, ‘a definite
social relation between men …assumes, in their eyes, the
fantastic form of a relation between things.’ This is what Marx
calls ‘fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour
as soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is
therefore inseparable from the production of commodities’
(Marx 1963:183).
According to Adorno, ‘this is the real secret of success’,
since it can show how ‘exchange value exerts its power in a
special way in the realm of cultural goods’ (1991:34). Marx
distinguished between the exchange value and use value of the
commodities circulating in capitalist societies. Exchange value
refers to the money that a commodity can command on the
market, the price it can be bought and sold for, while use
value refers to the usefulness of the good for the consumer, its
practical value or utility as a commodity. For Marx, exchange
value will always dominate use value in capitalism because the
production, marketing and consumption of commodities will
always take precedence over people’s real needs. This idea is
central to Adorno’s theory of capitalist culture. It links
commodity fetishism with the predominance of exchange
value. Money exemplifies how social relations between people
can assume the fantastic form of a relation defined by a
‘thing’, that is money, and is the basic definition of the value of
commodities for people in capitalist societies. This is why we
are supposed to venerate the price we pay for the ticket to the
concert rather than the concert itself.
What Adorno has in fact done has been to extend Marx’s
analyses of commodity fetishism and exchange to the sphere
of cultural goods or commodities. The example cited concerns
52 THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL AND THE CULTURE INDUSTRY
the market for music for which he elaborates a ‘concept of
musical fetishism’. Adorno argues that ‘all contemporary
musical life is dominated by the commodity form; the last precapitalist residues have been eliminated’ (ibid.: 33). This means
that what Marx said about commodities in general also
applies to cultural commodities which ‘are produced for the
market, and are aimed at the market’ (ibid.: 34). They embody
commodity fetishism, and are dominated by their exchange
value, as both are defined and realised by the medium of
money. What is, however, unique to cultural commodities is
that ‘exchange value deceptively takes over the functions of
use value. The specific fetish character of music lies in this
quid pro quo’ (ibid.). With other commodities, exchange value
both obscures and dominates use value. Exchange value not
use value determines the production and circulation of these
commodities. However, cultural commodities such as music
bring us into an ‘immediate’ relation with what we buy—the
musical experience. Therefore their use value becomes their
exchange value such that the latter can ‘disguise itself as the
object of enjoyment’ (ibid.).
So we come back to the statement we started with,
hopefully now more aware of its rationale. We are said to
worship the price we pay for the ticket to the concert, rather
than the performance itself, because we are victims of
commodity fetishism whereby social relations and cultural
appreciation are objectified and dominated by money. This, in
turn, means that exchange value or the price of the ticket
becomes the use value as opposed to the musical performance
itself, the real underlying use value. This is only part of a
more general analysis of popular music to which I shall return
below. We have seen here how the School’s theory has been
based on some of Marx’s ideas despite its challenge to some of
the fundamental principles of classical Marxism. These ideas
have played their part in the School’s interpretation of the
development of modern capitalism, and in Adorno’s
formulation of the concept of the culture industry.
THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL AND THE CULTURE INDUSTRY 53
The Frankfurt School’s theory of modern
capitalism
The School’s theory argues that modern capitalism has
managed to overcome many of the contradictions and crises it
once faced, and has thereby acquired new and unprecedented
powers of stability and continuity. A good example of this
theory is to be found in the work of the philosopher Marcuse,
a member of the School who stayed in America after the
Second World War, and witnessed its economic growth,
affluence and consumerism, as well as its continuing
problems of inequality, poverty and racism.5 This theory also
brings out the intellectual and political distance between the
School and Marx’s analyses of capitalism, which usually
defined it as a crisis-ridden and unstable system. The School
does not deny that capitalism contains internal contradictions;
for Adorno, the art of dialectical thinking necessarily involves
identifying these contradictions. But insofar as capitalist
societies can provide higher levels of economic well-being for
large sections of their populations, including their working
classes, their eventual overthrow and the rise of socialism
appear less likely to occur. The School sees a durability in
capitalism many others have doubted, and argues this rests
upon affluence and consumerism, and the more rational and
pervasive forms of social control afforded by the modern state,
mass media and popular culture.
