Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music

Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music

Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music

Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music


Why do some music styles gain mass popularity while others thrive in small niches? Banding Together explores this question and reveals the attributes that together explain the growth of twentieth-century American popular music. Drawing on a vast array of examples from sixty musical styles--ranging from rap and bluegrass to death metal and South Texas polka, and including several created outside the United States--Jennifer Lena uncovers the shared grammar that allows us to understand the cultural language and evolution of popular music.

What are the common economic, organizational, ideological, and aesthetic traits among contemporary genres? Do genres follow patterns in their development? Lena discovers four dominant forms--Avant-garde, Scene-based, Industry-based, and Traditionalist--and two dominant trajectories that describe how American pop music genres develop. Outside the United States there exists a fifth form: the Government-purposed genre, which she examines in the music of China, Serbia, Nigeria, and Chile. Offering a rare analysis of how music communities operate, she looks at the shared obstacles and opportunities creative people face and reveals the ways in which people collaborate around ideas, artworks, individuals, and organizations that support their work.


I start every semester in my Sociology of Hip-Hop and Rap Music course by asking the students to tell me a story about the origins of this musical style. The collective narrative that emerges, cobbled together from episodes of VH1’s Behind the Music, Vibe Magazine articles, and song lyrics, is that rap music’s origins lie in the desire of inner-city, poor, black men to document their lives and critique the social order that blocks progress for our nation’s minorities. In criticism of this, a second group of students argue that this political narrative is a smoke screen, masking and justifying the sexism, violence, and profligate lifestyle of rap songs and artists.

The terms of this debate would have been totally foreign to proto-rap artists in the mid-1970s when they were performing DJ sets in courtyards, parks, and community centers. Oral histories reveal a group of young men and women seeking to make money and a name for themselves as disco DJs. According to at least one account, the first “rap party” was a celebration of DJ Kool Herc’s sister’s birthday, organized as a fund-raiser for school clothes for the siblings. It was only years later that rappers began to bemoan the sacrifice of politics to profit. But the power of the political reading of rap has nearly obscured what early performers have said about this period, and about their goals in making music.

Evidence of the power of this account is found not only in my classroom discussions, or the popular media that teach students to view the music in this fashion, but also in the actions of canonizing organizations. For example, the first rap song added to the National Archive of Historic Recordings (in 2002) wasn’t the first rap song performed, or even the first one recorded (an unabashed party song called “Rapper’s Delight”), but instead was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s 1982 single, “The Message.” This song’s staccato vocal track describes the living conditions . . .

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