October 26, 2021
Many musicians and fans reject genre labels as narrow-minded restrictions on what music can be. But what if the opposite is true? What if our notions of genre actually shape what it means to make and enjoy music on a fundamental level? Joining Adam on the show today is journalist and music critic Kelefa Sanneh. Check out his book Major Labels at factuallypod.com/books.
128 — How Genres Shape Music with Kelefa Sanneh
Speaker 1 [00:00:01] Hello everyone, welcome to Factually. I’m Adam Conover, thank you for joining me once again for, honestly, my favorite part of my whole week. When I talk to an incredible expert about their new book or their work (or whatever incredible thing they know that I don’t know) and my mind is blown, your mind is blown. We have a great time learning from them, together. We’re going to have a great time, thanks for joining me. In this episode, we are going to talk about music. Now, music is one of the most basic things that humans do. You cannot find a culture in which music does not exist, you cannot find a person who does not prefer some combination of sounds to some other combination of sounds. For some ineffable reason, some combinations of sounds just make us feel good and we seek them out. That is part of being a human, and we don’t know why. But here’s the thing. It’s not just about the sounds themselves; the culture behind music plays an incredibly important role in our lives. It’s something for us to obsess over and identify with in a really intense way. For instance, when I got into (yes) indie rock in the late 90’s and early 2000’s – I will confess I was a Yo La Tengo and Flaming Lips-listening nerd, alright? If you couldn’t tell from just looking at me or hearing the sound of my voice and knowing how old I am. When I got into those things in those years, it wasn’t just because I liked the sounds (even though I did). It was because liking that music said something about me. It defined who I was and what I was interested in, and how I defined myself in relationship to other people. All of that stuff came along with the music, and all that stuff together is what we often call genre. When we say genre, we’re talking about not just a sound of music, but a set of values that are embedded within the music about what is cool, what is not cool, what is legit, what is not legit, what is selling out versus what is not selling out. ‘Britney Spears sucks, but Limp Bizkit is awesome.’ All of that stuff. Now, a lot of us who are music fans, we eventually grow out of that. We start thinking about music in such a limited, genre based way. We start to expand our consciousness about it. We start to realize that all those genres we thought were so important were really just given to us by the labels on the boxes of the Sam Goody at the mall that their artificial and moreover, that they’re often wrong. That genres don’t actually define real boundaries of different music, that sounds and ideas bounce around and influence each other between genres. That great music can be found anywhere, and that most importantly, these genres are often just marketing categories made up by some dude in a suit who’s trying to sell me more bullshit when I should just be focusing on the music. When we get to that stage, we start to realize that genre can be something that separates us from understanding and connecting with music. We start to think that, ‘Hey, if we could just dispel those limitations and open our minds to everything music has to offer, we can have a much more fulfilling relationship with this art form.’ That’s a transition that I went through. Maybe a lot of you did, too, but here’s a question. What if that’s wrong? What if there is an even bigger, more open minded, fully galaxy brained way of looking at genre? Because what if our cultural enjoyment of music is in fact inseparable from it? What if genre is just a term for the ideas and values and community that we use to talk about music, and determine whether or not we like music at all in the first place. What if our cultural beliefs about music can shape our feelings about it, and in fact can shape the music itself just as much as the invention of a new instrument or a new recording technology? In other words, what if genre is truly an essential part of listening to and enjoying music? What if, instead of separating us from it, it actually connects us to it? This is exactly the regulatory perspective I got from my tconversation with our guest today. His name is Khalifa Sanneh. He’s a music writer for The New Yorker, a former music critic at The New York Times and the author of the new book ‘Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres.’ This was an incredibly fascinating conversation. I think you’re going to love it as much as I did. Please welcome Khalifa Sanneh. Khalifa, thank you so much for being here.
Speaker 2 [00:04:42] Exciting to be here, thanks for having me.
Speaker 1 [00:04:44] I’ve read your writing about music in The New Yorker for years. I’ve always found it fascinating and perceptive. But tell me about the book. What do you cover in the book?
