Manufacturing Pop Consent or Lets put the blinkers on and get hit by a train.


Right so in 1988 Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky wrote the book ‘Manufacturing Consent’. In Line with everyone else who writes or talks about this I will be leaving Herman’s name out of the rest of the discussion. Thus I will be referring to the book as if it was a monograph entirely born out of Noam’s imagination attributing ideas to him that he may not have actually had in line with how his legions of internet supporters and televised detractors (I’m look at you Andrew Sullivan you lazy unconvincing conservative liar) discuss these ideas.


So in 1988 Noam Chomsky AND NO ONE ELSE wrote ‘Manufacturing Consent’ in which he (they) outlined a system of filters that construct a propaganda modal for the mass media. It is a fine book that I have not read in its entirety so the possibility remains that by the end ol’ Noam could have revealed the whole idea was some kind of prank on us pseudointellectuals with a propensity to dissatisfaction. Chomsky’s model is described in the book as a tool for understanding how the news media is used to control how the populations of the west understand their government’s foreign policy (i.e. that it is spreading democracy and eliminating threats to our way of life and so on) and thus manufacture consent for their actions. For Chomsky’s argument the model is applied to coverage of the Vietnam War and the CIA’s involvement in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s and how the western media coverage of these events make no sense at all considering the independently verified facts of these engagements.

I am now going to strenuously try to apply to this model, in an admittedly amateurish fashion, to chart popular music. An area Chomsky strangely overlooked when he was trying to stop the wholesale consensual slaughter of the civilians of the second and third world. However I would argue that a rigidly controlled culture industry helps to establish an ideology within society that makes people very accepting of the propaganda provided by a similarly biased mass news media.

The Model

  1. Size, Ownership, and Profit Orientation.
  2. The Advertising License to Do Business.
  3. 3. Sourcing Mass Media News.
  4. 4. Flak and the Enforcers.
  5. Anti-Communism.

Above are the filters of Chomsky’s Propaganda model. Even two decades after it was constructed, and with the cold war over, one can see how it applies to many if not all news organisations. But is it a useful way to think about pop? What the hell do flack and anti-communism have to do with Jessie J? If I keep going with this self effacing bit I am likely to argue my self in to a completely unnecessary hole that while not impossible to escape from, would become tiresome semantic discussion, which I am up for but I do want this to be read so I’ll move on the meat which, is once again slippery (call backs this blog rewards loyalty).

First filter ‘size, ownership and profit orientation’, for pop this is very easy to understand. Most of the artists in the top twenty are either sighed to major labels or companies, that when you look into their ownership, are side venture frommajor labels. These labels are cumbersome and expensive to run. At this moment they have no practical or moral solution of how to deal with the internet as a point of access for music consumers or the current consensus view that music should be free (I’ll discuss this more competently in a later blog). So these labels have to sign artists that will appeal to enough people that some of them are bound to use the outmoded method of paying for music before deciding the artist is worth what they spent (again I’ll talk about this better later). What is this Artist that appeals to us all?… Olly Murs… To pick one at random with a hilariously dull name. He does exactly what the record labels need. He sings songs about love and fun with a cheeky Essex lad’s smile you probably knew someone like him at school. What’s more the viewers of ITV’s X Factor paid for his promotion with the phone-in charge and the rating generated advertising slots. Which moves us along nicely to…

The second filter the advertising license to do business’. There is a symbiotic relationship between chart pop music and advertising. Long gone is the notion of selling out as a negative (unless you’re me, destined to spend my twilight years in the gutter). Adverts like chart pop because its often inoffensive, fun and eminently recognisable. If the music is becomes genuinely thought provoking or reflective its very difficult to use it to sell tea or cars. At the same time the currency of chart music is a cache of up to the minute cool that is ever so useful for selling car and tea. While this is a mutually beneficially relationship the power balance is clear, the advertisers have money, the record labels want it. Advertiser can always hire composers to make sound alikes for less than the cost of licensing the real thing. Accepted content for labels to produce is to some extent dictated by this requirement, which in turn creates an production line culture within the record industry.

The third filter ‘sourcing mass media news’ this refers in my application to the construction of the hegemony of the record industry. Gatekeepers form along the production line of popular music, each step along the way understands it has a role in the maintenance of products that are not just sellable but useful for selling. The graduates of the Brit school of performing arts in Croydon are churned out and assessed by the gatekeepers as to how useful they would be for a BUPA commercial and the system goes on unabated. The more success the gatekeepers have with a certain narrow field in finding new artists, the harder it is for those outside the ever-narrowing field to get noticed. This is a very efficient way of both minimising loss from investment and making less and less music acceptable. This has an interesting unintended consequence of creating flack and making labels adverse to it.

Filter four is ‘Flack’. The complaints and litigation organisations face when investments (artists) don’t go to plan can be referred to as flack. The result of this eversion to the consequences (flack) of negative reception is a reluctance to sign anything or anyone challenging, that and extremely onerous and restrictive record contracts. An example of this is the so-called 360 record deals. These deals mean that the record company gets a slice of all of your professional output not just the records. Doing some modelling, some acting or writing the record company gets a cut despite contributing nothing to these areas. In fact if the label under promotes you and your music career flops and you write a book about the betrayal by you lousy label said label would get a cut of the book sales. This in turn changes the climate around labels and those willing to take part in the major record label system (obviously for the worse).

Finally we are on to Anti-Communism which, since the end of the cold war Chomsky has changed to The War on Terror, so I would assume what is really meant by filter five is the prevailing ideology of our society. And this ideology is that THE CAPITALIST WEST IS THE BEST AND FREE OF ALL EVIL. Almost everyone decrying hip-hop for creating a materialist culture is a hypocrite and a liar. In the west we have spent the past thirty years cultivating the idea that greed is good and growth could continue indefinitely from our politicians and business elites down (and we are paying for this short sightedness now). This gave everyone a sense of optimism and aspiration. Optimism and aspiration are easy sells and easy to sell with. Hip Hop was just what people wanted to hear in a world where they are told it good to get very very rich and it doesn’t mater how because you can hire enough lawyers. But wait what about that aforementioned Jessie J with that song of hers ‘Price Tag’ the one that goes “I don’t care about the MONEY MONEY MONEY”… I won’t pretend to know whether she wrote it cynically or not, that’s largely immaterial as there are a lot of cynical stages inbetween that let her release the song at all.

Well that was a round about way of saying I don’t much like radio 1. This isn’t definitive of course… god imagine if it was… maybe it is… what a strange sort of hell that would be (or is)… I wonder if these contrived breakdowns at the end as an apology for a lack editing will grow tiresome… I bet they don’t…


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