The School’s theory argues that capitalist productive forces
can generate vast amounts of wealth through waste
production such as military expenditure which means that
‘false needs’ can be created and met. In this way, people can
be unconsciously reconciled to capitalism, guaranteeing its
stability and continuity. The rise of monopoly capitalist
corporations, and the rational and efficient state management
of economy and society, equally contribute to the
perpetuation of the system. For example, monopoly has
allowed corporations greater control over their markets and
prices and thus their waste production, while state
intervention can prevent the periodic eruption of economic
54 THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL AND THE CULTURE INDUSTRY
crises and extend the power of rational organisation over
capitalist societies more generally. Moreover, possible
contradictions—and hence possible reasons for conflict—
between abundance (the productive potential of the economic
forces of capitalism) and waste (consumer and military
expenditure which could otherwise be used to alleviate
poverty and inequality) are no longer integral to the capitalist
system and the struggle between capital and labour. Instead
they become focused upon marginal groups (such as ethnic
minorities) or societies (such as so-called ‘third world’
countries) lying outside the system. The affluence and
consumerism produced by the economies of capitalist
societies, and the levels of ideological control possessed by
their culture industries, have ensured that the working class
has been thoroughly incorporated into the system. Its
members are more financially secure, can buy many of the
things they desire, or think they desire, and no longer have
any conscious reasons for wanting to overthrow capitalism
and replace it with a classless and stateless society.
The idea that the working class has been pacified into
accepting capitalism is central to the theory of the Frankfurt
School and its analyses of popular culture. It links up with the
critique of the Enlightenment in that rational domination is
the domination of the masses in modern capitalist societies. Its
debt to the theory of commodity fetishism is also evident in that
commodities of all kinds become more available and therefore
more capable of dominating people’s consciousness. This
fetishism is accentuated by the domination of money, which
regulates the relationships between commodities. In keeping
with these ideas is the School’s concept of false needs, which
connects what has been said so far with the concept of the
culture industry.
The concept of false needs is identified particularly with the
work of Marcuse, but is derived from the general theoretical
framework of the School, and is implicit in the writings of
some of its other members (Marcuse 1972:5). It is based upon
the assumption that people have true or real needs to be
THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL AND THE CULTURE INDUSTRY 55
creative, independent and autonomous agents, in control of
their own destinies, fully participating members of meaningful
and democratic collectivities, able to live free and relatively
unconstrained lives, and to think for themselves. It claims,
however, that these true needs cannot be realised in modern
capitalism because the false needs, which this system has to
foster in order to survive, come to be superimposed upon
them. False needs work to deny and suppress true or real
needs. The false needs which are created and sustained, such
as the desires encouraged by consumerism, can be fulfilled at
least temporarily, but only at the expense of the true needs,
which remain unsatisfied.
This occurs because people do not realise their real needs
remain unsatisfied; as a result of the stimulation and fulfilment
of false needs, they have what they think they want. Take the
example of freedom. People who live in capitalist societies
think they are free but they are deluding themselves. They are
not free in the sense that the Frankfurt School uses the term.
They are not free, autonomous, independent human beings,
consciously thinking for themselves. Rather their freedom is
restricted to the freedom to choose between different
consumer goods or different brands of the same good, or
between political parties who in fact look and sound the
same. The false needs of consumer and voter choice offered by
advertising and parliamentary democracy suppress the real
needs for useful products and genuine political freedom. The
cultivation of false needs is bound up with the role of the
culture industry. The Frankfurt School sees the culture
industry ensuring the creation and satisfaction of false needs,
and the suppression of true needs. It is so effective in doing
this that the working class is no longer likely to pose a threat
to the stability and continuity of capitalism.
The culture industry
According to the Frankfurt School, the culture industry
reflects the consolidation of commodity fetishism, the
domination of exchange value and the ascendancy of state
56 THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL AND THE CULTURE INDUSTRY
monopoly capitalism. It shapes the tastes and preferences of
the masses, thereby moulding their consciousness by instilling
the desire for false needs. It therefore works to exclude real or
true needs, alternative and radical concepts or theories, and
genuinely threatening political opposition. It is so effective in
doing this that people do not realise what is going on.
In a reconsideration of the concept of the culture industry
(1991) first published in 1975, Adorno reiterated his
endorsement of these ideas. He clearly distinguished the
culture industry from mass culture since the latter idea
assumes the masses bear some responsibility for the culture
they consume, that it is determined by the preferences of the
masses themselves. Instead, Adorno saw this culture as
something which is imposed upon the masses, and which
makes them prepared to welcome it insofar as they do not
realise it is an imposition.
Looking back to the book he and Horkheimer wrote entitled
Dialectic of Enlightenment (1973; originally published in 1947),
Adorno defined what he meant by the concept of the culture
industry:
In all its branches, products which are tailored for
consumption by masses, and which to a great extent
determine the nature of that consumption, are
manufactured more or less according to plan… This is
made possible by contemporary technical capabilities as
well as by economic and administrative concentration.
