Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres
by Kelefa Sanneh
Penguin Press, 496pp, $28.00
One of the first things I started doing after I moved to New York City in 1996 was grab every week’s free Village Voice, located in a newspaper box on almost any corner downtown, and check out the classifieds in the back. Like many New Yorkers, I’d come to the city by way of the suburbs (I transferred into NYU from a community college in New Jersey) and, since this was my first time living in the city as an adult, I wanted to take advantage of this newly discovered independence by doing what many suburban transplants did back then—start looking for a scene. I’d leaf through to the end where the nightlife listings were arranged like a mosaic of postcards from another planet, each one with its own font and graphic style, which made it easy for newbies like myself to figure out what type of hedonistic spectacle would be found there.
First things first, a burgeoning scenester needs to find the right clothing. I went to a generic department store and found a pair of black slacks and a white button down Oxford which I would do all the way to the top button. I walked through St. Mark’s Place and found a cheap silver ring in one of the punk shops. One night I felt ready. I put all of this on and drew a raccoon’s oval around my eyes in charcoal pencil—an item I’d grabbed at Ricky’s, New York City’s trade shop for clubgoers. And so, having found a spare Friday, a bunch of classmates and I got together and trekked over to The Bank, a largish nightclub on the corner of Essex and Houston which over the weekends catered to the belfry-bat variety of clubgoer—i.e., goths.
I’d no idea back then what an act of independence I’d be committing upon my first step into the club. In my mind, I was only trying to have fun. Of course, it was more than that, though it’s taken decades to be able to pinpoint how. Recalling from today’s vantage point the gritty pageant I witnessed in the main hall, the panorama of PVC, chains, tattoos, and makeup, fading in and out of the moving shadows from the lights overhead, I can say that it was the first time in my life that I felt real independence. As I continued further into the club, my feet kicked around empty plastic cups and cigarette butts on the floor. There were new rules over what happens indoors. I walked in further still towards the back, through a narrow hallway, to a much smaller chamber, almost like a catacomb, where the DJ was spinning a darker than usual style of ’80s New Wave. A fog machine turned the clubgoers into twisting shadows, the incessant strobe lights freezing their contorted silhouettes into stuttering frames. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing; it was as though a vision had been stirring inside of me without my knowing it, a dream of a community of vampires, and now it was realized in the flesh. I had had no idea that I’d wanted this, needed it even. Even more than off the street, walking into this chamber was to cross a line, one I couldn’t uncross, a line on the other side of which were things that no longer mattered, the diurnal ambitions and prerogatives I was now ceding to a nocturnal spirit. It was as though a switch had turned off in my head, one that had been shackling my body for years. Now, all of a sudden, I was free.
I was still an awkward NYU student, my eyeliner splotching up in the heat. I’m positive I looked a fool. But I’d already begun changing. I had walked in a scholar but I’d be walking out a club kid, of the Goth variety, true, but one hopelessly entranced by the nightlife scene all the same. I’d been captured by a strange new calling, as though an inebriating vapor had entered my heart, installing a passionate force that drove me with every beat.
It would take no time to complete my transformation, not just as a full-blown Goth but, at least in spirit, as a club kid as well. I’d come to know darker, more Goth-y parties than this initial Friday night at The Bank. Soon I’d be twirling my fishnet stocking–covered arms amidst the assorted items of the scene. Lace and henna and ivory foundation and clove cigarettes and crucifixes and fog imbued these clubs with a neo-romantic pallor straight from the pages of 19th century intrigues like Dracula and Frankenstein.
The “Goth style,” a loose amalgam of aesthetics involving lifestyle norms, music taste and dress code, isn’t always regarded very highly, nor is it often thought of as an example of gritty nightlife, and almost certainly not as Dance music. Even so, it shares more with the golden era of the nightclub scene of New York City in the ’80s and ’90s than people often give it credit for. I myself experienced this connection when I took on this radical commitment, this new lifestyle oriented around nightlife, and began meeting others who’d made similar such commitments. For us, it wasn’t just a game of dress-up. It was a movement, one oriented around the clubs, like so much Dance music is oriented around the clubs. For all of its seeming cartoonishness, this comparatively subversive, punk-adjacent scene had a lot to do with dance culture in the city.
