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The Culture Industry of MTV's TRL

by Jason Mittell

This pair of clips from MTV's TRL in 2000, taped off-air via VHS, is a great illustration of arguments explored by the Frankfurt School's Marxist analysis of the culture industry. The first clip, from 'NSync's hit "It's Gonna Be Me," explicitly represents the band as material commodities: plastic action figures in a toy store. Rather than hiding their commodification, the band embraces it, following Adorno & Horkheimer's claims that industrialized culture acknowledges its own factory-produced roots. The representation of mass produced toys resonates with the concept of standardization, as both the toys and the song are offered not as original, unique commodities, but the latest version of well-established hits. MTV's production style emphasizes not just the video and song, but the way that fans are consuming it, with onscreen praise via text messages and in-person testimonials. The fan reaction itself is highly standardized, following a limited range of exclamations celebrating the song and band, ending with the requisite "wooo!" This reaction fits Adorno & Horkheimer's idea of "predetermined consumption," as the cultural product shapes its own reactions and audience pleasures - and here, TRL displays and celebrates that standardized consumption as part of the cultural legitimation of the video.

The second song & video featured seems to complicate these ideas, but Eminem's "The Way I Am" offers another set of standardized tropes: the rebellious refusal to conform to the culture industry, reiterated through the refrain, "radio won't even play my jams." Of course, MTV is playing his jams, presenting an example of what the Frankfurt School termed "pseudo-individuality," rebellion and individuality mass-produced for mass-consumption. And Eminem's fans, different demographically and in verbal style than 'NSync's, perform this version of standardized pseudo-individuality, praising Em's ability to speak the truth and be his own man. Yet that individuality is undermined by the uniformity of fan reactions that counter the notion that Eminem is offering anything "real" to oppose 'NSync, despite his lyrical claims to the contrary.

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MTV's TRL from 2000, featuring 'NSync and Eminem

Two segments from MTV's show TRL from 2000, featuring 'NSync's "It's Gonna Be Me" and Eminem's "The Way I Am." The clips illustrate many theoretical ideas developed by the Frankfurt School critics Adorno & Horkheimer under the umbrella of "the culture industry."

from TRL (2000)
Creator: MTV
Distributor: MTV
Posted by Jason Mittell