The culture industry intentionally integrates its
consumers from above. To the detriment of both it forces
together the spheres of high and low art, separated for
thousands of years. The seriousness of high art is
destroyed in the speculation about its efficacy; the
seriousness of the lower perishes with the civilizational
constraints imposed on the rebellious resistance inherent
within it as long as social control was not yet total. Thus,
although the culture industry undeniably speculates on
the conscious and unconscious state of the millions
THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL AND THE CULTURE INDUSTRY 57
towards which it is directed, the masses are not primary
but secondary, they are an object of calculation, an
appendage of the machinery. The customer is not king,
as the culture industry would have us believe, not its
subject but its object.
(Adorno 1991:85)
The commodities produced by the culture industry are
governed by the need to realise their value on the market. The
profit motive determines the nature of cultural forms.
Industrially, cultural production is a process of
standardisation whereby the products acquire the form
common to all commodities, such as ‘the Western, familiar to
every movie-goer’. But it also confers a sense of individuality
in that each product ‘affects an individual air’. This attribution
of individuality to each product, and therefore to each
consumer, obscures the standardisation and manipulation of
consciousness practised by the culture industry (ibid.: 86–87).
This means that the more cultural products are actually
standardised the more they appear to be individualised.
Individualisation is an ideological process which hides the
process of standardisation. The Hollywood star system is cited
as an example: ‘The more dehumanised its methods of
operation and content, the more diligently and successfully
the culture industry propagates supposedly great
personalities and operates with heart throbs’ (ibid.: 87).
In response to the claims that modern mass culture is a
relatively harmless form of entertainment, a democratic
response to consumer demand, and that critics like himself
adopt elitist intellectual positions, Adorno stresses the vacuity,
banality and conformity fostered by the culture industry. He
sees it as a highly destructive force. As he puts it, ‘the colour
film demolishes the genial old tavern to a greater extent than
bombs ever could. … No homeland can survive being
processed by the films which celebrate it, and which thereby
turn the unique character on which it thrives into an
interchangeable sameness’ (ibid.: 89). To ignore the nature of
58 THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL AND THE CULTURE INDUSTRY
the culture industry, as Adorno defines it, is to succumb to its
ideology.
This ideology is corrupting and manipulative, and
underpins the dominance of the market and commodity
fetishism. It is equally conformist and mind numbing,
enforcing the general acceptance of the capitalist order. For
Adorno, ‘the concepts of order which it [the culture industry]
hammers into human beings are always those of the status
quo’ (ibid.: 90). Its effects are profound and far-reaching: ‘the
power of the culture industry’s ideology is such that
conformity has replaced consciousness’ (ibid.). This drive to
conformity tolerates no deviation from, or opposition to, nor
an alternative vision of, the existing social order. Deviant,
oppositional and alternative ways of thinking and acting
become increasingly impossible to envisage as the power of
the culture industry is extended over people’s minds. The
culture industry deals in falsehoods not truths, in false needs
and false solutions, rather than real needs and real solutions.
It solves problems ‘only in appearance’, not as they should be
resolved in the real world. It offers the semblance not the
substance of resolving problems, the false satisfaction of false
needs as a substitute for the real solution of real problems. In
doing this, it takes over the consciousness of the masses.
The masses, in Adorno’s eyes, become completely
powerless. Power lies with the culture industry. Its products
encourage conformity and consensus, which ensure obedience
to authority and the stability of the capitalist system. The
ability of the culture industry to ‘replace’ the consciousnesses
of the masses with automatic conformity is more or less
complete. Its effectiveness, according to Adorno, ‘lies in the
promotion and exploitation of the ego-weakness to which the
powerless members of contemporary society, with its
concentration of power, are condemned.’ For example, ‘it is no
coincidence that cynical American film producers are heard to
say that their pictures must take into consideration the level of
eleven-year-olds. In doing so they would very much like to
make adults into eleven-year-olds’ (ibid.: 91). The power of
THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL AND THE CULTURE INDUSTRY 59
the culture industry to secure the dominance and continuity
of capitalism resides, for Adorno, in its capacity to shape and
perpetuate a ‘regressive’ audience, a dependent and passive
consuming public. We can illustrate some of these ideas by
looking at the example of popular music.
