Associate Professor, International Communication, Senshu University
In its formative early years in North America, scholarship on fandom positioned itself against critiques of consumers as passive or manipulated by producers. For example, in contributions to The Adoring Audience, John Fiske, a scholar of television, argues that fans are not just consumers but also producers (1992, 37–41), and Lawrence Grossberg, a representative of American cultural studies, shows how meaning is made out of given media forms, even as fans invest affectively in them (1992, 52–57). Perhaps most representative of this position is media scholar Henry Jenkins, who argues in his foundational work Textual Poachers that fans are active producers of not only meaning but also of works (1992, 51). This understanding of the active agency of consumers is the legacy of audience studies, reception theory, and British cultural studies, which are sometimes brought together under the banner of the Birmingham School. This school of thought is then contrasted with the Marxist-inspired critique of mass culture of the Frankfurt School.
The Frankfurt School refers to a school of social theory and philosophy founded in the interwar period and associated with the Institute for Social Research at the Goethe University Frankfurt. Its members were dissidents who did not feel at home in the capitalist, fascist, and communist systems sweeping Europe. Chief among their contributions was work by Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) and Theodor Adorno (1903–69) on the topic of “the culture industry.” Referring to a loose grouping of corporations, the culture industry produces mass culture, or media and material culture, for mass consumption. It does this in pursuit of profit. If forms are profitable, they are produced, and produced again and again. This “sameness” (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002, 94), which can be understood as a standardization characteristic of the logic of mass production, is masked by pseudo-individualization. For example, hit songs have very similar structures, but they are differentiated by hooks and frills. This means that consumers essentially get the same thing over and over again in a circuit of mass production and consumption. While nothing if not rational for the culture industry in its pursuit of profit, as Horkheimer and Adorno see it, such rationalization leads not to the liberation of consciousness and “enlightenment” but rather to a fettering of consciousness in a system that is dumbing and numbing (ibid., 97).
The power of the culture industry lies in its ability to produce a passive and dependent consuming public. The “prepared” consumer is rewarded by repetition, which they come to expect and demand in predictable pleasures (ibid., 98–99). As Horkheimer and Adorno put it, “The products of the culture industry are such that they can be alertly consumed in a state of distraction” (ibid., 100). The culture industry keeps the consuming public in a state of distraction, which is to say that it occupies minds (ibid.). Pleasure seeking becomes routine, even as work and leisure come to resemble one another as routine (ibid.). In this Marxist-inspired critique, mass consumption and pleasure reproduce workers in the system of mass production. In this way, Horkheimer and Adorno argue, “Entertainment is the prolongation of work under late capitalism” (ibid., 109). With limited time and relentless stress to manage, what comes easily is taken with ease. The result, by Horkheimer and Adorno’s estimation, is that workers are hemmed into the system “so tightly, body and soul, that they unresistingly succumb to whatever is proffered to them” (ibid., 106). Ultimately, Horkheimer and Adorno write, “the power of the culture industry lies in its unity with fabricated need” (ibid., 109), or in fabricating and satisfying needs in mass, which subjugates people to “the total power of capital” (ibid., 94).
Critiques of this approach to the culture industry are numerous and varied. Some accuse the Frankfurt School in general, and Adorno specifically, of being elitist, sexist, classist, traditionalist, and many others “ists” besides (Modleski 1986, 156). Others highlight the problematic conflation of forms of media and material culture. Surely a mass-produced song is not the same as a mass-produced car, and they must be evaluated differently, which is to say textually versus functionally (Gendron 1986, 32). The most helpful critiques focus on what appears to be the suggestion of a static, ahistorical system (Smythe 1981, 268–71), which cannot account for change. Rather than a standardized commodity produced for and pushed onto the masses, popular music, for example, has changed with the times. Not every manufactured star or hit becomes a star or a hit, which suggests that the support of the masses must be won, even if mass circulation and repetition can win consumers over to a certain extent (Barnes 2014). This suggests that producers are responsive to the demands of consumers, and consumption is productive in providing feedback (Lazzarato 1996, 140–43; see also Dyer-Witheford 1999, 1–37; Coté and Pybus 2007). However, while the culture industry approach encounters trouble in accounting for individual agency, active audiences, and more complex dynamics of power, the insights of the Frankfurt School are not entirely unhelpful in understanding contemporary media and material culture.
