‘Major Labels’ Wraps Popular Music — All of It — in a Warm Embrace

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Books of The Times

Oct. 4, 2021, 2:18 p.m. ET
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It’s rare for a book of poetry in America to get a negative review. It’s always been so. The field is so small, the stakes so apparently low, that pricking any but the most inflated reputation can seem, as the phrase goes, like breaking a butterfly on a wheel.

If you’d predicted three or four decades ago that negative reviews of pop albums would become rare, however, no one would have believed you. This is an arena in which everyone has fierce opinions. Greil Marcus once asked in the first sentence of a review — of Bob Dylan’s 1970 album “Self Portrait” — “What is this [expletive]?”

Reviews like that one are essentially extinct. This wasting disease has a name, “poptimism” — the belief that if people like it, it must be good. Critics fear the wrong side of history; on social media, they fear the wrong side of fans rigged out with emojis.

In his new book, “Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres,” Kelefa Sanneh, a New Yorker staff writer, addresses the modern critical need to follow consensus. He too has learned to speak more softly, he admits, “mainly nurturing my own critical grudges and aversions in private, while exhibiting my enthusiasm in public.”

“Major Labels” isn’t a sharp-prowed vessel that’s going to help break poptimism’s icy grip. It’s ecumenical and all-embracing. The good news is that Sanneh, a former pop music critic at The New York Times, has a subtle and flexible style, and great powers of distillation. He’s a reliable guide to music’s foothills, as well as its mountains.

The bad news is that this book about genre is — pun intended, I suppose — sometimes generic. It’s closer to a textbook, a Ken Burns-style history lesson, than a series of well-aimed arguments.

Sanneh sorts popular music into seven categories: rock, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance and pop. Each gets a chapter. He knows that we know that he knows that these categories are something of a packaging conceit. Musicians hate labels and, some of the time, so does the author.

Sanneh was born in England and was raised in Gambia, Scotland and New Haven, among other places. His parents both taught at Yale. “Major Labels” is full of good biographical details. When Sanneh was a student at Harvard, for example, he had to take a semester-long class in the history of punk music, after passing an exam, before he was allowed to play punk as a DJ on the college’s radio station.

That’s so un-punk that it almost crosses back over into punk.

Let’s take his genres in order. Rock, Sanneh writes, “seems to have become repertory music, a new great American songbook for Americans who don’t much care for the old great American songbook.” He’s as surprised as anyone that “rock ‘n’ roll never really found rock stars to replace the original bunch.”

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His chapter on R&B is a highlight. He zeros in on how Billboard magazine has tried to track this music, under shifting charts for “Race Records” or “Soul Singles” or “Black Singles” or “Disco Action.” He notes the way America’s listening habits are often segregated by race, and occasionally more universal: The great Motown hits, like “My Girl,” he writes, “seem to pre-exist musical taste itself.”

Sanneh has long been an essential writer about country music. (His 2004 review in The Times of Julie Roberts’s self-titled first album led me to buy it, and it’s still a favorite.)

He likes nearly all of it, even the so-called “bro country,” saving his scorn only for alt-country and Americana, which he too often finds “precious.” He argues — and he convinced me — that the Dixie Chicks became less interesting, not more so, when they stopped worrying about “pleasing country fans.”

About the racial politics of country, he writes: “The idea of a predominantly white genre can sound offensive; all-white places in America have historically been restricted places, segregated places. But no genre truly appeals to everyone. Perhaps country music is merely more honest than rock ‘n’ roll about the identity of its audience. Certainly the whiteness of country music has never seemed like a barrier to me.”

In the punk chapter he praises the music’s spirit of sabotage, and rehashes his own punk phase. About hip-hop, he writes, “It may be the quintessential American art form, the country’s greatest cultural contribution to the world.” He worries about sexism in the genre, but the more progressive hip-hop mostly leaves him cold.

About hip-hop artists’ fondness for uttering their own names, he writes, more than winningly, “Calling out your own name can be a way of boasting, but it can also be a courtly gesture, a way of checking in with listeners and putting them at ease, the way any good host would.”

He follows dance music from disco to electronica and EDM. House tracks tend to go “Oontz, oontz, oontz, oontz,” he writes, helpfully, while techno tracks go “Doong-tsika, doong-tsika, doong-tsika, doong-tsika.” He adds, “the placement of a kick drum can help determine who comes to your parties.”

His final chapter, on pop, lets him tangle with notions of authenticity, to consider whether a gravelly-voiced singer in overalls is any more authentic than a multilayered dance track, as shiny as the crust on a loaf of challah. His answer, most of the time, is of course not.

I am, alas, one of those listeners who is too often taken in by a shredded voice. The best thing about Sanneh may be that he subtly makes you question your beliefs. You end up looking both ways, worried you will end up like that character in Deborah Levy’s novel “The Man Who Saw Everything” (2019) who steps onto the zebra crossing on London’s Abbey Road and is hit by a car.

“I am drawn to music that starts fights,” Sanneh writes. If I wish this book started a few more of them, well, it has other things on its mind.

Sanneh did make me laugh when he delivered this Sartre-like comment, on this book’s penultimate page: “When we complain about music, what we are really complaining about is other people.”

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