Kelefa Sanneh: ‘Major Labels’

Hosted by

Writer Kelefa Sanneh on music’s relentless boundary blurring Photo by Jason Nocito.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes New Yorker writer and author Kelefa Sanneh, whose new book is “Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres.” Sanneh is also a contributor to CBS Sunday Morning and was previously a music critic at The New York Times. He tells The Treatment about why he gravitated toward punk music as a teenager. Sanneh says in spite of the different genres in the music industry, musicians are often pushing up against the boundaries of the genre they’re put in. And he sets the record straight about his infamous comparison of Beyoncé and Ashanti.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: Welcome to the treatment, the Home Edition. My guest today is New Yorker writer Kelefa Sanneh, whose new book is "Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres." It’s about falling in and out of love with something, isn't it?

Kelefa Sanneh: Like most musical stories, this is partly a love story. It's partly about me falling in love with music. In my case, it was punk rock, which was the first music I fell in love with. And that kind of got me thinking about all kinds of music and all the ways in which people fall in and out of love with music. With music as with people, the existence of love kind of implies the existence alongside of hate, as well. And so I wanted to write a book about that push and pull about the music we love and the music we hate and how we use those two emotions to form musical communities really, which is what genre is.

KCRW: Even for you with punk, it was kind of an institution that existed before you found it.

Sanneh: Absolutely. I discovered punk in 1990 when my best high school friend gave me a mixtape, and a lot of the bands on that tape, bands like The Sex Pistols, The Ramones were getting to be basically 15 years old. So yes, for me, I only realized later that it was kind of weird that I was this kid sitting in his bedroom in Connecticut, listening to these British bands from the late '70s, and that for some reason, they were really speaking to me. But that's one of the strange things about punk in particular is that it seems to be reborn every few years. 

And the funny thing about punk is the music is not that universal. Most people don't really enjoy the Sex Pistols or the Dead Kennedys. But the impulse to say, I'm going to reject some stuff, as a way of embracing other stuff. I'm going to say that I'm not like those other people, as a way of saying, this is what I'm like. These are my people. This is my identity. That's a pretty universal urge.

KCRW: I thought another subtitle for the book would be "fusion" because each section in the book is about how one music sort of evolves into something else by virtue of proximity.

Sanneh: Yes, fusion and also fission, right? At various times in the history of country music, the people in it and the listeners to it think of it as just normal, mainstream American music. And other times in the history of country music there is this idea of: no, this isn't the mainstream, this is country. This is a separate thing, a separate way of looking at the world. And often you have both things happening at once. 

You see that right now where you have country stars, singing about how this is our own world. We're not like these hip hop guys. “Beer don't buzz with that hip hop of course, but it damn sure do with a little nitty-gritty,” is what Morgan Wallen sings on his new record. At the same time, he's using hip hop beats while saying, No, we're gonna keep hip hop culture at arm's length. And I think that push and pull is something that you see in different ways in all sorts of genres.

KCRW: The book is really about all the permutations of R&B about how it's a disregarded thing and the thing that's owned and then disregarded again, and then owned again, because it's so often defined by people looking at it rather than people inside of it, which I thought was a really fascinating point of view to bring to this.

Sanneh: Yeah, R&B is a great example of this because it is this genre, I think, more than any genre that's literally defined by segregation. The Billboard R&B chart grows out of the race records chart. And there's a moment in the early ‘80s where Billboard renames--it was at the time a soul singles chart, I think-and they rename it Black music. And people inside of the R&B genre have very mixed feelings about this. Some people say, well, this is great that we're naming this tradition and celebrating this Black musical tradition and not pretending it's something else and kind of planting a flag and saying this is ours. At the same time, some other people say, well, we don't really like this musical segregation, not least because it keeps us away from the rest of the pop charts. Why are you confining Black music to this little corner over here? And I think for R&B singers themselves, a lot of them have seen both the upside and the downside of being segregated like that. 

Luther Vandross, one of the great R&B singers of all time, never had a number one pop single, despite all his success, and he really wanted one. He felt, for good reason, that his music should reach everyone. At the same time, someone like Whitney Houston suffers early in her career from the perception that she's too pop and not R&B enough. She's labeled the prom queen of soul when she first comes out, which is a very complicated sort of compliment. And, years later working with Clive Davis, they work to shore up her R&B credentials because they knew that from within the world of R&B there was some skepticism. 

KCRW: In almost every case of the genres you talk about, there's an artist who's being defined one way who wants to be something else. There's this ambition to not be pigeonholed, to not be pegged.

Sanneh: Part of that has to do with restlessness. I discovered punk rock because it's breaking the rules, and it's different from everything else. And then for me, the next step is like, well, what would it mean to break the rules of punk? What would it mean to be different from punk, and it leads me towards R&B and dance music and pop music, and country music and all sorts of other stuff. 

A lot of this conversation goes back to this idea of community. Community often is what gives meaning to music. In other words, when a country singer is deciding whether or not to use banjo on their album, whether or not to put a string section on the single, they're engaging with a whole tradition, and the musical choices they make have meaning because of that tradition in a way that they wouldn't necessarily have the same meaning for a rapper or for a punk rock band. And so being part of a community, often what that means is wanting to rebel against that community. No musician is, or very few musicians are entirely happy to just be within a genre, and just be following the rules of whatever that genre is. Often what it means to be in a genre is to be wrestling with those traditions and sometimes rebelling against those traditions.

I write in the book about how virtually every major country star has, in one way or another, defined her or himself against Nashville, much the way politicians define themselves against DC. The idea is like, well, I don't know what they're doing in Nashville, but I'm going to do things a little bit differently. That was what George Strait said; that was what Garth Brooks said; that was the feeling you got from the Dixie Chicks. Again and again, this idea that defining yourself against a genre is actually a way of signaling your membership in this community is one of the ironies that I think has driven the development of popular music and the development of these seven genres.

KCRW: As you remind us in the book, they're the Chicks, no longer the Dixie Chicks, this idea of wrestling with what confederacy is and the whole story of Garth Brooks, which could actually be an opera.

Sanneh: Absolutely. I think it's easy for a lot of listeners to celebrate the existence of R&B as Black music. But one of the complications that arises from that is that in a country like America, where about 12% of the people are Black, the existence of Black music as a genre unto itself with a disproportionately Black listenership, it pretty much ensures that there are also going to be white genres; that kind of segregation is going to then persist. And so throughout the history of country music, one of the things that listeners and musicians have wrestled with is this idea of whiteness. Obviously, there have been lots of Black musicians who contributed to and influenced country music, and there have been musicians within country music, who found ways to celebrate or critique its identity as white music.

KCRW: Maybe this is an American thing, the idea of being able to critique your constituency. And it happened so often in country, from Merle Haggard to Garth Brooks to the Chicks, as you write in the book, because country music more than any other music is based on community. 

Sanneh: When you talk about erasing boundaries and expanding genres, you find that other kinds of boundaries tend to spring up in different places. In other words, you can say, oh, country music isn't just about rural life. It's bigger than that. But then that raises the question, what is country music? What does define it? You find that nowadays, some of the artists that sing the most about their "country identity" like Morgan Wallen are the ones that are the most likely to engage musically with hip hop, whether that be pre-programmed drums or even a more syncopated approach to delivering the vocals. 

Going back to those 50 years, you see again and again, these moments where people are very culturally identified with a genre, and that gives them more musical freedom. One of my favorite examples is the hair metal bands of the ‘80s. They're wearing the skin-tight spandex and leather and the hair is teased up and they got the leopard print, and their image is super rock and roll. At the same time, for a lot of these bands, the big hits were power ballads, and the fact that they looked so rock and roll, in a sense, gave them freedom as rock acts, to sit down at the piano and sing a love song, without anyone questioning their rock and roll credentials.

