When Nik Cohn wrote Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock in 1969, he only had 15 years of the rock’n’roll era to process. Five decades later, telling the story so far is such a daunting prospect that, while writing Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres, New Yorker staff writer Kelefa Sanneh’s trick was denial.
“I figured if I thought too much about the span of it, I would go insane,” he says cheerfully. “The idea of sitting down to write the history of music is horrifying. It feels more fun if I’m telling seven overlapping stories.”
Sanneh’s hospitable prose makes understanding this labyrinthine history feel like an adventure. Calling from New York, he has an infectious, gangly ebullience. Though he hasn’t been a full-time music critic since 2008 (“it’s helpful to not be drinking from the firehose”), he retains an unquenchable curiosity, closing our conversation by asking me to recommend some new songs.
You would never guess that Sanneh was a teenage punk-rock purist, full of righteous disdain for sellouts. These days, he is an observer of conflict rather than a participant. For the New Yorker, he has profiled divisive characters such as the Fox News host Tucker Carlson and renegade Democrat Tulsi Gabbard and covered boxing and cage-fighting. Even his music writing veers towards artists who are polarising or scandalous.
“Part of me enjoys disputatious people,” he says. “In music, that disagreement is linked to the power of music to shape identity. There are these little tribes who say: ‘We like this over here and they like that over there.’ My fundamental interest is how these communities form and morph and what the rules are.”
Major Labels is therefore not so much music criticism as anthropology, scrutinising the dynamics of belonging and exclusion. “The curious part of me – and in some ways the immigrant part of me – is always saying, well, what are those people over there listening to? What’s happening outside the bubble I live in?”
Sanneh was born in Birmingham, England, in 1976 to a white South African mother and Gambian father, both academics, who named him after two famous kora compositions. He lived in Ghana and Scotland before settling in the US at the age of five. He studied literature at Harvard, where he promoted shows, played bass in bands and DJd on college radio. He attributes his six-year ideological commitment to punk rock to its alien quality: it wasn’t aimed at him but it spoke to him. “Part of the excitement is based on difference,” he says. Nevertheless, it ended when he rediscovered hip-hop and the charm of unapologetic ambition.
The fundamental question driving Major Labels is why genre tags, concocted by record labels and radio stations and regarded with suspicion by musicians, have had such enduring traction with listeners. “It’s not untrue that these genres are a kind of record company plot to sell us music,” Sanneh says, “but there’s a reason why this conspiracy has been so successful: they were recognising real communities and finding ways to serve them. There’s a sense of the industry trying to keep up with a thing that is actually happening and that they’re not really in control of. Often, when they succeed, they’re as surprised as anyone. ‘Oh, that sold five million copies? We’ll give you more of that I guess.’”
He is more interested in listeners than he is in artists or gatekeepers. “Whatever those people want to hear is the most meaningful definition of a genre. So long as that audience exists, the genre exists.”
Artists, meanwhile, can feel a paradoxical craving for both freedom and belonging, to break the restraints of a genre but not to the extent that they’re exiled from it. Even if, Sannah says, an artist has “limitless desire for limitless success, people still like to be part of a community and a community needs boundaries.”
The more a genre evolves and sprawls, the harder it is to define its essence. Disappointingly for anyone who cherishes border-crossing artists such as Sly Stone, Prince and the Specials, Sanneh shows that these distinctions usually come down to race: country and rock are deemed to be whatever white people like, while hip-hop and R&B are whatever Black people enjoy. Two years ago, there was furious debate about Billboard’s decision to remove Lil Nas X’s country-trap smash from its country chart because it lacked “enough elements of today’s country music in its current version”. Lil Nas X responded: “A black guy who raps comes along, and he’s on top of the country chart, it’s like, ‘What the fuck?’”
