Review: ‘Major Labels,’ by Kelefa Sanneh

Yoshiko Yap

I spent much of my youth in sprawling record stores, drifting through aisles marked by signs that said things like rock, R&B, hip-hop, and—it was the ’90s—alternative. Anyone who grew up in or near a city in the later decades of the 20th century probably remembers the dial locations of classic rock, country, modern rock, “urban.” (Of course, there were also the catchall behemoths of Top 40 and adult contemporary; young snobs like me looked down on them as the presets of dilettantes.) But these days, to judge by the omnivorous listening enabled by Spotify and the stylistic free-for-alls of mega-festivals like Coachella, the genre boundaries that once defined popular music and its fandoms may be collapsing.

On the one hand, that’s hardly a surprise: Physical music stores and terrestrial radio—those two mainstays of 20th-century music consumption that depended on genre to segment and serve specific consumer markets—are coming to seem as obsolete as a yellow Sony Discman. On the other hand, the notion that musical genres might no longer matter as they once did feels more like a momentous cultural shift than merely like fallout from new distribution and marketing modes. Musical genres have long had a peculiar imaginative power and participatory quality. They aren’t just labels imposed by an industry; they’re shaped by passions and arguments, love and disgust, allegiances and disavowals.

A phrase like action movie or mystery novel calls to mind a particular aesthetic and emotional experience, but terms like country, hip-hop, and punk do more. They evoke a kind of person—an incomplete stereotype, certainly, but one that’s instantly legible to anyone who’s even minimally engaged with popular culture. And they also conjure communities: a crowd clad in black T-shirts, combat boots, and studded bracelets at a metal show; in Birkenstocks and cardigans at a folk club. Metalheads and folkies, separated by a chasm, each bond over a love for their chosen music, even if they might now both be endangered species.

As a guide to the erosion of fervent musical loyalties that seems to be under way, few could have better credentials than the New Yorker staff writer Kelefa Sanneh, who has published a delightfully provocative new book, Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres. Back in 2004, while a young critic at The New York Times, Sanneh wrote an influential rumination on genre and its relation to music fandom in the 21st century. This short and acute essay, “The Rap Against Rockism,” introduced the wider public to a debate within music criticism that quickly became framed as “rockism” versus “poptimism.” (Sanneh’s article never used the latter term.)

Rockism was the tendency to judge every kind of popular music using standards set by a certain romantic ideal of rock music as a heroic ground of creativity—where every artist was “a rebellious individualist, not an industry pro,” giving “listeners the uncomfortable truth, instead of pandering to their tastes.” In practice, the verdict was almost always that other musical genres were lacking—in intellectual sophistication, in artistic integrity, in that ill-defined but incessantly fussed-over quality of “authenticity.” This “imperial” rockist attitude irked Sanneh. “Could it really be a coincidence that rockist complaints often pit straight white men against the rest of the world?” he wondered.

His essay heartily endorsed a more inclusive and less prescriptive approach to musical pleasure. The best way to engage with, say, Britney Spears’s music wasn’t simply to point out that it wasn’t as wordy, sweaty, and self-consciously serious as Bruce Springsteen’s. It was to appreciate the unique forms of enjoyment that her infectious pop brought to her fans, many of whom happened to be part of a demographic (young, female) that rockism had historically denigrated.

Like many ideological disputes in contemporary America, this one has long since devolved into a caricatured standoff between incoherent extremes. Doctrinaire rockism is no longer a tenable stance in professional music criticism, but overzealous rejections of its vestigial snobbery continue to thrive anyway. (“Olivia Rodrigo Is a Revelatory New Pop Voice on Sour. Deal With It,” read the online headline of Rolling Stone’s review of Rodrigo’s debut, as if in defense of an underdog—a strange tone, considering that Sour is one of the best-reviewed albums of 2021.) On the other side, poptimism’s detractors characterize it as the belief that every popular song is necessarily a good song, which is absurd: Most critical best-of lists don’t align with the year-end Billboard charts any more closely than they ever did.

In short, even in a Spotified music world that seems to be drifting toward a “post-genre” landscape, poptimist and rockist stereotypes live on—a sign that the factional impulse in music fandom may be harder to shake than you might think. Despite his own poptimist credentials, Sanneh himself isn’t ready to simply embrace a boundaryless future, at least not without examining what may get lost in leaving fractious fandom behind. “When I was in high school, in the early 1990s,” he writes, “popular music was going through an unusually tribal phase, and maybe that is why I wanted to write a tribal book.” In particular, he is interested in the ways that genres—which are, he writes, “nothing more or less than names we give to communities of musicians and listeners”—shape relations between artists and their fans and between fans and other fans. Perhaps precisely because musical tribalism may be going out of fashion, Sanneh wants to defend a spirit that he challenged back in its long period of dominance: the avid listening—and identity-defining arguments—that these fierce devotions can inspire and sustain.

Major Labels is an essayistic medley rather than a straight chronological history, with a generous helping of memoir included along the way. The autobiographical jags allow Sanneh to explore his own still-evolving relationship to music, and the various attachments and antipathies he’s picked up and discarded as he goes. One of the most formative experiences was an adolescent musical conversion that he recounts in his chapter on punk (others are devoted to rock, R&B, country, hip-hop, dance, and pop). “Punk taught me that music didn’t have to express consensus,” he writes of his transformation into a true believer. “You could use music as a way to set yourself apart from the world, or at least some of the world. You could find something to love and something—perhaps lots of somethings—to reject. You could have an opinion, and an identity.” The punk partisan surveys the diverse landscape of popular music and sees a battleground; more thrilling to the young Sanneh than the music itself was its summons to “total devotion, to be expressed as total rejection of the mainstream.” Its appeal was “quasi-religious … turning aesthetic disagreements into matters of grave moral significance.”

Sanneh describes a rapturous teenage encounter with the Ramones in New Haven, Connecticut, “a blissful hour amid a sweaty group of aging punks and youthful poseurs, all shoving one another and shouting along,” while his mother patiently looked on from the bar. (At 14, Sanneh could get into the show only with a legal guardian.) When he went to college and set out to join the punk-rock department of Harvard’s radio station, the prerequisite was enrolling in a semester-long course in punk history and passing a written exam, “an old-fashioned indoctrination into a genre that was, in many important ways, stubbornly retro.”

And yet the deeper he wandered down the narrowing corridors of punk supremacy, the more he was forced to reckon with some of the genre’s inconsistencies, and eventually the more he responded to the wider musical curiosity that his punk immersion stirred in him. “How do you stay loyal, anyway, to a genre built on defiance?” he asks. “Punk rock is fundamentally incoherent, an anti-traditional tradition that promises ‘anarchy,’ or a whiff of it, while providing its devotees something tidy and recognizable enough to be considered a musical genre.” Sanneh came to realize that the things he loved most about punk—its visceral excitement, its passions and investments, its electric sense of community, even its ugliness—could be found in forms like hip-hop, reggae, and classic rock. But to really look and listen meant ceasing to be a punk supremacist. He’s exhilarated that 21st-century punk itself doesn’t “seem cowed by all those decades of punk history,” that even a genre so fiercely protective of its own purity spawns heterodoxies, attracts new listeners.

In focusing on how much our sense of musical allegiance is shaped in relation to other people—the theme at the core of Major Labels—Sanneh can be fuzzy about the balance between the collective loving and the collective hating that go into forging tastes and identities; former punk that he is, he doesn’t flinch from defending zealous insularity, even as he also celebrates spiky debate across dividing lines. And his fascination with the cultures and subcultures of different musical genres also prompts a thorny, not-unrelated question: Do musical genres actually refer to music, or do they refer to a set of preordained beliefs about how music should sound, who should make it, and who should listen to it?

