Synopses & Reviews
One of the best books of its kind in decades. — The Wall Street Journal
An epic achievement and a huge delight, the entire history of popular music over the past fifty years refracted through the big genres that have defined and dominated it: rock, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance music, and pop
Kelefa Sanneh, one of the essential voices of our time on music and culture, has made a deep study of how popular music unites and divides us, charting the way genres become communities, shape-shifting across the years, giving us a way to track larger forces and controversies. In Major Labels, Sanneh distills a career's worth of knowledge about music and musicians into a brilliant and omnivorous reckoning with popular music--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.
As Sanneh unspools the stories of the genres that have defined popular music, the connections build, and big themes accrue momentum: 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. It expresses our grudges as well as our hopes, and it is motivated by greed as well as inspiration; music is a powerful tool for human connection, but also for human antagonism. The book will intoxicate music nerds, even as it serves as a heady gateway drug for occasional listeners, or even non-listeners. The opposite of a modest proposal, Major Labels takes on the whole extraordinary range of popular music over the past half century, and it pays in full.
"Major Labels [is] ecumenical and all-embracing... [Sanneh] has a subtle and flexible style, and great powers of distillation... The best thing about Sanneh may be that he subtly makes you question your beliefs." New York Times
"[A] thrilling debut... Equally fascinating are Sanneh's insights into the way race has shaped music, particularly in the overlapping worlds of R&B and rock 'n' roll. This remarkable achievement will be a joy to music lovers, no matter what they prefer to listen to." Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Kelefa Sanneh has achieved the impossible. Major Labels somehow manages to unspool everything you need to know about 50 years of music, but more impressively, he makes you care about all of it. Even the stuff you don't care about. It's funny, it's personal and as a piece of writing, the book borders on poetry." David Letterman
"There have been many attempts at explaining the modern trajectory of pop music, but Major Labels is quite possibly the best version I've ever read. Kelefa Sanneh is pure talent: an engaging, efficient writer with insightful observations and an openness of mind other critics only pretend to possess. I'm sure other people will attempt to publish books like this in the future, but they probably don't need to. They should just read this one." Chuck Klosterman
"Kelefa Sanneh is somehow able to stand back and give the most clearheaded thoughts about the Big Picture while also diving in for the entertaining, memorable detail. Major Labels is a completely enjoyable history that told me a thousand things I didn't know and — one of the book's great pleasures — made me see lots of musicians I thought I knew, or half-knew, in a whole new light." Ira Glass, host of This American Life
"Major Labels is the most elegant history of popular music ever written. That may sound like faint praise to those who want their pop criticism to channel raw passion, yet passion comes in many forms. Sanneh not only delivers a coolly dazzling overview of the battlefields of genre but also revels open-heartedly in the music itself, his taste unbound by dogma or prejudice. The operative word is keen: zealous in spirit, exact in execution, ferociously acute from the first sentence to the last." Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker and author of Wagnerism
About the Author
Kelefa Sanneh has been a New Yorker staff writer since 2008, before which he spent six years as a pop-music critic at The New York Times. He is also a contributor to CBS Sunday Morning. Previously, he was the deputy editor of Transition, a journal of race and culture based at the W. E. B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. His writing has also appeared in a number of magazines and a handful of books, including Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z, a Library of America Special Publication, and Da Capo Best Music Writing (2002, 2005, 2007, and 2011). He lives in New York City with his family.