There was a Saturday night party called Click+Drag, for example, hosted by Chi Chi Valenti, a veteran celebutante from the days of Basquiat and the Mudd Club, which I started obsessively attending. In a stroke of genius, Chi Chi united the more adventurous Goths with the drag and BDSM community, adding a bit of nouveau cyberpunk for the encroaching millennium. There the music would range from industrial to techno, but with a twist: The adrenalized dance music served as a backdrop to a kind of sexual adventurism one readily encounters in swingers events and roleplay brothels. To attend Click+Drag was to know with full apprehension the values of dominatrices and their loyal subs. But Chi Chi’s night was also an intelligent spin on the fetish scene, featuring a cavalcade of art school drag and men in Rubber Man suits, reimagining the dance-foor as a sex parlor dungeon. There was even a boudoir next to it, complete with chaise lounges in gilded Sun King style. For a long time I thought of dance music as merely the “oontz, oontz, oontz” of house music’s telltale four-on-the-floor kick pattern. But what I was now realizing, most vividly here at Click+Drag, was that the story of Dance music was part of the story of nightlife in general, and that that nightlife umbrella was becoming much more broad than just house and techno.
The Goth scene provided what all nightlife scenes promised: liberation. The Goth-tinged imaginarium I found at The Bank and at Chi Chi’s parlor of domination enabled me to reimagine my world, my values, my sexuality and, crucially, my confidence. The scene was an articulation of some kind of imagined artistic elite, of a rarified stratum of permissiveness and progressivism, a vision of leisure and luxury in the service of the promulgation of cultural anarchy. When I see the old footage of Michael Alig and his club kids on Geraldo—the ones who brought that term to mainstream recognition—strutting onto the landing in front of the audience like so many bizarre prima donnas, I’m instantly transported to my own journey through this world of made-up aristocrats, to a time when I was given keys, however imaginary, that unlocked my sense of belonging—something I hadn’t before experienced.
I’d joined a community of desperate seekers; you could call us addicts (many of us, of course, were). We were people who needed the clubs. Those of us pulled into the night often can’t stand to be alone. In that case, going out is a necessity, a Maslovian one, something fundamental like food and water. Without the excited energy field of the clubs, the humid cloud of sweat particles, the roar of human speech, and thumping bass that you can feel in your chest, it’s as though oxygen itself has run out. We need those bodies to absorb the anxiety. The energy and the sounds and the motion are like a cancelation phase, that acoustical phenomenon whereby one sound wave cancels another, thus nullifying our unease and desperation. And it’s not enough to just have people. If that were true, you could just go into a crowded subway car. No, you need a vision of order, a story or narrative to circumscribe the loneliness. We don’t just need bodies, we need tribes. That’s why clubs often have a door person, the imperious gatekeeper whose cruel policy determines the quality of an evening. It ensures that, by the time we are all inside, we are no longer strangers, at least not complete ones. The process of “making it in,” though often lambasted as snooty arrogance, is nonetheless a signal for those of us on the other side of the door. Once in, we become people who’ve agreed to reduce ourselves to bodies in motion, to make of ourselves the stuff of ballistics, objects of physical law, and containers of biological drives.
