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Why were the mass culture theorists, and the "Frankfurt School" (including Theodor Adorno) critical of popular culture?

Updated on September 23, 2011

Who were the "Frankfurt School"?

The Frankfurt school, who were a group of Jewish intellectuals that had very left-wing views, was set up in Germany during the 1920’s, during the Nazi Party’s rise to power. They studied and criticized capitalist societies but due to their Marxist views, their statements at times seemed to be biased, and that they were looking more for faults and problems within these systems, as opposed to just analyzing them. Obviously due to being Marxists and Jews, they had no choice but to leave Germany and some members, such as Theodor Adorno, moved to the USA. While some settled in New York, others went to live in Hollywood, one of the most central places in America for popular culture.

Basis of their Ideology

The fact that the Frankfurt School had been forced to leave their homes because of the totalitarian fascist party in control of Germany, would have been a major encouragement in their criticism of capitalism, and they had no doubt experienced how mass media and popular culture can be abused and misused as propaganda. For example, during the Nazi’s rise to power they used media to a huge extent to make their people believe the party’s views as facts. The film “The Eternal Jew” was made to encourage the perspective that Jewish people were cunning, vermin like people, which were actually conspiring against the world. Also, for one of the Nuremberg rallies, an annual propaganda event, Adolf Hitler employed his favorite film maker, Leni Riefenstahl, to film and direct “The Triumph of the Will”, which, while being a propaganda film that promoted Nazi ideology, was a revolutionary piece of video, that was one of the first to use techniques such as multiple angles of the same scene, or sweeping camera shots. This most likely had added to their mistrust of Popular culture altogether in other countries.

Criticisms by the "Frankfurt School"

The Frankfurt school believed that popular culture had taken a good thing and had made it evil. They believed in music and film, but they were convinced that in their time, these things had become idolized due to success, and had then been taken advantage of by an industry that’s sole purpose, like all industries in capitalist societies, was to make a profit. This was their aim, even if it meant that the music and films that were created were just hollow clones of the originals. People like Theodor Adorno thought that honest media had become infested with these duplicates and that its meaning had changed from a way of one expressing itself in some form, to being another capitalist money making, people controlling scheme.

When talking about popular culture, the Frankfurt School often used the term fetishism. They believed that the popular culture has given things like films and songs an economical worth, which is a price they feel they should not have and that this takes away from the creativeness of the products and leaves them as just commodities. They criticized this by arguing that this reduces all the quality of popular culture. It lulls the people into accepting this as normal and not even realizing that they are just paying for the same old thing regurgitated over and over again but still thinking that they are getting something original and exclusive. Through all of this, the whole culture industry blurs the line that separates between the desire of the capitalist system and human wants from that of real human needs.

Theodor Adorno

Theodor Adorno disagrees strongly to arguments saying that popular culture is not a threat. He believes that people are too passive about it, and that they just think of it as another service that is provided because it is a part of human life, or that it is just entertainment. His theory is that by not realizing that the culture industry is there just to be consumed by the people, that it is there to standardize everything, and to make things fit into particular structures so that they are easier to reproduce over and over, you are just allowing it to win. By disregarding how subtly the popular culture is, people are allowing it to easily control them. The longer and longer popular culture becomes a normal part of life, the more hard it is to compare it to a world less controlled by media. As the writer George Orwell wrote in his novel 1984 “The masses never revolt on their own accord, and they never revolt merely because they are oppressed. Indeed, so long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware that they are oppressed.”

Adorno and Popular Music

When he looked at music, Adorno claimed that popular music was the best example of something being repeated constantly, and that the most popular songs were almost exactly the same. He stated that popular music had certain parts that were used constantly, but they mixed up the order and the varied the style in order to make the music appear to the consumer that it was original. While the songs were growing more and more similar, people were finding them more unique and special due to their pseudo-individualism. People were finding their identities in the music they listened to, but he disputed that they were just soaking up more of the disguised products of the popular culture.

On the other hand he stated that classical music was not produced in the same way. He demonstrated that classical music follows no structure, and that the music is carefully crafted and every small detail compliments the overall piece as opposed to popular music, in which no thought goes into each individual song, and that there are huge similarities between them all.


A common term that Adorno used was pseudo-individualization. He used it to describe how easy it was for songs of the same arrangements to be altered slightly with the intention of making them appear unique. He believe that because from living in a capitalist system, and having capitalist ideas constantly bombarded at you every day, one becomes used to this and then feels that this music that is repeated daily is an important part of life. Adorno believed that by listening to standardized music, people did not have to think so much in that particular area, and therefore their mind became standardized also.


While the Frankfurt school did reveal a lot about popular culture to the world, they also underestimated the people who consumed it. They did not really consider that even within the popular culture, there could be some drastic potential to change things, and that even though popular music was controlled and produced on a mass scale by industries, it is still written my people who have fresh ideas. Theodor Adorno was convinced that all popular music fitted into the same structure, but that is not necessarily true. The ability to be original is always there, but the Frankfurt School seemed to class the population in one big group, instead of thinking about how individually people can be outstanding. On a larger scale, they also did not often take into account that while capitalist industries can have a huge control over some situations, when they fail, which they do, they lose this control.

By S.J Ennis


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      Michael 6 years ago

      Man, I wish you had citations in your text. I think you have some interesting points here and there and I´d wish to read further on and citations would help greatly.


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