We take for granted that “country” is a coherent category, but if you ask 10 country fans to describe their beloved music, you’ll likely get 10 different visions of a canon that delineates what is country and, just as important, what isn’t. Hank Williams is unimpeachable, but Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” will continue to spark intra-genre brawls for years. Or we could note the glaring paucity of post-Hendrix Black artists on classic-rock-radio playlists, despite the fact that many Black musicians—Eddie Hazel, Nile Rodgers, and Prince, to name a few—continued to play electric guitars (and quite well!) after 1970. This absence might suggest that the rockist impulse to relentlessly guard musical boundaries betrays another ism that starts with r. Genres, as Sanneh’s discussions reveal, thrive on shared tenets, but need to be flexible and resist the pull of prescriptive conservatism, or they will gradually devour themselves.

The memoirish bent of Sanneh’s book lends a retrospective quality to his project. He ends up placing a heavier emphasis on what musical genres were rather than what they are—a slant that may lead a younger reader, reared on Spotify instead of Sam Goody stores, to reasonably wonder whether Major Labels is telling a story that’s already over. In his introduction, Sanneh notes the current predominance of “hip-hop hybrids that exist just beyond the reach of genre,” and asks, “Is it possible that, when we finally have easy access to just about any song we want, many of us end up wanting to listen to the same thing?” A Gen Z skeptic might add: In a streaming age when musical omnivorousness is more widespread than ever before, what’s the point of categorization in the first place?

In his final chapter, Sanneh reflects on the original context of his “Rockism” essay, and how dramatically things have changed in the 17 years since. He seems mostly pleased with the demise of rockism’s imperialist spirit, but is clearly ambivalent about the extent of poptimistic hegemony. The notion that all-embracing appreciation is the ideal state of musical fandom—that all tastes should be accepted as equally valid—bespeaks a broader musical homogeneity that lacks an edge: “highly compatible” pop songs “blending seamlessly” on playlists and positive reviews from critics becoming all too predictable. Perhaps most of all, Sanneh laments the waning of the fervent fan. “It’s startling to think that we might now be choosing,” he writes, “to take our musical tastes home and curl up on the couch.” If complaining about music is indeed a way of complaining about other people, as he argues, it’s also a way of connecting to those inside and outside our musical tribe—a sign of caring what they think, and of resisting the pull of atomized isolation.

Sanneh steps back to nod briefly at the future that such tamping-down of music-driven passions might portend, in which listening to popular music ceases to be a way to construct identity and becomes “merely a pastime, like watching movies,” or a pursuit (like video games) that plenty of people simply choose not to engage in. I wonder if we’re already there. Consider how many of Spotify’s most popular playlists are structured not around genres but rather around activities. The service offers whole categories of playlists designed for, say, working out, gaming, cooking, studying, even sleeping: in other words, music to be listened to while you’re involved in something that’s presumably more important to you than listening to music.

The auditory nature of music lends itself to this as no other art does. With the exception of instructional videos and maybe pornography, I can’t think of much film that’s explicitly marketed as something to be watched while you’re otherwise occupied. Reading, too, doesn’t leave room for multitasking. Spotify certainly didn’t invent the idea of background music, but at least record companies didn’t tend to sell you music on the explicit premise that you didn’t need to pay attention to it.

Spotify’s business model is expressly not rooted in music or musical quality. It’s driven by the amount of time you listen to Spotify. The company doesn’t sell songs; it sells subscriptions, and user data are probably its most lucrative commodity. Over the years, Spotify has been periodically accused of padding massively popular playlists like “Peaceful Piano” with “fake artists” and royalty-free music to avoid paying royalties to working musicians. Spotify has mostly denied the accusations, but their existence alone raises uncomfortable questions. Would listeners even notice? Would they care?

Arguing about genres and our rival musical tastes is a way of investing in music itself. Such debates are forms of engagement with art and with one another, exhortations to pay attention—and to refuse to allow music to be something that happens while we’re doing other things. The punk hard-liner and the rap snob and the rockist may have all been insufferable, but no one ever accused them of indifference. Music and the people who make it need to be cared about—stridently, not gently.

This article appears in the November 2021 print edition with the headline “In Defense of the Insufferable Music Fan.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

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