From his own adolescence, when his allegiance was to punk rock, to his work as one of the essential voices of our time on music and culture at the New York Times and the New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh has made a deep study of how our popular music unites and divides us. Distilling a career’s worth of knowledge, Sanneh explores the tribes music forms, and how its genres, shape-shifting across the years, give us a way to track larger forces and concerns.
He 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 is motivated by greed as well as inspiration. Throughout, race is a powerful touchstone: just as there’s always been a ‘Black’ audience and a ‘white’ audience (with some overlap) there is Black music and white music and a whole lot of expropriation.
This is a book to shock and awe the deepest music nerd, and at the same time to work as a heady gateway drug for the uninitiated.
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 * * author of The Rest is Noise * * 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 This is a long-haul read, yet charmingly conducted in that languid, laconic New Yorker style that makes such a mammoth undertaking even possible. Its kick is to sew into the stories some near hidden gems - and socking ones too -- ANNIE NIGHTINGALE 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 NPR's This American Life * * 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 takes a very ambitious swing with this deep dive into a half century of American music . . . As both an engine of commerce and the driving force behind myriad cultural shifts, popular music has shaped American society in ways we can only begin understand. But it would be hard to find a better guide than Sanneh to help us try * * LitHub * * A lively, heartfelt exploration of the many worlds of popular music . . . Throughout, the author shows himself to be a master of the mot juste . . . but it's clear that he's listened to just about everything with ears and mind wide open. A pleasure - and an education - for any music fan * * Kirkus (starred review) * *
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