The Beatles: Being Original by Embracing Conventionalism

Pop Quiz: Can you guess which of these three bands is The Beatles?    

Nothing gets me more pumped up than waking up after a solid eight hours of sleep, making a steamy cup of peppermint tea, and putting my Spotify “Beatles” playlist on shuffle to start the day. The Beatles are on the top of my list, but this really should not be surprising because a loving the Beatles is far from unusual. While I am convinced that I have a genuine admiration for their work, it seems like everyone else feels a similar sense of admiration, considering that in nearly every “100 Best Artist” or “Top Musicians of All Time” list there is bound to be a Beatle. Rolling Stone called them “one of the best things to happen in the twentieth century”(1), while MTV stated that they were the “most influential act of the rock era, and introduced more innovations into popular music than any other rock band of the 20th century.”(2) Even CNN, a news source that goes beyond just reporting entertainment related news, claimed that, early on, The Beatles were set on a  “history making path of pop-culture dominance.”(3) Classics like “Yesterday” and “Let It Be” grace the lives of nearly anyone knowledgable of pop-culture, while songs like “Octopuses Garden” and “Yellow Submarine” are childhood classics.  There is no denying the special place The Beatles claims in the hearts of millions of people around the world. For many of these people, The Beatles are truly sentimental, a musical reminder of bonding time with mom and dad, classic college kickbacks, or, to some older fans, the craziness of the ‘60s.

But, with the sense familiarity of nearly every Beatles song that comes with being a fan, is the is the inevitable need to ignore the indisputable reality of the Beatle’s music being far from unique when further observed. As a Beatles fan myself, it is easy to recognize the variety of music and the so called “innovation” that so many music critics accredit to the band, but this notion of individuality does not hold up. Innumerable people are quick to jump on to the “Beatles are the best” bandwagon, and fail to recognize the contradiction of the notion they often accept. This contradiction lies in the false idea, so commonly advocated by Beatles supporters, that the band broke the system of artists forced to fit into molds created by pop culture. In fact, this perception of them as “mold-breakers” can be seen as the exact opposite of the reason for their success. If one were to attribute their success and popularity for years beyond their break up to one thing, it would be the fact that they embraced the culture industry and learned to manipulate popular molds to their benefit. To build The Beatles up as “the best” off of the inaccurate perception of them being extraordinarily unique signifies a lack of knowledge of their music, the music of the era, and of their relationship with the culture created by the music industry. We must ask ourselves: were they really a band to have influenced pop-culture, or was pop-culture influencing them?(4) The answer is both. It is time to accept that the adorable bowl haircuts, the cool India-inspired garb, the aggressive guitar riffs and loving ballads were all trends that The Beatles adopted and then promoted, contributing to a cycle of sharing fads. The Beatles were an amazing band, and inspired many future artists, but their admirability lays in something beyond uniqueness. If people just opened their eyes and ears, and took away any pre-supposed biases towards the band, it would quickly become clear just how blinded we have become by admiration. But who can blame the fab four for contributing to the consumer industry’s tendency to homogenize musical themes. After all, with respect to popular musicians,  “everyone is doing it.”

Their early career marked the beginning of this cycle of pop music production. The Beatles, known in their formative years as the “Quarrymen”, started their performing career by playing covers of songs popular at the time, a selection of artists ranging from The Del-Vikings, to Big Mama Thorton, to Buddy Holly.(5) In fact, it was a Buddy Holly song, “That’ll be the day” that inspired The Quarrymen’s first recording. In addition to having covered the songs of Buddy Holly, the band was also inspired partially by Holly’s partner band, The Crickets, to name themselves “The Silver Beetles” (which was short lived as the Beat movement inspired the men to soon change their name to “The Beatles”.) Thus marks the first big movement of the band borrowing trends and themes from already popular influences.

As the band gained fame they made big changes to their group dynamic, starting with their appearance. Playing in the grungy pubs in their hometown of Liverpool and then later in larger clubs in Hamburg, the boys had initially adopted the 1960’s “Rocker” look, complete with greased up hair and leather jackets that had become so popular amongst many English youth in the 1960’s (left). In the wake of their movement toward up-and-coming fame, however, they decided to compromise between the “rocker” look and the more conservative “mod” look,  and molded themselves into a more clean cut boy band (think One Direction meets ‘60s businessman), while keeping a “Rocker” edge to their music (right).


While their look may have changed during their beginning stages of fame, their sound certainly did not. Although they began to write many of their own songs, something that is not seen so often today, their songs followed the style of what was popular at the time. Their song “Twist and Shout”, for example, instantly reminds me of Chubby Checker’s song “The Twist”(1960), as it shares a similar uplifting danceable beat as well as the message to dance “The Twist”. “I Will” has a similar serenading melody to “Only the Lonely” by Roy Orbison (1961).  A personal favorite of mine, “Please Mr. Postman” from the album With The Beatles (which became the number one album in the UK), did not just share themes with other songs, but was, in fact, a cover of a song original sung by The Marvelettes.

The Beatles continued this trend of evoking popular music themes of the time leading up to their debut on the Ed Sullivan show in America, staying within the stylistic range they had built their fame upon. That is one of the things that makes The Beatles so easy to listen to, if you are feeling like listening to something with a sound similar to “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, all you have to do is pick out a song from the very same album! Even right after the rise of “Beatlemania” they continued to play on the safe side and produce music with themes that were successful in their earlier pieces. But then, in 1964 the band released Beatles For Sale which introduced a new element to their music, a sort of classic blues-inspired “American” twist on their work, with Paul McCartney leading “wild and hoarse” vocals on a medley on another cover, this time of “Kansas City [Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller]/ Hey-Hey-Hey [Little Richard].”(6) In their next couple albums, they followed a similar suite of incorporating newer trends, slowly becoming a little more open to more influences from the lesser known parts of pop-culture.

A great example of this is Revolver, the album that many fans consider a major turning point in The Beatles career, marked the point at which their introduction of little elements turned into experimenting with new undiscovered styles and setting the trends themselves. So many fans, including myself, turn to Revolver as an example of how The Beatles “…were ground-breaking pioneers.”(7) “Elenor Rigby”, one of the hit songs of the album, introduced a new aspect to The Beatles sound, an abstract orchestral-style background and modern experimental sounds. While some bands had already started to tinker with this, such as a young and yet-to-be famous Pink Floyd with their lead singer Syd Barret, or the Yard Birds, The Beatles had the established status in the music world and were able to produce and popularize songs with such techniques. Their status provided them with the opportunity to take what some lesser-known bands had been doing for years, and create a new pop fad out of it. Thus marks the second step in the cycle of popular music production the culture industry promotes so well, giving influential artists the power to set the stage for new trends. While they never truly innovated by producing a completely new sound, The Beatles managed to use their power in the music world to incorporate musical themes they found attractive into their pieces, popularizing them, and as a result providing a basis of pop-culture from which many later bands would find their inspiration.

The Beatle’s evolution of personal style and appearance within their role as cultural figures, visible especially during and after their album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was simply a naturally timed adaption to keep up with the music industry. They were merely adopting new fads and trends from other cultural areas at the time. Their experimentation with LSD, often an event that is credited context for their sudden change in music style, fell around the time that many other artists, The Doors’ Jim Morrison and even Pink Floyd’s Syd Barret, who had been using the drug well before The Beatles. However, as one of the most popular bands of the time, with a huge fan base, their psychedelic style and music as a result of their experimentation with drugs set trends in pop-culture that were soon adopted by others, just as The Beatles had done before their rise to power, by bands like David Gilmour fronted-Pink Floyd.

The Beatles also experimented widely with instruments not typically associated with “rock stars”, eventually incorporating these instruments into their art as well. As a sense of out-worldliness grew amongst the youth in the UK as well as the United States, so did this expression grow in The Beatles music. The sitar, an instrument that was traditionally played in India and favored largely by George Harrison, as well as what many call Indian inspired melodies,  became  reoccurring features in their songs, especially from the album Revolver and beyond. The Doors, at this time, began to emulate this, playing in a style similar to The Beatles India-inspired rock, as heard in the Door’s song “The End.” In addition, The Doors, in songs like “Riders of the Storm”, amongst other bands including The Kinks and The Animals, also adopted the bluesy rock style that The Beatles had once incorporated, with songs like “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and “For You Blue.” In addition to the bluesy sounds, other bands also adopted a polarity in their identity as artists, as they looked one way in appearance and played their music another way, as The Beatles had done years before. The Animals, as mentioned before, not only sounded like The Beatles, but they tried to look like them too, playing their rock and roll in preppy, carefully tailored gray and yellow suits. Even if The Beatles could be attributed with being the source of certain fads, they can not be called unique for the very reason seen with The Animals. These ideas that The Beatles popularized already existed, it was just their adoption of them that turned them into fads, and called many up and coming musicians to do the same. The more new things The Beatles popularized, the more other bands copied them, and the more homogeneity was visible in the music industry.

At this final point in their career, with fame heightened to its maximum, it is safe to say The Beatles went from artists shaped by the demands of consumers of pop culture to artists helping shape pop culture and what was demanded. While their innovations were not quite innovations in the sense that they were borrowed, The Beatles had their predominant fame help them turn unpopular occurrences into themes in music that became mass produced.

For a fan such as myself, I can not let these facts discourage me from being supportive of my favorite band. But their so called “uniqueness” is not a valid reason to call them the best. They were the best in the way that they gave the people what they wanted, in the way that they created art that moved the masses. The Beatles were talented for understanding the culture of the time, and later recognizing unrecognized techniques and styles to bring to the public eye. Contrary to being unique, they facilitated homogeneity in musical themes. This, as pessimistic as it sounds, is not meant to cast The Beatles in a dark light, but instead praise them as masters of the 20th century mass production of music and the “rock star” movement. The band learned to take different music scenes and cultural styles and adapt their sounds to fit in with their surroundings, creating what people of the time felt was the most pleasurable to listen to. The ability to create this pop music exchange better than anyone else left them as one of the most beloved bands of all time. In reality, these cute clean-cut boy band characters that children and adults alike loved, were really sneaky but lovable musicians (and opportunist) playing on the heart strings of the consumers of popular culture.