Speaker 2 [00:04:56] So the book is called ‘Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres.’ I had this (maybe foolhardy or insane) idea that I wanted to write a history of music. I’ve been obsessed with music since I was 14, and I’ve been writing about music here and there since the ’90s when I was writing in fanzines. In the 2000’s for a while, I was a pop music critic at the New York Times. So I felt like I’ve listened to a lot of music. I kind of have a theory about how it works, how it all fits together. And so I wrote this story that’s actually seven stories about seven different genres that have defined popular music. The idea is that people know (or we think we know) what happened in the 60’s. We figure it’s something about the Beatles or the Vietnam War, Woodstock. We kind of know. But then in the 70’s, things started to get weird and obscure, and all these genres and sub genres started proliferating. So in the book I wrote, these seven stories are an attempt to explain what happened since, basically, the Beatles broke up. The 7 genres are: rock, R&B, country music, punk rock, hip hop, dance music, and pop. I kind of explore each of those genres. That’s the friendly way to describe what I’m doing. The slightly more mischievous way to describe it is, that I feel like genres get a bad rap. I feel like when people talk about music, they’re like, ‘Oh, this band is so good, they really transcend genre. He’s not just an R&B singer, he’s also drawing from this or from that.’ There’s this idea that genres are kind of closed minded. ‘Oh, those ignorant people who only listen to country music, those people who only know about hip hop.’ I wanted to speak up in defense of genres and kind of try to explain why genres are cool. Genres are interesting. They really help us understand music, and that if you want to understand what happened in the last 50 years and how we got from the Beatles to Lil Nas X, the way to understand is by thinking about genres.
Speaker 1 [00:07:01] That’s really cool. I’ve read a couple (really bits and pieces) of other books that have made an attempt to be a history of music. David Byrne wrote a book about music a few years ago.
Speaker 2 [00:07:11] Yeah, ‘How Music Works.’
Speaker 1 [00:07:14] Very cool book. A lot of that is about how it works acoustically or about what it’s like as a performer to play. There’s the Oliver Sacks book about music. This is the first book I’ve heard of that is charting (almost) how music changes in our cultural memory, how the culture as as a whole is processing music and changing it. Is that right?
Speaker 2 [00:07:38] Yeah. I mean, those authors you mentioned have some some slight advantages I lack, David Byrne is a brilliant musician. No one’s ever described me that way. Oliver Sacks is this great scientist, likewise never been described that way. So lacking either of those two bodies of knowledge. I interpret music as a listener, which I think it sounds kind of redundant, but the idea is to think about fans and to think about communities. To me, what a genre really is, is a community; it’s a group of listeners and musicians who like some of the same stuff and who argue over some of the same stuff. Part of why we listen to music is because we like being part of a community but part of what it means to be part of a community is to get sick of that community sometimes, and to fight against that community sometimes. If you hear someone complaining about Nashville and how country radio is terrible, that’s how you know you’re talking to a country music fan, right? Because no one else would care. No one else would bother. Also, arguments are just fun to read about. So those arguments are kind of the core of this book because I think if you want to understand how R&B evolves, you follow the various arguments. ‘Why did people start calling it soul music in the late 60’s to separate it from R&B?’ ‘Why did some people think Prince was a sellout in the 1980’s?’ ‘Why did people think R&B was going down the wrong path in the 1990’s?’ When you talk to musicians, often they say, ‘Ah, I don’t really want to think about genre but the labels are. People are trying to categorize me, it’s just good music man.’ That’s what musicians always say. That’s what they’ve often said to me when (as an annoying music journalist) I’ve had to ask them these kinds of questions. But inevitably, when you talk to a musician, you find they do think of themselves as part of a community and sometimes get bummed out when they’re being treated as if they’re not part of a community. Recently, Kacey Musgraves was kind of upset because she got nominated for a Grammy Award in the pop category and not the country category. She went public and was like, ‘Wait a second, I think of myself as part of the country music community. That’s who I want to be.’ So at different times, musicians want that freedom to be free from genre, and they also want to be in there. They want to be part of the community, part of the tradition.
