One of Oprah Daily's 20 Favorite Books of 2021 • Selected as one of Pitchfork's Best Music Books of the Year
“One of the best books of its kind in decades.” —The Wall Street Journal
An epic achievement and a huge delight, the entire history of popular music over the past fifty years refracted through the big genres that have defined and dominated it: rock, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance music, and pop
Kelefa Sanneh, one of the essential voices of our time on music and culture, has made a deep study of how popular music unites and divides us, charting the way genres become communities. In Major Labels, Sanneh distills a career’s worth of knowledge about music and musicians into a brilliant and omnivorous reckoning with popular music—as an art form (actually, a bunch of art forms), as a cultural and economic force, and as a tool that we use to build our identities. He explains the history of slow jams, the genius of Shania Twain, and why rappers are always getting in trouble.
Sanneh shows how these genres have been defined by the tension between mainstream and outsider, between authenticity and phoniness, between good and bad, right and wrong. Throughout, race is a powerful touchstone: just as there have always been Black audiences and white audiences, with more or less overlap depending on the moment, there has been Black music and white music, constantly mixing and separating. Sanneh debunks cherished myths, reappraises beloved heroes, and upends familiar ideas of musical greatness, arguing that sometimes, the best popular music isn’t transcendent. Songs express our grudges as well as our hopes, and they are motivated by greed as well as idealism; music is a powerful tool for human connection, but also for human antagonism. This is a book about the music everyone loves, the music everyone hates, and the decades-long argument over which is which. The opposite of a modest proposal, Major Labels pays in full.
In this thrilling debut, New Yorker writer Sanneh surveys the past 50 years of popular music through the dominant genres that shaped it: rock, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance music, and pop. Though many musicians "hate being labeled," Sanneh argues, the "persistence of genres" has determined the trajectory of popular music: "You can't really rebel against a genre unless you feel part of it, too," he writes. From Carole King and Iggy Pop to Public Enemy and Donna Summer, Sanneh analyzes how each artist's music changed and endured in tandem with the genres that defined them Summer, for instance, "helped bring electronic sounds into the musical mainstream." Tracing the development of country music from a regional to a national genre, he observes how "there have been people lamenting that the older, truer country music is being left behind," and how, ironically, Garth Brooks, "one of the genre's biggest attractions," was influential in a larger cultural "push... toward mainstream pop." Equally fascinating are Sanneh's insights into the way race has shaped music, particularly in the overlapping worlds of R&B and rock 'n' roll. This remarkable achievement will be a joy to music lovers, no matter what they prefer to listen to. Agent: Amanda Urban, ICM Partners.