1)George-Warren, Holly, Patricia Romanowski Bashe, and Jon Pareles. The Beatles. The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll. New York: Fireside, 2001. N. pag. Web. <>.

2)”About The Beatles.” MTV Artists. MTV, n.d. Web. <>.

 3)Leopold, Todd. “5 Things to Know About Beatlemania.” CNN. Cable News Network, 25 Aug. 2014. Web. 18 Mar. 2016. <>.

4)Adorno, T. & Horkheimer, M., 1944. The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. In T. Adorno and M. Horkheimer. Dialectics of Enlightenment. Translated by John Cumming. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.

5)“Artists Covered by The Quarrymen.” The Quarrymen Covered Songs and Artists. Samsung, n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2016. <>.

6)“Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey! | The Beatles Bible.” The Beatles Bible. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2016. <>.

7) Lee, Peter. “20 Reasons The Beatles Are the Greatest Band Ever.” Hooks & Harmony. N.p., 29 June 2008. Web. <>.

The Princess Villain


            Animated Disney films (such as The Little Mermaid or Beauty and The Beast) are notoriously known for depicting female princesses as powerless, rudimentary anti-heroines that must be saved from an oppressive villainous figure. These cookie-cutter princesses all face a shallow impending crisis that throughout the course of 90 minutes is resolved. The various crises are resolved when the princess falls in love with a man, gets rescued by her prince charming, receives a kiss, or gets married. In the end, the princesses are always saved by a man and live ‘happily ever after’. On itssurface, Frozen appears to be a sharp contrast to these undoubtedly sexist Disney precursors. It is evident that a man does not rescue the protagonist princess Elsa from the crisis that she faces. Additionally, there is a greater majority of lines spoken by female characters than in other Disney princess films. This fact is insignificant because most Disney princess movies pass the Bechdel test1 (this is a nugatory accomplishment because any movie aimed at a young girl should, at a minimum pass).

            What makes Frozen more disquieting than previous Disney films is that it elicits the viewer with a false sense of feminist-heroism. This false sense of feminism is perpetuated by the fact Frozen does not have an easily identified villain that unequivocally attacks, suppresses, or manipulates princess Elsa. The ‘villainous’ character (prince Hans) is a mere decoy because he has no significant role in Elsa’s life. Elsa is arguably the most self-thinking and nondependent Disney princess. But, unlike all prior Disney princesses, Elsa is the villain who mistreats herself and others. In fact, Elsa is such a horrible human being only she can save the world from the treachery she causes.

            At the beginning of the film, Grand Pabbie (the king troll) warns Elsa of the innate potential of her magical powers, “There is beauty in your magic…But also great danger.” Grand Pabbie knows only Elsa can choose to use her powers for beauty or destruction. Because of this, Grand Pabbie tells Elsa that she must learn to control her powers. He scares Elsa by showing her what will happen if she “panics” the townspeople of Arendelle: she will be attacked in witch-hunt fashion. Out of fear that her powers will be used for evil, Elsa’s parents isolate her from society so that she is unable to hurt anyone. Elsa is locked away in her castle similarly to how Belle is locked away in the Beast’s castle. Her forced isolation causes her to become fearful, angry and sad. After her parents die, Elsa chooses to continue to live in isolation because she believes her powers are a danger to others and can only be used for evil. She believes that her powers can only be used for evil. Elsa feels an immense pressure to be a ‘good girl’, so she ‘conceals’ her magical powers by isolating herself because she is unable to control her powers.


            The roman numerals (MDCCCXL) in the top left corner of a map of Arendelle determine that Frozen takes place in a fictional 1840’s Scandinavian society (1). This is important because in 19th century Europe there was no real fear of female being accused of engaging in witchcraft. Thus, Elsa did not live in fear of being stoned to death because it wasn’t simply wasn’t the reality of the time. If she knew how to control her powers and use them for good, she would not live in isolation. In fact, at the end of Frozen, the township of Arendelle warmly embraces her ‘magical powers’ when she uses them for good. The only probable reason Elsa hides from the world is because she does not know how to use her powers for nondestructive acts.

            As princess, Elsa decides to permanently keep the gates of her Kingdom closed in a North Korean-like fashion. It does not cross her mind that this selfish act causes the people of Arendelle to suffer, including her sister. There was no need for Elsa to isolate Arendelle from the rest of the world because she considers herself, rather than an external enemy a preeminent threat to Arendelle. She is forced to open the gates of Arendelle on her coronation day, two townspeople discourse: “I can’t believe they’re finally opening up the gates” “And for a whole day!” (Lee 13). As soon as Elsa becomes the queen, she recloses the gates of Arendelle. She then runs away after unleashing a permanent winter on Arendelle; which subsequently forces the townspeople to live in treachery.

             Elsa believes that her powers are the result of an evil curse that has been cast upon her and that she ‘can not control the curse’. In her new castle made of ice, Elsa declares that she is finally free and happy because she has stopped trying to control the evil curse she believes to be inside of her. In fact, she purposely ‘lets the storm rage on’ and warmly embraces the evil powers inside of her. She is no longer pressured to ‘be the good girl [that] she always had to be’. With her newfound freedom she ‘tests the limits’ because there are ‘no [longer] rules for [her]’. The fears that Pabbie instilled in her, “can not get to me at all”, she exclaims! ‘The cold never bothered her anyways’, and all that matters to her now is that she’s happy. Elsa has been waiting her whole life to finally be free. Now that she is free she, unleashes her powers (which she knows are evil), and she is “never going back” because she does not care. In her kingdom of isolation, Elsa is the queen. In Kim Jung-Il’s kingdom, he’s the ‘supreme leader’. She does not care that the people of Arendelle are suffering as a result of her actions. Elsa does not care that Arendelle is literally ‘frozen’—not unlike Dante’s treachery.

             It must be noted that she was not born inherently evil but rather, she became evil due to her forced isolation. Simply put, Elsa chooses to be evil. This actuality is made clear in the opening scenes that explicitly state that Elsa was born with her powers. This is important because, the movie resolves when Elsa is forced to confront the destruction that she has caused.

             In the song, Do You Want to Build a Snowman?, Anna twirls around a painting of Joan of Arc and tells Joan to “hang in there”. The movie forces the connection that similar to Joan; Anna is a heroine who must fight against a regime to save her homeland. It is up to Anna to stop Elsa in order to save Arendelle. Anna attempts to confront Elsa and “save Arendelle from destruction”, Elsa strikes her with an icicle and unleashes a menacing snowman after her to kill her. Elsa realizes that she killed her sister, and begins to hug her frozen corpse. Elsa’s ability to freeze things becomes her ability to thaw. When she finally shows compassion towards someone, she literally ‘thaws her frozen heart’. This act of affection, causes Elsa realize she can choose to use her powers how she pleases—for good or for evil. In fact, she saves her kingdom by loving them rather than oppressing them.

            Throughout the course of her life, Elsa was affected and became an evil human being who was abusive of her powers. Frozen is not at all about a strong, female role model. Elsa is an evil-hearted princess who young girls should not aspire to be. Because Disney movies must end with a ‘happily ever after’, Elsa magically decides to stop being evil. But, like the movie repeatedly states, “the heart is not so easily changed, but the head can be persuaded.”. Elsa is magically able to reverse her malicious sprit, but in reality, this is much harder to do. People who are innately evil, are not easily persuaded to become nice. In fact, the movie states this: “the heart can not be easily changed”. It is only because Disney movies end in a happily ever after, she decides to use her powers for good. For someone to not be mean spirited, they mustn’t become evil in the first place. The ‘happily ever after’ that Elsa receives, helps to blur that fact that Elsa is not a good human being. Perhaps, Disney should have given her squinty eyes like they did to all their other villains.

1 The Bechdel test asks a work three basic questions: 1) Does it has to have at least two women in it? (2) Do they talk to each other? (3) Do they talk about something other than a man? Read more about the Bechtel test.

Photographs from:

Let’s Burn Everything Down and See What Happens… Sounds Good?

“Let it be known that the following post hypothesizes about a fictional scenario that in no way can be appropriately applicable to our society today… Fiction cannot be adapted to reality… But it can be pondered upon.” -Shahzad Mumtaz

What makes life meaningful? Are there multiple benefactors in combination, or is it due to one overarching factor? Ray Bradbury depicts a society in Fahrenheit 451 in which the masses have been reduced to ignorant shells due to their fixation on commercial culture. The rapid industrialization of entertainment makes it very accessible for Bradbury’s society to tune in to their televisions and tune out from the rest of their world; from their loved ones, their neighbors, and even from themselves. Not only did entertainment become a pervasive part of society, literary works are burned because they are useless to the progression of individuality. But, there remain a few exiled groups that still believe in the significance of past literature who seek each other out for the preservation of knowledge.

In today’s society, it is suggested that reading literature, especially the classics, can kick start people’s lives to the best that it can be. Looking back on the past forms a streamlined effort into a better future. Not only is literature beneficial in cultivating awareness of the importance of being educated, but it also promotes critical thinking.  The human mind is malleable. Effective use of critical thinking can establish identities that are distinguishable from person to person, which is an important factor in developing individuals that differ from the majority. Basically, critical thinking is important… more important than I think people realize.


Despite Bradbury hypothesizing about a future that could change due to its variableness, speculation does not equal causation; the said future is not bound to happen.  Yet, extrapolating over a problem that is present today (and yes, we can all agree that technology is advancing) is not out of the ordinary. This extrapolation, this extension of a current predicament into the unknown is not unwise. Thus, this essay is a hypothesis, a cautionary tale of sorts that draws inspiration from other cultural theorists that have also hypothesized about the impending future based off their current (at the time when they writing) state of being.