In contrast to genres like rock or hip-hop, with their stars saying very reproducible things that make for good copy, dance music is relatively anonymous and, at least in Europe, more of a collective, populist phenomenon. Before anything else, it is the scene, the grimy, transient, structureless gathering of bodies, which comes first. There are no albums, no tours, no press appearances and no radio campaigns by which to measure the passage of time in the nightclubs. It’s just an endless procession of sound and movement. When I watch Downtown chronicler Nelson Sullivan’s archive of late ’80s and early ’90s vlogs, I marvel at the revelation of time undergirding all of the spaces he captured. It’s startling to witness the hallways and dressing rooms and stages 10 years younger than when I knew them, to suddenly behold the chronology of something that seemed ahistorical when it was happening, to see evidence of history in the makes of the cars, in the graininess of the footage, in the haircuts, in the faces of not-yet-famous stars, like the face of a young and glabrous RuPaul gallivanting through some of the very same halls—underground tunnels, really—through which I would later gallivant.
The world turned, yet I had no idea of it. I missed a lot. In the clubs, my sleep was deep. But it would be foolish to think that my experience of nightlife wasn’t itself a creature of history, to forget that in fact it too was part of the world. When you’re in a scene, you don’t know that it’s part of a larger frame. How could I have known it back then, that there was a story to it all?
That story, the story of Dance music, is one of seven such tales, corresponding to seven music genres, all told with a trenchant voice in Major Labels, Kalefa Sanneh’s journey through the history of popular music. Sanneh undertakes a hybrid approach to his subject matter, mixing historical overview with barrels of cultural analysis, and to rich effect. This ambiguity of form redounds to the book’s favor, as it permits Sanneh to skip briskly, and sometimes non-chronologically, through the storylines of music history. You never lose your place, ambitious as the project may be—an impressive feat given that a proper history of even one of these genres would have required an entire volume. Instead, Sanneh skips lightly across a wide constellation of musics—Rock, R&B, Country, Punk, Hip-hop, Dance music and Pop—all of which receive a probing account as to their particular norms and their particular prerogatives.
It’s in that last chapter on pop music that Sanneh’s running theme throughout the book—that genres are as much social and political constructs as they are aesthetic categories—comes into full view. This will come as no surprise to those who have read Sanneh’s previous work, given his long-standing defense of pop music against old-fashioned claims that rock music is inherently more valid as an art form. Or, in the contemporary critical parlance, his position in favor of “poptimism,” against “rockism.” A post-punk rocker by the name of Pete Wylie coined the term rockism in 1981, whereas the term poptimism only came into common use in the mid-aughts. But by Sanneh’s reading, poptimism as a belief system, if not as a consciously realized force, began with Boy George and the “new pop” (more commonly known in the US as “new wave”) artists of the UK in the early ’80s, who proudly took on the prerogatives of pop sensibility, hearts on their sleeves, disavowing the stigmas associated with the “merely” popular music of the Billboard pop charts. Though Boy George clearly wasn’t the first pop star, he was, according to Sanneh, the first poptimist, someone who went out of his way to defend pop music against the usual bromides about authenticity and depth.
The debate simmered for decades behind the scenes, until one fateful October, 2004 Saturday Night Live brought the dispute out into the open. That was when Ashley Simpson, the aughts starlet and sister of Jessica, was infelicitously exposed as a lip-syncher during one of her live performances on the show. Later that week, Sanneh, then a columnist for the New York Times, effectively launched his career as vocal anti-rockist, penning an op-ed that would go on to serve as something of a foundational poptimist text. Titled “The Rap Against Rockism,” Sanneh’s piece outed the status quo for what it was, disparaging the attitude that privileges “authenticity,” maligns singers like Simpson for “not really singing” on live TV, and avers that rock bands produce potentially “classic” albums, while “pop” stars produce disposable, “guilty pleasure” singles. Sanneh came out swinging against this “ugly sort of common sense,” carefully noting that to be a good listener is to eschew such preconceptions entirely. And as for “great albums,” the listening habits of many had shifted to “putting a 40-gig iPod on shuffle,” anyway.
Sanneh hasn’t looked back since. If anything, he’s turned out to have been something of a Cassandra: We are now well into the 21st Century, and poptimism appears victorious.
