Political Economy & Music

Posted: May 11, 2014 in Essay's.



This essay will analyze what political economy, pseudo-individualization and style over substance is. How vital a role they play in the structure of society and also industry, cross-referencing some examples of popular music artists, it will also discuss ideas of the future of music entertainment.


What is political economy?


According to juliannedcy the eighteenth century saw the birth of political economy because of scarcity. In her document she discusses how economics influence life in general and says..


’If there were no scarcity, you could have everything you want right now.’’

(juliannedcy, Link below)

In the 1800s government and traders were monitoring buying, and selling, laws and relations to general trade very closely. This monitoring took place because the demand for products in areas of the developing world was very quickly out weighing the means of production. Before the industrial revolution Art, Machines, masonry, joinery and all skills/crafts were given value, determined by how many years experience you had, how easy it was to acquire such goods and or how good a reputation you had built from your previous work. Your means of production would have been your hands, tools and or your artistic way of expressing your views, thoughts, ideas and feelings of the world past, present and future. After the industrial revolution the developed world became industrialized and means of production was greatly increased due to being able to generate products daily by the masses instead of the time, emotion and human skill gone into the craft before hand. Since the industrialization, artistic integrity, the uniqueness and originality have all been minimalized in favor of the mass production of a copy of a copy.


Means of production (m.o.p) is one of the members of a structure along side relations of production (r.o.p), side by side these are the bases holding up the superstructure we call the political economy. Culture, Art and Government are the three bodies being held up by these two bases in this economic system.

Government officials and traders found during the early studies that any changes occurring in any nations trade would witness a causal sequence of change in popular culture, then art, and then onto politics to help facilitate and bring order to culture. Overall this process is causing a push-pull effect on all ideologies of all parties, creating a self-sufficient and sustaining system. This system is still a vital player in the shaping of the western world today and through out generations to the present day, we see how post modernism has brought on a search for perfect form. The search for perfect form is standardization in its entirety, for as long as we live in a capitalistic society, the self-sufficient system we know as ‘political economy’ will probably transpire for generations.


Popular culture has shown to be determined by supply and demand… So if the demand is far greater than the means of production does this mean that true quality and or artistic credit is being undermined by standardization?


’The prosperity of popular culture is determined by consumer demand, while demand and supply of cultural commodities are also determined by the cultural confinement of the consumers’’

                                       (Handbook of Chinese Popular Culture)

                                        edited by Dingbo Wu, Patrick D. Murph   page 6



Pseudo-Individualization and Standardization


Popular culture, Art, Industry and Music are all standardized according to a study that came from Theodore Adorno. He was a leading member of the Frankfurt School set up in Germany in the 1920’s. The school, most famous for the analyzing of the culture industry concluded that…


’…The culture industry reflects the consolidation of commodity fetishism… It shapes the tastes and preferences of the masses, thereby molding their consciousness by inculcating the desire for false needs.’’

(Strinati, D (1995) p61


Adorno argues that capitalistic societies are blinded by the ‘free choice’ of which consumer brand to go with, their social and economic status and the desire to feel independent from the masses are the constant distractions orchestrated by elitists to keep the masses in line. The standardization in popular music is considered to be the general structures, tonalities and content. He makes it quite clear that there is an establishing difference between ‘serious music’ and popular music, generalizing the audience of popular music as ‘’childish’’ (Strinati, D (1995. P67) and subconsciously demanding the ‘’same meal’’ (Strinati, D (1995. P67.) simple melodies, structures and novelistic hook-lines.


Looking at popular music of the present day it’s not hard to distinguish the difference between categories known as ‘genres’ such as Rock, Pop, Indie, Hiphop and Dance are just a few examples . These are all mini industries within themselves generating millions every year in currency yet Adorno’s critical analysis portrays them all as ‘pseudo individualization’. Pseudo Individualization is only one concept under the umbrella of standardization alongside a predictable structure, infantile melodies and catchy repeated lyrics. Adorno makes reference to it all being a cover up to the masses to make-believe that the some what, standardized music has originality and an integral aesthetic to facilitate its sales and relation to the listener.


‘’Pseudo Individualization, for its part, keeps them inline by making them forget what they listened to is already listened to for them or ‘’pre-digested.’’

Adorno, T (1995 p308)




Ultimately this is a false sense of belonging seeing as the theories of standardization and ‘free choice’ suggest that only false needs are ever satisfied, as everything in regards to the product is the same in theory yet striving to have individuality through an aesthetic. Even aesthetics are used over and over, for instance the jazzy look of the hair pulled over one eye most recognizable being Gabrielle, but not forgetting Marylyn Monroe and Rhianna of more recent times. Lets also take the newly released track by Pitbull & Kesha named ‘Timber’. Here we have a ‘classic’ pop song derived of a 32bar chorus, 4 main chords, catchy infantile lyrics and a simple yet memorable melody line. The aesthetic is that of country and western setting, a saloon bar, daisy duke styled half naked ladies and a dance floor pace that’s bound to hypnotize the viewer even for just a short while. Sections of the melody line sounds familiar maybe nostalgic to the older listener, whilst at the same time satisfying the general conditioned cravings of the younger generation in popular culture with the pacey rhythm and sexual references through out the video. We see this is a repeated aesthetic used by a pop band called Steps, over a decade ago with their number one hit single 5, 6, 7, 8.