Bradbury’s society provides a hypothetical example (granted, an extreme example) of what can happen when literature is not prioritized over other modes of information. Cultural theorists have speculated over the different types of culture. Both F.R. Leavis [1] and Raymond Williams [2], a notable teacher and student duo, have formulated their discontent with the state of commercial media and it’s insidious influences on the masses. They both state that the reading of literature, especially classics, as the salvation of society. Yet, they differ in regards to the how much of an effect literature can have on the relative happiness of a society. Williams develops an alternative to Leavis’ binary schematic of culture. This schematic presents two forms of culture: one in which there is a minority whose job is to share literature; this is the culture of knowledge. The other form is the commercial culture, where media is highly valued. On the other hand, Williams provides an alternative to the commercial culture. His idea of a “shared culture”, which encompasses the inaccessibility to education, does not hinder the development of relationships. There is the proposition that the classics are not essential for developing a culture, since there will be another community (that is separate from the educated) that although shares the struggle of not having classics, can still develop familial bonds that strengthen relationships. However, Fahrenheit 451 establishes a society that has removed literature, but is completely void (in the masses) of not having a shared culture; their culture is individual, lacking, empty-minded, and selfish.

It is important to highlight the supposed result to a society that is devoid from any form of literature, since it establishes a baseline of what could happen. Williams proposes that in a shared culture without access to classic literature, there is a mutual sensibility in helping others in the community; you have to help in order to be helped. Reciprocity is the mode in which the individual reconciles with the community. Bradbury discusses a community in which there is no shared reciprocity; the individual is focused on the individual, and there are few interpersonal relationships. And this lack of interpersonal relationships is manifested through the dominance of media.

Looking at a textual example of this hypothetical scenario, when Guy Montag asks his wife Mildred to tone down the television, she replies simply, “That’s my family.” (Bradbury 46) People in our society today would obviously view this statement as problematic. But, Mildred does not notice anything strange with her form of thinking. Commercial entertainment is so prevalent that familial relationships have been put inferior to a person’s relationship with their television. Their prized possessions are their television screens…. Just like Michael Scott.

Interpersonal relationships have declined so much that companions are seen as present but not present at the same time. A paradoxical statement, but nonetheless true. Furthermore, there are examples of a lack of culture that not only apply to significant relationships, but to on a broader scale of infusing politics with everyday life. When discussing the upcoming presidential elections, Mildred’s “friends” (this word is purposefully in quotes because it’s sarcastic) cast their vote by judging which candidate was the best looking. First off, that is crazy. But, what is even kookier is the absence of anyone’s double take. She just determined her vote on physical appearance. Someone should have corrected her, so she could see how misinformed she really is! Interpersonal relationships, a manifestation of the hypothesized shared culture of Williams, has dwindled to a point that there is little response to another person, even if they are spouting nonsense.

Guy and Mildred are in a marital relationship, but entertainment has dominated her existence for so long that she is noticeably present, but lacking at the same time. Guy “[sees] his wife stretched on the bed, uncovered and cold… the room was indeed empty” (Bradbury 10). The inconsistence of his thinking is a manifestation of this absentness. Their shared lives should be intertwined, a meaningful relationship that the reader should be able to, right off the bat, partake in. That being sad, the dynamic is completely deviates from a “typical” relationship. Not only is there little affection, she is both socially and mentally empty. Devoid from substantial and significant relationships, her infatuation with the television screen negates any opportunity to develop personal ties with any real human.

Critical thinking entertains the mind; it dances, trembles, and stutters over grasping concepts that seem to be incomprehensible, far out of reach. It is enticing, and draws the reader in. Classic literature invites to flip through their pages, while also engaging in a battle with the reader; thus, the reader is locked in a struggle of comprehension. The readers wonder, “How do I fit into this? Do I have any concerns?” There is a silent exchange of information, a thought-provoking conversation between the author and the reader. Society needs to be permeated by thought; the stimulation of the mind funds the progression of advanced human interaction.

Entertainment, especially thoughtless entertainment that has been reproduced over and over again, has steered society down a path in which a person’s response to commoditized art is strained; there is an overbearing presence of entertainment that provides too much exposure to “arts” that is not as beneficial as other options. It provides laughter, a temporary relief from the woes of society.

While unknowingly basking in the short-lived pleasure of what the commercial culture has to offer, the people are cognitively restrained. The media, and specifically commoditized media, is momentary filler. It bridges gaps between extended amounts of time in which a person is engaging in a temporary release of other, more important duties. Furthermore, the increased accessibility to entertainment leads to the world shedding its variety. The root of the problem lies in the de-individualization of the masses, caused by the rise of commercial entertainment.

While Fahrenheit 451 is not an example of what is going to exactly happen to our society today, is there a harm in providing a speculative example of what one author believes can happen? Putting both the removal of literature and the extreme progression of technology side by side may never happen to us, but how scary the consequences. It highlighted a culture devoid of literature is rendered mindless. In this case, the absence of literature created a life that is not worth living for. A person’s identity is polluted and corrupted by the manifestations of society, ultimately creating an empty shell of the former person. Furthermore, this post raises cultural awareness based off a fictional scenario that in no way shape or form is indicative of the future. Instead, similarly to Ray Bradbury’s explanation (Bradbury’s Explanation of F451), it is used as a preventative measure. We need literature. We need a shared history that is feasible, tangible, and most importantly, relatable.

[1] Leavis, F.R.. Literature and Society.” The Common Pursuit. New York: George W. Stewart Publisher, Inc. Print

[2] Williams, Raymond. Culture is Ordinary. 1958, Print.

The Hero We Need: The Political Paradox of Batman and The Dark Knight Rises

Leonard Bopp

Batman 3: The Dark Knight Rises begins with an image of Commissioner Gordon delivering a tribute to Harvey Dent, the former Mayor of Gotham credited with ridding its streets of organized crime. “It will be a very long time before someone inspires us the way he did,” he says; “I believed in Harvey Dent.” Of course, if we are to understand the significance of Harvey Dent and the context of Batman 3, we must return to its predecessor, The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent is supposed to be a hero for the city; he is the savior of social order in a world threatened by organized crime. This is, of course, until the Joker unleashes his chaotic terror on Gotham, usurping both the systems of organized crime and the public social order, revealing the ease with which people are pushed towards evil and order gives way to disorder. Harvey Dent is the Joker’s primary victim – by killing Harvey Dent’s lover, the Joker drives Dent, the figurehead of the government, to commit a madness-induced killing spree. The role of Batman, at this moment, is to preserve the city’s faith in the establishment. Batman takes responsibility for Dent’s crimes in order to preserve his image as a savior and the public’s faith in the established order; it is easier, of course, for the public to consider the mysterious renegade a criminal than it would be for them to indict those who are supposed to be their saviors – their government and their police.

In the context of its predecessor, then, the opening scene of The Dark Knight Rises reveals what we already know about Gotham: that the established social and political order is a failing system, indeed, a falsehood. Though Commissioner Gordon perpetuates the almost deistic representation of Harvey Dent, he, of course, knows that he is not the savior; he knows that Harvey was the victim and Batman was his scapegoat. Years after Harvey’s death, however, the city is once again under threat – this time, the villain is Bane, a descendant of the mysterious League of Shadows and the leader of an underground revolutionary movement. The falsehood of the establishment will once again be challenged; the city will once again need a savior, and the Batman must return. The puzzle of the movie, however, is that it is ultimately the very system the Batman is protecting that produces its enemies.

Indeed, the figure of the Batman presents the viewer with a troubling paradox. The Batman is, after all, the altar-ego of Bruce Wayne, the orphaned child of wealthy parents who were murdered by a thief on the streets of Gotham. After being raised by his Butler, Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce vowed to rid Gotham of the type of criminals who killed his parents. Having risen to the top of his family’s organization, Wayne Enterprises, he is entrenched in Gotham’s capitalist economy – indeed, as the city’s wealthiest and most revered businessman, he is its figurehead. This capitalist system, however, has, inevitably, created a disparity between the wealthy and the poor. Indeed, Gotham’s capitalist economic order has fostered the very types of crime Bruce Wayne sought to eliminate. When Blake, a well-intentioned police officer who idolizes Commissioner Gordon, visits the shelter for young boys where he grew up, he meets a young black child who shares that his older brother died while working in the tunnels. “A lot of guys go down into the tunnels when they age out,” he says; “they say there’s work down there.” And as he speaks with Blake about his experiences at the shelter, he draws figures of the Batman in white chalk on the sidewalk. Indeed, this child, and his late brother, have been failed by the very system Bruce Wayne leads, forcing them to search for a way out of the circumstances that oppress them.

In truth, it is the very system – capitalism – of which Bruce Wayne is the figurehead that pushes the economically oppressed people of Gotham towards crime. This, of course, is what drives Bruce to return as the Batman – he is guilty of perpetuating a system that hurts the very people he claims to want to save. The Batman is not fighting the system that causes crime, but the criminals that threaten the establishment Bruce Wayne leads; Batman’s rival is not the capitalist system that has perpetuated Gotham’s social injustice, but it’s alternative, its enemy, its revolutionary counterpart. Inevitably, the movie presents an alternative to this capitalist system – socialism – hidden under the mask of Bane. As Bane stands outside Bloodgate Prison, which he calls a “symbol of oppression,” and demands the release of its captives, he appeals to the people of Gotham with socialist rhetoric; he claims that the people of Gotham have been fed “myths of opportunity,” and calls for an army of the oppressed to rise and “rip the powerful from their decadence.” Furthermore, he demolishes the public’s perception of Harvey Dent as a hero, revealing, by reading an unheard speech by Commissioner Gordon, that Dent, who was responsible for the imprisonment of thousands of criminals, was nothing more than a criminal himself; indeed, that he was a false idol, held up to the city to hide the corruption of the establishment. His aim is to return power to the people of Gotham; indeed, he tells them that his revolution is the “instrument of your liberation.”

