If you’re fortunate enough to be accepted into Harvard, you’ve earned an elite education. For Kelefa Sanneh, however, the world opened up not behind the gates of Harvard Yard, but inside the Brighton warehouse of Newbury Comics.
In college, Sanneh studied comparative literature. But the year that he took off from school, during which he spent 40 hours a week putting price stickers on compact discs, would prove to be his real education.
For Sanneh, popular music — or more precisely at the time, music that was not so popular — was “a portal into everything.”
So he began writing about it, and distinctively. In 2002, still in his 20s, he became a pop music critic for The New York Times. Since 2008, he’s been a staff writer at The New Yorker. Now he has published his first book, “Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres” (Penguin Press).
“I guess I’m just one of those people that has a certain urge to go figure out stuff for myself,” he said recently, on the phone from his home in Brooklyn.
Born in Ghana — his father was a Black man from Gambia, his mother a white woman from South Africa — Sanneh went to school in and around Cambridge before the family moved to New Haven during his high school years. (His parents both taught at Harvard and then Yale.)
In high school, Sanneh was introduced to punk rock, which he took to like a duck with little multi-colored dreadlocks takes to water.
Punk taught him that having strong opinions about music could be a defining characteristic. But while punk rockers have often defined themselves in opposition to whatever the mainstream is doing, for Sanneh, learning “to savor the perverse charms of punk,” as he writes, “I eventually came to hear just about the entire universe of popular music as perversely charming, or potentially so.”
Besides his take on punk, “Major Labels” features chapters on rock, R&B, country, hip-hop, dance music, and, finally, pop — the catch-all term we use for commercially-oriented music that doesn’t fit neatly into any of the other genres. Sanneh makes no claims to recount the entire history of each genre. Instead, he explains how each one came to form a community of fans and musicians united in their devotion to a style — often, by resisting the compulsion to go “pop.”
In conversation, Sanneh is thoroughly agreeable. Yet he has always loved how music fans can be so feisty.
“I wanted to tell the story of these genres — and by genres, I kind of mean communities — how a lot of times these communities are defined by arguments,” he says. “What does it mean to be a rock band? What does rock sound like? How does rock define itself?”
Is it the bluesy bluster of Grand Funk Railroad, or the androgynous power ballads of the hair-metal band Poison, or the scabrous grunge of Nirvana? Could any of those bands have anticipated the variations that followed?
The book is full of such flash points. Is Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” a country song? Does hip-hop have to be political or philosophical to be “good”? Why was disco’s massive appeal so abruptly short-lived?
“My father in his own way was not afraid to take a position outside of academic consensus,” Sanneh says. The late Lamin Sanneh taught Christianity’s world history “at a time when there was a lot of academic skepticism. He was calling for people to rethink their knee-jerk hostility to the project of mission.”
“I inherited some of that sense,” says Sanneh, who served during his time as an undergrad as a deputy editor of Transition, the journal on race and culture brought to Harvard by Henry Louis Gates Jr. “But I needed something that was mine.”
That something turned out to be the theology of pop music.
“We all defined ourselves by the music we listened to,” says Christian Rudder, who was a close friend of Sanneh’s and a fellow punk-oriented DJ at WHRB, Harvard’s radio station. Rudder went on to cofound the indie band Bishop Allen; he also cofounded the online dating platform OkCupid.
They all did that, he says, “but no one else was really able to put into words why it was cool, or why it even mattered.” Sanneh “definitely helped me with my own personal critical sense.”
These days, Rudder gets a kick out of watching his old friend in his appearances on “CBS Sunday Morning.”
“Honestly, I just feel like he’s a more global version of this kid I knew in Cambridge, who seemed to know everything to me even then,” he says. “He’s just a ‘more’ version of what he was then. I’m not surprised at all.”
It’s the sense of surprise that keeps Sanneh deeply invested in pop music’s endless mutations, detours, and transgressions.
In addition to Newbury Comics, he held jobs at a couple of Harvard Square record stores that no longer exist. Each place broadened his palate. Gloria Winquist, who hired Sanneh to work at Pipeline Records, says she leaned toward country and folk music, while her business partner, Meggan Todd, liked the girl groups of the 1960s.
“He was always curious, a really good listener,” Winquist says.
Working in the Newbury Comics warehouse, the employees took turns controlling the boombox. There were glam kids, skinheads, ravers who were into electronic music.
“It was fascinating,” Sanneh says. With each musical mood swing, he’d ask himself the same question: “Is there some way I can imagine a life experience where I would have ended up liking this?”
While many musicians disparage the writerly urge to put a label on everything, Sanneh says his book is in some ways a defense of the idea of genres. He is always seeking to understand the ways that people feel a sense of belonging. For many, music is it.
“Maybe it’s partly because I’m an immigrant,” he says. “There is a sense when I’m listening to music that I’m eavesdropping, that I’m hearing some other community.
“That’s part of the fun — ‘What are those people over there listening to?’”
In Boston, he helped form an idealistic, short-lived punk collective that held fund-raisers and promoted underground shows. The collective attracted a diverse group, from students at other Boston-area colleges to the streetwise “crust punks” who hung out in the Harvard Square “pit.”
Those relationships “made me feel like I lived in Boston as part of a community, as opposed to just part of a college,” Sanneh says.
Gone are the days when he had to ask his mom to bring him to the mall to pick up the new Red Hot Chili Peppers album. Having spent years tracking down obscure import records, he hasn’t stopped marveling at the fantastic abundance of music streaming services.
“I still haven’t gotten used to that,” he says. “It still feels incredibly exciting and generous. I can have a shopping spree at the record store every week? That’s amazing!
“And every week I’m gonna hear something new that blows my mind. That sense of surprise and delight definitely has not 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 held to the critical standard of rock music’s presumed “authenticity.” In response, some critics adopted the term “poptimism” as a way of endorsing a similarly thoughtful approach to covering supposedly “frivolous” pop music.
Sanneh traces this debate back to the early ‘80s in the UK, where one writer for the long-running music magazine NME declared “Death to rockists, Long live funnists!”
Sadly, as a category of personal identity, “funnist” never caught on. Had it, Sanneh might well have emerged as its leading proponent.
“For me, that sense of delight and surprise is the thing that keeps me interested in music,” he says. “That feeling of, ‘Wait, they’re making records that sound like that? Or even, ‘Wait, that song went to Number One?’
“It’s delightful to me,” he says.
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.