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Artists Hate Genres. Kelefa Sanneh Thinks That’s All Wrong

Sanneh, a longtime music critic, offers a spirited “defense of musical genres” — from rap to country to punk — in his new book Major Labels

"There's a reason why people are always trying to get away from those categories, and a reason why people end up finding themselves back in those categories," Kelefa Sanneh says of pop's tried-and-true genres.

Jason Nocito*

Starting in the early 2000s, writer Kelefa Sanneh did more than any other critic to shake up the way people listen to and think about music. His New York Times pieces were frequently short but incisive and hilarious, humming with the infectious energy of a hooky pop song: Consider the one where Sanneh jokes about Ne-Yo planting a rumor that he was addicted to sex to help sell albums, or the one where Sanneh draws a comparison between Kenny Chesney and a stripper. Then there was 2004’s “Rap Against Rockism,” one of the only pieces of music writing that rises to the level of a manifesto. “Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star,” Sanneh wrote, and “lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco.” The essay still inspires back and forth to this day. 

Sanneh, who’s been with The New Yorker since 2008, has now published an ambitious new book, Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres, which takes readers on a post-Beatles tour of rock, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance music, and pop. If “Rap Against Rockism” was a call to arms at a time when, as Sanneh wrote, “rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t rule the world anymore, but lots of writers still act as if it does,” Major Labels takes aim at a different aspect of groupthink. Now that it’s commonplace to hear that genres are disappearing and everyone listens to everything, Sanneh tells Rolling Stone, why not “celebrate some of these categories that helped create the modern musical environment?”

“I am always a bit puzzled when a musician is praised for transcending genre,” he writes in the introduction to Major Labels. “What’s so great about that? … the idea of transcending genre suggests an inverse correlation between excellence and belonging, as if the greatest musicians were somehow less important to their musical communities, rather than more.” 

Sanneh spoke with Rolling Stone about the value of classification, the time he declared Ashanti better than Beyoncé, and why music writers might be undervaluing the Magic! song “Rude.”

Early in your book you write that “musicians … generally hate talking about genres.” Why do you think there is such an allergy to claiming a genre identity among artists?
I think with music there is this idea, this fantasy, that there’s something so immediate about [their work] that therefore it could be universal. Every musician has that idea — if people will just listen, they would like it. That’s a really admirable idea and a hope, even if in practice we tend to form these communities. So it makes sense to me that musicians don’t like listeners or writers to come along and say, “Here’s the community you’re in.” And there’s a way of doing that that can be clumsy and flattening. 

But there’s also the fact that your music will reach a certain number of people, and it’s interesting if those people think of themselves as part of a community, or share some assumptions. Part of the reason we like music is it’s social, which sometimes means it’s anti-social. What we like about music is usually a combination of exclusivity and inclusivity: Maybe I’m in this club, but these people aren’t. That dynamic is really fun, really seductive. 

And that’s why throughout history when there are these moments when genre seems like it’s disappearing — in the late Seventies, maybe all music is disco now, and whether you’re Rod Stewart or you’re doing the theme of Star Wars, everything is a disco song — those moments tend to be followed by moments when the pendulum swings the other way, and people are like, “No, let’s do things differently over here.” Even as there’s always the desire to reject those classifications, it’s really hard to escape them. 

You clearly value the “tribes” that spring up around music fandom. One of the reasons your writing has been important for a lot of people is because it introduced them to so much music that was outside of the “tribes” they were a part of, and that they might not have found otherwise. Help me make sense of that contradiction: loving the single-minded approach but also jumping between groups.
It’s so appealing to say, “I like all kinds of stuff.” One of the reasons that’s appealing is that there is something fun about the differences in music and being able to enjoy death metal, a slow jam, minimal techno, and commercial country. But it’s also true that the differences between those music wouldn’t have existed if there hadn’t been people with tunnel vision, people so single-minded, who know a tradition so well, that they’re like, “We’ve already heard that kick-drum seven times this year on different records, so we’re gonna tweak it like this.” That intensity, that micro-focus, can be enabled by the community-mindedness that you get from deep within a genre. 