But the movie wants us to hate Bane; he is not a savior, but a threat to public order. Indeed, the Batman is decidedly the movie’s protagonist. His plot line is, after all, guised in capitalist symbolism. After Bane fights Batman nearly to death at his lair, he brings him to a prison at the bottom of a tower that can only be escaped by a near-fatal jump. As Batman, trapped in this dungeon, watches footage of his city burning, he becomes determined to escape, but in order to do so, he must climb towards the light at the top of the tower. He tries twice, tied to a rope to catch him if he falls – and both times, he fails. Only when he is independent, free of the rope’s safety and protection, is he able to make the jump. Indeed, Batman is fated to reach the light at the the top of the tower and save the city – his city, the capitalist system he symbolizes. We are supposed to cheer for the Batman as he risks his life to climb out of the tower; and in doing so, without knowing it, we are cheering for capitalism, and the defeat of the revolution.

But the allegory of the tower is also relevant to Bane and his ally Miranda Tate, as both of them are descendants of the same prison. At the end of the movie, we learn that Tate was born in the prison; her mother, the daughter of a local warlord, had been imprisoned after falling in love with a local mercenary, who was ultimately exiled. Miranda and her mother were treated brutally in the prison – indeed, it is implied that the other prisoners raped her mother. As a child, Miranda was able to escape, to climb to the top of the tower, like the Batman, but only because Bane protects her from the other prisoners – the prisoners who will ultimately cause the disfiguration that forces Bane to wear his mask. Miranda joins her father and is taken in by the League of Shadows, and they later return to the tower to free the oppressed prisoners and recruit them to their cause – the cause that became the basis for the revolution Miranda and Bane bring to Gotham. Indeed, Miranda’s father was the first villain the Batman killed – and now, she has vowed to vindicate her father and finish his work. The stories of Miranda and Bane reveal a fundamental conflict of the film: though the tower is an allusion to capitalism, it is at the same time a symbol of oppression; it both symbolizes the victory of Batman and the oppression of Miranda and Bane. The same, of course, can be applied to the capitalist system of Gotham – the city’s established order is guilty of oppressing those who ultimately threaten its existence. When the Batman hears Miranda’s justification, he insists that her father was trying to kill millions of innocent people – to which Miranda responds, fittingly, that “innocent is a tough word to throw around Gotham.” Indeed, everyone, the entire society, is responsible for the systems of oppression and injustice that the revolution calls attention to; but the movie, in establishing the Batman as the capitalist protagonist, doesn’t want us to care.

And then there is the peculiar figure of the Catwoman, who plays an interesting role in manipulating the audience to cheer the rise of their savior. When we meet the Catwoman, she is undercover as a waitress at an elite gala at the Wayne Manor; her real purpose is to obtain Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints – she is a thief, a criminal, and, in her own way, a woman of unique power. When Bruce finds her sneaking into his safe, she knocks over his cane, pushes him to the ground, and backflips out the window; she is a woman capable of gaining power of Gotham’s most significant male figure. Later, while dancing with him at a Wayne Enterprise gala, she tells Bruce that she “takes what she can from those who have too much” and tells him of the coming storm of the revolution. But ultimately, the Catwoman functions to manipulate the audience to support the Batman. All the Catwoman wants is a clean slate, a second chance to redefine her life – which, of course, is indicative of the capitalist ideal of defining one’s own destiny, the notion that one becomes what they make of themselves. The Batman, as the capitalist savior, becomes her own savior – only he, she learns, can offer her a clean slate – and her transition to Batman’s cause carries the audience towards this ideology. After leading the Batman directly into Bane’s trap, the film cuts back to her as Bane fights the Batman – she looks distraught, appalled, at Bane’s brutality. She tries to flee, but is caught at the airport by Blake; ultimately she confesses to being scared by Bane’s power. This is only compounded by her emerging love for Bruce. When he returns from the prison and offers her the clean slate, she has the chance to flee the city, but in her first moment of genuine emotion in the film, she pleads for him to come with her, saying he can save himself from the burning city. But after Bruce refuses, she ultimately returns to help Batman defeat Bane, submitting to Bruce’s cause, his authority, and, by demonstrating her love, solidifying the viewer’s support of the Batman’s defense of capitalism. Indeed, she is simply reduced from her position of power to a mere romantic object – and in turn, the movie’s capitalist ideology is disguised in a typical love story.

In truth, Batman 3 can be reduced to capitalist propaganda; indeed, the movie wants us to root for the Batman to save himself and his city against the evils of Bane’s revolution, and, in turn, wants us to hate those that challenge it, that see it as unjust. When Blake investigates the inner workings of Bane’s underground society, he approaches two men operating a cement truck, suspecting that they might be affiliated with Bane’s revolution – he targets the working class, treating them as criminals. Sure enough, they were Bane’s operatives – they have poured cement laced with explosives in a ring around the city, designed to trap the police officers sent into the tunnels to destroy the underground revolution – so Blake kills them. Indeed, we are supposed to hate them and the revolution they represent; in actuality, the movie wants us to fear the poor.

But these political underpinnings are communicated through more than just socialist rhetoric; Bane is quite literally attacking and destroying a traditional American society. When Bane and Batman face off in the tunnels, Bane blows a hole in the ceiling, revealing an industrial center, where old-style cars are produced by laborers on an assembly line – the same kinds of laborers that formed the early American trade unions – which fall beneath the crumbling floor. Furthermore, when Bane first introduces himself to the people of Gotham, he actually does so at a football game in the stadium of the Pittsburg Steelers – and he blows it up, the football field falling beneath the players’ feet, right after a boy soprano sings the American national anthem. In these scenes, it is the society of the Rust Belt, the Pittsburg-to-Detroit center of old American industry, that Bane is destroying; and the height of the Rust Belt, the height of American industry, was during the second half of the twentieth century – the era of the Cold War.

Indeed, the politics of the Cold War looms large in this film. The fundamental threat of Bane’s socialist revolution, after all, is that he has a nuclear bomb that can destroy the city – and it is a Russian physicist that created it. The conflict in the movie between capitalism and socialism, then, is indicative of the Cold War political tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, and, in particular, the resulting nuclear crises. But the film is not just about the threat of the Soviet Union – it goes beyond that; the film is, more broadly, about the politics of globalization, with Bane representing all that threatens the ideal of American greatness. In the film, Bane destroys the old industrial centers of the Rust Belt; but in reality, those industrial centers were lost due to the rise of international trade and the globalization of the economy, through the NAFTA agreement and the creation of the World Trade Organization, in the second half of the nineteenth century. Lastly, the movie directly responds to the rise of terrorism. Bane’s first attack on the city of Gotham is, not coincidentally, on the trading floor of the Gotham Financial Center, the embodiment of Gotham’s capitalist system, just as the World Trade Center was the embodiment of American economic power. Indeed, the prison in which Miranda Tate and Bane lived, and that Bruce Wayne escaped from, is in the middle of an Arabian desert, indicative of an American association of the Middle East with terrorism. And as the film shows the destruction they caused to the city of Gotham – its buildings burning, its bridges exploring – the camera pans along the Hudson and the East River, past the Queensboro and George Washington Bridges, towards the Empire State Building and the abandoned site of the World Trade Center. The Gotham of Bane’s revolution is, in fact, is a post-September 11 New York City.

Indeed, Batman 3 is a fictional representation of the very real-world political conflict between the American establishment – capitalism, industry, and democracy – and the revolutions that threaten it – socialism, globalization, and terrorism. And how does this film resolve this political conflict? Bane and Miranda, the revolutionary leaders, are killed by the Batman and Catwoman. The Batman flies Bane’s nuclear bomb out over the Atlantic Ocean, saving the city from its blast. The people of Gotham survive. The Batman’s legacy is that of a hero, and his political allies erect a statue of that Batman in the capital building.

Indeed, such is the paradox of the Batman: by saving the very political and economic oder he represents, he is able to reconcile his guilt in perpetuating a system that creates its own enemies; and as the Batman saves his city from the revolution, so we are saved from ourselves.

You don’t fit in and its all your fault

Children’s movies seem very simple, so simple that some may be inclined to say that they are devoid of any hidden meaning. The cute aesthetics and simple plots make these movies attractive to children, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t themes that underlay these movies. Even though kids might not consciously notice these hidden messages, it doesn’t mean they aren’t there. All stories work by presenting a real social conflict, masked to fit into the fictional universe of that story, and then presenting an imaginary solution to that conflict. In order for this to work, that social conflict needs to be applicable to our lives in some way. Films that are able to pull this off keep our attention because they are able to show us a solution to a problem that we deal with in our lives. Coraline is an example of this. This cute movie for kids is actually about being ignored and not fitting into the world around you.


First let me summarize the film to you. Coraline is a stop motion film about a young girl who moves to a new home. Coraline is bored in her new home. She looks for some way to entertain herself, but her parents are busy, her neighbors are all dull people who can’t get her name right, and the one kid her age she meets, Wybie, is a creep that she catches watching her. Then she finds a small door in her living room. Beyond it lays a tunnel that leads to a world that looks very similar to her own, but everyone is focused on making her happy. And they all have creepy button eyes, but that’s beside the point.

Yup, there's nothing unsettling about that at all

Yup, there’s nothing unsettling about that at all

There she finds her other-mother and other-father, who actually pay attention to her. She spends the night there, having fun the entire time, and wakes up back in the regular world. Her mom tells her it was a just a dream and goes back to ignoring Coraline. That night, Coraline goes back to the door and finds the tunnel once again. This time she encounters many magical wonders, such as a garden in the shape of her face and an elaborate circus of trained mice. Then her other mother tells her that in order to stay, she has to sew buttons onto her eyes. Obviously, Coraline isn’t too thrilled about this. She tries to escape and everyone there deforms into ugly versions of themselves.

spider other mother

Should’ve seen this coming from the pretty creepy button eyes

Her other-mother is a terrifying spider-like monster that is controlling the whole world to try and keep her there. She eventually escapes, but she realizes her parents have been captured by the other-mother. She goes back into the other world to save her parents and after tricking the other-mother, she saves the day. When she returns to the real world, her parents don’t remember a thing. Coraline, with a new appreciation of her own world, seems happier and gets along with everyone she once despised.

