Why do we genre music?
Music is personal and often, tribal. We gather around different types of music for various reasons; whether it reminds us of our hometown, it speaks to our political views, or it is the backdrop of our favorite club to visit on Saturday nights.
Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres is not a comprehensive history of American music, and it certainly shouldn’t be read like one. Rather, Kelefa Sanneh’s 2021 release should be consumed like a charcuterie plate of history, personal experience, legal battles, racial turmoil, and industry insight all through a musical lens.
Even though the book is nearly 500 pages long, it seems like Sanneh has bitten off more than anyone can chew with the title. How can you fit the good, the bad, and the ugly of seven American music genres over 50 years into one book? You can’t, and Sanneh acknowledges this in his introduction.
Major Labels begins with Sanneh recounting the kora music his father listened to when Sanneh was a child. While this music spoke to his father because it was tied to his homeland of West Africa, Sanneh couldn’t feel the same connection to it. Instead, he embarked on his own journey to discover the genres he felt at home in. These would turn out to be hip-hop and eventually, punk.
It’s here that Sanneh lets us into the crux of the book. Music is personal and often, tribal. We gather around different types of music for various reasons; whether it reminds us of our hometown, it speaks to our political views, or it is the backdrop of our favorite club to visit on Saturday nights. It’s important to have names for different types of music, and the communities that feel at home in them. We call these “genres.”
Rock, R&B, Country, Punk, Hip-Hop, Dance, and Pop
As a musician myself, I’ve always been wary of genres. There’s something stressful about categorizing a sound I’ve spent years cultivating into a pre-designated box. But, after reading this book, I’m more willing to accept that genres are necessary for marketing music and helping audiences find things they like. The nature of them is ever-changing, and new subgenres are always being created, which makes them a lot less limiting than they might appear at first.
The conversation about subgenres in the book is constant. Underneath each of the big seven genres Sanneh covers in this book, he also touches on the various subgenres that have sprung from them.
Subgenres are a way of acknowledging the subtleties that exist within each genre and have become hugely useful as we talk about the culture that exists around music. Sanneh writes about how R&B started being used between the 1940’s and 60’s to describe rhythmically-driven music traditionally made by Black musicians for Black audiences that is sonically adjacent to pop.
Disco, on the other hand, goes a little further and describes both a sound and an era of danceable music popular in nightclubs. Music isn’t a perfect science, and genres do help tell the story of our musical history, and by proxy, America’s history as well.
While the conversation about genreing music in the book is thoughtful, and I’m sure Sanneh would agree, a lot had to be left out of this book in order to make it digestible. As a white, female musician, this was a very easy read, and I’m not sure it should have been. This was most apparent to me in the chapter on country music.
Let’s talk about country music for a minute
Country music, by popular stereotypes, traditionally speaks to a rural, white person’s experience even though it has pulled many sonic traits from traditionally Black styles like jazz and blues. Despite this, Black musicians haven't been embraced by the genre by labels, tastemakers, and radio stations in the same way that white musicians are. Those that have historically been accepted do not see the same success.
For example, Sanneh mentions the release of Ray Charles’ 1962 country albums succeeding “in just about every way except one: country radio stations ignored them.” Sanneh also only briefly mentions Charley Pride, who had “a decades-long run of… straightforward country hits, becoming by far the most successful Black performer in the genre’s history.” But Sanneh does not mention that Pride is only one of three Black members of the Grand Ole Opry. This makes country music mainly a white space where aggressions towards Black performers often go unnoticed, or when they are corrected, easily forgiven. We’ve seen this in action recently as country star Morgan Wallen was invited back to the Grand Ole Opry only a year after he was filmed using a racial slur.
While Sanneh doesn't gloss over this history, and in many cases, does mention it explicitly, it’s easy to forget the pain caused to marginalized communities because of the fast-paced nature of this book. This is not a criticism, instead, just something to keep in mind for readers that this book is not representative of the entire history of these seven genres he writes about - Rock, R&B, Country, Punk, Hip-Hop, Dance, and Pop. It should be read instead as an introduction to them.
Overall, this book was a fantastic read for readers who are interested or immersed in the music industry. Sanneh’s voice is warm and threads seamlessly throughout the decades, interjecting personal anecdotes that bring the stories to life.
Specifically, I enjoyed following Sanneh through his journey of falling in love with punk music. He writes that part of his fascination with the scene was the lack of gatekeeping and that “loving punk meant being nonmainstream, a slippery and seductive identity that was often more appealing than the music itself.” While not a short read, Sanneh’s fast pacing does keep the music-minded reader engaged. This book is a wonderfully filling read, and I encourage all of my fellow music readers to dig in.