Book excerpt: “Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres” by Kelefa Sanneh

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In her new book, “Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres” (Penguin), New York writer and “Sunday Morning” contributor Kelefa Sanneh examines the genres that have dominated popular music over the past year. half a century.

You can read an excerpt below, and also listen to Kelefa Sanneh recount her introduction to “Major Labels”, taken from the audiobook release.

Listen to an excerpt from “Major Labels”


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Literally generic

I’m always a little puzzled when a musician is hired to transcend the genre. What’s so awesome about it? In the visual arts, “genre painting” refers to works that depict normal people doing normal things. In publishing, “genre fiction” is the low-end counterpart of literary fiction. And cinephiles refer to “genre films”, a term applied to films which fulfill the fundamental obligations of a certain genre, such as horror films or junkyard films – and, this is often implied, does. no more than that. But in popular music, genres are almost unavoidable. In the old days of record stores, every record in the store had to be categorized somewhere. And even streaming services find it useful to rely on these categories; if you want to explore Spotify, the first option given to you is to browse by “Genres & Moods”. The idea of ​​transcending genre suggests an inverse correlation between excellence and belonging, as if the greatest musicians were somehow less important to their musical communities, rather than more. (Did Marvin Gaye transcend R&B? Beyoncé?) Sometimes musicians are praised for mixing genres, though I’m not convinced the mix is ​​necessarily better than purity, or a more reliable route to transcendence. It’s strange, anyway, to praise the mixing of genres without also touting the continued existence of the genres that make this mixing possible.

Musicians, I learned, generally hate to talk about genres. And reasonably enough: it’s not their job. Pretty much every music interview I’ve done has elicited some version of the phrase, “I don’t know why this can’t just be“ good music. ”They hate being labeled. And they think about the rules more than they do. violate only those they follow, reveling in a sense of freedom, especially in the recording studio. high school to guitar and bass in bands, I’ve never achieved anything beyond rudimentary skill, and only that sometimes.) But generally musicians have a sense of who their peers are, although they insist that comparisons are worthless. Typically, too, they have a sense of industry and public expectations, even though they say they like to confuse them. Often their comments, like their albums, reflect a series of hypotheses of which they are barely aware: on the qualities that might make a song acceptable to radio programmers; on the types of collaborations that might be considered useful or surprising; about how songs are made and when they are finished. Country singers, for example, have sometimes shaken up the country tradition by recording their albums with members of their touring bands instead of session musicians from Nashville. But most non-country singers probably didn’t even know this tradition existed. You can’t really rebel against a genre unless you feel like you’re part of it too.

In many conversations and books about music, genre obsessives are the enemy. They are the mercenary record directors, determined to put each new act in a neat little box, just to make life easier for the marketing department. And they – us! Yet this book is a defense of musical genres, which are no more and no less than names given to communities of musicians and listeners. Sometimes these were physical communities, revolving around record stores or nightclubs. Most often they have been virtual communities, sharing ideas and opinions through records and magazines, mixtapes and radio waves; especially in the days before social media and the internet, fans sometimes had to believe that there were other people listening too. I think the history of popular music, especially over the past fifty years, is a history of genres. They strengthen and proliferate; they change and refuse to change; they last even when it seems like they’re going out or mingling. (It seems like every decade or so a genre becomes so popular that people fear it will disappear into the mainstream of pop.) The persistence of genres – the persistence of labels – has shaped the way music is made. and also the way we understand it. . And so, this book aims to recognize it. This book is literally generic.

It can be slightly depressing to see popular music this way, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Pop music, in the broad sense, tends to be irreverent, yet it is often referred to in adoring tones, as the product of a succession of charismatic geniuses. And indeed, a lot of these familiar geniuses play a part in these stories, from Johnny Cash to the members of NWA.But if you put the emphasis on genres, you inevitably find yourself thinking about the other stars too, hitmakers who don’t tend to be celebrated in blockbuster movies. Like Grand Funk Railroad, for a time one of America’s most popular rock bands, though many critics weren’t sure why. Or Millie Jackson, an R&B pioneer who couldn’t come to terms with disco. Or Toby Keith, who embodied so much what people loved and hated about country music in the 2000s. Many musicians in this book does not have transcend their genres, sometimes because they didn’t care to try, and sometimes because they had tried and failed. Some of them fought against the perception that their music was “generic” in a pejorative sense, as if any musical act adopted by a particular community must therefore be devoid of imagination. But this criticism of “generic” music is just a reaffirmation of the more common criticism of popular music in general: that there is something corrupting about certain types of popularity. Over the past half century, many musicians and listeners have belonged to tribes. What the hell is wrong with that?


Extract from “Major Labels” by Kelefa Sanneh. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Kelefa Sanneh, 2021.


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