Kalefa Sanneh is the perfect critic to write Major labels: a history of popular music in seven genres. Knowing many aspects of music and cultures that give it context and meaning, Sanneh transcended his subcultural passions without losing his enthusiasm for the influences that shaped him. He is not a polemical critic insisting on “a way of rocking” (to quote an 80s tune) or a gold standard by which all music is measured. For Sanneh, if music exists, it deserves reflection, analysis and fair play.
Large labels’ the subtitle defines the objective and methodology of Sanneh: A history of popular music in seven genres: rock, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance, pop. A story indicates the author’s postmodern modesty. it highlights a (not the) account, organized according to the “names we give to communities of musicians and listeners”. Genres have porous boundaries and contested definitions, but our thoughts stumble without the aid of categories and Sanneh’s categories make sense.
Sanneh is the son of Gambian and South African immigrants and a child of the 80s. He was drawn to the crass tribalism of punk, but was also driven by the popularity of hip-hop throughout his years of school. As his interests broaden, he realizes that music can bring us together but also separate us. This revelation seems to underpin his thoughtful analysis. Sanneh loves all seven genres and lends an honest ear to every example cited, whether popular or obscure. On vexed subjects like the blatant sexism of certain hip-hop acts, he can argue the case from three sides.
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As a historian, Sanneh does a remarkable job summarizing popular music of the past 50 years, sketching out the deepest roots. He is particularly adept at unraveling the attitudes behind musicians and their fans. Where rock stars were reluctant to “sell”, rappers pointedly bought and sold and the ’80s Britpop wave (Culture Club, Depeche Mode) “wanted to be mainstream pop stars, loved by everyone.” He identifies the tendency of R&B to become “pop” in sound but to remain largely black in audiences, while hip-hop attracts all comers despite its decidedly black position. Beginning with punk, most uprisings in popular music started out as counterinsurgencies (often encountered on the road by the next counter-counterinsurgent brigade). “Non-conformist” idioms quickly impose their own conformism.
Main labels is fun to read and informative. For fans of any of Sanneh’s seven genres, his insight may bring back memories or uncover unexpected connections. As for the genres you never liked, Main labels offers an understanding, a track record of important artists and trends you may have missed. Main labels is essential reading for anyone seriously interested in popular music and pop culture.