The Discourse Community of Electronic Dance Music
University of Wollongong (Australia)
The Discourse Community of Electronic Dance Music is a book about how people communicate about electronic dance music online. It is an important contribution to EDMC and online interaction research for two reasons. Firstly, it develops a methodological framework for engaging with how people talk about musical phenomena online, how to evaluate these “discourse communities” and what coheres them. Secondly, the book therefore poses crucial, albeit largely tacit questions to the field of popular music studies broadly, and the field of EDMC research in particular: how do people talk about music and what should researchers do about that, which is to say, what is their method of analysis? How is that method justified and what is scalable or portable about it?
Jóri’s framework is operationalised across three language domains. Respectively, these are structure and meaning (e.g. insider terminology, compensatory strategies such as “likes” and emojis and identity markers such as “I” and “we”); interaction management (e.g. hierarchical dynamics in terms of frequency of contributions and extent of interaction in terms of response rates); and social phenomena (linguistic expressions of friendship and community, tokens of mutual interest etc.). As chapter one elucidates, Jóri’s framework draws on Susan Herring’s canonical work on computer-mediated discourse analysis (2004). She directs this in pursuit of what, following John Swales, she calls “discourse communities”, a heuristic analogous to “virtual scenes” (38-9), intended to capture the interpersonal networks and exchanges occurring at the research sites. These sites are: the web forums We are the Music Makers and Gearspace (devoted to Aphex Twin and music production technology respectively); the Facebook groups TB-303 Owners Club and ITALO DISCO MANIACS; the “classic” websites, Vintage Synth Explorer and Resident Advisor; and the blogs Matrixsynth, female:pressure Tumblr and Little White Earbuds.
The second chapter contains a thorough discussion of discourse-related research methods, including corpus-based and multimodal discourse analyses and cognate approaches. Linguistic anthropology does not get a mention, although conversation analysis and membership categorization analysis—two closely linked sociological approaches—are both discussed and incorporated. The book also draws on research on youth culture, popular music and EDMC in English, German and Hungarian, and is thus valuable as an interdisciplinary (and even intercultural) dialogue and a gateway to further research. Although some of the discourse and method material can be technical—and here an index would have been helpful—Jóri does not presuppose technical knowledge on the reader’s part, and most technical matters are explained in accessible prose. One consequential term that is not defined at the point of its introduction though is “genre”. First appearing in the literature review, and germane to the discussion of “community” as a discursive phenomenon, “genre” can be confusing to those unfamiliar with its application in linguistics (perhaps especially for readers anticipating the musical use of that term). Genre is formulated here as an event e.g., a news report, or a presidential press conference (75).
Another term, upon which the project is predicated, is “community” (71-73). The book raises important questions about what an online social group is and how to measure it through its language use, not all of which it sets out to address. The term “community” is not problematised. This isn’t necessarily a shortcoming: “community” sometimes functions as a sort of placeholder, indexing empirically observable phenomena. The book is agnostic on the content of “community” or what it might entail politically (with the important caveat that Jóri is direct about the gendered language use in her data, and about the broader exclusionary patterns in EDMC). But Jóri still has to develop tools to assess the extent and content, as it were, of group cohesion. One way of doing this is by reference to the use of “we” as an indicator of community (119, 125, 137, 147).
The assumptions underlying the idea that “we” would stand in this way are not explicated. One can imagine situations where there is community sentiment, but people do not use “we”, and the converse, where “we” is abused by powerful figures seeking to impose the appearance of consensus. Ultimately (and going by her account of the data, rightly), Jóri determines “we” is of limited efficacy as an indicator and suggests it be abandoned (174). What are the implications of this? Is it telling us something about collective identity, or is it telling us something about communication? If the latter, is it about mediation, or is it about communicative strategy? Jóri does not speculate on these questions, but they help to show how, by engaging so thoroughly with online data, she pushes the parameters of CMDA and similar corpus-oriented approaches as far as they will go.