KCRW: I can't let you off the hook because I remember there was a time when you were touting the power of a certain young singer, who wasn't Beyoncé, and certain of us made fun of [you] at The New York Times for doing that back in the early 2000s. 

Sanneh: This is an important critical prerogative: the fact that you will be wrong sometimes. When I wrote a piece about Beyonce and Ashanti, and the headline, which I did not write, but I cannot fully disclaim, was something like "Beyoncé: She's no Ashanti.” And that is a headline that has lived in Twitter infamy just about ever since there has been Twitter. And yes, I do issue my mea culpa. And note for the record, that I listen more to Beyoncé as music than to Ashanti's. But I also write a little bit about how I arrived there, and why I wrote that. It had something to do with my own feelings about R&B and my own feelings about who I was as a critic. And so yeah, I thought part of the fun would be to provide an explanation to those people who felt quite rightly that they were owed one.

KCRW: This could be the seven continents, and you almost have some vestige of you, in each one of these continents. And I even wondered if you broke it up into seven genres because of that, because it gives it this kind of global fuel that connects it all.

Sanneh: I was not thinking of continents, but maybe now I'll start telling people I was. But yes, I was certainly thinking about how to tell a story that would feel sort of complete, in a sense, even though you can't actually include everything. And I wanted to think about the genres that we're interacting with popularity, in a way interacting with pop charts and selling tickets and moving the culture around. They're kind of different sizes. The story of dance music from disco, through house and techno to EDM: it's a big, interesting story, it's probably not as big as the story of rock and roll over the past 50 years. And in some ways, it's probably a little less well known. And so I thought for that reason, it was kind of interesting. 

As a critic, it's an odd occupation, right? In the 2000s, we were both at the New York Times, you writing about film, me writing about music. And it's weird to be in the newspaper telling people, what do you think of this film? What do you think of this album? And so one of the things I do in this book is try to think through that a little bit when we make these judgments. How are we making these judgments? Everyone has assumptions; everyone has biases. And what I wanted to say was that one way we make these judgments is by reference sometimes to these musical communities, which can't help but shape our ideas of what music should do, and what music can do. And part of what's exciting to me about delving into genre is it can give you a new way of hearing music. 

When I got obsessed with electronic dance music, with house and techno records starting in the late 1990s, it really did change the way I heard music. It taught me to listen to different things, the experience of listening to a two-hour DJ set, where, at first, all the tracks sort of sound the same. And then later, you start to hear the subtle variations within the tracks. It's a very different listening experience. And it can help you hear different things in other genres.

KCRW: The book is that argument that I think people like you and me find ourselves so often facing is this dismissal of popular culture as pop.

Sanneh: It's an interesting question. So I wrote this essay when I was at the Times about rock-ism, which was this term that was used often by music critics but by other people, too, to talk about this tendency to treat rock as the dominant norm and so that you were praising music if it was living up to the values of rock and that music should be scruffy and raw and loud and real. What I was writing about then was that having those values might lead you to overlook all sorts of other stuff. It might be harder to appreciate an Anita Baker or Alan Jackson, or it might be harder to appreciate some music that was smooth and fun and light hearted. It might be harder to see "She's So Unusual" by Cyndi Lauper as a major work if you're thinking that music should be scruffy guitars above all else. 

But that said, this turns out to be a hard thing to get away from because even when we're praising a pop song, we're usually praising it for doing something, and in the book, I kind of take this to its logical conclusion. Brian Eno: when he's kind of inventing ambient music, he's challenging this idea that music needs to be “interesting.” What does “interesting” mean when we're talking about music? Is it possible for music to be boring, but really good? And one of the places you arrive at is that there is no firm place from which to make these judgments. And that even as you're praising the most pop of pop stars, you are at the same time installing some new assumptions about what music is and how it should behave, and what we should value in this.

KCRW: We can see these two strains working themselves out in the book between people who are pure artists, or the people who you appreciate who are artisans who have an understanding that application of craft can produce something that has a perfection in its own way.

Sanneh: Although with popular music, especially, it seems to me that the closer you look at it, the harder that purity is to find. We can talk about the greatness of Aretha Franklin and her voice, which is easy to define as "pure artistry." But we also know that Aretha Franklin was someone who always paid attention to the R&B chart for her entire life and was really into having hits. And that was really important to her. 

To me, part of what I love about popular music of all sorts, is the impurity of it. The fact that it's functional, in a sense, that even if you're an underground techno producer, there is an idea that you're trying to make people dance, and that's an important thing that you're trying to do with your music. And the fact that again, even in the underground, as in the mainstream, people pay attention to: am I selling albums? Are people coming to see me play? Is this a profession?  Of course, there are people who make music and ignore or claim to ignore those things. But often, the music that we love comes from a push and pull between those things.

KCRW: So many of these cases, these people you touch on, that you write about here, they're these people who are wrestling with the complications of success. And what does that mean? And if you're trying to create this pure thing, and this thing that means something to you, can it be idiosyncratic and universal? 

Sanneh: Back in my punk rock days, I loved the idea that music was supposed to be underground and supposed to be opposed to the mainstream. And it was better if it was more obscure. That was an idea I had as a teenager. And among other things, hip hop helped me rethink that because all of a sudden, I'm obsessed with the Wu Tang Clan. And if you're a Wu Tang Clan fan, part of the excitement is that listening to them feels like stepping into a secret lair. But part of the excitement of loving the Wu Tang Clan is the idea that they're taking over. To them, the mainstream isn't some corrupting area to be avoided; it's territory to be conquered. And they're gonna have multiple record deals and fashion lines and video games and everything else. And it's hard not to root for them to take over the world. And so hip hop helped me hear the upside of ambition as a musical value and all the good things you can get from the fact that a lot of musicians do have that ambition to be heard and to be bigger, even as that leads them to wrestle with things.

KCRW: What are you talking about is the way that hip hop changed all the metrics of that kind of success, that you could be a million-seller in the case of Eric B. and Rakim and not get radio play, that you could also be hugely successful, and still be wrestling with the fact that people hated you because of the East Coast-West Coast thing. There was a level of complexity that hip hop brought to all this that really is about all the drama of pop and also the one thing that hip hop or rap is about that we don't really see in any other genre. Once your hit is done, you're finished. There is no hip hop classic. You don't get replayed; you just disappear. 

Sanneh: It's partly a difference in audience size, and it's the fact that if you're making music that's primarily catering to a white audience, that's a bigger audience in America. But I think one of the main facts of hip hop is the transparency of music because you're not singing and you're doing something that sounds more like talking. There is this added self consciousness I write about how that's why rappers often tend to introduce themselves. "I am Wonder Mike, and I'd like to say hello." Because they're answering this question of like: who are you? Why are you talking to me? What's happening? Because of that, you've seen a real transparency in hip hop, where people tend to rap about the things that are going on around them. 

In other words, you might rap about your record deal and your record label and what the executives are saying, whereas traditionally in rock and roll, you're not expected to sing songs about the nuts and bolts of the music business. In hip hop that became very much part of what you sang about. And even the tendency for rappers to engage in feuds had something to do with that. There was this question of credibility, this question of what gives you the right to talk to me, and why should I listen to you and why should I believe you? And often the answer to that was a narrative answer: you should believe me because I'm very good at this. And so rappers would rap about their skill. You should believe me because I have standing in the community, and rappers would rap about their standing in the community. 

And so that self-consciousness is part of the reason why rappers have been unusually likely to engage with their detractors and their critics. I mean, later, you saw Taylor Swift records, and you saw that self-consciousness and that kind of transparency spreads to other genres, but it really is hip hop where that explodes and is nurtured as an artistic strategy.



Rebecca Mooney