Jumping between tribes is really fun, but you can’t have that fun unless you have tribes. The fun of jumping into any of it is that it can feel like its own world. So I was like, let’s talk about those worlds. Especially at a time when there’s movement the other way, a sense that genres are going away, that they’re close-minded and that maybe we should be open-minded. Those urges — freedom, liberation, breaking down barriers — they aren’t new. Those are recurring desires that have shaped the history of popular music. There’s a reason why people are always trying to get away from those categories, and a reason why people end up finding themselves back in those categories. 

There’s also just some mischief to [my approach]: At a time when everyone claims to listen to everything, let’s celebrate some of these categories that helped create the modern musical environment. Even if someone doesn’t share that desire to say, “I only listen to one kind of music,” maybe precisely because that now seems ridiculous, let’s understand where that comes from, why that’s actually kind of common, and why that might never totally go away. 

After Blackout Tuesday, the music industry briefly attempted to address its racist past. You had people like No I.D. calling for an end to “pop,” because pop is less of a genre and more a way to make sure that more resources go to white artists than non-white artists. Does No I.D.’s argument resonate with you? At what point can genre and taxonomy start to do damage?
Part of the reason we talk about those divisions in the industry is that those divisions are salient in society. There are joint desires to be like, “We don’t want to be over here in the little Black music corner; we want to go join the mainstream,” and the flip side of that, which is, there’s something powerful about making Black music, especially if it means your audience is predominantly Black, and if it means there can be music that reflects what a Black audience wants to hear, even if Black people are only 12 percent of the population in America. 

If everything is mainstream, 88 percent of the audience is going to be non-Black. At various times, Black musicians especially have been very proud of the way their music resonates in a particular way with Black listeners, very frustrated about the fact that maybe it doesn’t resonate more among non-Black listeners. … It’s not that one or the other is going to make it fair. We’re talking about a minority within America. 

There’s an economic argument too. A record that resonates among white people is gonna make more money than a record that resonates among Black listeners. That’s math. The question is: What do you want to do about that? There are all sorts of answers. One is global. Across the planet, Anglo listeners are very much a minority, white listeners are very much a minority, so the more the industry globalizes, the more you’d expect the market power of other ethnicities to come to the fore. 

But this is what’s so interesting to me. What does it mean for pop music to reflect America? Part of the story of pop of course is that Black music and Black musicians have been disproportionately influential, on the one hand. On the other hand, part of that story is that often the most successful and most popular artists, sometimes even in Black genres, have been white. I don’t think of it necessarily as a problem to be solved, except that people like you and me can shine a light on whoever is making great records. 

“Part of the story of pop is that Black music and Black musicians have been disproportionately influential, on the one hand. On the other hand, part of that story is that often, the most successful and most popular artists, sometimes even in Black genres, have been white.”

Is that economic argument more urgent now? You used to have acts like Maze, Teddy Pendergrass, or Luther Vandross who could sell a lot of albums to Black audiences without having many white fans. But in the streaming era, it’s a lot harder for comparable acts to generate the same amount of money.
As much as people criticize record labels for categorizing things to make them easy to sell, we want record labels to be good at identifying audiences. We want them to say, “Here’s this record that pop listeners aren’t going crazy for, but we’ve noticed there is this other community that are really loyal to it, really listening to it.” That’s the flip side of categorization, the upside of categorization. In theory, streaming should make it easier for labels to micro-target. 

You mention Maze, someone like Luther Vandross. You can think of it as a point of pride. Here’s Luther, who never had a Number One pop hit, but those records are incredible. If you’re someone kind of into R&B, and you’ve never listened to a Luther Vandross record, your life is about to get way better when you sit down with those records. You could even say something similar about Earth, Wind and Fire, who had some crossover success but loomed large among Black listeners in a way they didn’t with white listeners. In retrospect that’s really valuable, even if it’s not as economically valuable as it would have been for them to have the audience that the Rolling Stones had. 

