Kelefa Sanneh, “Major Labels” (496 pp., 2021)
I’d like to call New Yorker staff writer Kelefa Sanneh a lapsed rock critic, but he’d prefer music critic in a hefty book that announces itself with the hooky title Major Labels, explains itself with the prosaic subtitle A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres, and nails things down with the blunt chapter headings “Rock,” “R&B,” “Country,” “Punk,” “Hip-Hop,” “Dance Music,” and last but not least “Pop.” Although Sanneh, the 1976-born scion of a Black Gambian Yale religion professor and a white South African Yale language professor, covered the first three genres during an eight-year stint as a New York Times music critic, their chapters all aspire to third-person historical objectivity. The last four are first-person historical, reportorial with memoiristic details that include what I consider Sanneh’s establishing bona fide: having already aced a nuttily prescriptive student-taught “punk” course all prospective DJs at the Harvard radio station were compelled to master, he took a year off from school to work in record retail, a youthful act of musical madness that I say gives him the right to spice his history/narrative/whatever with stories about himself.
If I find Sanneh more compelling as a memoirist than a historian, that is chronologically inevitable. I know the history better than he does because I’ve had 34 more years not just to read up but to listen. Barely two decades after the 1925 invention of electrical recording kicked off what I like to call “pop music” myself, I had memorized my parents’ beloved South Pacific and gotten to know their 78s of Bing Crosby’s “Swinging on a Star” and Fats Waller’s “All That Meat and No Potatoes,” home study that primed me for “Sh-Boom,” “Maybellene,” and “Honky Tonk.” No way did Sanneh have the chance to do anything similar. As time passes, moreover, such artists as—to cite a baker’s dozen Sanneh’s history doesn’t even mention in reverse chronological order—Laurie Anderson, the Gang of Four, Al Green, Captain Beefheart, the Kinks, the Shirelles, Etta James, the Drifters, Lefty Frizzell, Fats Waller, Bing Crosby, Bill Monroe, and, last but also first, Louis Armstrong, who was often called Satchmo but preferred nothing more or less than Pops, recede ever further into the mists of literature. But though it’s pretty strange to stick Bob Marley in with the singer-songwriters because you have no room for pre-dancehall reggae, Sanneh does well enough with a general practice of devoting paragraphs or anyway sentences to many other faded and present kings and queens of pop.
Right, pop again: the crowning metagenre of the first U.S. journalist to, let us say, popularize—among critics, anyway—the anti-“rockist” line that has inflected U.K. music journalism since Dave Rimmer’s 1985 Boy George-hooked tome-lite Like Punk Never Happened. As I’ve recounted too many times, the self-same term has been my intellectual passion since well before I became a rock critic: namely, 1962, when my mind was blown by the upper-cased Pop Art of Andy Warhol and Tom Wesselmann. Between the albums I’ve graded and the polls I’ve overseen plus I’m pushing 80, young people may well assume I’m a “rockist.” But like my fellow oldtimers Greil Marcus and Dave Marsh, neither of whose musical tastes run much like mine anymore, I’ve always celebrated my roots in what was then top 40 radio—pop radio. Due to how my lifework turned out, I pretty much went off radio circa 1978. But I’ve never stopped arguing for what I designate “popular culture” and devised the term “semipopular” not in 1980, as Sanneh reports, but 1970, my exemplars the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Stooges, neither then legendary, both then slotted “rock” profoundly different though they were, though Sanneh relegates the Burritos to his “Country” chapter and the Stooges to “Punk.”
For the “Rock” chapter—which is hefty, at 87 pages a fifth rather than a seventh of the book—Sanneh has something different in mind. It begins with the Stones/Zep-adoring ubergroupie Pamela Des Barres and then devotes three pages to Grand Funk Railroad, the first rock band whose albums achieved major chart success in the teeth of negative reviews. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” skeptic though he is, Sanneh can’t ignore Nirvana and the lesser grunge that followed, but his polemical passion for two thirds of those 87 pages is the hair metal grunge killed off and the post-grunge crap that followed, with special attention to Mötley Crüe, respect aplenty to Guns ‘N Roses, and room for dozens more. Only in the final third does he pay his respects, sincere ones, to what he classifies as “soft rock”: singer-songwriters like Dylan and Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon (for whose late work he expresses a quirky and perceptive enthusiasm), titans like Springsteen and Bowie and Elton John and even the Grateful Dead (Anthem of the Sun, good for him). But in toto this is an anti-“rockist” screed—a way to undermine the self-righteous ‘60s political pretensions anti-rockists can’t stop exaggerating or whining about. Note too that though he’s sharp enough on the Rolling Stones, he has little to say about none other than the Beatles. (Or U2, if you care, which I don’t really but he should.)
