Review of ‘Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres’ by Kelefa Sanneh

What are ‘genres’ anyway? How do we define them? Are they important? This epic tome by music critic Kelefa Sanneh opens up this can of worms, exploring the history of music from the 1970s to now. To continue with the worm metaphor, the book is divided into seven enormous worms: rock, r’n’b, country, punk, hip hop, dance and pop. Each of these is comprised of many smaller wriggling worms as the author grapples with various sub-genres. The longest chapter (or worm) is rock, which poses many fascinating conundrums as it looks at everything from rock’n’roll, to hair metal, grunge, ‘alternative’ (what is that, anyway?), the singer-songwriter tradition and ‘soft rock’.

This was mostly a very interesting book which attempted to deal with issues affecting all genres, such as racism, politics, identity, authenticity, commercialism and popularity. It also showed how everything is linked, sometimes obviously, sometimes not. Moreover, a book which includes an unbiased look at such a range of artists – Nirvana, Jay-Z, OutKast, The Carpenters, Madonna, Led Zeppelin, The Sex Pistols, Stevie Wonder, Taylor Swift, Culture Club, Grandmaster Flash, Moby, Whitney Houston, Tom Petty, The Ramones, Daft Punk, Run-DMC, Van Halen – is an intriguing prospect. It’s focused on the genres and artists who made waves in America, so it didn’t include some of the musicians I’d expected to see (or at least they were not given as much weight) and anyway it’s not a comprehensive history. There is a memoir element, which was really compelling but which unfortunately receded towards the latter chapters.

I had some issues with the book. It seemed unnecessarily long and wordy, with the ‘music critic speak’ threatening to undermine my understanding. Bands with ‘The’ as part of their names were never given the capital ‘T’, which annoyed me (perhaps disproportionately) but you’d think a music writer would want to be correct. However, I generally admired this book and would recommend to anyone who wants to engage with this huge topic.

Published in 2021.

2 thoughts on “Review of ‘Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres’ by Kelefa Sanneh”

    1. I’m not sure, it was an ebook from the library – probably about 700 pages or so! Yes very ambitious.

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