Major Labels is really the fruition of that long course away from rockism, not so much a revision of previous music history as a crystallization of Sanneh’s poptimistic critique. Sanneh’s poptimist stance acts like a knife, cutting through the fat, enabling quick but probing dashes into pop culture specifics without ever getting bogged down in the marginalia. And rather than compressing the gargantuan history of popular music into a rushed summary, the analytical tool of poptimism-vs-rockism enables Sanneh to address his main concern—the cultural signifiers that have been used to police the boundaries of all of these genres in the first place.
In this sense, the book is a stunning meditation on spiritual categories. Sanneh’s sheer ecumenism is on full display as he riffs expertly on divergent topics: from the meaning of Grand Funk Railroad’s early ’70s popularity as the first self-mythologizing rock group; to the significance for country music of Garth Brooks’s creation of the suburban cowboy archetype; to the advent of the easy-listening “Quiet Storm” aesthetic in R&B. What all of these stories have in common is their clear articulation of the meanings which listeners, musicians, and (yes, also) executives have associated with genres. To read through Major Labels is to understand those meanings in poignant ways. Sanneh has a gift for bringing you close to the essences and ideas of these genres, some of which are intangible, occluded or abstract. In this way, Major Labels is something of a hermeneutics of genre, or at the very least a probing journey into the hidden meanings of familiar gestures within popular music.
It turns out that rockers aren’t the only ones who have sought to guard the authenticity of their genre over the years. In one thought-provoking passage, Sanneh recounts the story of Q-Tip schooling Iggy Azalea over her ignorance of his genre’s history and refers to the rapper’s critique, which was issued via tweet, as a kind of “hip-hopism.” Very piquant, and I wish that Sanneh had made more of a meal of this episode; I see it as central to the book’s thesis that it is the natural tendency of genres to serve as barometers of authenticity. As in geopolitics, you might successfully topple one emperor only to speedily replace him with another who is equally despotic. In this reading, the decapitation of rockism might have led to a ludicrous game of genre whack-a-mole.
I suspect, though, that Sanneh is more concerned with solidifying the poptimist project than with worrying about the various new isms competing for authenticity points. Poptimism, in Sanneh’s view, is not so much a ceding of authority to popular taste as a disavowal of stridently defined authenticities. It’s not just that we’ve rejected rockism and all its attendant baggage—its populist appeals, its gambits at permanence, and its conspicuous chauvinism, to name only a handful—but also rejected the very idea that a genre is supposed to guard any prerogatives. And thus we have Sanneh’s robust defense of pop music as a genre worthy of serious esteem, though, crucially, this esteem is not conferred by the “professionals.” This idea, that public opinion supersedes the advice of the professional class, that there are no longer any boundaries for the critical apparatus to police, reveals a bit of utopianism, pointing the way to a future when we’ll all enjoy a landscape unburdened of hackneyed cultural byproducts and biases.
It’s an inviting and welcome premise. On the other hand, it appears that in some corners poptimism is morphing into the very dogmatism it was designed to overturn. The difference, however, is that this time it’s the public, not the critics, who are leading the way. Critics such as Saul Austerlitz, whose work Sanneh spends considerable time addressing, point out that poptimism has given way to blind fandom, where any criticism of popular musicians invites heaps of social media scorn. If the rejection of genre authenticity leads, rather than to a sharpening of critical acumen, to a dearth of discernment, then what kind of victory is that?
As much as I don’t wish to go the snob route, I still wonder why it isn’t possible to applaud the death of rockism, but stop short of an unrestrained deference to public opinion. It’s not like there isn’t room to criticize the tendencies of the public, especially in light of recent technological advances. For example, it seems impossible to divorce the rise of poptimism from the explosion of Twitter armies. When an editor at a music journal who publishes a less than perfect critical rating of Taylor Swift receives death threats from a legion of her stans, that strikes me as something other than a recalibration of dominant narratives, something far less wholesome. When Boy George, with his florid challenges to rockist status quo and overt torch-bearing for the righteousness of pop music qua pop music, gave birth to the basic credo of poptimism back in the early ’80s, he hardly could have imagined the online barrage of shrill salvos that seem now to characterize the main vector of poptimist influence. Unlike his music, with its brisk and fresh openness, it all doesn’t sound very poppy.