“Our music charts are still kind of segregated because our country is still kind of segregated,” Sanneh says. “There are upsides and downsides to this. In America, Black people are 12% of the population so if every genre was diverse in a way that reflected the population of the country, Black people would be a small minority of listeners in every genre. It’s easy to say that country music should be diversified but it’s harder when you look at R&B.”
Sanneh is adept at disrupting simple binaries; his typical argument is a supple chain of “but…”. He says: “It’s important to me not to reduce any music story to good guys and bad guys.” On the hot topic of cultural appropriation, the man for whom Paul Simon’s Graceland was a unifying family soundtrack questions what we mean by ownership of culture. “Once you start thinking about cultural appropriation in music, it’s hard to think where you would stop. Even if you grow up in hip-hop, there’s going to be stuff you hear later that is not part of your childhood. When Notorious BIG released Big Poppa he was borrowing from the sound of west coast hip-hop. Broadly defined, cultural appropriation is absolutely everywhere.”
Sanneh’s resistance to simplistic political readings is epitomised by his nuanced account of the backlash to the notorious 1979 “Disco Sucks!” campaign. “I think there is a danger of forgetting that when people are doing a disco backlash in the late 70s, they are not primarily thinking of [black gay artists] Sylvester and Carl Bean, they’re thinking of John Travolta and the Bee Gees. Many black disco producers involved with it were sick of that stuff, too. That backlash was musically really productive. The sound of 80s pop is partly a way of saying, ‘Yeah, we got the message, you guys are sick of this. We’re going to do something that doesn’t sound like 70s disco.’ So that reactionary feeling can be a great progressive force in music.”
As a pop critic for the New York Times, his journalistic equivalent of a Top 10 hit was his 2004 essay The Rap Against Rockism, which unpacked the clash of values between rockism (authenticity, durability, earnestness) and poptimism (artifice, ephemerality, fun). He suggested that the poptimists needed not just to diversify the pantheon but to establish different criteria for valuing music. Seventeen years later, when Beyoncé is as deified as Dylan, are we all rockists at heart?
“There is some teenage part of our brain that wants to believe that the music we like is objectively good,” he agrees. “Most listeners and musicians who loved pop music didn’t really share these [poptimist] values. They were like, ‘What are you talking about? This isn’t ephemeral. This is great music!’ It turns out to be really hard to get away from that model of musical greatness.”
Major Labels opens with the turn-of-the-70s anxiety (reflected in Cohn’s subtitle) that rock music had lost its way: a recurring conviction that later galvanised punk and grunge. Sanneh shows that all genres go through cycles of crossover success, existential anxiety and reformation, and part of that process is a declinist feeling that music has run out of ideas and purpose.
“It gets more common as genres get older,” he says. “My belief is that any era is a golden age for something.” He cites the booming health of drill and Latin trap. “For me,” he continues, “the scary prospect isn’t that music slows down but that it becomes something like theatre, which doesn’t have that identity-forming power. Maybe the speed with which we can hear music could slow things down because everyone has access to the same influences. Insularity can actually be a force for progress.”
Having made the journey from narrow-minded puritan to open-armed ecumenical, Sanneh is intrigued by music criticism’s latest pendulum swing. Critics are less unforgivingly partisan about music yet much more prescriptive about an artist’s moral and political values. Punk, he says, “taught me a lifelong lesson in the power of being in a community and feeling like the musicians you love share your values but it leaves out a lot of stuff by definition. It’s always great to ask what are we ignoring? Some of that is going to be stuff that doesn’t fit with the political moment. Great music can come out of ugly feelings, too.”
I did wonder, while reading Sanneh’s empathetic, even-handed book, whether he was still capable of hating any music. He laughs. “I definitely hear things and think ‘ugh’, but often my second reaction is: I wonder if this will grow on me?” Fortunately, he says, he is not typical. “That adolescent fuck-you spirit doesn’t go away. It’s there for a new group of listeners and musicians to say, ‘Wait a second, no! We hate all this stuff!’ I’m always interested in whoever’s doing that.”