Speaker 1 [00:10:00] Yeah. But that results in us constantly having debates over what constitues the genre. Obviously, that’s what your book is about. But Lil Nas X is a perfect example of that made (I imagine) an explosion of music criticism around whether or not he’s country and the relation between country and hip hop. All of that is also happening in the context of (maybe I’m coming to it late) a rediscovery of the black roots of country music and about the bifurcation of those genres: of white country music from black music back in the 30’s and 40’s. Like, in the early days of recorded music. All that conversation happening the same way that the Lil Nas X conversation is happening now. It’s obviously a really fertile field to write about, clearly.
Speaker 2 [00:10:53] Yeah. I think sometimes it can sound (hopefully not when I’m talking about it, but maybe even then) like something that only the nerds and the craven record executives and the obsessive record collectors – like, it’s just something for them to argue about. But what you talked about with Lil Nas X is a good example of how musicians and listeners are actually thinking about this stuff all the time, (even if we’re not using those exact words) we’re thinking about that stuff. What you raised with Lil Nas X and the idea of the black roots of country or whether he’s country, right? This is also a debate about how we think about those terms and how we think about ourselves. I think most people, many listeners, are comfortable with the fact that there are so-called ‘black genres.’ In fact, there’s a moment in the early 1980’s where Billboard renames its soul music chart. It renames it ‘black music.’ It’s a fascinating moment, because there’s something exciting about that. The idea of that this is a very inclusive way to talk about this tradition, because it’s a way of acknowledging: A, that this music is linked to black communities and black cultures and black traditions and B, it’s a way of saying ‘Oh, a radio station that plays black music might also play jazz and blues and R&B and gospel.’ It’s kind of broad minded in that way, and so some people celebrated that change. Then other people were like, ‘Wait a second, we don’t want to be segregated. We don’t want to be over here. Just considered as black music while these other groups are white music.’ But of course, the truth is, even when the name went back to R&B and hip hop and R&B, it might now be called. The truth is, we do still talk about and think about the idea of black music. That’s an interesting thing to think through because mathematically, if you have black music then you’re also going to have white music, right? Black people are only 12 percent of the population in this country. So if you have a genre where the majority of listeners are black (or even when a disproportionate number of the listeners are black), you’re also going to have white genres. That’s something you certainly saw in the 70’s; where R&B and rock and roll split off from each other. In the 60’s, The Supremes and The Rolling Stones are both considered part of this rock and roll revolution that’s happening. The Who are ‘maximum R&B.’ These terms are used almost interchangeably. In the 70’s, they split and you have soul music over here and rock and roll bands over there. And by the 70’s, rock is starting to be considered white music. Rock and roll is epitomized, not by some black guy playing a saxophone, but by a white guy (usually a guy) playing a guitar. So that was a split, and you saw that often that affected how how we thought of these groups. Sly and the Family Stone, Chaka Khan, Rufus, and George Clinton, Parliament Funkadelic. These are groups that use electric guitars, and in some ways are rock bands, but often they’re considered kind of R&B over here, separate from the world of LED Zeppelin. So that’s a good example of something that a lot of us know intuitively: if I say LED Zeppelin is a rock and roll band, that’s not controversial. But LED Zeppelin also changes what we think of by rock and roll and so when a lot of people picture a rock and roll band, it might be a band that looks (and maybe sounds) a little bit like LED Zeppelin. The reason why I wanted to tell these stories is in music, these paths are always diverging and then coming back together, even – I mentioned the Rolling Stones and Diana Ross. By the end of the 70’s, they’re both going disco. By the end of the 70’s, The Rolling Stones are doing ‘Miss You’ and Diana Ross is doing her ‘Diana’ album with the guys from Chic. Everyone’s going disco: rod Stewart, Star Wars – Like, there’s disco everywhere. That was one of these moments of coming together. And of course, what that produces is the next generation of people pushing each other apart. The next generation of musicians saying ‘Disco sucks,’ saying ‘We don’t want to be disco.’ Even musicians who were making disco records started saying, ‘No, we’re going to do something a little bit different now. We know everyone’s sick of disco.’ So, the fact that listeners and musicians are kind of fickle, and we’re always changing our mind about what we want from music – I think, partly, because what we want from music is incompatible things, right? We want to listen to music and feel part of a group. But we also want to listen to music as a way of defining ourselves; and proving to the world and to ourselves that we’re not like everybody else, and maybe we’re not like anybody else and that we’re unique.
