You know those songs you hear on the radio, or through iTunes (or some other popular music platform), that you can’t seem to get out of your head? What if I told you that it was all part of a model to get consumers to buy and buy and buy? What if I told you this
You know those songs you hear on the radio, or through iTunes (or some other popular music platform), that you can’t seem to get out of your head? What if I told you that it was all part of a model to get consumers to buy and buy and buy? What if I told you this money-making technique has been around for as long as the radio has existed? Looking at one specific case study, maybe these questions can be answered…
“Can’t Feel My Face” was a song released by Canadian, contemporary R&B artist, The Weeknd, on June 8th, 2015; his second released single of the year. Produced under Republic Records, whose parent company is Universal Music Group, the song was written by Abel Tesfaye (The Weeknd’s birth name), Ali Payami, Savan Kotecha, Max Martin, and Peter Svensson. Of the five people mentioned, two of them, Kotecha and Martin, have written numerous number one hits for the Billboard Top 100; Martin, in particular, wrote twenty-one, including Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl”, Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off”, and The Backstreet Boys’ “I Want it That Way.” The song was hailed by Spotify as the “Song of the Summer” in 2015, and its performance among the mass market proved so: it was number one on the Billboard Hot 100, the Canadian Hot 100, and also reached the number one spot in the countries of New Zealand, Denmark, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United Kingdom. Regarding its performance on YouTube, the audio version, alone, totaled 87,278,003 views as the time of writing this paper, while the music video cultivated 93,426,774 views. In addition, the song produced first week digital sales of 93,000 units, amassed 4.2 million US streams, and 38 million airplay audiences. As for the song’s critical reception, it has been nothing but positive: Brennan Carly of Spin called the song “pop perfection”, while others have favorably compared it to the style of Michael Jackson. As for the details of the song, it does indeed have a strong Michael Jackson resemblance to it, from lyrics to sound: it contains high pitched vocals, or the Falsetto method, “hiccup” noises, and a consistently high tempo composed of drums and the bass guitar; all of which work in unison to build up the disclosure of the main verse in climatic fashion. Also worth noting, the song repeats itself every one to three stanzas.
Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School studied the means by which to psychologically understand the problems of modern day capitalism; especially “The Culture Industry”, which generated particular mindsets and behaviors found to be problematic. Adorno’s studies ultimately found that the capitalist industry placed Americans into confining lifestyles where they focused all their attention on desiring materials unnecessary to both themselves, as well as to the overall progression of society at large. Fast forwarding to the year 2015, a mass influx of music has been produced that would fall victim to the analyses made my Adorno and The Frankfurt School; among these produced songs would be the Weeknd’s hit single, “Can’t Feel My Face.” If Adorno were to critique the song, he would most likely consider it supplementary evidence to the high production of standardized, popular music that seeks not to challenge listeners on a cerebral level, or innovate past the sole interest of repetitious industrial profit. Upon inspecting the song’s lyrics, musical composition, and performance in the mass market, it is evident that Adorno’s concepts of “pseudo-individualization”, “glamor”, and “plugging” respectively connect to each of the former notions. Nonetheless, Adorno’s arguments are also prone to weakness as well: he fails to accredit the possibility that the so-called “serious” music he champions contains features that perpetuate the concepts of standardization as well.
The concept of pseudo-Individualization is made apparent in the lyrics of the song: which promote non-conformity through indulging oneself, regardless of potential dangers. Nonetheless, the continuous repetition in the lyrics indicates that the thematic message about non-conformity is nothing more than a smoke screen to fool the consumer. Adorno defines pseudo-individualization as “endowing cultural mass production with the halo of free choice or open market on the basis of standardization itself”(“On Popular,” 25); in other words, we are duped with the illusion of free choice when it comes to selection. The Weeknd’s lyrics in “Can’t Feel My Face” echo this concept of supposed free choice through its narrative: a person who provides an analogue for drug addiction through being in love with another person. Throughout the song he reiterates the lyric “I can’t feel my face when I’m with you/ But I love it, but I love it” (Google Play); the latter portion of the lyrics is meant to indicate that while he’s aware of the harmful effects he’s undergoing, he’s showing agency by being conscious and maintaining usage. While the overall message entails grim repercussions, the song is still meant to inspire some belief of individualism; however, this is very much not the case. The song is composed of ten stanzas and repeats itself every one to three; thus, it’s fairly evident that, like most popular music, this example falls prone to the same standards that be, like repetition. Further proof of pseudo-individualization is the Weeknd’s tendency to make un-announced “ooh” and “hiccup” noises throughout the song; as if he’s eschewing the song’s blueprint. In reality, these sporadic verbal releases are nothing more than “improvisations”: spontaneous actions that are still restricted to the “walls of the harmonic and metric scheme” (Adorno, “On Popular”, 25). Since the spontaneous noises are pronounced while the song’s lyrics are being sung, one appreciates and perceives the notion as being not in tune, when the popular music is actually commanding “its own listening-habits” (Adorno, “On Popular”, 26).