The culture industry and popular music
Adorno’s theory of popular music is perhaps the most well
known aspect of his analysis of the culture industry. It is
bound up with the theories of commodity fetishism and the
culture industry. A trained musician, practising composer,
music theory expert and champion of avant-garde and noncommercial music himself, Adorno had little time for the
music produced by monopoly corporations and consumed by
the mass public, except as a way of illustrating the power of
the culture industry and the alienation to be found among the
masses in capitalist societies.
According to Adorno, the popular music produced by the
culture industry is dominated by two processes:
standardisation and pseudo-individualisation. The idea here
is that popular songs come to sound more and more like each
other. They are increasingly characterised by a core structure,
the parts of which are interchangeable with each other.
However, this core is hidden by the peripheral frills, novelties
or stylistic variations which are attached to the songs as signs
of their supposed uniqueness. Standardisation refers to the
substantial similarities between popular songs, pseudoindividualisation
to
their
incidental
differences.
Standardisation defines the way the culture industry squeezes
out any kind of challenge, originality, authenticity or
intellectual stimulation from the music it produces, while
pseudo-individualisation provides the ‘hook’, the apparent
novelty or uniqueness of the song for the consumer.
Standardisation means that popular songs are becoming more
alike and their parts, verses and choruses more
interchangeable. Pseudo-individualisation disguises this
60 THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL AND THE CULTURE INDUSTRY
process by making the songs appear more varied and distinct
from each other.
The contrasts which Adorno draws between classical and
avant-garde music on the one hand, and popular music on the
other, allow him to extend this argument. According to
Adorno, with classical or avant-garde music, every detail
acquires its musical sense from the totality of the piece, and its
place within that totality. This is not true of popular or light
music where ‘the beginning of the chorus is replaceable by the
beginning of innumerable other choruses…every detail is
substitutible; it serves its function only as a cog in a machine’
(1991:303). The difference is not primarily one drawn between
complexity and simplicity. Rather, the key distinction is that
between standardisation and non-standardisation which
establishes the superiority of serious over popular music. An
important reason for this is that ‘structural standardisation
aims at standardised reactions’. These features are not
characteristic of serious music:
To sum up the difference: in Beethoven and in good
serious music in general…the detail virtually contains
the whole and leads to the exposition of the whole, while
at the same time it is produced out of the conception of
the whole. In popular music the relationship is
fortuitous. The detail has no bearing on a whole, which
appears as an extraneous framework.
(ibid: 304)
In Adorno’s view, one of the few possible challenges to the
culture industry and commodity fetishism comes from serious
music which renounces the commodity form because it
cannot be contained by standardised production or
consumption.
One reason for this is that those who listen to popular music
are taken in by ‘the veneer of individual “effects”’ (ibid.: 302),
which masks the standardisation of the music, and makes the
listeners think they are hearing something new and different.
Adorno distinguishes between the framework and the details
THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL AND THE CULTURE INDUSTRY 61
of a piece of music. The framework entails standardisation
which elicits ‘a system of response-mechanisms wholly
antagonistic to the ideal of individuality in a free, liberal
society’ (ibid.: 305). This means that the details must confer on
the listener a sense of this suppressed individuality. People
would not necessarily put up with musical standardisation for
very long, so the sense of individualism within the process of
musical consumption must be maintained. Hence, ‘the
necessary correlate of musical standardization is pseudoindividualization’ (ibid.: 308). This involves
endowing cultural mass production with the halo of free
choice
or
open market on the basis of
standardization itself. Standardization of song hits keeps
the customers in line by doing their listening for them, as
it were. Pseudo-individualization, for its part, keeps them
in line by making them forget that what they listen to is
already listened to for them or ‘pre-digested’.
(ibid.)
Examples of pseudo-individualisation include improvisation,
such as that associated with certain forms of jazz, and the
‘hook’ line of a song, the slight variation from the norm which
makes the song catchy and attractive, and gives it the
semblance of novelty.
With respect to the audience, Adorno then goes on to argue
that ‘the counterpart to the fetishism of music is a regression of
listening’ (1991:40). The listeners drawn to popular music are
often thought to have infantile or childlike characteristics: they
are ‘arrested at the infantile stage…they are childish; their
primitivism is not that of the undeveloped, but that of the
forcibly retarded…the regression is really from…the
possibility of a different and oppositional music’ (ibid.: 41).
Listeners’ real need is for this latter type of music, but due to
their infantile mentality they continue to listen to popular
music: ‘regressive listeners behave like children. Again and
again and with stubborn malice, they demand the one dish
they have once been served’ (ibid.: 45). Accordingly, they
62 THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL AND THE CULTURE INDUSTRY
suffer from the delusion that they are exercising some degree
of control and choice in their leisure pursuits (ibid.: 46).