Is is possible to imagine a world in which genre didn’t overlap so closely with race?
Music is social, so I would think that whatever musical communities that form are going to have something to do with our social identity and our social divisions. Music is likely going to be divisive in a way those other things are divisive. 

But that said, the thing I love about music the most, more than anything else, is its capacity to surprise me. Songs get popular that I’m not expecting. Genres emerge and develop in ways I would not expect. I wouldn’t expect that genres would follow our social divisions in some sort of predictable way. But I would expect that they would reflect them somehow. 

You’re talking about people hanging out, even if they’re virtually hanging out online. You can hear the ways Americans come together and the way they set themselves apart — “We’re not like those people” — in music. That’s why it’s a pendulum. As soon as it’s the Seventies, and people are like, we can listen to some groovy music with a beat and it’s fine, the punks are like, “No, it’s fucking not fine. It’s not fine at all.” When you have a long heritage of great R&B music, beautiful Black music, rappers come along like, “That doesn’t reflect us; we’re gonna do this other thing.” 

One of the things I loved was going into the archives and reading all this old stuff and realizing how alien some of these earlier eras were. There’s times when people are like, “Is Prince a sellout?” You’re like, what kind of question is that?

You talked about Nelson George’s Death of Rhythm & Blues in your book — he was very ambivalent about Prince when he wrote that.
He’s capturing the polemics of the time. You read them, like, “Oh, that’s the stuff that gets flattened out in history.” We’re like, “Everyone loved Prince!” No, they didn’t. And that’s that point we talked about before. If you’re Prince, you can take pride that you’re on MTV, getting a pop audience, you’re a guitar hero, some Van Halen fans are getting into it. Or you can be like, “No, I want to double down and do something that really resonates with the core demographic.” It turns out that listeners 10, 20, 40 years ago were excited and worried about the same stuff we are excited and worried about. 

“One of the things I loved was going into the archives and reading all this old stuff and realizing how alien some of these earlier eras were. There’s times when people are like, ‘Is Prince a sellout?’ … We’re like, ‘Everyone loved Prince!’ No, they didn’t.”

Why did you want to include a section about your old New York Times review when you said Ashanti was better than Beyoncé?
Dude, when you go that viral — I still see that headline [on Twitter] once in a while. I thought the time had come to explain myself. 

One of your former colleagues at The New York Times, A.O. Scott, wrote that “the sacred duty of a critic is to be wrong.” Do you agree with that?
When we say wrong, what do we mean? Usually what we mean is out of step with the judgments of posterity. How many stars did you give Nevermind when it came out? Did you give it five stars like you were supposed to like we all think now? 

If you were a critic and always getting it right in terms of rendering a judgment that future listeners would agree with, first of all, you’re in the wrong profession: You should go work for a label and be rich beyond your wildest dreams. If you’re prescient in that way where you hear a demo tape and be like, “This band is gonna be a classic, filling arenas for years to come,” that’s a really valuable skill, and if you have it, you should not waste your time writing record reviews. 

The other part of it is: It wouldn’t be that interesting if you’re a critic and your takeaway is, “I think the Rolling Stones are really good.” Usually what makes a critic fun to read is they’re doing two things that are kind of contradictory. They’re telling you what’s happening, and they’re telling you what they’re hearing. Those things are sort of odds, because telling you what’s happening is sort of like, “Here’s what everyone thinks,” and that’s a little bit at odds with, “Here’s what I think.” Yes, you want to be informative and somewhat surprising, and different critics do that in different proportions. Most people you want to read find a space somewhere in between. 

