genre as a social form

I picked up Jenn Lena’s book, Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music, with unabashed enthusiasm. The book combines two of my passions: sociology and music. Like the music nerd that I am, I’ve read a lot of books written by journalists and insiders of the music industry.  I’ve subscribed to Rolling Stone since I was an undergrad, and I’m a regular reader of Pitchfork.  I watch Austin City Limits. I collect mp3s of obscure bands like my 12 year old son collects baseball cards.   So you can imagine how thrilled I was to finally get my hands on this book – a sociological examination of music genres.

I haven’t been disappointed. The book, front to back, is full of interesting details about diverse music genres. Not surprisingly, Lena walks us through the evolution of a conventionally fascinating genre like funk, but we also get to learn about the equally interesting (but lesser known) genre of the Texas polka. She moves between genres easily, in part, because her theoretical framework gives her a lens through which you can analyze genres with very different musical sensibilities and technical distinctions.  And of course, it is this lens that makes this book different from a musicological treatment of music genres. The book is less interested in the content of genres than it is in the structure of genre forms. That’s not to say that she ignores content, but the important insight she brings is that all music genres, regardless of their musical qualities, appear to have stable characteristics associated with different forms of development.  If you want to understand how a music genre comes to be and how it becomes popularized as part of a canon, you need to understand the social elements that make up these genre forms.

That is how Lena’s view of genre classification differs from students of music.   But what intrigued me most about her book is how Lena’s view of music genres differs from other sociological accounts of genre and form. You see, the study of classification systems, including genres, has suddenly become a huge thing in the world of sociology and organizational theory. Organizational ecologists, cultural scholars, and social psychologists have all begun to focus on how classification systems organize human experience, shape evaluation, and influence organizational outcomes. Naturally, her perspective will be compared to these related research streams. But Lena is doing something very different here, which I think sets her apart from the majority of  scholars studying classification systems.

Through the first part of the book, I experienced this little mental itch that kept bugging me (not in a bad way, of course). I knew that there was something really unconventional about Lena’s take on genre but I couldn’t put it in words. Somewhere in the middle of chapter 3, I started to get a handle on it.  Most scholars who study classification systems are inherently social constructionist in their approach, to the point that the only thing elemental about a form is the agreement among evaluators that an object (i.e., a song) fits. A category, genre, or form is whatever an audience says it is. A category becomes defined by a network of people who have some intermediary status that gives them authority in that domain of society. For example, movie genres are defined by what films movie critics and producers decide fit into that category. Genres, then, are the result of an aggregation of third party opinions.

In her book, Lena is up to something very different. Rather than study outsider’s validation of genres, she looks the stable elements that are present in various genres and uses these elements to create a classification of different genre forms. These elements cut across genres. Evaluators are not even aware of what those elements are.  By iteratively gathering data from insider accounts, she inductively derives four different genre forms that any style of music will fit into: avant-garde, scene-based, industry-based, and traditionalist. I won’t go into the specific details about what makes up each genre form (read the book!) but they consist of elements like the organizational form, type of press coverage, and primary technology associated with each genre.

This is a very different way of assessing genres than you see in the work of people like Mike Hannan, Greta Hsu, and colleagues.* Part of what I struggled with in the initial chapter of her book was trying to identify an intellectual predecessor for her approach.   And then it hit me. Lena is following in the footsteps of the great Georg Simmel. She’s a Simmelian at heart. Like Simmel, Lena is trying to get beyond the content of a form and instead trying to identify the basic structural elements that are stable in its various manifestations. This was Simmel’s strategy for studying just about anything. Lena, although not explicitly calling herself a Simmelian, uses the same strategy in her initial inductive identification of different genre form.

By doing this, Lena then gives us a framework that we can then use to compare the history and trajectories of musical genres. My favorite chapter of the book (chapter 3) does exactly this. She shows that most music genres follow a AgSIT trajectory (avant-garde to scene-based to industry-based to traditionalist), but a significant number of other genres follow an IST trajectory (industry to scene-based to traditionalist). This cumulative development leads to particular differences in the way the genre is received and the kinds of communities that end up embracing the genre.

Once I realized that her work is really in the spirit of Simmel (and less in the social constructionist tradition), I developed a new appreciation for her work. It’s not that she ignores the content or context of music classification; rather, by identifying the fundamental forms around which music is organized, you get a better comparative intuition to explain the history of genre development. As she says in her final chapter, most studies of music genres glorify the “charismatic leaders and serendipitous events” that gave rise to a musical style. Lena’s book returns our focus to the process of how that happens. She shows that a basic structure of organization underlies the legitimation of any new genre. Charismatic leaders are as much the products of  a  particular trajectory as they are the instigators. As a social movement scholar, I found this reasoning very persuasive. After all, this is the basic line of attack that resource mobilization scholars took when criticizing historical approaches to studying movements. Of course leaders matter, but their success (or  even their creation) is the result of certain structural forms being in place.  Lena’s work follows a similar logic.

*In chapter 5, Lena makes connections to this literature and bridges her perspective on genre forms with a more general theory of classification systems.

Written by brayden king

March 28, 2012 at 11:06 pm

Posted in books, brayden, culture

6 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Canada is all out of Jenn Lena. I am going to Buffalo this weekend, and I am getting this gosh-darned book.



    March 29, 2012 at 10:54 am

  2. looks good. I’ll pick up a copy. You’d probably enjoy this movie



    March 30, 2012 at 11:21 am

  3. It is an astute observation–the influence of Simmel on my work. One of the hints is that I call them genre “forms.” But I’m not the kind of person who in process or product likes to be tethered to a single other thinker, which is why you won’t find a literature review on Simmel in the book. It is also why I balk at the idea that I’m a “follower” of this or that.

    As more folks work their way through the book, I’d be interested to hear their reactions to this approach. One of the important pivots in the first chapter is the redefinition of “genre” from something musicological (e.g., jazz, blues) to something sociological (having to do with community attributes and resources). [I call the first “musical styles” because there is some minimal agreement among group members as to the “what” they are doing.]

    One potential payoff of my re-definition of this terrain is that it reveals the structure of tastes/preferences is likely for particular community structures and (no longer?) not for styles. That is, my instinct is that people like to be a fan/performer in local music scenes, or pop music, or in nostalgia-driven clubs and associations…and they’re willing to do so whether the musicians would classify the sounds as “jazz” or “jazz rock” or “blues,” etc.


    Jenn Lena

    April 1, 2012 at 1:37 pm

  4. As you might know, the term genre is also used in a more wide sense for the typification of communicative forms. The term has earlier on been used and been established by Luckmann et. al for institutions of communication.


    Wanda Orlikowski has also taken up the concept, and there has been a project in Berlin about PowerPoint as a genre (book to be published soon at Cambridge U.P)

    for Genre Analysis in the older definition see here:



    April 2, 2012 at 10:38 am

  5. As a sociologist and active music scene member, thanks for writing about this. This is now certainly on my must read list to understand the organizational elements of music scenes.



    April 5, 2012 at 11:35 am

  6. […] discussion of Banding Together: Part 1, Bill Roy’s comments, Brayden’s […]


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: