Kelefa Sanneh takes on the impossible and gives us a new — and more accurate — history of music in his book, ‘Major Labels’.
Despite its inherent truth, it is cliché to say that history is written by the victors.
The past is more nuanced than this: What of the heroes whose voice isn’t big enough to be heard by our society? One of the many consequence of power dynamics is sometimes the powerful lose and still can shape the narrative. While this can often be done maliciously, even in its benign form it perpetuates narratives over time, creating an understanding of the world that leaves most on the outside.
Music history can be particularly guilty of this. Championing Elvis leaves behind the impact of Little Richard, Big Mama Thornton, and the Black roots of rock’n’roll. Our focus on disco has raised Madonna and The Bee Gees to a level that dulls the genre’s bastion as a gay and Black refuge. Our culture lowers the white, heterosexual lens over history, minimizing its losses and shaping the story.
That’s why books like Kelefa Sanneh’s Major Labels are so important.
Sanneh never claims to be righting history, nor applying any worldview other than the one he’s spent his adult life cultivating as editor and writer at music institutions such as The New Yorker, and The New York Times. Sanneh is using his vast experience and knowledge to talk about something he loves. Unknowingly however, he gives a bigger voice to the historically shushed.
Sanneh’s stated goals is no small task though: Sanneh aims to retell – and re-conceptualize – the history of the last 50 years of music through its seven major labels; rock, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance music, and pop. It doesn’t matter if you’re incredibly well-versed in these genres or have no time for the sound, Sanneh’s tells a story you can’t put down. It’s like a textbook that’s actually fun.
Where Sanneh, and therefore Major Labels, peaks is when it gets personal. Sanneh’s memories of going to country concerts or discovering hip-hop not only personalize the book’s mass amounts of data, but breaks through music’s segregation. Sanneh’s love of Prince, or discovering Stevie Wonder brings into importance albums, artists and movements that white society largely ignores. Sanneh is talking about Songs In The Key Of Life because it’s undoubtedly one of the best albums of the 20th century, but it carries a significance larger than that. It is decentering whiteness, creating a musical history that rewards quality above everything else. The fact he does this without being preachy – largely without you even noticing that he’s doing it—is just a testament to the smoothness with which he writes.
Major Labels is an accessible reminder that there is so much to freaking learn about music. It’s a permission slip to geek out, gleaning not just facts but theories, trends and huge ideas that will shape your musical worldview. If you’re reading this right, you’ll walk away not just with a better understanding of music, but with a more inclusive understanding of culture.
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📸 © Jason Nocito