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. Keys does not follow this format precisely, but she comes very close. 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. 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?
 Bettina Chang, “Can A Song’s Lyrics Predict Its Commercial Success?,” Psmag.com, March 19, 2014, http://www.psmag.com/business-economics/can-songs-lyrics-predict-commercial-success-76936.