While it tricks the listener into thinking they’re in control, glamor decorates the song’s composition in order to distinguish itself, and also maintain a grasp over the consumer’s attention; the accompanying music video further supplements this connection. Glamor is a means by which the producers make the song stick out to audiences; especially when they are so bored by their choices, only the most extravagant details can provide a sense of excitement and curiosity. While the lyrics operate under a pseudo-individualism of maintaining indulgences, it grabs the listener’s attention by consistently playing at a high tempo: composed of the Weeknd’s vocals while drums and the bass play consistently in the background to build up the climatic disclosure of the main verse: “I can’t feel my face when I’m with you” (Google play). The style presented not only provide an upbeat artifice to overshadow the dark content, but also play to Adorno’s notion “By glamorizing, [the song] attract[s] attention” (“On Popular”, 29). To further support the goal of “now we [are] present[ing]” (Adorno, “On Popular Music”, 28) in the song, the Weeknd’s vocal approach imitates that of pop icon, Michael Jackson. Known for having a Falsetto vocal pattern, an unnaturally high sound of speech, low tempo, resonant bass, and songs bridled by an anxious tone, the Weeknd pushes all of these characteristics aside to reflect Jackson’s style: which is somewhat the complete opposite. By doing so, he is able to glamorize the song more so had it been produced under the Weeknd’s usual style. This transition is more obvious in the accompanying music video: in it, the Weeknd is shown dancing, not unlike Jackson, in a bar while eerie spectators overlook with indifferent and hostile eyes, similar in ways to the “Thriller” music video. The song glamorizes by way of imitating the style of Michael Jackson; by doing so, attracts the attention and positive feedback it so desires. In the end however, it only succeeds in making the song “look alike [to other songs] and [proving that] the glamor effects of popular music [make them] equivalent to each other” (Adorno, “On Popular”, 29).
The glamor present only helped gather the acclaim awarded to the song, which was furthered by the way it was circulated; which would lead Adorno to believe much of its success has to do with the concept of plugging: a method where popularity is achieved when a popular song is “played most frequently” until it is demanded from every consumer (“A Social Critique”, 215). When taking a closer look, the global response to “Can’t Feel My Face” was nothing but positive: not only was it favorably compared to Michael Jackson’s work, but it also peaked from the top of the Billboard Hot 100 charts to all of Ireland. The positive response was further compounded by its swift impact on popular culture: the song was endorsed through Tom Cruise’s lip synching of it on an episode of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and was also used as the song of choice for a YouTube mashup video featuring Barack Obama, entitled Barack Dubs. The repeated accolades and recognition gave the song the allowances to be as demanded as it had ended up becoming. With that in mind, Adorno’s explanation would illustrate that “the ‘plugging’ of songs does not follow the response they elicit but the vested interests of song publishers” (“A Social Critique”, 215). Ultimately because of mass circulation, more consumers are prone to hearing the song and end up defining it as being “popular”; and when it’s popular, most will gather into a trend-based collective to avoid being ostracized.
While Adorno’s arguments pull back the curtain to reveal how popular music manipulates the wants and needs of everyday people, he propositions investing more in serious music; nonetheless, what he does not recognize is the subtle standardization prevalent in his preferences. Adorno states that what sets popular music apart from serious music is their “fundamental characteristic… standardization” (“On Popular”, 17). However, if one is observant enough, they may be able to comprehend that the serious music Adorno preaches of is subject to similar hindrances; hindrances that lessen their aura. He ultimately distinguishes popular music from serious music as having a “pre-given and pre-accepted” experience that work in parts as opposed to a whole, while serious music functions with “Every detail [deriving] its musical sense from the concrete totality of the piece” (Adorno, “On Popular”, 19). While a popular song may be able to become automatized through registers of prior examples, the structure and cognizance of serious music composed to challenge the listener falls into the pitfalls of standardization as well because of imitation. At the time of producing his work, Adorno simply could not fathom the impact serious music, i.e. Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Pachelbel, would have on the creative machinations of contemporary artists. “Graduation (Friends Forever)” by Vitamin C is based on Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major”, “I Can” by Nas samples Beethoven’s “Fur Elise”, while “They” by Jem is based on Bach’s “Prelude in F minor (BWV 881)”; all of the aforementioned represent serious music appropriated by artists considered to be of the popular variety. While the original version will always exist, it begs the question of whether these imitations allow for the popular and serious methods to be in closer comparison than originally conceived; thus, does such an association lessen the aura and authenticity of the music Adorno champions? In conclusion, Adorno cites that “The detail has no bearing on a whole, which appears as an extraneous framework” (Adorno, “On Popular”, 21); this relationship is his reason to worry, but it can be deduced that the infusion of popular with serious either heightens the position of the popular songs created, or lessens the impact of the serious altogether.
Adorno would criticize the Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” as being yet another example of standardized, popular music. Its lyrics, composition, and global response prove that the concepts of pseudo-individualization, glamor, and plugging remain as prevalent as ever; in the interim, furthering the Culture Industry’s agenda of maintaining their grasp over the cognitive capacities of everyday consumers. Had it not been for the infusion of the popular method with that of the serious, his claims would remain disproven, but it appears as if his preferences of music can, too, align themselves with the music he feels supplements regressive progression. Nonetheless, this may not be an entire loss for the contemporary listener, as this collaboration between both methods could prove to be a winning formula for people to initiate themselves into Adorno’s preferred tastes; tastes which could enlighten cognition.
Adorno, T.W. “On Popular Music.” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science 9 (1941): 17-48. Print.
Adorno, T.W. “A Social Critique of Radio Music.” Kenyon Review 7 (Spring 1945): 208-217.Print
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