Speaker 1 [00:15:30] Yeah, that’s so true. It’s funny how the public’s perception of these genres shapes the music that’s made within them, that and we change so quickly. I remember when I went to college (in the year 2000) and I had just made friends with some kids who were really into the Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth. So I was on this really hard indie rock track. The Flaming Lips had just come out with The Soft Bulletin. My roommate, who was really into the Counting Crows and Dave Matthews Band, hated that I was listening to Flaming Lips so much. But I was so into it that I was reading those magazines and things
Speaker 2 [00:16:11] Conflict, I love it.
Speaker 1 [00:16:13] Then, like, 4 years later, indie music was suddenly really mainstream. Within six or seven years you had Arcade Fire and bands like that.
Speaker 2 [00:16:23] It was that post-Garden State moment.
Speaker 1 [00:16:24] Yes, exactly. And I stopped listening to that music entirely. I tuned out of it. I didn’t get into any of those bands. I was living in New York City at that point, around the time of the height of a lot of that. I didn’t even go to those shows because I was like, ‘Well, now everyone’s into it.’ There was some level to which I pushed myself away from it. That wasn’t because I liked the sounds any less. It was something to do with all of the cultural impact of all of it coming together; which I guess you would summarize as genre, in this way. The whole cultural hairball.
Speaker 2 [00:17:00] Yeah. Part of the fun of listening to music is that it’s voyeuristic. You can enter into this world. You don’t have to live it 24-7. But you can put on a Waylon Jennings record and imagine yourself into his brain. You can listen to the first Cyndi Lauper record and be in Cyndi Lauper world, and it’s an awesome place to be. That’s part of the fun of it. Sometimes that’s a real life community, especially with some of these punk influenced or underground worlds, right? Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day talked about this, where ‘they’re nurtured in this super idealistic ‘do it yourself,’ Bay Area punk scene. When they signed to Reprise Records and become probably the most popular punk band of all time, they’re banned from their favorite club. They can’t play 924 Gilman Street anymore because they’re a big, major label band, and he was really pissed off about that. You can sympathize with why he’s like, ‘Look, I’m just a dude, just like you might happen to be. My band is really good.That seems weird for there to be backlash based on that.’
Speaker 1 [00:18:04] ‘Sorry, everybody loves us so much. That we’re so good at our chosen profession, and now we can’t be a part of our community anymore? What the hell?’ Yeah.
Speaker 2 [00:18:10] But the flip side of that is, if those tight rules around something like the Bay Area punk community in the 80’s; where Billie Joe Armstrong came of age, that’s what made it feel so tight knit. That’s what made it feel like such a community. That’s what probably helped draw in kids like Billie Joe Armstrong, who could feel like they could go to 924 Gilman and be in a secret lair. That’s part of the excitement. So, yes, it makes sense. Of course, he’s pissed off if he can’t play that club anymore. But at the same time, part of the appeal of punk and part of the appeal of a lot of genres is that there set off, a little bit, from something else. You can’t have a community without having some idea about who’s included and who’s excluded. In fact, the dynamic of any community is always a dynamic of both: of inclusion and exclusion at the same time. Usually in music (and probably in other places too), any community that says, ‘Oh, everyone’s welcome, it’s cool. Anyone’s allowed in’ is probably finding other ways to determine who’s really in. Even in some of the more commercial mainstream – If you think about something like pop music, which is the seventh and final genre I write about. It’s not even clear whether pop music is a genre at all. It’s kind of weird to say ‘the pop community,’ but because pop music is open to everyone, it’s the one that’s most obsessed with chart positions. Because there’s no rules about who’s in or who’s out, the way you determine a pecking order is who makes hits. In some ways, that’s really democratic. Saying, ‘Well, your record went number one. You’re a pop star. People like it.’ But obviously that creates a whole lot of competition and as soon as you stop making hits, you’re sort of kicked out of the pop mainstream, like, by definition. you see this constantly with people trying to figure out ways – and it waxes and wanes, and some communities are more exclusive and some are a little less. But always there is this desire for both of these things that you can’t have at the same time, for a really nice sense of community and for an idea of freedom and everyone’s mingling and we’re all just doing whatever. That’s the push and pull.
