360°Sound caught up with Kelefa Sanneh, author of the fascinating new book Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres (out now on Penguin Press). Sanneh draws on both personal experiences and extensive research in demonstrating the ways in which popular music unites and divides us. The genres detailed in the 496-page book are rock, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance, and pop.
Sanneh has been a staff writer for the New Yorker since 2008. The Harvard grad was formerly a pop music critic for The New York Times. Sanneh’s writing has appeared in several books, including Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°Sound: Your book may look dense and comprehensive. However, I found it to be accessible. To people who look at your book and say, ‘Whoa, that looks heavy,’ what do you say?
Kelefa Sanneh: Part of the reason I wanted to write a book about genres was because I wanted to make sure that this history felt like a story. One of the nice things about genres is you’re not saying like, ‘In this year, all these records came out.’ If you’re talking about country music, there is a real sense in which country singers are always thinking about the people who came before them and, in some ways, anticipating the people who came after them. In that way, hopefully, it does feel like a narrative
Genres really are communities so you can watch the communities evolve over the years. Hopefully, that’s fun for people even if they’re not interested in the music. I’ve always tried to find ways to write about music where it’s interesting for people who are not interested in the music and are never going to hear it. You don’t have to enjoy death metal to enjoy a couple pages on why this thing exists and why people love it and why its appeal is a little different from what you might think.
There is this idea that genres are the problem. ‘Well, there’s all these R&B singers and then there’s a singer who transcends R&B and achieves true greatness.’ The idea that if you work within a genre, you’re a hack. I wanted to do something counterintuitive and say, ‘Actually, genres are really cool, fun, and they are a driver of musical excellence and diversity.’
Hopefully, if you read this book, there are things on every page that are a little bit provocative and will hopefully encourage you to see something in a slightly different way. To write a book where I spend more time writing about Grand Funk Railroad than Prince is obviously an odd choice, and I wanted to make sure there were enough odd choices to keep it fun and send people down Spotify rabbit holes.
In the rock chapter, you write that from early on, rock ‘n roll has been about revival and celebrating the good old days. Why do you think that revivalist phenomenon has been so strong in rock?
It’s probably not a coincidence that you see that revivalist, self-celebratory spirit and self-consciousness in the ‘70s, which is also the decade where rock ‘n roll comes to be perceived as ‘white music.’ Obviously, historically, that’s not the case. Even in the ‘60s, there was this idea that maybe rock ‘n roll was universal, or maybe it was something that young white listeners and Black listeners had in common.
By the time you get to the ‘70s, you have this mythology of rock ‘n roll being like ‘white guys with guitars.’ It’s possible that the self-consciousness is related to that. Like, ‘I’m not Sister Rosetta Tharpe or Ike Turner, and I’m somehow aware of that and I don’t know what to do with that.’ The self-consciousness might have been related to the changing perception of who makes the music.
I write briefly in the book about “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones. It’s this enormously provocative song about sex on a slave plantation. But, depending on how you listen to it, it’s also maybe an allegory of the band. This idea of these white guys from England and their blood runs hot when they hear this Black music. With all of the suggestion of exploitation, it’s fucked up as an allegory just as it’s fucked up as a song. But again, maybe that’s linked to that self-consciousness, which comes from this idea that the way the music used to be and the people who used to make the music are a little different from the people who are making the music now.
You draw parallels between country and R&B. You write that many country and R&B artists want to be authentic and please their fan base, but a lot of them crave mainstream success.
There’s an idea of authenticity in both of those genres that’s linked to audience. There’s an idea that authenticity could mean following your own muse and making music that really reflects who you are in some sense. There’s also the idea that authenticity could mean reflecting who your audience is and making music that pleases your audience.
Both R&B and country are genres where, traditionally, singers paid close attention to the charts. Aretha Franklin, who you think of being much too great a singer to care about pop charts., was always interested in who was No. 1 on the R&B charts. That’s because of this idea that success on the R&B chart reflected the idea that your music was resonating within your own community.
The same is true for country singers, who can recite chart statistics the same way athletes can recite their stats. When you have a genre that’s defined by an audience then part of what it can mean to be successful and authentic is to please that audience. These are your people, and your job is to make songs that they hear themselves reflected in.
