Like Pops Never Happened: A Fortysomething's History of Music

Kelefa Sanneh, "Major Labels" (496 pp., 2021)

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I’d like to call New Yorker staff writer Kelefa Sanneh a lapsed rock critic, but he’d prefer music critic in a hefty book that announces itself with the hooky title Major Labels, explains itself with the prosaic subtitle A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres, and nails things down with the blunt chapter headings “Rock,” “R&B,” “Country,” “Punk,” “Hip-Hop,” “Dance Music,” and last but not least “Pop.” Although Sanneh, the 1976-born scion of a Black Gambian Yale religion professor and a white South African Yale language professor, covered the first three genres during an eight-year stint as a New York Times music critic, their chapters all aspire to third-person historical objectivity. The last four are first-person historical, reportorial with memoiristic details that include what I consider Sanneh’s establishing bona fide: having already aced a nuttily prescriptive student-taught “punk” course all prospective DJs at the Harvard radio station were compelled to master, he took a year off from school to work in record retail, a youthful act of musical madness that I say gives him the right to spice his history/narrative/whatever with stories about himself.

If I find Sanneh more compelling as a memoirist than a historian, that is chronologically inevitable. I know the history better than he does because I’ve had 34 more years not just to read up but to listen. Barely two decades after the 1925 invention of electrical recording kicked off what I like to call “pop music” myself, I had memorized my parents’ beloved South Pacific and gotten to know their 78s of Bing Crosby’s “Swinging on a Star” and Fats Waller’s “All That Meat and No Potatoes,” home study that primed me for “Sh-Boom,” “Maybellene,” and “Honky Tonk.” No way did Sanneh have the chance to do anything similar. As time passes, moreover, such artists as—to cite a baker’s dozen Sanneh’s history doesn’t even mention in reverse chronological order—Laurie Anderson, the Gang of Four, Al Green, Captain Beefheart, the Kinks, the Shirelles, Etta James, the Drifters, Lefty Frizzell, Fats Waller, Bing Crosby, Bill Monroe, and, last but also first, Louis Armstrong, who was often called Satchmo but preferred nothing more or less than Pops, recede ever further into the mists of literature. But though it’s pretty strange to stick Bob Marley in with the singer-songwriters because you have no room for pre-dancehall reggae, Sanneh does well enough with a general practice of devoting paragraphs or anyway sentences to many other faded and present kings and queens of pop.

Right, pop again: the crowning metagenre of the first U.S. journalist to, let us say, popularize—among critics, anyway—the anti-“rockist” line that has inflected U.K. music journalism since Dave Rimmer’s 1985 Boy George-hooked tome-lite Like Punk Never Happened. As I’ve recounted too many times, the self-same term has been my intellectual passion since well before I became a rock critic: namely, 1962, when my mind was blown by the upper-cased Pop Art of Andy Warhol and Tom Wesselmann. Between the albums I’ve graded and the polls I’ve overseen plus I’m pushing 80, young people may well assume I’m a “rockist.” But like my fellow oldtimers Greil Marcus and Dave Marsh, neither of whose musical tastes run much like mine anymore, I’ve always celebrated my roots in what was then top 40 radio—pop radio. Due to how my lifework turned out, I pretty much went off radio circa 1978. But I’ve never stopped arguing for what I designate “popular culture” and devised the term “semipopular” not in 1980, as Sanneh reports, but 1970, my exemplars the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Stooges, neither then legendary, both then slotted “rock” profoundly different though they were, though Sanneh relegates the Burritos to his “Country” chapter and the Stooges to “Punk.”

For the “Rock” chapter—which is hefty, at 87 pages a fifth rather than a seventh of the book—Sanneh has something different in mind. It begins with the Stones/Zep-adoring ubergroupie Pamela Des Barres and then devotes three pages to Grand Funk Railroad, the first rock band whose albums achieved major chart success in the teeth of negative reviews. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” skeptic though he is, Sanneh can’t ignore Nirvana and the lesser grunge that followed, but his polemical passion for two thirds of those 87 pages is the hair metal grunge killed off and the post-grunge crap that followed, with special attention to Mötley Crüe, respect aplenty to Guns ‘N Roses, and room for dozens more. Only in the final third does he pay his respects, sincere ones, to what he classifies as “soft rock”: singer-songwriters like Dylan and Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon (for whose late work he expresses a quirky and perceptive enthusiasm), titans like Springsteen and Bowie and Elton John and even the Grateful Dead (Anthem of the Sun, good for him). But in toto this is an anti-“rockist” screed—a way to undermine the self-righteous ‘60s political pretensions anti-rockists can’t stop exaggerating or whining about. Note too that though he’s sharp enough on the Rolling Stones, he has little to say about none other than the Beatles. (Or U2, if you care, which I don’t really but he should.)

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And so it goes till it’s time for mini-histories of r&b, country, punk, hip-hop, and dance music, all notably short on the ‘40s, ‘50s, and even ‘60s. Sanneh’s r&b does include Louis Jordan but comes sans doowop or Stax-Volt and avec heaps of Motown and Gamble-Huff before addressing, to name only the biggest, Michael Jackson, Prince, Whitney Houston, R. Kelly (who Sanneh pauses to apologize for not seeing through in 2004), D’Angelo, and Beyoncé. He’s more impressed by Hank Williams’s “outlaw” (??) image and son Jr. than his yearning honky tonk vocals and tersely eloquent songwriting, but expresses a convincing fondness for such country icons as Dolly Parton, George Strait, Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, Toby Keith, Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley, even Kacey Musgraves—all of whom he regards credibly, different though they are, as Middle American white people who’d otherwise be beyond his ken. His teen crush punk barely brushes CBGB on its way to U.K. “anarchy,” hardcore purism, and the sainted Fugazi, then pauses for an atypically abstract and even academic five-page disquisition on riot grrrl and fleshes out that brief leftish foray with reflections on both punk radicals like the Dead Kennedys and pop-punk success stories like Green Day. The hip-hop chapter, as long as the rock one but with better artists, reveals that even as a punk Sanneh was also a rap fan, devotes five pages to The Source (where he interned after graduating from the very university that generated that seminal mag), and pays more mind to hip-hop’s “unapologetic American ambition” and “abiding failure to become respectable” than to its ever-evolving music—I’d hoped he would finally explain how to grok “trap” beats formally, but no.

