Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres is not a complete history of American music, and it certainly should not be read as such. Rather, Kelefa Sanneh’s 2021 release should be consumed as a charcuterie plate of history, personal experience, legal battles, racial unrest, and industry insights through a musical lens.
Even though the book is nearly 500 pages, it seems Sanneh bit more than anyone can chew with the title. How can you fit the good, the bad, and the ugly of seven American musical genres spanning 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 used to listen to when Sanneh was a child. While this music spoke to her father because she was connected to her West African homeland, Sanneh could not feel the same connection to her. 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.
This is where Sanneh takes us into the heart of the book. The music is personal and often tribal. We come together around different types of music for different reasons; whether it reminds us of our hometown, speaks about our political views, or be the backdrop for our favorite club to visit on Saturday night. It’s important to have names for the different types of music and the communities that feel comfortable with it. 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 in a pre-designated box. But, after reading this book, I’m more inclined to accept that genres are necessary to market music and help audiences find what they like. Their nature is constantly changing and new subgenres are constantly being created, which makes them much less restrictive than they seem at first glance.
The conversation about subgenres in the book is constant. Under each of the seven major genres covered by Sanneh in this book, he also discusses the various sub-genres that are derived from them.
Subgenres are a way of recognizing the intricacies that exist within each genre and have become extremely useful when we talk about the culture that exists around music. Sanneh writes about how R&B began to be used between the 1940s and 1960s to describe rhythmic music traditionally made by black musicians for black audiences that is sonically adjacent to pop.
Disco, on the other hand, goes one step further and describes both a sound and an era of dance music popular in nightclubs. Music isn’t a perfect science, and genres help tell the story of our musical history, and by proxy, America’s history as well.
While the conversation about musical genre in the book is thoughtful, and I’m sure Sanneh would agree, a lot had to be left out of this book to make it digestible. As a white musician, it was a very easy read, and I’m not sure it should have been. This is what came to me most clearly in the chapter on country music.
Let’s talk about country music for a minute
Country music, according to popular stereotypes, is traditionally about the experience of a rural, white person, although it has drawn many sonic traits from traditionally black styles like jazz and blues. Despite this, black musicians have not been embraced in the genre by labels, trendsetters, and radio stations in the same way as white musicians. Those who have been historically accepted do not experience the same success.
For example, Sanneh mentions the release of Ray Charles’ country albums in 1962 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 string of … single country hits, becoming by far the most successful black performer in the genre’s history.” But Sanneh doesn’t mention that Pride is just one of three black members of the Grand Ole Opry. This makes country music primarily a white space where assaults on black artists often go unnoticed, or when corrected, easily forgiven. We saw this in action recently as country star Morgan Wallen was invited back to the Grand Ole Opry just a year after being caught on camera using a racial slur.
Although Sanneh does not gloss over this story and in many cases mentions it explicitly, it is easy to overlook the pain caused to marginalized communities due to the fast-paced nature of this book. This is not a review, but 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 . Rather, it should be read as an introduction to them.
Overall, this book was a fantastic read for readers interested in or immersed in the music industry. Sanneh’s vocals are warm and flow seamlessly through the decades, inserting 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 control and that “loving punk meant being non-traditional, a slippery, seductive identity that was often more appealing than the music itself”. Although not a short read, Sanneh’s fast pace keeps the avid music reader engaged. This book is a wonderfully rewarding read, and I encourage all of my fellow music readers to dig in.