Let’s take Coraline and first look at its most obvious theme. Coraline is a child who feels ignored. Throughout the beginning of the movie, she tries to make decisions for herself but never gets her way. She wants to spend time with her parents, but she is ignored. She says that she doesn’t like her dad’s cooking, but she’s ignored. She attempts to talk to her neighbors, but again she’s ignored. In fact, they all mistakenly call Coraline Caroline at some point, and when she corrects them, she’s repeatedly ignored. Coraline’s life is just a series of memories of being ignored by different people.Ignored Coraline

This is what it’s like to be a child. Children aren’t taken seriously, they can’t make decisions for themselves, and they need to listen to their elders. This can often make it feel to them that the world is ignoring them, that what they say doesn’t matter. Throughout the movie, Coraline is talked over by other characters. When Coraline comes back from the other world the first time, her mom doesn’t even seem to register what Coraline is saying. Coraline feels like she doesn’t belong in her own world and is frustrated by this. This is why Coraline finds the other world so attractive. This is a world where everything is literally about her. Everyone listens to her and respects her decisions, they let her decide what to eat for dinner. They even put on big shows just for her. She wants to stay there forever but in the end, it’s all a sham. They want to take away Coraline’s eyes and imprison her. Whenever Coraline goes into this other world, she is always wearing pajamas. This makes me believe that this other world is a constructed fantasy of Coraline’s. The struggle she undergoes with the other-mother is actually an internal struggle. She created the world she believed she wanted, but then it turned out to be too good to be true. This fantasy dreamland turned into a nightmare. This is Coraline realizing that a world where everything is about her just isn’t feasible. She is maturing. She’s giving up her childish view of the world and learning to appreciate how things actually are.  In the end, Coraline is seen working towards actually having conversations with her family and neighbors. Kids may feel as if the whole world is ignoring them, but that’s only because they’re looking at it the wrong way and they need to grow up. If you want to be heard by others, you have to make an effort to listen yourself.

Coraline tries to control people in the beginning of the film. She doesn’t do this on purpose, she simply wants to be entertained. However, being entertained means that her parents must drop whatever they’re doing and spend time with Coraline. She is selfish and doesn’t realize it. She encounters a fantasy where everything is about her, and she almost loses her eyes. Everything in Coraline is a puppet, but the puppets in the regular world are more human-like because they have actual eyes instead of creepy buttons. The eyes have been said to be the windows to the soul because they allow someone to express their emotions. They also show a person’s free will and intentionality; unlike buttons,  eyes can choose where to look unlike the buttons. Essentially, eyes are what makes someone a person. When Coraline constructs a world where she has everyone at her beck and call, she almost stops being a person. Being so self-absorbed that you believe that everything should be about you takes away your personhood. Our individuality arises from the fact that everyone else around us are different people with different wants and needs. If everyone around you wanted the same things that you wanted, would you still be an individual? This film is showing the dangers of narcissism. Coraline doesn’t realize that her parents have things that they need to do. Coraline’s mother was injured in the move, but Coraline doesn’t seem worried at all, she’s only worried that her mom can’t spend time with her. Coraline learns her lesson. She is seen serving others lemonade, an acknowledgement that the other people in her life also have wants and needs. In order to be happy as a person, you have to come to terms with the fact that you aren’t the most important thing to everyone in your life, they are also individuals with their own agendas. Accepting this will allow you to become a good person and avoid becoming a fake narcissistic doll.

Hidden inside Coraline, we can also see a commentary on the stop-motion industry. Stop motion is an old art form that require a lot of time and energy to get even a few seconds of film. In the Behind the Scenes for Coraline, they state that it took an animator a full work-week to get 90 seconds of film. With the rise of computer generated images, CGI, the stop-motion industry has gained some competition. CGI fills the exact same niche that stop-motion did. Throughout the beginning, Coraline is mistakenly called Caroline, a much more popular version of her name. Stop-motion can be mistaken for CGI, in fact I myself thought Coraline was an animated movie when I first watched it in 2009. It’s just not as popular as CGI so people will assume it is CGI unless shown evidence otherwise, such as a choppy frame rate. At one point, Coraline says “I’m way too old for dolls.”

This shows how stop motion is seen by people, it’s just playing with dolls like a kid would. Coraline is ignored throughout the film and feels like she doesn’t fit in. In this new world where CGI is becoming increasingly more popular, stop-motion needs to work to stay relevant. Coraline eventually learns to fit into the world around her by compromising and doing what others want to do as well, like letting her neighbor Bobinsky plant turnips in her garden. Stop motion has compromised in order to survive in the world of today. Instead of fighting against CGI, Coraline actually uses some CGI in conjunction with the real dolls in order to make certain scenes better.

Coraline is a film about not fitting into the world around you, but unlike many other films with a similar theme, the solution we’re given is that it is our fault. In order to find your place in the world, you need to work towards that. This film tells us that the fault lies in ourselves, not the world around us. Coraline felt as if everyone was against her and that they were ignoring her, but in fact she was just being a self-absorbed brat. We’ve all been there at some point in our lives. The only way to fix it is to accept the blame and grow up.

The Hunger Games: Let’s Kill the Popular Kids


Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games is one of the most widely read dystopian novels in recent years, and its film adaptation was one of the most successful movies of 2012. Its concept: out of the ruins of North America rose Panem, a country separated into thirteen districts and an oppressive Capitol. The districts eventually revolted, and the Capitol lashed back, in the process destroying District 13 and doubling down on their oppression. The Treaty of Treason decreed that every year after the rebellion, each of the twelve remaining districts send one boy and one girl, known as tributes, to fight to the death on national TV. It’s the most hyped-up show of the year: the Hunger Games.

One could contend that Collins writes to caution us all, as civilization might well be heading toward such chaos. Another could stake a more present-day argument, that the Hunger Games is a dark satire against ruthless capitalism. But teenagers flocked to the theaters to experience The Hunger Games—do young people really want so badly to watch a movie about politics, or economy? Maybe, but there’s an explanation even closer to home.

Before I get there, though, I have to bring in a philosophy of ideology presented by Louis Althusser. Ideology runs far deeper than a set of values, a worldview, or a bias. Ideologies are ubiquitous and can operate subconsciously, feeding us ideas. Stories hold particularly strong ideologies; in order to enjoy a story, we have to buy whatever it is selling. To that end, effective stories tend to do two things. First, they present some real social crisis, and then provide a fantasy answer. They offer fictional solutions to real problems. This process doesn’t work unless the problems and solutions resonate with the audience—in the case of The Hunger Games, all of us. So if teens are flocking to the theaters, adults of all ages close behind, the real, everyday social crisis illuminated in the Hunger Games has to be one that resonates with most everyone. Which it is: it’s a crisis straight out of high school.

The story focuses on Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen-year-old tribute from District 12. All the participants are between twelve and eighteen (fine, middle school should be included, but most of the tributes are in their mid to late teens). At their most basic level, the Games are like high school because they ‘aren’t real.’ In school everyone seems to talk about the real world, whatever that means, and the fact that school is not the real world. Navigating the ever changing, brutal, and cutthroat teenage social scene is indeed often a game. The Hunger Games are the same, except instead of gossip, a roaring forest fire shooting cannonballs of flame could sneak up on you at any minute. Rule changes are expected, and the stakes are life and death.

But, you say, life and death seems quite intense for high school, an extreme exaggeration. Really? Over fourteen percent of high school students have considered suicide, and almost seven percent have attempted it. That’s not counting the many more who suffer from depression or other mental health issues due to social interactions—high school is quite the serious game. Life-and-death stakes work for this over-glorified version of high school because while it seems like a game, a show, on the surface, the most raw and real of emotions are right behind the façade. Teens and children experience primal fear as residents of the Capitol watch with amusement, judging them (literally—they’re objectified before the Games on a scale of 1-12) and betting on who will win.

Status and appearance are everything. The first piece of advice that Haymitch Abernathy, former Games winner and District 12 mentor, gives Katniss and Peeta is, “Wanna know how to stay alive? You get people to like you.” He wasn’t directly talking about high school, though he might as well have been. High school is a whole different game if you don’t have friends. The tributes’ first impression in the Capitol before the games is in a parade, of which the importance “cannot be overstated.” Like at the beginning of a new school year or on the first day at a new school, the only things that matter are your background and your looks. Let me address looks first: Katniss and Peeta make an excellent first impression because of their fiery outfits and confident stance. Quite literally, people like these new guys because they’re hot. Case in point: all the tributes have to be publicly interviewed, and in hers, Katniss is sort of awkward and not very funny, but because the crowd already likes her they laugh at everything she says.

The interviews touch on high school’s blunt, non-subtle, brutal labeling of others; each tribute is reduced to one trait that is then enhanced and outrageously played up. There’s the sexy girl (named Glimmer, no less), the funny guy, the strong, silent, brooding type, and the buff, aggressive fighter. Peeta casts himself as the boy madly in love…with Katniss, who is understandably furious. But Haymitch tells Katniss she got a leg up: Peeta made her “look desirable.” Oh yeah, and Katniss got the most oohs and ahhs for twirling in her dress (more fire) than for anything she said. I can’t decide if the story is satirizing the placement of women below men or unintentionally—maybe even intentionally!—perpetuating it.

A big reason why first impressions are important is because a good one can secure a tribute sponsors. Sponsors are usually wealthy Capitol residents who want to see their favorites live a little longer, and as such they can pay to deliver supplies to the arena. Katniss is worried about how she’ll do because she’s “not very good at making friends.” By the true definition of friend that’s a false equivalency; by a more cynical high school definition of friend it’s fairly accurate. Sponsors aren’t real friends, just followers.

Tributes from different districts follow the same conventions as the different types of high schoolers, like in the interviews but slightly less exaggerated. There’s the nerd, the jock, the artsy girl. In school there might be a few cliques that form from these categories, but in The Hunger Games it’s just one. You’re in or you’re out, and from the beginning, Katniss and Peeta are out. The clique surrounds the Careers, tributes from Districts 1 and 2 who have grown up training and volunteer for the Games. The Careers are high school’s ‘popular kids.’