In the years since writing that review, I’ve spent more time listening to Beyoncé than Ashanti. But I thought it would be interesting and maybe fun to walk through how I got there as a way of thinking about how these judgments are made. In general, I’m not that great at predicting what America will love. I’m usually pretty good at predicting what I’m gonna like. I like almost all the same records that I said I liked 10 or 20 years ago. That’s a critical skill too. You wouldn’t want to read something where they think one thing this week and next week they think something else. You want a certain amount of consistency because you’re seeing a way of looking at the world. But I figured maybe some people would read this book who had seen that headline and are wondering, “What the hell was that guy thinking?” 

You get into this a little bit toward the end of the book: Is there as much room for critics to be wrong as there once was?
I think when it comes to this very specific and peculiar thing about having opinions about pop songs, there’s definitely more consensus than there used to be. The interaction has become more direct: Fans, artists, and listeners are communicating on social media, and instant consensus is being formed. 

“If you were a critic and always getting it right in terms of rendering a judgment that future listeners would agree with, first of all, you’re in the wrong profession: You should go work for a label and be rich beyond your wildest dreams.”

There’s upside to that, because music is social, because instead of having to send away to join someone’s fan club, you can participate in an interactive way in that fandom online, and that can really amplify a lot of what gets us excited about pop music in the first place. You can really stan Doja Cat, go out there, feel like you’re fighting for her. 

One job of critics is to figure out how you fit into that world. A lot has changed. People used to read music critics because that was the easiest and cheapest way to find out what a bunch of new records sounded like. That’s no longer the case. And it used to be hard for readers and even artists to respond to critics. That’s no longer the case either. 

I don’t think this is necessarily a turn for the worse. But partly because of my own background as a disputatious punk, I think in every era there will be some place where people are disagreeing. I’m gonna want to be in that space, because I think disagreements are really interesting. If it turns out that people who are disagreeing about music aren’t music critics, I’ll go find whoever it is and hear what they’re saying. 

Much of your book is drawn from contemporary responses to the music you write about. As you note in the book, now the overwhelming majority of responses to new music are positive. Would that make it hard to write the equivalent of this book 50 years from now?
It’s possible that music won’t always be quite as important as it was in the Sixties. Rolling Stone is a music magazine but also a magazine about American culture. It seemed obvious for most of the magazine’s history that those things were deeply intertwined. But there’s no law that says that has to be the case. Maybe the next Rolling Stone comes from the world of streetwear or gaming or somewhere else. As long as music plays that formative role and people are defining themselves with music, somewhere, somehow, people are gonna be divisive, setting themselves apart. Fifty years from now, if music still looms as large in the self-conception of young people and in the conception of America, there will be stories like these. 

It was fascinating to get some of the biographical details you included in this book, especially learning that you were single-mindedly into punk for a while. Do you see “Rap Against Rockism” as a letter to your younger, punk-obsessed teen self who might have ignored artists like Ciara and Lloyd Banks and Alan Jackson?
Partly. Part of [me writing that essay] was a recognition of something that was happening among a whole cohort of people who are listening to music. I wanted to let readers know, here’s something that we professional music critics have been thinking and talking about. You might not know this word, but it might help you decode what you’re seeing in reviews. It’s certainly true that I embraced pop music with the zeal of a convert. But I also did that with hip-hop and punk.

It was funny to write that essay. I was very pleasantly surprised that people read it. I never take that for granted. And some people felt compelled to respond to it, and the debate continued. Some people heard that as, “There’s something wrong with rock music.” There’s always some critical consensus, and there’s often a good reason for it. But usually that means we’re missing something else. That’s always the case. For a while, country music was considered beneath contempt. For a while, EDM fulfilled that role. There’s always something. 

I don’t think it’s possible to listen, as George Michael said, without prejudice. In that article I said, “We need some new prejudices.” And you could argue that’s what we got. I don’t even mean to say that the consensus is wrong. But we should consider what the consensus means. 

