Adorno's theories on mass culture and commoditization were one of the fundamentals of postmodernism as it appeared in the 20th century. Even if rejected by many, nevertheless, his theories help explain some of the cultural phenomenon, such as the success of the American type culture, with its Hollywood movies and McDonald culture, against the traditional European one.
The tango dance is one of the most representative forms of manifestation of the Argentinean spirit and people. Born in the mid-1800s, tango was quickly exported to Europe and became a true success story, until its downfall in 1955. It was reborn in 1983 and has been a success ever since.
Investigating Adorno's theories and applying them in the case of tango, we may wonder whether this is the best example we may choose to argument the truth in Adorno's statements. Indeed, while on one hand, tango can be considered an element of mass culture, because, in many ways, it has partly embraced the mercantile character of mass culture that Adorno insists upon, in many other ways, tango is still something in its own, a form of art, a form of expression.
Adorno's Theory of Mass Culture
Considered by many one of the key postmodernist philosophers of our times Theodor W. Adorno's works were continuously criticized because of his exaggerated style and his bits of extremism. The writer himself was named as a "modernist, elitist ( ... ) and party-pooper," because of his pessimism and extremist melancholy, as well as by the way he chose to see a misfit in any part of the 20th century society, from culture to politics and economics and to the social life.
The cultural theories he projected in his main book, "Dialectic of Enlightenment," would become the fundamental thesis of the theories of mass culture and commodification.
The first emphasis that Adorno puts is on art's marketability. The classification of an art piece as a market product brings about several necessary conclusions. First of all, the product needs to be adapted to market demand and to customer satisfaction. In other words, the trend is driven by the customers themselves, who actually choose what products will be profitable and those that will not be. Art thus becomes a commodity and the art products that thus enter the market cycle "have their use value replaced by exchange value"
. As such, art objects and art manifestations lose their own legitimacy and become commodities subject to exchange.
The second thing that makes Adorno criticize mass culture is the fact that "the genuine, carnivalesque vulgarity of the circus and brothel, and instead is based on diluted bourgeois forms"
. We should skip passed the Marxist influences in such a statement ("bourgeois forms") and connect the statement itself to Adorno's thought on modern and mass culture. The idea, as I see it, is that mass culture, with Hollywood as one of its most important representative, has fully adapted itself to the requirements of the population. Because it has lost the art genuine, the spontaneity specific to different art forms and its original style (of course, the author refers to them as vulgarities), it has become diluted. It no longer respects its inspiration, but rather its purpose: being fully adapted to what the market wants (again the commodity characteristics).
The third pillar of Adorno's theory on mass culture relies on the fact that "the pursuit of freedom in society is inseparable from the pursuit of enlightenment in culture"
. Political freedom and cultural freedom are strictly connected and inter-determinant, to the degree that the loss of one implies the loss of the other. The best example is Nazi Germany. The loss of political freedom brought about the loss of cultural identity.
On the other hand, culture and mass culture becomes an effective and efficient way of manipulating the people. Adorno's example is mass culture in the United States, where mass culture helps develop, in an undeniable democracy, a certain degree of control from the government on its citizens.
Many have referred to Adorno's writings and opinions on the mass culture phenomenon as proving his inclination towards a gloomy and melancholic vision. In my opinion, this is true because of the implications his theory brings about. Art and culture becomes a commodity, adaptable to the requirements of the population and manipulative. Further more, the original inspirational condition of any artwork is transformed to fit the masses' demand.
History of Tango
It seems and people agree that the first piece of tango music was written and interpreted in 1857. Published in Argentina, it was entitled "Toma mate, che," but its ancestor, the Andalusian Tango was already well-known in Buenos Aires in the Middle of the 19th century.
Although it seems that the fact that tango was born in the brothels of Buenos Aires is a cliche, there is a bit of truth in the story in the sense that lower class, poor people first practiced the dance and it was passed on to middle and upper class people through brothels, where it was danced. According to Adorno's mass culture theories, at this particular point, tango would have probably still been in the genuine and vulgar phase, the phase of conception and imagination, before ever becoming an industrial commodity.
However, at the beginning of the 20th century, tango passed the ocean over to Europe and was first performed in Monmartre, in Paris, in 1909. The fact that rich young Argentineans came for studies in Europe, as was in fashion at that time, and popularized the dance meant that 1912 and 1913 were the years tango literarily took off in Europe and "all of Europe was dancing the Tango"
Tangencies with Adorno's theories on mass culture and commoditization became obvious in the following years. In 1913 and 1914, books were published in Europe, claiming they taught tango, and only in London there were several in a very brief period of time. It is more than likely that people saw a business opportunity in tango and were keen to be able to exploit it. The Argentineans reimported tango back in Buenos Aires from Paris and the dance had, in their opinion, nothing to do with the dance practiced by the poorer citizens and rejected by middle and upper classes.
In terms of lyrics, the trend was quite similar. Because "there started to be a market for Tango music and Tango recordings amongst the middle and upper classes in Argentina"
, both the lyrics and music needed to be adapted to the demands and requirements of the market and its customers. Radio and film later entered the scene to make the business evermore profitable.
The military coup that removed General Peron from power was equivalent to a period of decadence for the dance, mainly because it meant that generals and members of the upper classes were now in power. They had no interest in the dance (tango had been introduced, but many of the upper classes still refused to adopt it) and, additionally, "the culture of the mass of the population was alien and dangerous"
. Tango was a suitable gathering place, where uprisings could be concerted. Until the fall of the regime in 1983, tango "went underground"
1983 and the period thereafter was known as the Tango Renaissance, when tango became a mass culture phenomenon once again, as the Tango schools were reopened and everybody joined the clubs to dance.
Adorno's Theories applied to Tango
The subchapter related to Adorno's beliefs on mass culture and his concept of commoditization are essential in defining and discussing a link between his theories and tango history and significance to Argentina during the past century. On one hand, we need to acknowledge a certain connection, especially during certain periods of time, when tango produced a market, with customers whose demands needed to be satisfied, etc.
On the other hand, however, in my opinion, tango comes exactly against Adorno's theories. These are generally the aspects where emotional and melancholy become involved in producing an outstanding dance, where the connection between the two partners is at its highest and where originality produces not necessarily what is demanded by the market forces, but what the feelings of each partners, their momentary spiritual states produce.
Let's take each aspect and analyze it in part. First of all, as I have previously mentioned, the concept of commoditization seems the most important in Adorno's theoretical framework. This concept implies that an act of culture (tango in this case) becomes a product of culture (in an economic sense) and, as such, it abides by all the rules of the market, including adapting to demands, respecting customers' requirements, etc.
As we have seen from the historic synopsis previously presented, in some of the phases of its existence, tango certainly found itself in this position. Initially, the tango business was represented by books for teaching the dance, but also as forms of entertainment in bars or restaurants (in Europe, especially), where food and drink brought about additional profits. Mass culture meant…