The Careers—the popular kids—are made out to be enemies, people to hate, from first sight. The first time we see one is while Haymitch is congratulating Katniss and Peeta on their parade performance. He pauses, and the camera angle switches behind the two of them to show Cato, a tall, blond young man, wearing gold, sleeveless armor engraved on the shoulders with a feather pattern. He looks condescendingly over at the District 12 cohort. He and the rest of the Careers are characterized as arrogant, condescending, possessive, and territorial assholes who revel in the hunt and the kill. They taunt (Clove, the classic mean girl, torments Katniss with filthy sarcasm as she’s ready to kill her), and bully (Cato snaps the neck of a no-name supply pile guard).

And they’re all beautiful white people. Most members of the Career clique are sexualized or gender-typed—white, buff, pretty, fair. Everything about them is reduced to a blunt, unsubtle extreme. Flirting, too: Cato heats his sword in a fire until the tip glows red-orange only to spit on it, prompting Glimmer to scoff “please,” with a giggle. He might as well just say, “Look, I have a big dick.” Further, almost all of the interactions between the tributes would be normal in a high school—passive-aggression, clique drama, and crushes.

If the popular-kids-as-enemies concept is true, Katniss becomes more interesting as a protagonist. For the conflict to work, she would have to be unpopular, or have qualities the popular kids didn’t, and still be relatable to the vast majority of teenagers. Those qualifications seem contradictory, but there is a solution. The short version of her entrance to the Capitol and the Games goes like this: she bursts in on the scene with her stunning appearance, the Careers see her as a definite threat, and they go after her almost immediately. She’s the hot new girl. It’s a sad truth that if new students are quiet, unassuming, and physically average, they won’t really be noticed. But if they are confident, if they stand out, and yeah, if they’re hot, they won’t be immediately written off.

Still, even the hot new girl is no match for the popular kids. Katniss is immediately targeted and never has the upper hand. She’s just trying to avoid direct conflict with the tribute clique. The girls and boys alike in the clique argue repeatedly “she’s mine!” When the movie reaches its climax, in the form of a Gamemaker-sponsored “picnic,” the lunchroom, Clove is straddling Katniss, hands around her neck, choking her out, wielding several knives, bullying, taunting, teasing her about Peeta (“Where’s lover boy?”), and she can’t do anything but try to turn away, struggling, to no avail.

The social crisis The Hunger Games makes vivid comes to a head in that scene: the mean girl is holding the hot new girl down at knifepoint in the lunchroom, taunting her to pure hatred, and the new girl is helpless. But if we are to like the movie’s end, the mean girl must be vanquished. The solution comes in the form of a classic rescue. Thresh comes barreling out of the woods and tears Clove off of Katniss. Livid, he violently slams Clove twice into the wall of the Cornucopia, and she collapses, dead. And we like it. The whole audience feels a vindictive pleasure—to put it crudely, we’re all thinking FUCK yeah!

Thresh v Clove 2

So teens are flocking to the theaters to watch the mean girl get beaten to death. That’s much more plausible a reason, to me, than to watch anti-capitalist propaganda or a warning that our civilization is heading for a Lord of the Flies-esque brawl. It’s not a particularly original fantasy, but we lap it up every time because the fantasy solution really isn’t good enough. It doesn’t actually solve anything, it just holds the problem off for two hours. Bullying is a real, rampant horror. One out of twelve teens still attempt suicide. Most of the time, there is no Thresh—the real-life Clove is still there. And somehow high school still seems like a game.

“Inception:” A Successful Althussarian Ideological Story About Ideology

Our set of beliefs: where do they come from? Because they certainly did not materialize from thin air. Louis Althusser argues in his essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” that “there is no practice except by and in an ideology”[1]. Ideology, a group’s certain set of beliefs, is thus the virus that has infected all aspects of society, from the church, to the state, to the education system. This is the basis of Althusser’s essay, in which he claims: “ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence,”[2] and “ideology has a material existence”[3]. His latter claim alludes to the fact that because it is everywhere, our individual practices materialize ideology, through our attitudes towards cultural commodities, and through the commodities themselves. Commodities manifest themselves in a variety of ways; take a film for example. These commodities, in light of his former claim, first present the audience with a real social problem, then give an imaginary solution. This imaginary solution is, in fact, the ideology of the commodity. He believes that ideology is most lethal when it is presented to the masses in an indirect form, be it books, music or movies. But do all films have the agenda of imposing an ideology onto its audience?

The film, Inception, would stand its ground on this claim because it does not enforce a certain ideology, but rather examines said ideology. Instead of portraying ideology in its most “lethal” form, ideology in Inception is at the forefront of the plot, and demands the viewer’s attention through symbology. Althusser argues that ideology is presented to the masses as the imaginary solution of a real social problem. While still following Althusser’s successful story model, Inception also serves as a warning through its storyline of implanting an idea, examination of ideology’s consequences, and presentation of a solution with the character’s totems.

Inception follows the story of Dom Cobb, a dream thief, and his team on their mission to implant an idea into the mind of Robert Fischer, the heir to Fischer Morrow Energy Conglomerate. A central symbol in the film is each character’s totem—Cobb’s totem was his wife, Mal’s, spinning top (a device to help them determine whether they are in reality or dreaming). The totem symbol arises in multiple occasions and provides a potential solution for the presented social crises (we are unaware of the origins of ideology and thus suffer its destructive consequences) that will be discussed later in this essay. The film begins and concludes with similar scenes, with Cobb washed up on the shore and brought in front of an aging Japanese man named Saito. The first scene cuts to a present day job in which Cobb is trying to extract the Saito’s company plans in a dream two dream levels down. Upon failure, Saito offers Cobb, who has been on the run for some time, a chance to go home to America. The job Cobb must complete is inception (implanting an idea), a task which is seemingly impossible but nonetheless accomplished successfully over the course of the film. But the film is not just about the inception of this one idea, or in broader terms, ideology; the film also follows Cobb on his struggle to distinguish between his dream world, limbo, and reality.

Limbo is the web of ideology every individual is at risk of falling into. It is when “what thus seems to take place outside ideology, in reality takes place in ideology…That is why those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology”[4]. Those in limbo, as a result, lose sight of reality and begin to believe that limbo is their reality because they believe that they are “by definition outside ideology.” Cobb’s difficulty determining what is limbo and what is reality is painstakingly realized whenever he envisions his deceased wife Mal or his children, images of the system of memories he has built in limbo (his ideology). The film concludes with Cobb’s reunion with his children, but the film cuts to credits before the spinning top falls, which begs the question of whether Cobb, or the viewers for that matter, are dreaming or in reality. We, as the viewers, therefore call into question not only our fixation with reality but how we cling desperately onto the notion of ideology because that is all we know.

Althusser’s essay reinforces the point that stories only work if they possess two features: a relatable social problem and an imaginary solution. Inception brings forth an unclear problem in that we are run by ideology without realizing it. The film presents this as the social problem they are trying to resolve because ideology is the most lethal when it is presented in the least obvious of methods. What better way to combat ideology than by exposing its secrets? Consequently, ideology “has no history, or, what comes to the same thing, is eternal”[5]. It is rather merely an existence. Ideology does not have a beginning or an end, but the origin of an ideology had to have come from someone or something before it reached the mind. And once in the mind, it remains “eternal[ly].”

The goal of the film is to implant an idea into the mind of another individual; this goal is the very method of how ideology spreads itself to penetrate every aspect of daily life. According to the film, to implant an idea, it “need[s] [to be] the simplest version of the idea—the one that will grow naturally in the subject’s mind”[6] and this idea, “the smallest seed [that] can grow to define or destroy [our] world,”[7] translates to ideology in the viewer’s real world. But, ideology is not explicitly handed out and forced onto consumers; it is, rather, subtly suggested to the consumer by cultural commodities. To accomplish such a feat, ideology has to appear to be self-given so that the origin cannot be traced any further than the individual who bears it. The receiver of ideology, or the subject “is only constitutive of all ideology insofar as all ideology has the function (which defines it) of ‘constituting’ concrete individuals as subjects”[8]. These “concrete individuals” are brought to believe they are in control of their ideology, that they are the Subject of the sentence. What these “Subjects” fail to realize is that their “self-given” idea was given to them, turning them into subjects of a higher force—a higher force like Cobb in Inception. We are made to think that we are Subjects but, in reality, we are merely subjects.

This is most clearly illustrated in the film when Cobb’s team is two levels into Fischer’s subconscious. Fischer is made to believe that Browning, his godfather, is working against him and that the only way to stop him is to help Cobb’s team break into Browning’s subconscious. What he does not know is that the Browning he is breaking into is a projection of his own subconscious; Fischer assists in the break-in of his own subconscious. Fischer is manipulated to believe that he is the Subject of the sentence but he is really the subject under Cobb. That is exactly where ideology becomes the problem, when it appears to be self-given but in fact is a product of someone else’s manipulative agenda. This very decision that Fischer makes to break into himself allows the team to successfully implant the idea into his mind, to successfully transmit the ideology in the subtlest of ways, in a situation where Fischer whole-heartedly believes he was in control. This is the social crises Inception aims to solve.

With the social crises established, the second part of every story, according to Althusser, is an imaginary solution or a “falsified representation”[9] to the problem previously presented. In order to achieve this “falsified representation of the world which they have imagined, [they] enslave other minds by dominating their imaginations”[10]. Since the “falsified representation” or the “imaginary solution” is the story’s ideology, imagination becomes the vehicle of subordination because “if you’re going to perform inception, you need imagination”[11]. Brute force seems to be the obvious solution when Fischer’s trained subconscious nearly sabotages the entire job when men start gunning down the team in the first level of dreams. Fischer’s militarized projections become increasingly deadly as the dream levels persist, symbolizing the ongoing pushback of the individual resisting ideology. When the idea is successfully planted into Fischer’s mind, it demonstrates that pure force is not the solution to the ideological problem.

