“Over the past half century, many musicians and listeners have belonged to tribes. What’s wrong with that?”
A comprehensive and celebratory journey through the history of popular music, from the former New York Times music critic
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.
“The most elegant history of popular music ever written … 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”
author Of The Rest Is Noise
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“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”
“Inside this big, ambitious hybrid book was a smaller, more personal and altogether more compelling exploration of belonging and identity through music”
“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”
“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”
host Of Npr’s This American Life
Kelefa Sanneh has been a New Yorker staff writer since 2008, when he left his position at the New York Times, where he had been the pop-music critic since 2002. 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).