One important aspect of the book is how it works across different online platforms: forums, blogs and so on, each with distinct affordances. As Jóri acknowledges, there is a relationship between platform design and community structure. For example, some of the limited interaction on the Matrixsynth blog, despite its popularity, may be attributable to the Matrixsynth closed Facebook group (164). “Community”, such as could be discerned by use of “we”, might therefore not map neatly onto a corpus assembled at a single site, because Gertrude Stein’s adage, “there is no there there” (1937: 17), still applies to the internet. Those who are present are always also in at least one other place. This does not undermine the analysis, but it does invite methodological reflection about scope, site and corpus. Any analysis will have self-defined limits. As Jóri shows, the strength of a corpus approach itself requires sensitivity in a context of platform porosity.
The classification scheme Jóri applies provides a picture of the shape of the relationships inside the group and how they are conducted. It can be used to measure the scale, frequency and intensity (the “temperature”) of social interaction. This enables comparative work, but it also means that the local ethnographic flavour comes from (naturally occurring) terminology, rather than multi-turn sequences evidencing how participants negotiate meaning and their respective positions. For example, in the analysis of the italo disco Facebook group, Jóri lists some of the adjectives used to describe italo tracks, including “Bomb, very hot, very sophisticated, Obscure girl of Italo, superfluous, cheap, wonderful, great, hot girl of italo, such a beauty, bumped up, awesome crasher, nice, lovely, extremely rare, beautiful” (154). The lingua franca is presumably English, though Jóri points out that familiarity with the Italian language is regarded positively within the group. The gender politics of these adjectives are evident. Jóri suggests that “bomb” is so gendered, and though we know (from Tom Jones) that there can be a “sexbomb”, I am not sure about this: bomba in Italian seems more along the lines of “sensational”. Local context matters. The same connotation to “bomb” would not extend—to me at least—to say, Rage Against the Machine’s “Bombtrack”, or the Radio Bomb drum ‘n’ bass project, where we might instead say “bomb” signifies fantasies of hypermasculinity. Jóri attributes this gendered use of language to the historical conjuncture in which italo disco rose to prominence, along with the majority male participants in the group.
This book—and the forms of analysis which Jóri conducts so adroitly in it—is most compelling where it touches on much bigger and broader preoccupations in contemporary sociocultural research. The historical backdrop of italo and contemporary language use around it are one example of this; that is, that the milieu in which italo disco emerged continues to influence how italo is described. Another important context, raised several times in the book, is that of nostalgia (131, 152, 156). Articulating local language practices to much broader cultural concerns both validates the methodology and serves to pinpoint the cultural phenomena so identified. This becomes riveting at the points where music appears to shape language use, as when Jóri observes regarding italo disco that
[t]he characteristics of the music genre—expresses romanticism, emotions, affections, and sexuality—highly influenced the characteristics of the discourse … the group’s language use … showed an interesting tendency of ‘emotionally driven’ discourse (161).
We cannot know from the data, and Jóri does not conjecture on what mechanisms might “shift” emotional registers from music to discourse about it. Nonetheless, this discussion of the interplay between language use and music—or the nature of multimodal interaction—is deeply significant, and resonates with a lot of preoccupations in the literature about popular music, and perhaps especially about EDMC given its sometimes tangential orientation to lyrical meaning. Similarly, the perennial questions about method and how to access, or how people report on, musical experiences are cast in fresh light by the work Jóri conducts here. Jóri’s book commands attention because of how it generates these kinds of insights, especially relative to more established music research methods (music criticism, interviews, fieldwork etc.). The Discourse Community of Electronic Dance Music is methodologically rigorous, rich in empirical detail and speaks to much bigger debates in the scholarship on popular music and EDMC.
Herring, Susan C. 2004. “Computer-Mediated Discourse Analysis: An Approach to Researching Online Behavior.” In Designing for virtual communities in the service of learning, ed. Sasha Barab, Rob Kling and James H. Gray, 338–376. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. <https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511805080.016>.
Stein, Gertrude. 1937. Everybody's Autobiography. New York, Random House.