Finally there’s the relatively scant “Dance Music,” which while summing up structurally and sociologically related phenomena that are half genre and half scene—“disco,” “house,” “rave,” “acid house,” “techno,” “progressive house,” “electronic dance music,” and more—as well as pausing briefly with scattered big-timers Chic, Madonna, Moby, Deadmau5, and Daft Punk, concludes: “By insisting that tracks are more important than songs, disco and its descendants continually weed out the dilettantes who only want to sing along, leaving behind the people who only want to dance for hours, getting lost in the music. This is an ongoing process, because it turns out that most of us love songs and singers and lyrics—we listen to music, especially popular music, in order to feel connected to the people who make it.”

Which brings us, ka-ching, to the foreordained climax of Sanneh’s not-quite-history and not-quite-argument: “pop,” meaning not the 78s that began gathering economic mass with electrical recording, nor the post-WW2 boom during which Bing Crosby continued his march to 300 hit singles as Frank Sinatra rendered him old hat, nor 1964’s six Beatles #1’s and 19 top 40s, but to Dave Rimmer, Boy George, and their like-punk-never-happened “‘new pop’,” which Sanneh avers “really was rebellious—it rebelled against the idea that hip music should be rebellious.” And he’s prudently described the chart successes of Michael Jackson’s, Prince’s, and eventually Beyoncé’s “r&b” and also hip-hop, where the pop success of hitmakers from OutKast to Bad Bunny get respect, this is clearly where Sanneh wants his not-quite-history and not-quite-argument to come to a climactic halt.

Yet the odd thing is that contemporary pop remains a rather amorphous thing in Major Labels. For some reason Sanneh declines to go into the marginalization-verging-on-disappearance of both the guitar and the drum kit from charting singles. Nor does he mention the multi-composed, emailed-in, pieced-together track-and-hook songwriting to which his New Yorker colleague John Seabrook devoted the much better book The Song Machine in 2015. (Add to the dozen unmentioneds above quintessential postmodern producer-songwriter Max Martin.) Moreover, Sanneh has almost nothing specific to say about two musical factors that (along with hooks, never forget hooks) have been the selling points and aesthetic boons of pop music for the century it’s been around: rhythm and voice. James Brown’s many mentions include not one that even hints how structurally crucial his rhythmic ideas have been to the last half century of music. And if there’s a single evocative vocal description in the entire book, Sanneh’s failure to make a pass at such niggling details with the world-class vocalists Hank Williams, George Jones, Aretha Franklin, and “one of the great R&B singers of all time” Beyoncé suckered me into missing it.

Sanneh reports that after he quit his Times music critic job to become a New Yorker generalist in 2008, he did his best to stay current musically by constructing playlists on iTunes and Spotify. Every week he’d add new albums to existing collections designated, in a distinction that kept getting trickier, “singing” and “rapping,” then play them on shuffle, quickly deleting anything that struck him as negligible even once. Thus he remains engaged with the “ongoing process” in which those who “love songs and singers and lyrics” “continue to feel connected to the people who make it.” I’ve assembled iTunes playlists of my own, but except for a few I conceived to please my wife or simplify a writing job or teach a music history class or once or twice compile some prized singles, usually their purpose is to speed aural access to prized CDs it’s tricky to dig out of my jammed shelves. That’s because what my Consumer Guiding forever leads me back to is A albums I want to spend my leisure ear time reaccessing. By now there’ve been so many that without a doubt there are some I’ll never hear again—many, probably. Mortality does suck.

“We listen to music, especially popular music, in order to feel connected to the people who make it,” you may recall Sanneh saying. This struck, encouraged, and pleased me. In 1998, promoting my Grown Up All Wrong collection, I wrote something similar that I collected in Is It Still Good to Ya? After citing such pop pleasures as groove, melody (“usually in the foreshortened form called tune”), the “funny rhyme,” and “the pithy turn of phrase,” I concluded, much like Sanneh, that “waiting beyond are the musicians themselves, not as they ‘really’ are, but as they create themselves in music.” Here I’ll note with some chagrin that I didn’t mention voices, and that I should have added that often the “musicians themselves” emerge from collectivities sometimes best called “groups” and sometimes “bands.” But thinking about it I soon realized that from “Mr. Lee” to “It Takes Two” there are many singles I cherish as nothing more and nothing less. Moreover, there are many groups I continue to perceive as living entities even when I know very well, for instance, when it’s Grant and when it’s Robert, as well as many solo artists who reveal new wrinkles and sometimes more every time I pay attention. A single is seldom enough to fully renew my acquaintance, much less modulate it. Although my attention will wax and wane as the disc spins on, I need the 30 or 45 or 60 minutes it lasts to re-establish a musical relationship. And for someone who’s grown to treasure human contact more than ever as the health of both human bodies and human relationships takes hit after hit, I feel fortunate I can still find the time. If that makes me a rockist, so the fuck be it.