Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music

March 1, 2012

Jennifer Lena attempts to take on two of popular music's most regularly debated areas and get to the heart of the problems in previous scholarship. Given that academics working in different areas of popular music studies can barely agree on the difference between genres and styles, let alone subcultures, scenes and communities, she is arguably taking on something of a poisoned chalice.

Her approach to these areas of debate has been to create a conceptual template in order to create data through which she attempts to show the relationships between community and genre and, perhaps more importantly, to demonstrate just how many similarities exist within the various genre communities. The result is an interesting, if at times rather frustrating, approach that ultimately unlocks two of the key problems with previous models.

Taking the issue of communities first, Lena is able to challenge an underlying tenet of the study of music communities that has continued to hang on since subcultures first became an area of research interest. In such work, the music itself was considered to be secondary to style and of minimal importance to the debate; even to those outside the debate, this seemed more than a little strange when observing music-related movements such as punk. Certainly many academics have gone on to pull apart the early subculture work in their explorations of varying types of music scenes and tribes. However, the bonding aspect of music and the way that communities drive their associated musics has been largely under-discussed.

As you might expect, discussion of genre (and style) has placed community as a bit player in the story of how music is brought together under collective music markers. One reason for this might be that communities are relatively fluid, while on the whole the models proposed for understanding genre have been quite rigid. And it is Lena's understanding of the fluidity of both community and genre, and of the reasons why some music styles gain mass popularity while others thrive in small niches, that makes this book an essential read.

To support her investigation, the author draws on a vast array of examples from some 60 musical styles, ranging from death metal and hip hop to bluegrass and polka, in order to uncover a "shared grammar that allows us to understand the cultural language and evolution of popular music". Drawing on her own US-centric research, Lena proposes four dominant genre forms - avant-garde, scene-based, industry-based and traditionalist. She also argues for a fifth form, the "government-purposed genre", for territories outside the US including China, Serbia, Nigeria and Chile.

Having identified these genre forms, Lena goes on to investigate the commonalties in each, including similar economic, ideological and aesthetic traits. What she uncovers is a creative momentum that all genres share when they face obstacles to their development, before revealing the ways in which communities collaborate around ideas in order to move past these hurdles. Ultimately she proposes that genre development takes on one of only two potential trajectories: they are either scene- or industry-based, and follow set patterns of growth and development as a result.

The narrowness of this conclusion may be a little frustrating for scholars grappling with popular music that might challenge Lena's model, but in reality, the beauty of this work is the simplicity of its final proposition.

Banding Together is an essential read for fans of popular music, thanks in no small part to Lena's wealth of music knowledge, as the book draws together the studies of music communities and music genres into a coherent whole. Whether or not you agree with her opening challenge to the importance of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's seminal hip hop track The Message, though, is another matter entirely.

Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music

By Jennifer C. Lena. Princeton University Press. 2pp, £24.95. ISBN 9780691150765. Published 3 February 2012

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