Fortune will not smile on all—just on the one who draws the winning ticket or, rather, the one designated to do so by a higher power—usually the entertainment industry itself, which presents itself as ceaselessly in search of talent. Those discovered by the talent scouts and then built up by the studios are ideal types of the new, dependent middle classes. The female starlet is supposed to symbolize the secretary, though in a way which makes her seem predestined, unlike the real secretary, to wear the flowing evening gown. Thus she apprises the female spectator not only of the possibility that she, too, might appear on the screen but still more insistently of the distance between them. […] They are assured that they do not need to be in any way other than they are and that they can succeed just as well without having to perform tasks of which they know themselves incapable
—Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno
In Japan, idols are products of the culture industry. Music scholar W. David Marx argues that idols appear with the frequency that they do in Japan because producers seek “stable profits within the Japanese entertainment industry,” and they seek profits “over creative works (the culture itself)” (2012, 51). Although Horkheimer and Adorno did not write about Japan specifically, such a critique might well have come from the Frankfurt School. For his part, however, Marx draws attention to the need to discuss the “missing factor” of the audience (ibid., 52), which can be brought to light through an analysis of AKB48.
Top-reigning idols in Japan, AKB48 (“Akihabara 48”) is a group that was produced by Akimoto Yasushi in 2005. Like Onyanko Club, an earlier group produced by Akimoto that is its model (ibid., 49), and indeed idols more generally, the members of AKB48 are characterized by average looks, less-than-stellar skills in singing and dancing, and a style that mixes innocence and sexuality. The novelty of AKB48 as a group is that they are “idols that you can meet” (ai ni ikeru aidoru), which references their start performing regular live shows in a theater in the Akihabara neighborhood of Tokyo. The smallness of the space and frequency of appearances contributed to feelings of intimacy (Hamano 2012), and strong relationships were established with idols, who directly appealed to fans for support.
From these humble beginnings, AKB48 went on to break records for the most singles sold in Japan by a female artist or group, the highest Japanese sales of a single by a female artist or group, the most consecutive million-selling singles sold in Japan, the most million-selling singles in Japan, and more. The group regularly takes the top three to five spots on the yearly Oricon Singles Chart. Without question, AKB48 is very good at selling CDs, which is something of an anachronism in a global media market moving toward digital downloads and streaming. Whatever might be said of their music, AKB48 is an extremely commercially successful idol group in Japan and have inspired swarms of competitors since their major break in 2009.
The reason for AKB48’s phenomenal sales is not, however, because they are universally loved in Japan or widely supported by the Japanese population. Instead, AKB48 is an example of an ingenious system that capitalizes on fans’ attraction to, affection for, and activity in relation to their idols. Among the defining characteristics of AKB48 is its large number of members: As of 2015, there are over 130 members in its four main teams, as well as hundreds more in sister groups in five Japanese cities and five East and Southeast Asian cities. Even as idols compete with one another for the spotlight, fans have their oshimen, or “member I support,” and compete to support them. This is institutionalized into annual general elections to determine AKB48’s top members, who appear more regularly in the media and are more heavily promoted.
And this is where affect meets economics. In order to vote in the election, fans must purchase new copies of designated CDs, which come with codes that allow ballots to be cast. There is no limit to how many CDs one can buy or votes they can cast, and, with idols encouraging fans to show their love by voting for them (Galbraith and Karlin 2012, 22), the result is individuals buying dozens, hundreds, and even thousands of copies of the same CDs (Artefact 2013; Anahori 2014; Baseel 2014). When the election was first held in 2009, 54,026 votes were cast for ranked members, but that number had risen to 2,734,433 by 2015. The number of votes cast for the winner alone increased from 4,630 to 194,049. That year, AKB48 held the top four spots on the yearly Oricon Singles Chart.
