The Avicii industry

Avicii – True (PRMD/Universal, 2013)

The recent trend for EDM/’American roots music’ crossovers contains some of the most unreal, aesthetic-as-commodity, artistically (morally?) bankrupt music I’ve ever heard, and is proof, if nothing else, that the culture industry is alive and well in the twenty-first century.

Adorno’s conception of how art and culture is commodified and industrialised under capitalism is obsolete in many ways[1], but the link he draws between the aesthetic and the commodity is still wholly relevant. Specifically, one of the key tenets of cultural production under late capitalism is the way in which the aesthetic of any art object is dictated by the commodity production that gives it its form. Here’s a few snippets that still largely speak for themselves:

‘The man with leisure has to accept what the culture manufacturers offer him…Industry robs the individual of his function. Its prime service to the customer is to do his schematizing for him.’[2]

‘There is nothing left for the consumer to classify. Producers have done it for him. Art for the masses has destroyed the dream but still conforms to the tenets of that dreaming idealism which critical idealism balked at.’[3]

‘The culture industry can pride itself on having energetically executed the previously clumsy transposition of art into the sphere of consumption, on making this a principle, on divesting amusement of its obtrusive naïvetiés and improving the type of commodities.’[4]

We can see these ideas manifest especially in the music of Avicii, the crown prince of ensuring ‘every hit song [is] a plug for its tune’,[5] the harbinger of aesthetic emptiness, the creator of a musical void that nobody asked for and which can never be filled.

The emptiness of Avicii’s True music is not the aesthetic itself, but rather how – and from what sources – it is constituted. This music functions by adapting the essence of disparate genres into a new (unstable) cohesion: in this case what can crudely be called country music is assimilated into the seemingly unstoppable rise of mainstream electronic dance music. This act of shallow appropriation effectively devalues the musical signifiers exhibited in the work, but the sincerity with which they are utilised still disingenuously functions as if value can be ascribed to them. This is what happens when you appropriate signifiers of genres and nothing more: there is a disembodied echo of the essence of country music (acoustic guitars, southern-US accents, pseudo-pastoral lyrics and so on), but there is no true substance. A song can be labelled a ‘crossover’ (as opposed to belonging to a distinct subgenre it its own right) when it is decidedly less than the sum of its parts. As such, True is a success not despite its mediocrity, but because of it.

These signs are stripped of their signification: they point to nothing but themselves, their cultural origin obscured and irrelevant. The work is therefore meaningless, but presents itself in such a way that does not hint towards its own meaninglessness: it is sincere in its insincerity. As Adorno writes:

‘Everything depends on this: whether meaning inheres in the negation of meaning in the artwork or if the negation conforms to the status quo; whether the crisis of meaning is reflected in the works or whether it remains immediate and therefore alien to the subject.’[6]

Indeed in the era of late capitalism all art is meaningless, and has no intrinsic artistic/creative/aesthetic value beyond its function as a commodity; but of course, the inauthenticity of Avicii’s music functions in such a way that masks this fact. In 2014, pop music is the sound of the commodity obfuscating itself.

True is the musical equivalent of Alien Vs. Predator,[7] or a (‘Zombie’) Simpsons/Family Guy crossover: put fans of artistic product A together with fans of artistic product B, and hope to double your success. It’s also why no pop song in the 2010s is complete without a feature, in which artists from previously disparate genres are smashed together seemingly at random in the name of homogenising demographics and synchronising income streams. As Drew Millard writes:

‘In the past few months, capitalism has caught up to EDM in an unprecedented way. EDM, or “Electronic Dance Music” for all you parents out there, has become embraced by a silent majority of normal people and bros, and record companies have taken it upon themselves to appeal to bland, unoriginal listeners in the most aggressive manner possible. If you look at the numbers, the only two genres of music that make lots of money are pop country and EDM. So, before you could say “Supply Side Economics,” somebody thought to combine the two.’

This is neoliberal, market-driven music at its purest, where cultural production is governed through the satiating of an artificial, untapped niche: supply with no need for a demand, music produced for its exchange value rather than its use value. The retromania critique may decry the lack of a musical vanguard in which artists are searching for the musical ‘new’, but when music is inseparable from its commodity form, there is no ‘new’ beyond the market: it’s subgenres and crossovers all the way down. Under the cultural conditions of late capitalism, is it any wonder that creativity is reacting by retreating into its own cultural past? Guy Debord’s proclamation still rings true today:

‘Behind the glitter of spectacular distractions, a tendency toward banalization dominates modern society the world over, even where the more advanced forms of commodity consumption have seemingly multiplied the variety of roles and objects to choose from… life in this particular world remains repressive and offers nothing but pseudo-gratifications.’[8]

These criticisms are nothing new: while Avicii and his ilk have become unimaginably successful, there is also a palpable unease with this new trend. This unease is not born out of an idealistic, misguided defence of some sort of musical ‘purity’, but rather an instinctive sense that this music is somehow bad for our mental health. To return to Adorno, the mark of success of the culture industry ‘is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.’[9] This is the endgame of ‘The Avicii Industry’: an empty, meaningless mess of cultural detritus – and we love (and consume) every second of it.

Further reading

‘Avicii is a monster we created, and must be stopped’ (The Spiral Groove, January 2014)

‘#trendwatch: Country EDM edition’ (Vice, October 2013)

‘Country music meets EDM: a line dance too far?’ (Mixmag, December 2013)

[1] See, for example: Shane Gunster, ‘Revisiting the Culture Industry Thesis: Mass Culture and the Commodity Form’, Cultural Critique, 45 (2000), 40-70; and also Peter Uwe Hohendahl, ‘Reading Mass Culture’, in Prismatic Thought: Theodor W. Adorno (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), pp. 119-148.

[2] Theodor W. Adorno, and Max Horkheimer, ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment As Mass Deception’, in Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. by John Cumming(London: Verso, 1979), pp. 120-167, p. 124.

[3] Ibid. p. 125.

[4] Ibid. p. 135.

[5] Ibid. p. 163.

[6] Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. by Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), p. 210.

[7] Alien Vs. Predator is the film everyone was afraid Freddy Vs. Jason would be – an attempt to cash in on the popularity of two franchises with little to no respect for the material the sequel was spawned from.’

[8] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle. this excerpt first came to my attention in Automatic Writing’s fantastic article ‘The identity politics of capital: Homogenising differentiation’, which explores some of the issues I superficially touch upon with far more depth and lucidity than I can go into here.

[9] Adorno and Horkheimer, ‘The Culture Industry’, p.167.