Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s The Lego Movie tells the story of Emmet, an average civilian in a homogenous society where everybody is content with their position and everybody mindlessly conforms to the rules and norms set by the empiric Lord Business, a name that overtly comments on capitalism’s grasp on the masses. We are introduced to a world where optimism amongst people is plentiful, but the context of which is questionable considering the exposure to mind-numbing media and government signage. The Lego Movie accurately portrays Adorno and Horkheimer’s theory on the culture industry by creating a world that is heavily influenced and creatively suppressed by the media and other capitalist institutions.
A prime example of how the masses were deceived through the culture industry in Lord and Miller’s The Lego Movie is through the constant repetition of the song “Everything is Awesome.” This song appears throughout the film a number of times, and even when the lyrics aren’t present, the melody is still always somehow engrained into the film’s score. The ever presence of “Everything is Awesome” is itself a comment on how a popular form of media can become embedded within the minds and sub conscience of people. Regardless of the content of the song, which will be discussed later, the fact that the same, generic, pop tune had become so relevant and brainwashing to this society displays exactly how the culture industry is in effect in The Lego Movie. Adorno and Horkheimer describe this almost assembly line reproduction of culture by saying, “The culture industry did away with yesterday’s rubbish by its own perfection, and by forbidding and domesticating the amateurish, although it constantly allows gross blunders without which the standard of the exalted style cannot be perceived. But what is new is that the irreconcilable elements of culture, art and distraction, are subordinated to one end and subsumed under one false formula: the totality of the culture industry. It consists of repetition. That its characteristic innovations are never anything more than improvements of mass reproduction is not external to the system” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 108).
I think the key phrase used in this statement is “elements of culture, art, and distraction, are subordinated to one end” because it accurately explains how the culture industry can develop a product that is equal parts artful and cultured but simultaneously distracting to the realities of a capitalist society. The distraction aspect of the culture industry leads me into the actual lyrical contents of the song “Everything is Awesome.” Lord and Miller so artfully embed into the fabric of The Lego Movie not just any pop tune so generic and upbeat that it could brainwash the most cynical of people. But the song itself explicitly tells people that “Everything is awesome/ Everything is cool when you’re part of a team/ Everything is awesome, when we’re living our dreams” which requires no explanation and just further conveys Adorno and Horkheimer’s theories that the culture industry will use popular media to deceive people into believing their lives are fine when in reality they are being oppressed through the conformity of a capitalist system (Bartholomew).
Another medium that The Lego Movie implements within its world that perpetuates the effects of the culture industry is the recurrent television program (also seemingly the only television show in existence in that world) Where Are My Pants? This is a program so simple and so mind numbingly repetitive that every single five second clip we are shown is just a character in his underwear asking his wife where his pants are. What is most indicative of the power of this signage is the reaction that Emmet and the other citizens of this world because they find it very funny. In fact, there is one specific scene in the beginning of the film where Emmet is watching television and on screen comes an announcement from Lord Business that the following Tuesday would be Taco Tuesday, which he quietly to the side followed by saying that everyone would be brainwashed on that day as well. Emmet immediately reacted to the latter with fear, confusion, and caution, as one would having heard such a thing. However, immediately following that proclamation, the television show Where Are My Pants? comes on and Emmet laughs and completely forgets the terrible things that Lord Business said would be done to the entire city. This is an example of how the culture industry distracts people from the agenda set by hegemonic structures that ultimately oppress the masses, thus the need for a distraction in order to maintain tranquility.
Adorno and Horkheimer explain in detail the link between entertainment and culture and its role in distracting people from the reality of their oppression when they say “Amusement and all the elements of the culture industry existed long before the latter came into existence…The culture industry can pride itself on having energetically executed the previously clumsy transposition of art into the sphere of consumption, on making this a principle, on divesting amusement of its obtrusive naivetés and improving the type of commodities…It enjoys a double victory: the truth it extinguishes without it can reproduce at will as a lie within. ‘Light’ art as such, distraction, is not a decadent form. Anyone who complains that it is a betrayal of the ideal of pure expression is under an illusion about society. The purity of bourgeois art…was from the beginning bought with the exclusion of the lower classes—with whose cause, the real universality, art keeps faith precisely by its freedom from the ends of the false universality” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 107). What they mean by this statement, and what they even further develop later in the essay, is that mass culture exploits the amusement of the masses in order to create a misconception about society amongst the people. Much like Where Are My Pants? is a television program about a presumably average, working class man whose identity lies within a repetitive catchphrase, people watching this show are conditioned to believe that their life fulfillment can come from working the same job every day without question the status quo, which blinds them from realizing their oppression.
Legos are plastic. They are homogenously manufactured in a factory and are meant to be pieces to use within the creativity of the creator. This context allows Lord and Miller to accurately parallel people in a society to Legos in a playroom that have very little say in their destiny. Adorno and Horkheimer would argue that the culture industry uses media and signage to convey certain messages about conformity and obedience. But as Emmet, the once mindlessly conforming partaker in this society, proved by straying away from these messages and knowing the true plans of Lord Business, the brainwashing effects of the culture industry can be avoided if one can remain cognizant of the reality of the society in which they inhabit.
Adorno, T. & Horkheimer, M., 1944. The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. In T. Adorno and M. Horkheimer. Dialectics of Enlightenment.
Bartholomew, J., Harriton, L., Patterson, S., Samberg, A., Schaffer, A. & Taccone, J. (2014). Everything is Awesome [Recorded by Tegan and Sara]. On The LEGO Movie: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [MP3 File]. Burbank, California: WaterTower Music.