While a testament to the power of fans and the value of their activity, the Frankfurt School approach to the culture industry still proves insightful; consider how Horkheimer and Adorno understood the culture industry to be “artfully sanctioning the demand for trash,” and, in so doing, “the system inaugurates total harmony” (2002, 106). Beyond the obvious point that the media and material culture associated with idols is not the most transcendent, Akimoto, AKB48’s producer and a powerful player in the culture industry, is part of a system that artfully sanctions the demand for trash. He needed to sell CDs to please the establishment, and he needed to sell fans new ways to interact with idols and show their love, which he accomplished by making physical CDs into carriers for ballots. The CDs are disposable, and indeed fans buy in bulk, have no use for the disks, and dump them into the bin (Brasor 2014). One does not need more than one CD of the same song, but the need is, for lack of a better way to put it, “fabricated” (ibid., 109). While this is a colossal waste, it serves the needs of a system in harmony.
As one can see from the AKB48 elections, choice is built into the system. “Something is provided for everyone,” Horkheimer and Adorno write, “so that no one can escape” (ibid., 97). While perhaps guilty here of a totalizing approach, the spirit of the critique can be understood through consideration of AKB48. There are over 130 members in AKB48 who are in competition with one another to attract fans. If they are attracted to AKB48, fans are free to choose among the members. While in no way meaning to diminish the individuality of the members, there is clearly standardization in AKB48, where young women come in, become idols, and then “graduate” out. It is as idols wearing similar uniforms and singing similar songs that AKB48 members compete, only to later be replaced. While Akimoto is no longer as involved in the production process as he once was, the choices presented to fans are still produced members of AKB48. This is the same premise as elections, and no matter who fans choose, AKB48 wins, as does its producer. Put simply, Akimoto bows to an election that he has set up and profits from. In a similar way, Horkheimer and Adorno write, “The industry bows to the vote it has itself rigged” (ibid., 106).
Again, one must be careful not to fall into the trap of totalizing the industry and its “mass control” (Marx 2012, 37). Certainly, not everyone is attracted to AKB48 or votes in the elections—most Japanese, in fact, do not. With 2,734,433 votes cast in the 2015 election out of a total Japanese population of 126,573,481, one must also keep in mind that the people buying multiple copies of designated CDs cast many of the ballots. That said, it is hard not to see how the rhetoric of choice in the system, like the elections, can serve to obscure the power of the culture industry to produce and promote choices. In 2015, AKB48’s biggest competition on the yearly Oricon Singles Chart was its own sister groups and “official rivals” (kōshiki raibaru), who are all produced by Akimoto.
Given the resonance with work on the Hollywood star system (Dyer 1979, 19), it is clear that AKB48 points to something beyond Japan, and more recent examples reveal a startling degree of convergence. Similar to AKB48 elections, the highly successful television show American Idol (Fox, 2002–16) allowed “America to choose.” The model offers what Jenkins calls a “fantasy of empowerment,” and the “promise of participation helps build fan investments” (2006, 64). The audience is cultivated as fans in relation to idols and moved to action, with as many as 24 million votes placed in a single night in 2003 (ibid., 89). It is significant that this analysis comes from Jenkins, one of the founders of fan studies and who is often seen as opposed to the Frankfurt School approach (Hills 2002, 30–32). Recognizing that active audiences and productive consumers are valuable to the culture industry, Jenkins shows how fans are courted (2006, 62–63). In the emerging field of “affective economics,” Jenkins explains, advertisers seek to impact “consumer desires to shape purchasing decisions” (ibid., 62). Developing and maintaining relationships with brands as “love marks,” appealing to “brand communities,” and targeting “loyals,” “brand advocates,” and “inspirational consumers” are examples of how this can work (ibid., 63, 69–70, 72–73).