I’m sure you’ve probably had to talk about “Rap Against Rockism” more than you’ve wanted to in your life, so I apologize, but it was such a touchstone for so many people. One of the most insightful observations in there, and you bring it up again in the book, is that “the language of rockism is the language of righteous struggle.” Is that just because rock critics got out of the gate first in a way? If Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus and Rolling Stone had been obsessed with R&B slow jams rather than rock in the late 1960s, would there be a whole different way of talking about music?
I think all the older critics were responding to something really happening in the culture and the music. Rock did take over the culture and the world. These records resonated among young people and blew people’s minds. Maybe critics are destined to be a little old fashioned, have a way of thinking about the world that’s shaped by what happened 10 or 20 years ago. But to my ears at that time [of writing “Rap Against Rockism”], there was all this music that was great and really popular that didn’t satisfy these old ideas about what music should do, so it wasn’t really being considered. 

But it’s funny, when the arguments against rockism arise in the early 1980s British music press, they’re almost nihilistic. They’re like, “This stuff is ridiculous, nothing matters, let’s get some money, make a big hit. Who gives a fuck about everything else?” The version of so-called poptimism that arose in the U.S. in the late 2000s and 2010s is different; it’s idealistic. It’s like, “Old rock & roll values are bad, we’re gonna embrace good values, and enshrine something worthy of respect,” rather than saying, “This idea of respectable music is ridiculous.” 

“Maybe critics are destined to be a little old fashioned, have a way of thinking about the world that’s shaped by what happened 10 or 20 years ago.”

Another interesting suggestion you make in this book that would turn music writing on its head is: What if we treasure the most fleeting moments in pop rather than the longest-lasting ones? This could mean that now is the best moment ever for music writing, because we have so many 15-second viral sounds on TikTok that grab everyone for a few days then disappear.
When Christgau is doing his Consumer Guide, part of the reason he’s grading albums and using the word “consumer” is he’s telling you what to spend his money on. That was used as a stand-in for a certain kind of quality — is this the type of thing that’s gonna make you go out and spend 10 bucks to buy it? 

In a post-purchasing era, that has interesting aesthetic implications. TikTok is a good example. If you watch a video on there, did you like it? I don’t mean did you click “like.” Did you categorize it in your mind as a good or bad thing? Those categories are a little more intangible than you might think. When you’re in a store and a song comes on that you know and you sing along to it, does that mean you like it? 

Once you take away this act of having to buy an album, there’s all sorts of music you can hear all day, and a lot of times we might not even be sure if we like it or not. When you put pressure on these distinctions, they can start to seem a little hard to defend. So a song like “Rude” by Magic!, all those people who listened to it when it came out, they liked it. If all that liking of that song is concentrated in 2014, instead of being spread out evenly over the years, is that worse for some reason? I don’t know. 

Throughout Major Labels, you’re willing to admit to liking things that many people would not. You’re fine with Paul Simon being an “unapologetic practitioner of cultural appropriation,” something which is generally frowned upon. You’re fascinated by neo-Nazi metal. And you even defend country radio, which is a punching bag for a lot of writers.
It’s related to a certain skepticism of consensus. I sometimes relate that to the immigrant’s desire to figure out what’s happening, especially in America. I think in my writing, often, I’ve tried to be honest about what I like and what I don’t like, but I’ve also tried not to be prescriptive. I play music, but I’m not a musician. I try at the most basic level to never offer advice: This song would be better with this or that. I also try not to offer advice to genres: This genre would be better if it did more of this, this genre should develop in that way, the idea that hip-hop, country, R&B should be something different than it is today. That’s not the kind of writing I’m best at. 

There are people who are really good at that: “Here’s how this genre should change.” But I think the thing I’m better at is trying to listen closely and have something to say about, here’s how this genre is the way it is, with the assumption on my part that it probably will change, and probably not in ways that I will predict. That’s not to say that I don’t understand why people want things to change in a certain way, because part of that is the desire for a genre, especially if you feel a part of it, to reflect you. But part of the appeal of music to me has always been that one of the things it reflects is people who are unlike me. That’s interesting too. 

From Rolling Stone US