The “imaginary solution” Inception provides for the viewer is given when Cobb attempts to bring Mal and Saito out of limbo and back to reality. Cobb first tries to plant the idea that Mal’s world is not real, that she has to kill herself to wake back up in reality. But the idea that her world was not real grows to consume her and ultimately destroy her, showing the destruction of ideology at the individual level. The method which Cobb used to bring Saito back from limbo is the solution the film presents to the viewer, to bring him or herself back up from the entanglement of society’s imposed ideology. Cobb, instead of planting the idea as he did with Mal, chooses to reason with Saito and force him to come to the realization on his own that his world is not real, successfully bringing him back to reality from limbo without the consequences of Mal’s submission to ideology. In this very moment Saito is able “to recognize that [he is the] subject…[but] this recognition only gives [him] the ‘consciousness’ of [his] incessant practice of ideological recognition…but in no sense does it give [him] the knowledge of the mechanism of this recognition”[12]. The spinning top Saito sees on the table, however, is the “knowledge of the mechanism of this recognition;” it is the film’s quintessential totem that consistently serves as a reminder of the difference between reality and the entanglement of ideology. Cobb is the only team member without a totem of his own so it was no wonder that he struggles the greatest in keeping a grasp on reality. And thus, the solution is brought to light: the solution to stopping the infectious ideology is to be self-aware of not only whether we are trapped in ideology, but also the mechanism by which that ideology came to be.

Inception does more than just impose an ideology onto the masses and instead tells the story of the destruction of ideology and offers the imaginary resolution of self awareness. According to Althusser, every successful story emphasizes a social problem and forces ideology in the form of a solution. Inception, being a movie about the horrors of ideology, does not insist one onto the masses but instead reveals a solution in which to combat the presented problem. But while the presented problem is clearly the fight against ideology, there is another problem present. Cobb is the inceptor, but he is, in real life, the large corporations who create cultural artifacts that churn infectious ideology into society. But Cobb is just as entangled in ideology as the other characters. He is able to successfully resurface from limbo but throughout the film, it is apparent that his ties to limbo are still very much present. Scattered in the film are flashbacks of Mal or his children, people he could not be with at the time of the scene, people “living” in his limbo. Cobb’s struggle between limbo and reality is so great that a fluttering curtain and the sound of broken glass from the evening of Mal’s death is enough to send him spiraling back to the web of ideology waiting for him down in limbo. When his struggle seems to have resolved by his letting Mal go and his reunion with his children at the conclusion of the film, the audience is left wondering whether the film ended in limbo or in reality when the final scene cuts before the spinning top has a chance to fall. This uncertainty of the fate of Cobb, the large corporation, the vanguard of the production of ideology, presents itself as the ongoing problem the film sees in society, a problem with no solution but the little sliver of hope that is self-awareness.

[1] Althusser, Louis. Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an investigation) (La Pensée: Monthly Review Press, 1971). Page 46 (Will refer to as “Althusser”)

[2] Althusser, 37

[3] Althusser, 41

[4] Althusser, 51

[5] Althusser, 37

[6] Inception. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc., 2010, Script. Page 42 (Will refer to as “Nolan”)

[7] Nolan, 131

[8] Althusser 47

[9] Althusser, 39

[10] Ibid

[11] Nolan, 42

[12] Althusser, 49

What defines difference, big or small, and who decides?


This essay, really, functions as an excuse for a personal indulgence into a subject I continue to spend a large proportion of my time studying. This subject? Vocal jazz. More specifically, Ella Fitzgerald vs. Sarah Vaughan. The ultimate head to head.

1 item, 10" x 8", silver gelatin on paper.

1 item, 10″ x 8″, silver gelatin on paper.


I always get a little fluttering in my chest when I meet another person who follows vocal jazz, who listens past the remastered ‘best of’ albums that pop up first on iTunes and really follows the genre. The one thing that holds me back from immediately adding them to my list of possible soulmates? Ella vs. Sarah. If they prefer Ella, I’m suspicious of their taste and style. I have worked to let go of this, because I am generally outnumbered, but the thought still crosses my mind. My preference for Sarah over Ella did not develop over time, but has existed since I started listening to jazz. It’s a firm belief. Why does this matter to anyone besides vocal jazz dorks? For that answer, we’ll have to look to Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, two critical theorists who conceived of something called the ‘culture industry.’
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception presents a critical theory, drawing from Marxism, with chilling implications. While each paragraph of the essay could be poured over individually, each sentence revealing some new consideration, for the purposes of this post, I will discuss the ideas I found to be most pertinent to main focus: Ella vs. Sarah. The essence of Adorno and Horkheimer’s argument is that culture, through trends in mass production, has been reduced to consumption through the process of commercialization. He points to the perceived demarcation in songs, artists and even genres as superficial, having much more to do with market categorization, or as he puts it “classifying, organizing and labeling consumers,” than the artistic subject matter (Adorno and Horkheimer 3). Adorno concludes that culture, across genre and medium, is essentially producing “ruthless unity” masquerading as distinct pieces of cultural import (Adorno and Horkheimer 3). This pronouncement does not sound very good. It’s downright devastating. Even though I did not want to believe Adorno, while reading his work, I began to see his point.  One experience held me back from submitting to his theory entirely.
In fact, that experience concerns my involvements with one of Adorno’s least favorite musical genres, jazz. Specifically, I’m going to look at Sarah Vaughan’s Be Anything (Darling Be Mine) and Ella Fitzgerald’s Mr. Paginini. Comparing two of the most famous jazz vocalists, who gained popularity around the same time, singing similar material, much could be said about their similarities as I’m sure Adorno would point out. Instead, I would like to discuss how, despite such similarities, these two artists’ dissimilarities, serve as a counterpoint to Adorno’s assertion of the homogenizing effect of the culture industry. These two artists represent more than cogs in a system of mass production—simple tools for organizing people into categories to consume. The differences, including my own personal preferences, are evidence of another dynamic.

First, let me describe these songs in more detail. Mr. Paginini is a song intended for a big band format. The Decca recording of Ella features a full big band arrangement. Fitzgerald was well known for her work with big bands more than any other vocal jazz artist of the time. For listening purposes, I focused on a paired down version performed in 1961 live with a trio at a club called the Crescendo for Ella’s Ella in Hollywood album.

This tune has every bell and whistle. It begins rubato (out of time) with the piano following her phrasing, creating a dramatic, starting point. Then at :35 the band grounds a tempo to begin a steady ballad. This section is characterized by Ella’s steady, even phrasing, laying out the melody for the listener. All the instrumentalists stop at :59 and Fitzgerald inserts a scat line with a double time feel that seamlessly connects back to the slower tempo so she can sing the second verse at 1:06 with the band. This scat line is precise in terms of the pitches she chooses, syllables and the ways in which she immediately switches into double time and ritards back to the ballad tempo the band has established with little audible effort. At 1:22 we get another Ella-ism. On the words “and if you can’t swing it,” she alters the melody to create a fast procession of mostly chromatic notes (notes that are close together in pitch). This effect creates excitement and interest right before her next a capella scat insertion at 1:28. At 1:56, instead of a scat insertion, Ella actually references the A section of I’m Beginning to See the Light, a device common to jazz and one Fitzgerald uses often. After the next scat insertion at 2:28, she stays with the double time feel and sings the melody twice as fast. At 3:27, she employs another scat insertion to down shift to the slower tempo for the final phrases of the tune. There is, perhaps, the most impressive show of her chromatic variation of the line at 3:39 finishing the song with an elaborate display of her musical ear. My point in describing this song in painstakingly detail is to show how much Ella had going on. She was using every trick in the book. This tune is representative of Ella’s stylistic and artistic vocabulary. She was precise, a masterful technician with fast moving phrases, adept at harmonic and tempo alterations and improvisation, similar to an instrumentalist. She was grand and performative, her vocal quality and tight vibrato well suited to big band arrangements. Her phrasing and emotional timbre delivered through her tone were consistent. She was, perhaps, the closest we have seen to a jazz singer displaying the same qualities as the great jazz instrumentalists. Many consider Ella to be the greatest jazz singer of all time because she was so technically proficient and consistent. I disagree. My favorite is another.

Sarah Vaughan’s Be Anything (Darling Be Mine) is one of my favorite songs. My favorite version is from her famed album: Sarah Vaughan Live at Mister Kelly’s (Live 1957).

This tune epitomizes Vaughan’s distinctiveness in the same ways that Mr. Paginini does for Ella’s. Be Anything is a tender ballad without frills or unnecessary ornamentation. Vaughan paints beautiful imagery with her long, drawn out phrasing. This version in particular features stunning moments of dialogue between Sarah and the piano. You can hear them listening to each other through the nuances of their choices. The song begins with Sarah’s simple sung statement of the text, letting the words “be a beggar, be a thief,” declare the open heartedness behind the word. Keeping these phrases short and ‘talky,’ the piano answers back at :20 with a contrasting quick move down the scale before Vaughan starts her next phrase. She responds naturally, in an unrehearsed fashion, imitating the same phrasing for the next brief line “be my sunshine or my grief.” The piano player responds to her again just before she speaks the name of the song “be anything, but darling be mine.” For the first time, she starts to build, holding out the last note, singing on an ”n” sound, allowing her free, wide vibrato to ring. At :45 she returns to the A section, this time building volume and letting the phrase ring out. Her vibrato spills out of this phrase in contrast to the next line at :54 where she backs down in volume and handles the phrase delicately, softening her sound. She changes the melody for the first time, taking it higher before continuing into the bridge at 1:10. The bridge features long phrasing and a soaring, even tone as she touches the upper part of her register. One of the most achingly beautiful moments is Vaughan’s connection between the high notes and low notes in the bridge. She seamlessly connects them, sometimes with a little slide to create a syrupy, smooth texture in the line.