Building and maintaining a “relationship with the consumer” is precisely what one would expect of postindustrial capitalism (Lazzarato 1996, 140–41), and it is precisely what idols function to achieve in contemporary media and material culture. That is why so much of Jenkins’s analysis is so hauntingly familiar for Japan, as the culture industry in Japan has generally been extremely adept at deploying idols to cultivate fan audiences (Aoyagi 2005, 63; Lukács 2010, 4, 23–24; Karlin 2012, 84–88). If, as Jenkins suggests, “Affective economics sees active audiences as potentially valuable if they can be courted and won over by advertisers” (2006, 64), then it is the idol that attracts and holds the audience so that they might be courted and won over. More immediately, it is the idol who does the courting and winning over of the fan, who is moved to tune in and make a purchase.
From the perspective of the Frankfurt School, especially when updated to consider issues of active audiences and relations of power (Jenkins 2006; Marshall 2014), AKB48 is not an entirely unexpected development. Generally, this suggests the continued need for a “critical political economy of media and communication” (Fuchs 2012, 698), which is the original intervention of the Frankfurt School and the culture industry as a concept. This intervention and its valuable lessons are too often forgotten in the rush to celebrate consumers as productive, agentive, and active. While in no way arguing that consumers in general and fans in particular are anything otherwise, in the spirit of the Frankfurt School, one might ask how structures both enable and disable fan activity while valorizing it in particular ways.
- Located at the University of Birmingham, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies was founded by Richard Hoggart in 1964. Among its most influential researchers was Stuart Hall, who developed the model of “encoding/decoding.” ↑
- For a general introduction to the Frankfurt School and its most influential theories, see Strinati (1995, 46–78) and Storey (1997, 61–94). ↑
- For the sake of clarity, this entry will introduce only the arguments of “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Originally published as a chapter in The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), it is the core of the critique, which was later updated in a solo work by Adorno (1991), who became its most noted proponent. ↑
- See for example, “Four Chord Song,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5pidokakU4I. ↑
- “AKB48 13th Single Senbatsu Sousenkyo ‘Kamisama Ni Chikatte Gachi Desu,’” Wiki48, accessed March 11, 2017, http://stage48.net/wiki/index.php/AKB48_13th_Single_Senbatsu_Sousenkyo_%22Kamisama_ni_Chikatte_Gachi_Desu%22; and “AKB48 41st Single Senbatsu Sousenkyo ‘Juni Yoso Fukano, Oare No Ichiya,’” Wiki48, accessed March 11, 2017, http://stage48.net/wiki/index.php/AKB48_41st_Single_Senbatsu_Sousenkyo_%22Juni_Yoso_Fukano,_Oare_no_Ichiya%22. ↑
- “2015-nen nenkan ongaku rankingu o happyō!,” Oricon News, accessed March 11, 2017, http://www.oricon.co.jp/special/48546/2/. ↑
- In 2015, AKB48, sister groups SKE48 and NMB48, and “official rival” Nogizaka46 took all top ten spots, except for number nine, which was a release by Arashi, the top male idol group in Japan. ↑
- This also is not new or unique in North America. In his groundbreaking analysis in The Image (originally published in 1962), historian Daniel J. Boorstin writes that, “each of us likes a movie star or television celebrity more when we think we have had a hand in making him a celebrity” (2012, 221). He draws attention to the example of a company staging a national election for a model to represent Rheingold beer in 1941. “By 1957, the 20,000,000 cast in the election of Miss Rheingold made it the largest election in the United States outside of that for President. The fact that customers were allowed to vote more than once simply added to the tantalizing verisimilitude” (ibid., 221–22). As Boorstin rightly suggests, active participation gets individuals more intimately and personally involved. ↑
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