So he began to write about it, and distinctly. In 2002, still in his twenties, he became a pop music critic for the New York Times. Since 2008, he has been a writer for the New Yorker. He has just published his first book, “Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres” (Penguin Press).
âI guess I’m just one of those people who has a certain inclination to find stuff on my own,â he said recently, over the phone from his home in Brooklyn.
Born in Ghana – his father was a black man from The Gambia, his mother a white woman from South Africa – Sanneh attended school in Cambridge and the surrounding area before the family moved to New Haven during his years of high school. (Her parents both taught at Harvard and then Yale.)
In high school, Sanneh was introduced to punk rock, which he took like a duck with little multicolored dreadlocks takes on water.
Punk taught him that having strong opinions about music can be a defining characteristic. But while punk rockers have often defined themselves in opposition to anything the mainstream does, for Sanneh, learning “to savor the perverse charms of punk,” as he puts it, “I ended up hearing pretty much. almost the whole world of popular music as perversely charming, or potentially.
Besides its take on punk, “Major Labels” offers chapters on rock, R&B, country, hip-hop, dance music and, finally, pop – the catch-all term we use. for commercially oriented music that does not fit perfectly. in one of the other genera. Sanneh does not claim to tell the full story of each genre. Instead, he explains how each has managed to form a community of fans and musicians united in their dedication to a style – often, resisting the compulsion to become âpopâ.
In conversation, Sanneh is quite pleasant. Still, he’s always loved how music fans can be so fiery.
âI wanted to tell the story of these genres – and by genres, I mean sort of communities – how often these communities are defined by arguments,â he says. âWhat does it mean to be a rock band? What does rock look like? How is rock defined?
Is it the bluesy swagger of Grand Funk Railroad, or the androgynous power ballads of hair-metal band Poison, or the gruesome grunge of Nirvana? Could any of these groups have anticipated the variations that followed?
The book is full of such flashpoints. Is “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X a country song? Does hip-hop have to be political or philosophical to be “good”? Why has the massive appeal of disco been so abruptly short-lived?
âMy father, in his own way, was not afraid to take a stand outside the academic consensus,â says Sanneh. The late Lamin Sanneh taught the world history of Christianity âat a time when there was a lot of academic skepticism. He called on people to rethink their instinctive hostility to the mission plan. “
âI inherited some of that sense,â says Sanneh, who was associate editor of Transition, the journal on race and culture presented to Harvard by Henry Louis Gates Jr. âBut I needed something that is mine. “
That something turned out to be the theology of pop music.
âWe all defined ourselves by the music we listened to,â says Christian Rudder, who was a close friend of Sanneh’s and another punk-oriented DJ at WHRB, the Harvard radio station. Rudder then co-founded the independent group Bishop Allen; he also co-founded the online dating platform OkCupid.
They all did that, he says, “but no one else has really been able to say why it was cool, or why it was even important.” Sanneh “has certainly helped me with my own personal critical thinking.”
These days, Rudder takes pleasure in watching his old friend in his appearances on âCBS Sunday Morningâ.
âHonestly, I just feel like he’s a more global version of this kid I knew in Cambridge, who seemed to know everything about me even at the time,â he says. âHe’s just a ‘plus’ version of what he was then. I am not at all surprised.
It is this sense of surprise that keeps Sanneh deeply invested in the endless mutations, detours and transgressions of pop music.
In addition to Newbury Comics, he held jobs at a few Harvard Square record stores that no longer exist. Each place has expanded its palate. Gloria Winquist, who hired Sanneh to work at Pipeline Records, says she leaned towards country and folk music, while her business partner, Meggan Todd, loved 1960s girl groups.
“He was always curious, a very good listener,” says Winquist.
Working in the Newbury Comics warehouse, employees took turns controlling the boombox. There were glam kids, skinheads, ravers who were interested in electronic music.
âIt was fascinating,â says Sanneh. With each change in musical mood, he asked himself the same question: “Is there a way I could imagine a life experience where I ended up liking this?”
While many musicians denigrate the writer’s urge to label everything, Sanneh says his book is somewhat of a defense of the idea of ââgenres. He is always trying to understand how people feel a sense of belonging. For many, it’s music.
âMaybe it’s partly because I’m an immigrant,â he says. âWhen I listen to music, I feel like I’m listening, hearing another community.
“That’s part of the fun -” What are these people over there listening to? “”
In Boston, he helped form an idealistic, short-lived punk collective that organized fundraisers and promoted underground shows. The collective drew a diverse group, from students at other Boston-area colleges to âcrust punksâ hanging out in the âpitâ of Harvard Square.
These relationships “made me feel like living in Boston as part of a community, as opposed to just part of a college,” says Sanneh.
Gone are the days when he had to ask his mom to take him to the mall to pick up the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ new album. After spending years hunting down obscure import recordings, he never ceased to marvel at the fantastic abundance of music streaming services.
âI still haven’t gotten used to it,â he says. âIt’s always incredibly exciting and generous. Can I go shopping at the record store every week? It’s incredible !
âAnd every week I’m going to hear something new that blows my mind. This feeling of surprise and pleasure certainly hasn’t gone away.
In his chapter on pop music, Sanneh breaks down the debate that raged among music critics in the early 2000s about “rockism” – the questionable notion that all music should be subject to the critical standard of presumed “authenticity” of rock music. In response, some critics have adopted the term “poptimism” as a way to endorse an equally thoughtful approach to the coverage of supposedly “frivolous” pop music.
Sanneh traces this debate back to the early 1980s in the UK, where a longtime music magazine writer NME said âDeath to the rockers, long live the funnists! “
Unfortunately, as a category of personal identity, “funnist” never caught on. If that had been the case, Sanneh could very well have become its main promoter.
âFor me, that feeling of pleasure and surprise is what keeps me interested in music,â he says. “That feeling of ‘Wait, they make records that sound like this? Or even, ‘Wait, this song went to number one? ‘
âIt’s delicious for me,â he says.
James Sullivan can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.