It gets complicated because those genres are often both perceived in racialized terms. R&B is perceived as Black music. Country has long been perceived as white music. That has also complicated the sense of identity. Who are you making music for? Who are you reflecting? As in community, there’s going to be a logic of inclusion and exclusion.
“Southern Voice” by Tim McGraw is about having an expansive Southern identity, and it’s going to include Hank Williams and Hank Aaron. But even that suggests some amount of inclusion and exclusion. Everyone from the South is included in what I’m doing, but that suggests if you’re not from the South then maybe you’re not as country as some other people.
Part of the reason I wrote those chapters back-to-back is to get people to think about race. If we’re celebrating R&B as Black music, how are we then thinking about country music? And conversely, if there is a move now to make country music more racially diverse, does that mean we should make other genres to be more racially diverse? There is this tricky mathematical question which is if you have musical genres that disproportionally draw Black listeners, doesn’t that mean that other genres are going to be disproportionally non-Black?
When you were 14, a friend gave you a punk mixtape, and for years, punk was all you listened to. How did you come to appreciate other genres?
To me, punk was the start of thinking about music criticism because liking punk meant, to me, being critical. It meant disliking everything else. Part of the revelation about punk for me was, ‘Oh, you can have opinions about music. You can hate music.’ That idea that music wasn’t just something that was out there, and you just tuned in the way everyone else did, but you could like, make up your own mind about it. That was really exciting to me.
Punk is in some sense a relative term. If punk means music that’s radical or hard to listen to or challenging, then the answer is, well, compared to what? Punk rock has its own rules as every genre does. After years of listening to punk, I started to think, well, what could break the rules of punk? Is there something that can be more punk than punk? Are there other ways in which music can be radical?
I got obsessed with some dance music in the ‘90s. I got interested in drum ‘n bass and house and techno. Those forms of dance music, which were in their own ways very radical, which also might not have followed the rules of punk. I got back into hip-hop. With Run-DMC, it’s just like a drum machine with two guys shouting at you in 1984. That wasn’t the way music was supposed to be made. That was, in a lot of ways, more radical than the Ramones who were just sort of a rock band.
Once I was interested in hip-hop and realized that the fun, exciting hip-hop wasn’t underground but mainstream. That led me to rethink some of the assumptions that punk makes about the world – that the underground is good and mainstream is bad. Once I was obsessed with the Wu-Tang Clan, that taught me to love ambition. There’s something really exciting about a group of musicians taking over the world.
There’s the notion that we’re moving toward a musical landscape without genres. A lot of the popular music today (e.g., Lil Nas X and Post Malone) is more genre-blending. It can be harder to classify certain artists.
One of the biggest surprises in doing research for this book was that idea that genres are maybe kind of fading away, that the lines between genres are getting a little blurry, and that everything is crossing over. That’s actually not new. That’s something that has happened again and again in the history of popular music.
[In the late ‘70s] the whole world was going disco and suddenly the Rolling Stones and Diana Ross and the Bee Gees and Star Wars and Donna Summer is going disco. That’s another moment when it felt like those genre boundaries were blurring. And, of course, what happened after that was this fierce, angry backlash of people saying, ‘I don’t want to be like all those other people. That stuff is not cool.’ This current moment of Spotify pop may be setting the stage for the next backlash.
That said, it is true the old ideas about genre are coming under stress. The old ideas which were propagated by radio stations – ‘your home for country music’ – and you could declare your allegiance to terrestrial radio station, and they were dedicated to a genre, and that’s what kind of listener you were.
If you see musical genres as communities, which is what I think they really are, communities of listeners and musicians, that’s what gives them their power. You can be a metalhead. You can listen to R&B. You can go to a show and be with your people. If you think of a genre as a musical community, you realize that as long as we care about music we’re never going to move past community because we’re human.
That’s part of the reason why listening to music is so much fun. I don’t think we’ll ever have a world where we don’t have communities of musicians and listeners because that’s one of the joys that music provides – the sense that you’re having an intimate music experience even at the same time music is totally public. I think people want a sense of connection.