Speaker 1 [00:20:20] Yeah, there’s a self-policing that always has to happen. I’m reminded of a time when I was just on Tik Tok and there’s this kid, country fan on Tik Tok, and he just made a whole series of videos where he would play clips from country songs and be ‘Real country, not real country.’ I consider myself a country fan. I went through a huge, 10 year long classic country phase. Stemming from my dad loving Lucinda Williams and me getting into that, and then going back to the Johnny Cash revival and all this stuff. But I didn’t know any of the artists that this kid was playing, and I had no idea why he was calling half of them real country and half not. Now this kid is from the south. I’m not from the south. This kid could have been living in Nashville, right? I’m not going to argue with him because he’s got a different connection to the music than I do. But it seems to be part of the essential thing when we’re talking about genres, all the genres that you’re talking about do that to some extent.
Speaker 2 [00:21:16] Yeah, and one of the funny things is that when I was going back to the archives of the last 50 years when I was writing this book. One of the things that really struck me, was how traditional rock and roll was. The line up of a rock and roll band in 2021is kind of the same as it’s been for more than 50 years. You need a drummer and a bass player, a guitarist or two, maybe a keyboardist. Get a lead singer. That’s it. Not only that, but if you talk to someone today and they say, ‘Oh what music are you into?’ They say like, ‘I listen to a lot of like rock and roll.’ That probably means they’re into the Rolling Stones. That probably means they’re into LED Zeppelin, and the modern bands they’re into probably don’t sound too terribly different from that. So rock and roll has been – You could call it traditional, or you could call it stuck in a rut. There’s different ways to frame that. But rock and roll has really stayed the same, whereas two of the genres that seem to arouse the most fighting over real and fake good and bad; are hip hop and country. Those are the two genres that have really kept evolving. Country music is a nonstop argument over, ‘Well, do we have a banjo? Do we have a fiddle player? No fiddle with a string section but a string. Sections aren’t cool anymore. So maybe are we allowed to use a keyboard?’
Speaker 1 [00:22:29] ‘Are guys wearing cowboy hats or are cowboy hats or not country anymore, because too many people wearing cowboy hats?’ Like that kind of deal?