It’s probably because of the reach of rockist dogma in my own life that I’ve downplayed the role nightclubs played in my coming of age. I’ve reduced that handful of fertile years in the late ’90s to nothing more than an insignificant lark, a quirk of my youth, maybe even the part of my story where I lost my way. Major Labels has changed that belief to something more charitable. On the first page of the chapter on Dance music, Sanneh recounts the tale of Nile Rodgers, the producer and guitarist who would later team up with Bernard Edwards to found Chic, the progenitors of a new type of music called “disco.” The following passage deeply resonated with me:
Like most stories about dance music, the Nile Rodgers story is a conversion narrative: the tale of a guy who found salvation in a nightclub, and saw the world differently ever after. With the aid of a prescient and intrepid girlfriend, Rodgers explored New York’s flourishing club scene, where he gave himself over to a nonverbal liberation movement. “We held our meetings and demonstrations on the dance floor,” he remembered, adding that dancing had become, somehow, “a powerful communication tool.” (A great night out, he discovered, could be “every bit as motivational” as a speech by Angela Davis, the fiery Black Panther.)
Indeed, the clubs were my salvation too, a “nonverbal liberation movement” that rescued me from a less exciting venture, my then pressing collegiate fetishes which I’d nourished in the mid-’90s in the hopes of escaping the perceived shame of my working class background. Before the clubs, I believed my destiny lay with my nose in a book for the rest of my life and that classical music in particular, with its halls and formalities and institutions, was well suited to this project of rising above the fray, of shunning the plebeian babel which I derogated as “merely” popular music. Listening to Beethoven and Stravinsky seemed to heal disappointments I’d experienced in my teenage years, the failed revolutions of my past wherein one year I was Metal and the next year I was Grunge and so on. The rigorous conservatism of the Carnegie Hall set, with their dress codes and season programs and established compositions written by dead Europeans, froze music into a stony archive of sound, impervious to evanescent fads. I could be assured, the conventions of this genre seemed to promise, that the Huns would never overtake my city.
But I was only pressing down on a volcano. All it took for the eruption to come was a move to the city. And so my proximity to the “flourishing club scene” that had smitten Nile Rodgers ended up enchanting me, as well. Had it not been for the pull of the night, with its calls for liberation, a now beloved part of my spirit would have remained obscure. At the time, it was impossible to ignore. Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if I’d stayed in academia. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter: The kid who’d been so inspired by the tranquil deliberation of philosophical argumentation was hopeless to stop the one who’d now, thanks to the nightlife scene, usurped him and planted his freak flag.
I still love the concert hall and what it moves within me. But the movements classical music inspires are internal, occurring in the spirit, within bodies at rest; in fact, if you look around during a performance, some of those bodies will have lapsed into slumber. The demimonde of the discotheque, on the other hand, with its celebration of modernity du jour, its elevation of the human form, its core purpose of making bodies move, seems to bake in a seductive impermanence, inscribe the aliveness and motion of the scene onto the human body itself. Here is no mere genre, but a live community, a living cultural redoubt in motion, though, crucially, one that advertises itself honestly, as a scene full of people and bodies, not, as is the case with so many other styles of music, as a genre full of nostrums and cant. You often hear talk about what is “real country,” “real rock,” “real hip-hop,” as though there were bodysnatchers around making it necessary to weed out the imposters. But you don’t hear so much about “real disco,” “real house,” or “real techno,” a point that Sanneh articulates beautifully. Dance music has little use for this type of posturing because of its functionality: If the bodies aren’t moving, then the music has failed. That’s dance music’s “reality” test. The proof is in the pudding.