And so it goes till it’s time for mini-histories of r&b, country, punk, hip-hop, and dance music, all notably short on the ‘40s, ‘50s, and even ‘60s. Sanneh’s r&b does include Louis Jordan but comes sans doowop or Stax-Volt and avec heaps of Motown and Gamble-Huff before addressing, to name only the biggest, Michael Jackson, Prince, Whitney Houston, R. Kelly (who Sanneh pauses to apologize for not seeing through in 2004), D’Angelo, and Beyoncé. He’s more impressed by Hank Williams’s “outlaw” (??) image and son Jr. than his yearning honky tonk vocals and tersely eloquent songwriting, but expresses a convincing fondness for such country icons as Dolly Parton, George Strait, Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, Toby Keith, Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley, even Kacey Musgraves—all of whom he regards credibly, different though they are, as Middle American white people who’d otherwise be beyond his ken. His teen crush punk barely brushes CBGB on its way to U.K. “anarchy,” hardcore purism, and the sainted Fugazi, then pauses for an atypically abstract and even academic five-page disquisition on riot grrrl and fleshes out that brief leftish foray with reflections on both punk radicals like the Dead Kennedys and pop-punk success stories like Green Day. The hip-hop chapter, as long as the rock one but with better artists, reveals that even as a punk Sanneh was also a rap fan, devotes five pages to The Source (where he interned after graduating from the very university that generated that seminal mag), and pays more mind to hip-hop’s “unapologetic American ambition” and “abiding failure to become respectable” than to its ever-evolving music—I’d hoped he would finally explain how to grok “trap” beats formally, but no.(insert break….)
Which brings us, ka-ching, to the foreordained climax of Sanneh’s not-quite-history and not-quite-argument: “pop,” meaning not the 78s that began gathering economic mass with electrical recording, nor the post-WW2 boom during which Bing Crosby continued his march to 300 hit singles as Frank Sinatra rendered him old hat, nor 1964’s six Beatles #1’s and 19 top 40s, but to Dave Rimmer, Boy George, and their like-punk-never-happened “‘new pop’,” which Sanneh avers “really was rebellious—it rebelled against the idea that hip music should be rebellious.” And he’s prudently described the chart successes of Michael Jackson’s, Prince’s, and eventually Beyoncé’s “r&b” and also hip-hop, where the pop success of hitmakers from OutKast to Bad Bunny get respect, this is clearly where Sanneh wants his not-quite-history and not-quite-argument to come to a climactic halt.
Yet the odd thing is that contemporary pop remains a rather amorphous thing in Major Labels. For some reason Sanneh declines to go into the marginalization-verging-on-disappearance of both the guitar and the drum kit from charting singles. Nor does he mention the multi-composed, emailed-in, pieced-together track-and-hook songwriting to which his New Yorker colleague John Seabrook devoted the much better book The Song Machine in 2015. (Add to the dozen unmentioneds above quintessential postmodern producer-songwriter Max Martin.) Moreover, Sanneh has almost nothing specific to say about two musical factors that (along with hooks, never forget hooks) have been the selling points and aesthetic boons of pop music for the century it’s been around: rhythm and voice. James Brown’s many mentions include not one that even hints how structurally crucial his rhythmic ideas have been to the last half century of music. And if there’s a single evocative vocal description in the entire book, Sanneh’s failure to make a pass at such niggling details with the world-class vocalists Hank Williams, George Jones, Aretha Franklin, and “one of the great R&B singers of all time” Beyoncé suckered me into missing it.
Sanneh reports that after he quit his Times music critic job to become a New Yorker generalist in 2008, he did his best to stay current musically by constructing playlists on iTunes and Spotify. Every week he’d add new albums to existing collections designated, in a distinction that kept getting trickier, “singing” and “rapping,” then play them on shuffle, quickly deleting anything that struck him as negligible even once. Thus he remains engaged with the “ongoing process” in which those who “love songs and singers and lyrics” “continue to feel connected to the people who make it.” I’ve assembled iTunes playlists of my own, but except for a few I conceived to please my wife or simplify a writing job or teach a music history class or once or twice compile some prized singles, usually their purpose is to speed aural access to prized CDs it’s tricky to dig out of my jammed shelves. That’s because what my Consumer Guiding forever leads me back to is A albums I want to spend my leisure ear time reaccessing. By now there’ve been so many that without a doubt there are some I’ll never hear again—many, probably. Mortality does suck.
