Music and Identity

Music is a part of popular culture which reflect social and cultural changes of the epoch and society. Critics (Theodor Adorno and Simon Frith) claim that there is a close link between popular music and personal identity. Theodor Adorno claims that popular music is based on standardization and pseudo-individuality which level identity and self-expression of listeners. Simon Frith states that popular music is socially determined and aesthetically worthless which make popular music a product of mass culture. Argument As societies changed, popular music became commoditized in different ways which reflected mass production and mass culture.
Both critics agree that popular music is influenced by mass culture and new social values created during the XX century. Simon Frith explains that there is a cultural continuum in which relatively few cultural attributes are exclusively national and relatively few exclusively European. Most occupy a middle ground, the result of other influences entirely, such as American inventions born without apparent cultural influences. In contrast to this opinion, Theodor Adorno speaks about such phenomenon as “standardization” of popular music which his closely connected with mass “production” of music.
Both authors agree that this popular music can never aspire to be art, but its distinctiveness is accepted and respected. With industrialization and urbanization this situation changes, community and morality break down, and individuals become isolated, alienated and anomic, caught up in increasingly financial and contractual social relationships. Theodor Adorno and Simon Frith explain that cultural decay is caused by the fact that music lacks its cultural meaning and becomes a source of profit and financial gains for hundreds of musicians. “The fact that music, like other contemporary art forms … that individual creativity is a uniquely public good, has underpinned the economic organization of musical production since the end of the eighteenth century” (Frith 1999). Listeners are absorbed into an increasingly anonymous mass, manipulated by their only source of a surrogate community and morality, the mass media.

The authors have different views on the forces and impact of mass culture on popular music. Theodor Adorno states that modern society is influenced by such phenomenon as pseudo-individualization which “means endowing cultural mass production with the halo of free choice or open market on the basis of standardization itself” (Adorno 2000). This audience is understood to be a mass of passive consumers, susceptible to the manipulative persuasions of the mass media, acquiescent with the appeals to buy mass-produced commodities such as mass culture, supine before the false pleasures of mass consumption, and open to the commercial exploitation which motivates mass culture.
The emergence of mass society and mass culture means it lacks the intellectual and moral resources to do otherwise. In contrast, Frith underlines that listeners are associated with a specific idea of the audience for mass culture influenced by advertising and promotion. He pays a special attention to the impact of European and American popular music on national one which ruins uniqueness of national music and ‘turns’ a listener into a product of mass culture in spite of his/her will. Also, he explains that “The issue here is that the music that reaches us as somehow “ours” is in fact the result of specific musicians’ skills, ideas and energies, made available through a complex industrial process” (Frith). In contras to Firth, Adorno underlines that art lies beyond its aspirations, and it has already lost its uniqueness. The nature of audience therefore means that culture can be profitably mass produced.
I agree with Adorno and his concept of pseudo-individualization and standardization. The standardized, formulaic and repetitive pieces of music are the result of the manufacture of cultural commodities by means of routine, specialized, types of production. Art cannot be produced in this way. The alleged aesthetic complexity, creativity, experiments and intellectual challenges of art cannot be achieved by the techniques or conditions which produce mass culture for mass audience. Instead, music depends upon the inspired genius of the individual artist working outside the constraints of the commercial market, and without the tried and tested formulas and standard techniques of mass culture.
The example of blues (‘Back Door’ Man by Willie Dixon) shows that this genre is based on standardized formulas repeated and imitated by a number of musicians. This music is full of quick passages, percussive sound and unexpected calms. During 1950s, blues was characterized by a new sound: the sound of the electric guitar. Along with the honking saxophone, piano, bass, and drums, the guitar became a leading voice in every ensemble. The main elements of standardization are: slide guitar playing, songs written in traditional blues form, soulful and direct vocal performances. Listeners of this piece of music are proposed a certain tunes and sound effects they like or dislike.
There is thus no point in making demands upon or challenging this audience in the way that art might do, or drawing it into genuine and authentic forms of communal participation as popular music might do, since their conditions can no longer be sustained. Instead, the mass audience is there to have its emotions and sensibilities manipulated, to have its needs and desires distorted and thwarted, to have its hopes and aspirations exploited for the sake of consumption, by the meretricious sentiments, the surrogate fantasies, the false dreams of popular music. Similar to other blues artists the composer dipped into traditional lyrics to fill out the song. Standardization is evident because the song is based on folk songs motives and the subject of romance which was the most popular in traditional blues.
In sum, popular music is based on standardized approaches aimed to deliver mass product to consumers. Both authors show that mass music is a standardized, formulaic, repetitive and superficial one which celebrates trivial, sentimental, immediate and false pleasures.
Adorno, T. On Popular Music. ;;
Frith, S. Popular music policy and the articulation of regional identities
Dixon, W. Back Door Man. (song)

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