I’ve never understood the cult of the DJ, why people turn to face a DJ on a stage, as though that were a performance. It strikes me as—tellingly—a rockist import. I encountered this phenomenon directly, when I was DJ’ing in the mid-’00s. My profile playing bass guitar with the rock band Interpol elevated my profile as a DJ, and I traveled to cities to DJ at select parties. Many of the gigs I showed up to were contrived as pseudo-performances, with the DJ booth positioned on a riser in front of an “audience.” Which to me felt like the wrong cue. The way I saw it, there was no “audience” per se. People in clubs are more like a congregation. They’re there not to watch anyone perform anything but to be with each other and have a good time. Eventually, I changed my rider to request that the booth be kept out of plain view and, in my opinion, centering the beats and the dancing, instead of the DJ, made for some great parties.
I suspect that this emphasis on functionality and social gathering is why dance music has gotten such a bad rap over the years. I felt a tremor of recognition when Sanneh wrote of Nile Rodgers’s own experience with the stigma of dance music as “merely” party music (as though a clear linkage with music’s original function for Homo sapiens as group ritual was somehow shameful!):
Rodgers strained to praise disco because he knew that, even decades later, many people would rather bury it. He knew that, too often, pop music history is organized around great albums, rather than great parties. Often, that means dance music gets written out.
Is this not yet another example of the pernicious reach of rockist consensus? Here’s where the interpretive method animating Major Labels really shines, for it provides the reader insight into dynamics of music and the music industry that are seldom discussed. That they are now out in the open constitutes at least one poptimist victory to savor.
Sanneh and I are both Gen Xers. In fact, we were born within one year of each other, in the mid-’70s, a distinction that places us together more specifically still: We were in high school when Nirvana transformed the rock landscape overnight. The salience of that event for teenagers back then is difficult to overstate, and I detect a link between Sanneh’s recognition of the peculiarities lurking behind genres, and our generation’s exposure to such an enormous shift during such a sensitive time in our lives. It’s what also makes me suspect that, like many Gen Xers, Sanneh must continue to grieve for what’s been lost in the wake of our Spotify-era diaspora. I know I do. But, thanks to this book, we aging Gen Xers have a text to illuminate our unease.
So let the disconsolate Gen Xers among us quit frowning. While the age of streaming has contributed to the demise of the LP and much else, it’s still a net gain. To give just one example, today’s new paradigm, with its elision of genre and epoch, allows for compelling musical collages we never could have imagined as teenagers. The mash-up, for instance, is one modern technique which had already begun to flourish in the late ’90s, and which itself relied on the ascent of retro movements. While I was clubbing back then, I was listening not only to Goth music, but to a then novel retro movement renewing interest in and repurposing ’80s New Wave. It’s no surprise that, given its emphases on conviviality and socialization, the music undergirding the original blossoming of poptimism could so easily be repurposed for the dance floor. The only thing you had to take out was the poptimists’ love of personalities. Other than that, the change was basically seamless. “’80s Nights’’ are now a widely visible component of nightclub programs across the country. As a result, the values of that early era in pop have been normalized to a large extent, somewhat analogously to how rock was rebranded as “classic rock” back in the ’80s.
The nightclub scene points to yet another way out of rockist hegemony, if any traces of that prejudice still linger today. Look closely at the culture in the clubs and you’ll notice a way of engaging with music that shades toward the disposable and away from the precious—exactly the opposite of what has historically passed for “proper” music consumption. The club scene’s attention span, framed by a single evening, is short. And its ability to drill deep is hampered by its status as a social event. Both of these elements end up being virtues, because they make it difficult to arrange prescriptions and identifications for listeners outside of the transient—though, essential—main event of the dance floor. And because personalities are diminished, attention gets focused on the gathering, not the performance. No one really wears a Diplo t-shirt around, influential as he is for Dance music. This is something to be celebrated, and I wonder if the very conditions for successful Dance music, its celebration of gaiety and evanescence, its allegiance to functionality and its erasure of personalities, all clearly anti-rockist in orientation, is not an underexplored option for discourse within the contentious binary of rockism versus poptimism.
by Carlos Dengler