“We listen to music, especially popular music, in order to feel connected to the people who make it,” you may recall Sanneh saying. This struck, encouraged, and pleased me. In 1998, promoting my Grown Up All Wrong collection, I wrote something similar that I collected in Is It Still Good to Ya? After citing such pop pleasures as groove, melody (“usually in the foreshortened form called tune”), the “funny rhyme,” and “the pithy turn of phrase,” I concluded, much like Sanneh, that “waiting beyond are the musicians themselves, not as they ‘really’ are, but as they create themselves in music.” Here I’ll note with some chagrin that I didn’t mention voices, and that I should have added that often the “musicians themselves” emerge from collectivities sometimes best called “groups” and sometimes “bands.” But thinking about it I soon realized that from “Mr. Lee” to “It Takes Two” there are many singles I cherish as nothing more and nothing less. Moreover, there are many groups I continue to perceive as living entities even when I know very well, for instance, when it’s Grant and when it’s Robert, as well as many solo artists who reveal new wrinkles and sometimes more every time I pay attention. A single is seldom enough to fully renew my acquaintance, much less modulate it. Although my attention will wax and wane as the disc spins on, I need the 30 or 45 or 60 minutes it lasts to re-establish a musical relationship. And for someone who’s grown to treasure human contact more than ever as the health of both human bodies and human relationships takes hit after hit, I feel fortunate I can still find the time. If that makes me a rockist, so the fuck be it.
is that too generous or bogartly a lift even for a pomo mofo like yo.?
edit to add or and1:
here is Dan Weiss in Spin on Xgau memoir about New York:
Do you feel that the book, in addition to your own story, is sort of a last chance to get to things like Cheetah and remind the public consciousness of them in hopes that it will inspire someone to dig it up?
Are there things from after the ’80s that you would have liked to include?
andand: there is a magazine my wife put in the guest bathroom that I opened at random to a beautiful Black or African woman and i think I had saved the same person in my phone. I will update with her name. but the thing is its WSJ mag, who knew? Baba Chogwu. hey that rimes. leanne.
Andandand: The cover and title recall “A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James”: which is about Bob Marley:
I had dinner with Dave Newhouse and his son Casey Newhouse. The younger played D1 baseball which gave his analysis of Bill Buckner added valence. He recommended the recent tv documentary on the series. The claim is that Bucker was left in so that he could celebrate series win at Game 6, that he knew he could not bend because of his knees, that he got freaked by the footspeed of Mookie Wilson, and that baseball gods had been angered. Whereas I just thought that the ball took a bad hop – no it was a spinner. Newhouse played for St. Mary’s of Berkeley High, Washington State and South Carolina. I found a cite, mentioning a RBI single.
Brian Moore, the neuropathologist rang me and mentioned that Shonda Rimes has a resume that is like a combo of Brian and I: the D, USC, ad agencies and more. Meanwhile I was thinking back on “Matt and Ben” with Kaling and Withers. [and: I attended Santiago’s concert at Dartmouth, the Hop in 1985; with Brian Moore; that Brian had the urge to burst backstage after the set, I published a brief account of our meeting in The D. I published about 100 stories but that was my only arts story.
I did not buy the Times today but got USA today, Merc and Chron — from 7-11 not Mac’s. And then I bought Time (for something about paying amateur hoopsters) and SI for it being SI – -Kyler Murray on cover.
andthis is the 13th arraindisement:
I (James Baldwin in the New Yorker in 1962 and this was sent to me from the New Yorker apropos of the Wes Anderson movie I saw ] underwent, during the summer that I became fourteen, a prolonged religious crisis. I use “religious” in the common, and arbitrary, sense, meaning that I then discovered God, His saints and angels, and His blazing Hell. And since I had been born in a Christian nation, I accepted this Deity as the only one. I supposed Him to exist only within the walls of a church—in fact, of ourchurch—and I also supposed that God and safety were synonymous. The word “safety” brings us to the real meaning of the word “religious” as we use it. Therefore, to state it in another, more accurate way, I became, during my fourteenth year, for the first time in my life, afraid—afraid of the evil within me and afraid of the evil without. What I saw around me that summer in Harlem was what I had always seen; nothing had changed. But now, without any warning, the whores and pimps and racketeers on the Avenue had become a personal menace. It had not before occurred to me that I could become one of them, but now I realized that we had been produced by the same circumstances. Many of my comrades were clearly headed for the Avenue, and my father said that I was headed that way, too. My friends began to drink and smoke, and embarked—at first avid, then groaning—on their sexual careers. Girls, only slightly older than I was, who sang in the choir or taught Sunday school, the children of holy parents, underwent, before my eyes, their incredible metamorphosis, of which the most bewildering aspect was not their budding breasts or their rounding behinds but something deeper and more subtle, in their eyes, their heat, their odor, and the inflection of their voices. Like the strangers on the Avenue, they became, in the twinkling of an eye, unutterably different and fantastically present. Owing to the way I had been raised, the abrupt discomfort that all this aroused in me and the fact that I had no idea what my voice or my mind or my body was likely to do next caused me to consider myself one of the most depraved people on earth. Matters were not helped by the fact that these holy girls seemed rather to enjoy my terrified lapses, our grim, guilty, tormented experiments, which were at once as chill and joyless as the Russian steppes and hotter, by far, than all the fires of Hell.
