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Rock and Roll Book Club

Book Review: Kelefa Sanneh's 'Major Labels' muses on genre and history

The band Dixie Chicks — now known simply as the Chicks — performing at the Grammy Awards in New York in 2003.
The band Dixie Chicks — now known simply as the Chicks — performing at the Grammy Awards in New York in 2003.Frank Micelotta/Getty Images
  Play Now [7:06]

by Jay Gabler

December 16, 2021

At the beginning of his new book Major Labels, Kelefa Sanneh acknowledges that while critics (and radio programmers) are fascinated by genre, musicians definitely are not.

“Virtually every music interview I have conducted,” he writes, “has elicited some version of the sentence ‘I don’t know why it can’t just be “good music.”’ No doubt this sentiment captures something true about many musicians, especially accomplished ones. They hate being labeled.”

And yet, as Sanneh notes, the concept of genre carries more weight in the world of music than for most other media. If someone asks you to describe a movie or a book, you might easily describe its plot or characters…but if they ask you to describe a song or an album, you’ll very likely start with genre. Artists can’t escape it, which doubtless has a lot to do with why they hate it.

Sanneh’s book is subtitled A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres, and it’s the kind of book only someone of his stature could (or, really, should) make the case for. A veteran critic with years’ worth of bylines at the New York Times and The New Yorker, Sanneh is fascinated with the winding paths of music history. His book is a personal history of popular music, framed around seven broadly defined genres.

It’s a book about how musicians relate to each other, but also about how they relate to their listeners. Genre is, in an important sense, about what you’re promising to that listener: an instrument? An attitude? An identity? If musicians are uncomfortable with genre labels, it might be both to avoid being beholden to such promises - and because they know the label can be taken away as easily as it’s given.

The book starts with a chapter on rock, the genre that essentially inaugurated the current era of popular music when it emerged in the 1950s. Although The Kid LAROI is a long way from Little Richard, rock and roll reset the terms for how recorded music would function in the lives of its listeners: the leading ratchet on a wheel of generational progress that’s kept revolving for an entire lifetime now.

Even so, as Sanneh notes, it wasn’t until the ‘70s that rock and R&B (the subject of chapter two) were fully institutionalized as genres separate from one another, and from pop (chapter seven) - which took another decade, in Sanneh’s account, to emerge in its modern sense as post-disco electronic songcraft without an inherently rebellious bent. It was the opposite of punk (chapter four), which persisted as a label for music with an agenda long after its purely musical trappings faded away.

As Sanneh notes, that happened as soon as the early ‘80s, when post-punk bands like Talking Heads continued in the “punk” tradition writ large while sounding absolutely nothing like the Sex Pistols. Eventually the punk impulse led to alternative rock and indie rock, and by the time Nirvana’s former label Sub Pop signed the Shins, indie rock “was neither fierce nor ironic. You bought a CD by Death Cab for Cutie, or Feist, or Wilco, not to make a statement or flaunt your taste - nobody would have been impressed - but because you loved listening to it.”

Country, of course, has long been music’s most notorious genre due to its racial and political policing. “The number one thing they absolutely drill into you as a country artist,” Sanneh quotes Taylor Swift observing in 2019, “is ‘Don’t be like the Dixie Chicks!’”

In the author’s view, the Chicks’ 2003 exile from country music was “somewhat depressing, because it made it easier for smug partisans on both sides to feel vindicated.” The country establishment framed the band as unapologetic, unpatriotic snobs; while the fans who embraced the Chicks on the other side of the political divide were left even more certain that country listeners were homogeneous bigots.

As Sanneh notes, country is far from the only genre to frequently attract largely white audiences, it just stands alone in how “unusually unapologetic” it is about that. Even so, Sanneh seems to admire country for the sheer chutzpah with which Nashville moves its aesthetic boundaries while retaining a very sizable clutch of “fans who want to claim it and critics who want to fight over it; radio stations that play it and record companies that sell it. No one quite knows the rules, but everyone knows that there are some rules.”

By contrast, Sanneh notes that hip-hop - which “may be the quintessential modern American art form, the country’s greatest cultural contribution to the world” - is starting to go the way of “rock,” becoming so overwhelmingly popular and influential that it becomes a signifier divorced from any actual style of music. Unlike with rock, though, which became the popular province of white groups from the British Invasion onward, hip-hop has retained its essential association with the Black community that invented it. There are massively successful white rappers, but from Debbie Harry (Blondie’s “Rapture”) to Eminem to Macklemore, they deferentially emphasize their connections to Black culture. “Like country music,” writes Sanneh, “it is both an artistic tradition and a cultural identity.”

Of course that’s true, to some extent, of every genre - and every sub-genre, down to every artist and every album and every track. When we listen to music, we’re saying something about ourselves, both to others and to ourselves. Genre can be a trap (the vast body of work we collectively consider “classical music” has been trying to free itself for well over a century, with mixed results), but it can also be liberating. That’s how Boy George saw it when he embraced the “pop” label in the ‘80s, as Sanneh writes.

“‘By the end of 1976,’ Boy George recalled, in his first memoir, ‘anyone who was anyone was punk.’ But punk, in his view, quickly became a ‘joke’; in its zeal to ‘reject conformity,’ it enforced a conformity of its own, which he found unspeakably drab, all loud guitars and leather jackets…’Punk was safe,’ he wrote. "‘We were spinning forward in a whirl of eyeliner and ruffles.’”

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Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

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