Style over Substance


The music industry is flooded with artists exploiting and being exploited by pseudo-individualization. On one hand we have the super commercial pop artists like Jessie J, Katy Perry, Justin Beiber, Mylie Cyrus and One Direction all under pressure to fit a specific aesthetic in relation to their target audience, which in turn creates culture, fashion statements and millions in revenue annually. Major record labels may apply pressure on the content, as they ‘know what sells’. The public or press may brand these artist’s sell-outs or puppets of ‘occult lead’ businesses as we only see the symbolic and sexually glamourized music videos, and lavish lifestyles that the media constantly promote. Some artists will dispute this claiming that their originality and integrity is theirs to own fully for example Metallica and Oasis, yet their very aesthetic is what we know them by such as the rebellious rock-star attitude with John Lennon style sunglasses and a lazy sounding voice. Or on the other hand the energetic heavy metal, power chords, angry style voice dressed in all black with hand gestures of a ‘Hell Yeah’ attitude.


‘’We increasingly consume images and signs for their own sake rather than for their usefulness or for the deeper values they may symbolize.’’

Strinati, D (1995 p225)


Some artists in the past have exploited this to their own advantage by confidently creating and stepping into alter-ego aesthetics for example Lady Ga-ga’s range of outstanding and sometimes political statements through her visual art, Slim Shady and Ziggy Stardust also. The aesthetical impact these examples have on the general public gives them the illusion of individualization (Strinati, D) and originality however, all of the above are classic examples of style over substance. Where the content or depth of the music doesn’t necessarily   need catch on to the infantile listener looking to be distracted from general life, but only satisfy the ‘false need’ to belong to something, repeat a catchy hook-line or melody and or demonstrate a particular view on the world. On the other hand however, bands like Bastille, Cold Play, Keane, and Rage Against The Machine who don’t have much of a produced aesthetic as such, but come across as having a story to tell with depth and artistic understanding, soulful or standing for in particular political views. In turn creating a stronger sometimes ‘dangerous’ (http://livingcreative.ca/content/artists-are-dangerous) bond between the consumer and the artist and desirably creating a following. Which in its self is culture that will have impact in the ever-turning wheels of political economy. Either way Adorno’s theories imply that it’s all the same standardized, structured content throughout.



’’Its not about the money, money, money!

(Jessie J.)



Another great example of Pseudo-individualization and style over substance in one is Jessie J and her track ‘Price tag’. Again a simple chord structure and a 32 bar chorus with repeated infantile melody line and lyrics. How can a track or artist claim to be authentic, original and having true meaning when it states ‘Its not about the money? Surely if this was truly the case then every penny made from that particularly and cleverly engineered track should go to good charitable causes? This track went straight in at number 1 and put Jessie J in the limelight of the UK pop industry. Now her flamboyant and determined character has set yet another cultural ‘standardized’ following.



So we begin to see that ineffective of what the artists are representing or what’s being said in the music, the concept of how you take on your aesthetic ‘knowing its a commodity that relies solely on the distractions of free choice for sales,’ will determine your success in the public eye. Exploiting that which is secret to the general public but not to the industry, is true form of artistic measure and credibility.


Catching and sustaining the attention of the listener has declined over the years, Jonathan Mosen explains how much the purchasing music has changed in his lifetime alone and says because of today’s media accessibility through the Internet. Online playlists are becoming more predominant in the age of information and idea of a flat rate fee for all media is just about rising over the horizons of the future with websites like Spotify and Netflix.


‘’In 5 years I think people who want to actually own a music file will be the minority.’’

Mosen, J.


It’s fair to say that the music industry has been shaped and orchestrated to satisfy ‘false needs’, keep distractions at the for front of popular culture’s mind set and allow pseudo-individualization to be the cover up for the purpose of profiting on commodities. Music in the future will most probably be determined on a digital platform and generate revenue by ‘flat fees subscriptions’ or ‘rental lines’. For anyone wanting to make it in the industry should take careful time to measure how his or her artistic substance, message or aesthetic would apply to the general public, and then stepping into that role with confidence as that is exactly what’s going to sell your work.

Having the choice between being exploited like Justin Beiber or Exploiting the standardization like Lady Ga-ga, or even the laid back casually dressed ‘too cool for school’ look are all key elements of example being played by today’s entertainment industry ‘role models’. With media being accessible to all now self-producing and publishing to the best of your ability will give you a head start in the rat race were nothing appears to be original any more.


Anthony Fitzgerald.






http://www.studymode.com/essays/How-Economic-Influence-Your-Life-680054.html 7th April 7, 2014



Strinati, D. An introduction to theories of popular culture. Routledge (2000)


Adorno, T Popular music (1941)


Handbook of Chinese Popular Culture Greenwood press. 1994

edited by Dingbo Wu, Patrick D. Murph   page 6








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