Yet there was something deeper than these changes, and less definable, that frightened me. It was real in both the boys and the girls, but it was, somehow, more vivid in the boys. In the case of the girls, one watched them turning into matrons before they had become women. They began to manifest a curious and really rather terrifying single-mindedness. It is hard to say exactly how this was conveyed: something implacable in the set of the lips, something farseeing (seeing what?) in the eyes, some new and crushing determination in the walk, something peremptory in the voice. They did not tease us, the boys, any more; they reprimanded us sharply, saying, “You better be thinking about your soul!” For the girls also saw the evidence on the Avenue, knew what the price would be, for them, of one misstep, knew that they had to be protected and that we were the only protection there was. They understood that they must act as God’s decoys, saving the souls of the boys for Jesus and binding the bodies of the boys in marriage. For this was the beginning of our burning time, and “It is better,” said St. Paul—who elsewhere, with a most unusual and stunning exactness, described himself as a “wretched man”—“to marry than to burn.” And I began to feel in the boys a curious, wary, bewildered despair, as though they were now settling in for the long, hard winter of life. I did not know then what it was that I was reacting to; I put it to myself that they were letting themselves go. In the same way that the girls were destined to gain as much weight as their mothers, the boys, it was clear, would rise no higher than their fathers. School began to reveal itself, therefore, as a child’s game that one could not win, and boys dropped out of school and went to work. My father wanted me to do the same. I refused, even though I no longer had any illusions about what an education could do for me; I had already encountered too many college-graduate handymen. My friends were now “downtown,” busy, as they put it, “fighting the man.” They began to care less about the way they looked, the way they dressed, the things they did; presently, one found them in twos and threes and fours, in a hallway, sharing a jug of wine or a bottle of whiskey, talking, cursing, fighting, sometimes weeping: lost, and unable to say what it was that oppressed them, except that they knew it was “the man”—the white man. And there seemed to be no way whatever to remove this cloud that stood between them and the sun, between them and love and life and power, between them and whatever it was that they wanted. One did not have to be very bright to realize how little one could do to change one’s situation; one did not have to be abnormally sensitive to be worn down to a cutting edge by the incessant and gratuitous humiliation and danger one encountered every working day, all day long. The humiliation did not apply merely to working days, or workers; I was thirteen and was crossing Fifth Avenue on my way to the Forty-second Street library, and the cop in the middle of the street muttered as I passed him, “Why don’t you niggers stay uptown where you belong?” When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older, two policemen amused themselves with me by frisking me, making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and probable sexual prowess, and, for good measure, leaving me flat on my back in one of Harlem’s empty lots. Just before and then during the Second World War, many of my friends fled into the service, all to be changed there, and rarely for the better, many to be ruined, and many to die. Others fled to other states and cities—that is, to other ghettos. Some went on wine or whiskey or the needle, and are still on it. And others, like me, fled into the church.
For the wages of sin were visible everywhere, in every wine-stained and urine-splashed hallway, in every clanging ambulance bell, in every scar on the faces of the pimps and their whores, in every helpless, newborn baby being brought into this danger, in every knife and pistol fight on the Avenue, and in every disastrous bulletin: a cousin, mother of six, suddenly gone mad, the children parcelled out here and there; an indestructible aunt rewarded for years of hard labor by a slow, agonizing death in a terrible small room; someone’s bright son blown into eternity by his own hand; another turned robber and carried off to jail. It was a summer of dreadful speculations and discoveries, of which these were not the worst. Crime became real, for example—for the first time—not as a possibility but as thepossibility. One would never defeat one’s circumstances by working and saving one’s pennies; one would never, by working, acquire that many pennies, and, besides, the social treatment accorded even the most successful Negroes proved that one needed, in order to be free, something more than a bank account. One needed a handle, a lever, a means of inspiring fear. It was absolutely clear that the police would whip you and take you in as long as they could get away with it, and that everyone else—housewives, taxi-drivers, elevator boys, dishwashers, bartenders, lawyers, judges, doctors, and grocers—would never, by the operation of any generous human feeling, cease to use you as an outlet for his frustrations and hostilities. Neither civilized reason nor Christian love would cause any of those people to treat you as they presumably wanted to be treated; only the fear of your power to retaliate would cause them to do that, or to seem to do it, which was (and is) good enough. There appears to be a vast amount of confusion on this point, but I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be “accepted” by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed: