Kelefa Sanneh

Oct 22, 2021

Major Labels

A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres

Penguin 2021

Kelefa Sanneh was born in England, and lived in Ghana and Scotland before moving with his parents to the United States in the early 1980s. He was a pop music critic at the New York Times from 2000-2008, and has been a staff writer at the New Yorker since then. His first book is called Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres (Penguin, 2021). The book refracts the entire history of popular music over the past fifty years through the big genres that have defined and dominated it—rock, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance music, and pop—as an art form (actually, a bunch of art forms), as a cultural and economic force, and as a tool that we use to build our identities. Sanneh shows how these genres have been defined by the tension between mainstream and outsider, between authenticity and phoniness, between good and bad, right and wrong. Throughout, race is a powerful touchstone: just as there have always been Black audiences and white audiences, with more or less overlap depending on the moment, there has been Black music and white music, constantly mixing and separating. Sanneh debunks cherished myths, reappraises beloved heroes, and upends familiar ideas of musical greatness, arguing that sometimes, the best popular music isn’t transcendent. Songs express our grudges as well as our hopes, and they are motivated by greed as well as idealism; music is a powerful tool for human connection, but also for human antagonism. This is a book about the music everyone loves, the music everyone hates, and the decades-long argument over which is which.

Franz Nicolay is a musician and writer living in New York's Hudson Valley. His first book, The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar, was named a "Season's Best Travel Book" by The New York Times. Buzzfeed called his second book, Someone Should Pay for Your Pain, "a knockout fiction debut." He teaches at Bard College.

Listen to more episodes on:

Your Host

Franz Nicolay

Franz Nicolay is a musician and writer living in New York's Hudson Valley. He teaches at Bard College. www.franznicolay.com
Learn More