At 2:18 the tempo picks up and the band develops a more rhythmic feel to lead into her humming section. She hums as though she might just be humming to herself, unobtrusively, without affect. She integrates the humming with little bits of the lyrics. She returns to the bridge and does one chromatic altering of the melody at 3:53 to lead into the final A section. In the last A section she completely changes the melody, but rather than complicating it, she simply uses a higher vocal register. Here again, she drops off in volume, with many little slides and connecting phrases until the last line of the song. At 4:15 when she repeats “be anything” twice, she crescendos, imploring the object of her desire to finally be hers. With the last three words, she drops back down to a quieter volume, conveying the futility of her desire, ending the tune. Sarah replaces precision in notes and rhythm with an undying observance of to the arc of the story in the song. Each phrase is slightly different from the last, serving the text above all else. She is a master storyteller and uses the voice in service of this, exploiting its unique qualities and bringing them to new heights rather than imitating the precision and specific qualities of an instrument.

Certainly, I have always enjoyed Ella Fitzgerald. Mr. Paginini especially is a virtuosic wonder. It is entertaining to listen to as an exciting and difficult technical feat. That said, Ella’s technical virtuosity does not rise to my level of response to Sarah’s work. My experiences of Ella and Sarah differ dramatically, especially in so far as the effect that each singer has had on me. I can trace important moments in my life to Sarah Vaughan songs. In fact, the discoveries of certain Vaughan songs have become a landmark in my life all on their own. Somehow, her approach continues to transport me, connecting me with something beyond myself, while, at the same time reflecting my own ineffable emotional and psychological experience. The effect of each artist is completely and utterly divergent. Although others might not agree with me about Ella vs. Sarah, many other listeners will probably have their own musicians in mind who incite this kind of reaction. I simply cannot agree with Adorno’s argument that art is merely mass-produced sameness as a part of the culture industry defined by small differences. While I might be a connoisseur now, blowing tiny differences out of proportion, this strong and visceral preference developed at a young age, well before I might have been conscious of any such expert knowledge.
So then, how does Adorno explain this? How can personal preference, and, let me be clear here: not just a preference without grounding, but a concrete, even vital preference still follow Adorno’s principal of culture’s homogeneity?

No One Can Convince Me It’s Any Different

In his essay “The Culture Industry,” German philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno makes the claim that when culture is mass-produced, all art is in danger of becoming the same. This is a scary claim, especially in a country like the United States, which is notorious for its fear and criticism of communism and socialism. Surely, if we examine the best art produced by our culture, we will find distinctive features and elements that explain its success. Alicia Keys’ “No One” topped the Billboard Hot 100 for five consecutive weeks after it was released in the fall of 2007. She won two Grammy Awards for the song, which has consistently been ranked as one of the greatest R&B songs of all time. If we dig deeper into the song—the music, lyrics, and structure—we will find that “No One” follows the same simple “winning” formula as thousands of other pop songs. This leads to the insight that much of the modern music industry is a product of formulas and machines. We as consumers should learn and realize that even what we consider the “best” art probably comes off a metaphorical assembly line.

Ever since the industrial revolution, culture has become an industry in the United States. Adorno argues that the major entertainment companies control and manipulate the consumers. These companies, which control a significant majority of the industry, seek to put out products that have a widespread appeal. It’s simple, the higher the appeal and marketability of a song, the greater the profits for the record label. Since the culture industry centers on producing art with a widespread appeal, record labels and songwriters will reuse successful formulas. Artists must play along with the system, or risk becoming isolated and obsolete. Perhaps that is the real issue here. For true art (in Adorno’s sense of the word) to exist, artists cannot be indebted to appealing to the masses in order to make a profit. But whether or not Alicia Keys produces true art is beside the point. The point is that “No One,” a major hit and product of the culture industry, shares many of the same qualities as most other pop songs. A good place to start our analysis is in the central musical component of the song, the chord progression.

“No One” heavily features the I-V-vi-IV chord progression in the key of E Major. With the exception of the bridge 2:40 into the song, Keys plays the same piano riff for the entirety of the song, including both verses and all three choruses. I-V-vi-IV is famously the most common chord progression in music, with thousands of songs across several genres containing some variation of the progression. In the time frame from 2006-2010, Timbaland’s “Apologize,” Akon’s “Don’t Matter,” Bruno Mars’ “Grenade,” Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie,” Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” and Rihanna’s “Umbrella” all reached number one on the US Billboard Hot 100 charts using the I-V-vi-IV format. If we were to make a list of top 100 hits with the progression, it would span many pages. Before the industrialization of culture, great musical works rarely shared similar characteristics to the extent that hit songs do today. For example, one can easily distinguish the work of Beethoven from Mozart and Schubert.

In addition to its usage of the I-V-vi-IV chord progression, “No One” also features the most prevalent instrumentation in the pop music world, especially for a female R&B/hip hop artist. Piano is the featured instrument, and is accompanied by guitar, synthesizer, bass, and percussion. Moreover, there are several rules or guidelines to writing a pop song in this day in age. The seven components that appear in most songs are an intro, verse, chorus, hook, bridge, break, and outro. Although an artist does have some creativity to play around with the different components and the order in which they occur, many songs follow the ABABCBB format.[1] Keys does not follow this format precisely, but she comes very close.[2] We can begin to see that “No One” closely follows a common formula, but we cannot conclude that “No One” truly demonstrates a trend towards sameness in the music industry until we analyze its lyrical component.

“No One” is a traditional love song in which the singer assures her lover that no one can prevent or get in the way of her love and devotion. In order to appeal to the largest possible audience, record labels and songwriters use several tactics. Subject matter is perhaps the most important predictor of whether or not a song will achieve commercial success. An analysis from researchers at N.C. State recently found that the presence of the top seven most common themes predicts with 73.4 percent accuracy whether or not a song will appear on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart.[3] The aforementioned themes are loss, desire, aspiration, breakup, pain, inspiration, and nostalgia. As a result, songwriters hoping to produce hits will write lyrics about these common emotional themes. Almost everyone can relate to the emotional message of “No One,” which results in more potential buyers of the song. We can accept the lyrics at face value, since they do not contain subliminal messages. Most modern pop songs lack this substance that we have come to attribute to the classics.

One striking aspect of the lyrics in “No One” is their simplicity and repetitiveness. Keys sings the most identifiable line in the song, “No one, no one, no one / Can get in the way of what I’m feeling” six times and the line, “Everything’s going to be alright” four times. In the final section of the song, Keys leads a chant, consisting of only “Oh” that mirrors the melody. Many songs contain these “Oh” sections at one point or another in place of the usual chorus, with “Viva la Vida” by Coldplay and “Home” by Phil Phillips serving as perfect examples. Chanting sections in songs serve to encourage audience participation. Since there are no actual lyrics in these sections, singing along is incredibly easy. The repetition and simplicity of lyrics serve the purpose of getting the songs stuck in the listener’s head. If the listener gets a song stuck in his or her head, he or she will be more likely to purchase the song. It’s a widely used tactic that leads to sameness across the music industry.

“No One” contains all the elements of the typical hit song in the R&B/hip hop genre produced by the modern music industry. It features the most common instrumentation, structure and chord progression. The female recording artist sings hollow lyrics about the most desirable (and relatable) themes. Certain lines in the song are repeated many times in order to implant them into the consumer’s head. A catchy “Oh” section in place of the chorus toward the end encourages the listener to sing along with the song. Yet somehow, many people still consider “No One” to be a great song, hence the Grammy awards and constant recognition. For a song to be great, it cannot be like the rest. It must stand out in some way or another. So how can we explain the song’s critical acclaim?

First, we must acknowledge the argument that “No One” does differ substantially from other music. Sure, “No One” shares the same musical backdrop as hundreds of other songs, but in pop music the actual notes, chords, and progressions are far less important than the way in which they are presented to the listener. For example, “No One” and “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey share the same chord progression and are both played in the key of E Major, but the two songs have much different timbre, as they sound quite different. In reality, “No One” doesn’t sound too much alike any of the many popular songs with which it shares the same chords. It’s not until a group like The Axis of Awesome dumb down each song to its core four chords on the piano and sing them side by side that we begin to comprehend their inherent sameness. Maybe it’s not fair to claim that “No One” is the same as hundreds of other songs just on the basis of its musical notation and structure.

A proponent for the uniqueness of “No One” would also likely point to Keys’ booming and renowned voice as the main factor that separates the song from its competition. It would be nearly impossible to argue that many other recording artists possess the same talent and style as Alicia Keys. There is only one Alicia Keys, and I mean that as a total compliment. Perhaps it is her voice that makes her songs so popular and not the songs themselves. Maybe the common chord progression and mundane lyrics have simply provided Keys with an avenue to showcase her incredible singing voice. For every hit song with the I-V-vi-IV chord progression, there are likely hundreds more that never even came close to appearing on any charts. It would be valid to argue that “No One” is great because Alicia Keys is great. Some OK singer would not have turned “No One” into a number one single. One could claim that all art is becoming the same fails because the artists will always differ from one another. But for the purpose of Adorno’s claim, I think we must separate the artist from the work of art.

Arguments can easily be made to reject Adorno, for anyone can find differences in art if they search hard enough. At the end of the day, the artists will always be somewhat unique and different genres will continue to exist. However, the culture industry must find subtle ways to keep its subjects in the dark. The record labels want to create and maintain an illusion of distinctiveness in art. I believe that through further analysis of “No One,” the hit song clearly supports a trend towards sameness in art as the result of mass-production. “No One” is a product of the culture industry, and despite its critical acclaim and international success, is it really that much different from thousands of other songs?



[1] Intro/Verse1/Chorus1/Verse2/Chorus2/Middle8/Bridge/Chorus3/ChorusOut

[2] Intro/Verse1/Chorus1/Verse2/Chorus2/Bridge/Chorus3

[3] Bettina Chang, “Can A Song’s Lyrics Predict Its Commercial Success?,”, March 19, 2014,

“The Culture Industry Reconsidered”

“Although the culture industry undeniably speculates on the conscious and unconscious state of the millions towards which it is directed, the masses are not primary, but secondary, they are an object of calculation; an appendage of the machinery. The customer is not king, as the culture industry would have us believe, not its subject but its object.”

-Theodor Adorno, “The Culture Industry Reconsidered”