A New Yorker staff writer surveys the history of popular music over the past 50 years through the lens of genre—exploring rock, country, punk, R&B, dance and hip-hop—and reckons with music's evolution as a popular art form, cultural and economic force and as an essential component to our identities.
Mr. Sanneh, a staff writer for the New Yorker, gets high marks both for his encyclopedic knowledge and his breadth of taste. He also writes like an angel, making Major Labels one of the best books of its kind in decades ... Mr. Sanneh is rightly skeptical of art that operates within a deliberately 'cramped range' that limits its ability to be 'rowdy and messy.' This sentiment is as close as this remarkably judgment-free writer comes to an overall aesthetic principle: that the only thing music has to do is be exciting ... His book succeeds for many reasons, one of which is that each encyclopedic chapter is divided into 10 or a dozen sections, each with its own subtitle: Bite-size chunks, as it were, are the only workable format for this feast. Mr. Sanneh also has a gift for zingers.
Major Labels isn’t a sharp-prowed vessel that’s going to help break poptimism’s icy grip. It’s ecumenical and all-embracing. The good news is that Sanneh...has a subtle and flexible style, and great powers of distillation. He’s a reliable guide to music’s foothills, as well as its mountains. The bad news is that this book about genre is—pun intended, I suppose—sometimes generic. It’s closer to a textbook, a Ken Burns-style history lesson, than a series of well-aimed arguments ... Major Labels is full of good biographical details ... The best thing about Sanneh may be that he subtly makes you question your beliefs ... 'I am drawn to music that starts fights,' Sanneh writes. If I wish this book started a few more of them, well, it has other things on its mind.
... 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 ... 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? ... 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.