According to Adorno, regressive listening, ‘the frame of
mind to which popular music originally appealed, on which it
feeds, and which it perpetually reinforces, is simultaneously
one of distraction and inattention. Listeners are distracted
from the demands of reality by entertainment which does not
demand attention either’ (1991:309–310). The capitalist mode
of production conditions regressive listening. Higher pursuits
such as classical music can only be appreciated by those
whose work or social position means that they do not need to
escape from boredom and effort in their leisure time. Popular
music offers relaxation and respite from the rigours of
‘mechanised labour’ precisely because it is not demanding or
difficult, because it can be listened to in a distracted and
inattentive manner. People desire popular music, partly
because capitalists ‘hammer’ it into their minds and make it
appear desirable. But their desire is also fuelled by the
symmetry between production and consumption which
characterises their lives in a capitalist society.
People desire popular music because their consumption of
standardised products mirrors the standardised, repetitive
and boring nature of their work in production. For Adorno,
people
want standardized goods and pseudo-individualization,
because their leisure is an escape from work and at the
same time is moulded after those psychological attitudes
to which their workaday world exclusively habituates
them…there is…a pre-established harmony today
between production and consumption of popular music.
The people clamour for what they are going to get
anyway.
(ibid.: 310)
Standardised production goes hand in hand with
standardised consumption. Pseudo-individualisation saves
people the effort of attending to the genuinely novel or
THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL AND THE CULTURE INDUSTRY 63
original in their precious leisure-time. Both of these processes
comprise the distraction and inattention which define
regressive listening.
The last aspect of Adorno’s theory that we need to look at
concerns his claim that cultural phenomena such as popular
music act as a type of ‘social cement’, adjusting people to the
reality of the lives they lead. Adorno’s idea is that most people
in capitalist societies live limited, impoverished and unhappy
lives. They become aware of this, or are made to become
aware of it, from time to time. Popular music and film do not
deny this awareness, but can reconcile people to their fate.
The fantasies and happiness, the resolutions and
reconciliations, offered by popular music and film make
people realise how much their real lives lack these qualities,
and thus how much they remain unfulfilled and unsatisfied.
However, people continue to be adjusted to their conditions
of life since ‘the actual function of sentimental music’, for
example,
lies rather in the temporary release given to the
awareness that one has missed fulfilment.… Emotional
music has become the image of the mother who says,
‘Come and weep, my child.’ It is catharsis for the masses,
but catharsis which keeps them all the more firmly in
line…. Music that permits its listeners the confession of
their unhappiness reconciles them, by means of this
‘release,’ to their social dependence.
(ibid.: 313–314)
Here we can see how Adorno conceives of popular culture
(including popular music) as a type of ‘social cement’.
Popular culture does not necessarily hide reality from people;
nor are they directly duped or tricked by it. Rather, they are
led to recognise how difficult it is to change the world, and to
value the respite popular culture offers. They therefore accept
the world as it is. The comforts and cathartic effects of popular
culture enable people to resign themselves to the harsh and
unfulfilling reality of living in a capitalist society. The popular
64 THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL AND THE CULTURE INDUSTRY
song and Hollywood film dissuade people from resisting the
capitalist system, and from trying to construct an alternative
society in which individuals could be free, happy and fulfilled.
Adorno’s theory of popular music, Cadillacs and
doo-wop
In an extremely useful article entitled ‘Theodor Adorno meets
the Cadillacs’ (1986), Gendron has tried to assess Adorno’s
theory of popular music by applying it to the example of doowop music. In doing this, he introduces a critical assessment of
Adorno’s theory. The Cadillacs mentioned in the title of the
article is a reference to both the car and a doo-wop group.
Gendron uses the example of car production in order to
clarify what Adorno means when he argues that capitalism
functions to standardise commodities. Standardisation
involves the interchangeability of parts together with pseudoindividualisation. The parts of one kind of car can be
interchanged with those from another as a result of
standardisation, while the use of style or pseudoindividualisation—like the addition of a tail-fin to a Cadillac—
distinguishes cars from each other, and hides the fact that
standardisation is occurring. According to Gendron, Adorno
argues that what is true of cars is also true of popular music.
Both are distinguished by a core and a periphery, the core
being subject to standardisation, the periphery to pseudoindividualisation. The process of standardisation marks the
lives that people have to live in capitalist societies and ensures
that popular music is inferior to classical and avant-garde
music. Gendron says that for Adorno standardisation also
occurs diachronically (that is to say, over time as popular
musical standards are set) as well as synchronically (the
standards which apply at any particular point in time).
Gendron uses the example of doo-wop,6 as well as other
styles of pop music, to critically assess Adorno’s theory. He is
not totally dismissive of Adorno’s work. For example, he
suggests that ‘industrial standardization is an important
feature of popular music, and must be taken seriously in any
THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL AND THE CULTURE INDUSTRY 65
political assessment of the form’ (1986:25). He also argues that
Adorno’s theory has the potential both to combine political
economy and semiological perspectives, or culture and
economy, and to provide a critique of the argument that
consumers can draw from popular culture any meanings and
interpretations they wish (ibid.: 34–35). We might also note
that Adorno’s theory of popular culture is more complicated
than is often recognised in that he does not see ideology as
simply obscuring the reality of capitalism.
However, Gendron argues that Adorno takes his claims
about standardisation too far, and he uses the example of doowop to develop his critique. Doo-wop is defined by Gendron
as:
a vocal group style, rooted in the black gospel quartet
tradition, that emerged on inner city street corners in the
mid-fifties and established a major presence on the
popular music charts between 1955 and 1959. Its most
distinctive feature is the use of background vocals to take
on the role of instrumental accompaniment for, and
response to, the high tenor or falsetto calls of the lead
singer. Typically, the backup vocalists create a harmonic,
rhythmic, and contrapuntal substructure by voicing
phonetic or nonsense syllables such as ‘shoo-doo-be-doobe-doo’, ‘ooh-wah, ooh-wah,’ ‘sha-na-na,’ and so on.
(ibid.: 24)
Gendron suggests this music was standardised diachronically
and synchronically: the former because it relied on the longestablished song patterns of either Tin Pan Alley or rhythm
and blues; and the latter because of the close resemblance
between doo-wop songs and the interchangeability of their
parts, for example the swapping of the shoo-be-dos of one
song with the dum-dum-de-dums of another.
According to Gendron, one of the major difficulties with
Adorno’s work is its failure to distinguish between functional
artefacts such as cars and Cadillacs, and textual artefacts such
as pop music and doo-wop groups, for example, the
66 THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL AND THE CULTURE INDUSTRY
Cadillacs. The use of technological innovations in the
production of functional artefacts usually encourages
standardisation since it can increase the extent to which the
parts of, say, one type of car can be interchanged with those of
another. However, with textual artefacts, technological
innovations, such as the use of experimental tape techniques
by the Beatles, can differentiate between, say, pop groups or
music styles rather than making them more alike (ibid.: 26).
The production of textual artefacts is also different in that
what is initially produced is a single ‘universal’ statement, the
song or a series of songs, and not a commodity which can be
industrially manufactured in large quantities. What is
produced is a particular or unique song in a recording studio
by a group of singers, musicians, engineers, etc. It only
becomes a functional artefact when it is produced in large
numbers as a record. Functional and textual artefacts are the
result of distinct processes of production. This means that
music, like most popular culture, cannot be treated as if it
were just another commercial product.
Functional and textual artefacts, as Gendron goes on to note,
are equally the object of different kinds of consumption. If
functional artefacts are purchased and found to be useful, then
they will be purchased again when required. This would even
be true of commodities such as cars, which are only bought
relatively infrequently. But if a textual artefact such as a
record is bought and liked, this doesn’t mean that the very
same one will be bought again. No matter how impressed you
are with this book, you are unlikely to go out and buy a
second copy. What you might do, however, is buy a similar
kind of book (if you could find one). If you like doo-wop you
might buy different examples of the style, but not the same
record twice. This is one of the reasons for the emergence of
‘genres’ in popular culture, and for their importance in the
organisation of consumption and pleasure. Despite Adorno’s
argument, popular songs advertise both their individuality (it
is this song, this example of doo-wop, and not any other) and
their interchangeability (if you like this song, this example of
THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL AND THE CULTURE INDUSTRY 67
doo-wop, then you might well like others in the same style or
genre). In this sense, ‘we might consider standardization not
only as an expression of rigidity but also as a source of
pleasure’ (ibid.: 29). The pleasure people derive from popular
music arises as much from their awareness of standardisation
as it does from any perceived difference or individuality they
attach to any particular song.
Gendron is equally critical of Adorno’s notion of diachronic
standardisation because it implies that popular musical styles
never change. Going back to the distinction between core and
periphery, he makes the foll…

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