It was especially difficult for someone moving from Europe to Southern California to conclude that Americans were materially worse off because of capitalism. Adorno and other members of the Frankfurt School had to find a way of showing that the abundance of commodities capitalism produces is in fact bad for the masses—that, although people seem to be materially enriched by capitalism, they are really being spiritually and culturally impoverished. The work of the Frankfurt School came to focus on culture critique, on analyzing the harmful effects of the commercial culture of capitalism, especially insofar as it takes the form of mass culture.
And as we know, “consumerism” is always “the stuff other people buy.” I was listening to Steven Wilson’s music recently, and the didactic tone of his song “Personal Shopper” was obvious even when only halfway paying attention. No doubt, Adorno would be appalled to think that anything as degenerate as a rock song could show traces of his intellectual DNA, but there’s no denying the striking family resemblance in lyrics like these:
Buy online and in the shopping mall
Sell it on then buy it back
Buy the shit you never knew you lacked
Buy the update to compete
Buy the things that make your life complete
Buy the box set and the kind of stuff
You’ve bought before a million times
Buy in green, buy in blue
Buy in patterns ’cause I tell you to
Buy the dream, buy the spin
Feel the bite down of the trap you’re in
Buy the lies that I tell
Lap up everything I’m here to sell
Yes, yes, we’re all shallow, brainwashed sheeple who have been indoctrinated by commercials. Dear God, how trite. I used to make fun of a song like Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” for its surreal incoherence, but I realize now that I actually prefer it when I have no idea what someone is singing about, because more often than not, their earnest, undiluted opinions will only make you lose respect for them. I’d rather hear melodious jabberwocky than socially-conscious preaching. Let’s get back to the good old days when musicians just wanted to sing about their drug-addled visions rather than save our empty souls.