Speaker 2 [00:22:35] Yeah, and one of the things that R&B and country have in common, is an obsessive focus on their listeners: on the idea that they have this core demographic that they’re trying to please. And there is a sense in both of these genres that, for example in country music, that country maybe is whatever those people want to listen to. And if what they want this year is Blake Shelton rapping, then that’s what country music is. If what they want is programed 808 kick drums and electronic elements, as you hear now in a lot of country records that’s what’s going on. It’s funny, that’s helped keep a genre like country unpredictable. It’s helped keep it fresh, so that the country radio now – say whatever you want about it. I happen to love country radio. But country radio in 2021 does not sound like country radio in the 80’s or the 90’s. You can tell, it’s a different era. So of course, what that also creates is backlash and people saying ‘No, country music should sound like this or should sound like that.’ But those are both ways of being exclusive, right? You can say ‘Look, you don’t have to be from the south, you can be from wherever. And as long as you’re into fiddles and banjos and mandolins and pedal steel then you can make country music.’ That’s one way of thinking about it. It’s inclusive in a sense. But that’s also a little bit exclusive of anyone whose music doesn’t sound like that. The other definition is more like the Dolly Parton definition. Dolly Parton was born country. She’s raised country. She is country. So even when she’s making ‘9 to 5’ and she’s basically making a disco record, it’s going to be country. That’s inclusive in its own way, because it means that someone like Dolly Parton or Morgan Wallen (who’s like, maybe the definitive modern country star) has freedom to do whatever they want. But it also means that the way to be part of this community is to be born into it. So those are just two different ideas of how you can have musical freedom or how the music can be – not all embracing – but some embracing, and I would argue the reason we still argue about country music and the reason why people still want to be part of it, is that there’s such a big audience. There’s such a big culture of people that love it and respond to it. It’s not something that exists in a museum somewhere. It’s a real big living, breathing thing. One way I would answer, to circle back to the Lil Nas X thing we talked about a minute ago. To answer that question of ‘Is Lil Nas X Country? Certainly, is the Old Town Road song?’ One way of answering that is: well, do country fans listen to it? One way of defining that genre is: look, if Lil Nas X is not particularly popular among country fans, then maybe he’s not country in that definition. That might show that the fans are small minded. And you might say, ‘Oh, I wish they would be into this,’ but as someone who’s never been a great musician – I played a little bit, but I just don’t have that thing. I’m good enough so that if my if my best friend in high school had been a brilliant singer songwriter, I might have been able to play bass well enough not to be kicked out of the band when they got popular. But with all due respect to my best friend from high school, he was not a brilliant singer songwriter. So as a non musician, when I was writing as a pop music critic at the New York Times, I always tried to avoid giving advice. I tried to make sure I never did that. If I’m writing review I want it to be like, ‘Oh, I really like this song. I didn’t like this song.’ But I’m never being like, ‘Well, after the second chorus, what you should have done…’ That’s not really my place. But I would also zoom out, and this is maybe a little more controversial. I try not to give advice to genres, either. I try not to say, ‘Oh, country music would be better if it evolved this way. Country music would be better if it sounded like that,’ because I’m always surprised (and often, but not always, pleasantly surprised) by what happens and how things evolve. I’m like, ‘Oh, we’re doing that this year. Oh, that’s interesting.’ Sometimes it grows on me and sometimes I get it right away, and sometimes I’m just not into it. In that debate over Lil Nas X, I feel like a lot of people were asked (or were answering) the question, ‘Should Lil Nas X be country?’ Or ‘Should Kacey Musgraves be country?’ As opposed to the question that I’m interested in which is, ‘OK, we have this community. Are they into it or are they not into to it?’ Traditionally the country charts when we looked at them, there’s been a really nerdy but important change in some of the charts: where the country charts traditionally measured (basically) what country radio stations were playing. Whereas now, a lot of the pop charts, what they do is they look at the most popular songs on streaming services and they pick out which ones are country. And that’s the country chart.
Speaker 1 [00:27:15] Whoa. Really? How do they decide which songs are country or not?
Speaker 2 [00:27:21] Well, this was the Lil Nas X debate, because at that point, the people who make the charts have to decide what is country. It’s also harder to measure when you have an artist like Lil Nas X, who’s wearing a cowboy hat but maybe not resonating among the same people who listen to Luke Bryan. So that’s one thing that’s changed. That’s one thing that’s kind of changed over the years, is that we know that these communities still exist and radio stations give us a good way to measure them because you’re like, ‘Well in this community, people listen to this radio station.’ And it’s helpful for radio stations to be able to say ‘This is the Wolf, number one for country!’ Or, ‘Your home for rock and roll.’ That’s a really good sales pitch. But it also helps people like me who are interested in what record is charting over here but not charting over there? The hip hop audience is not responding to it, but the pop audience is, that’s interesting. That’s real. That sounds nerdy, but you see that playing out in the career of Whitney Houston. Whitney Houston comes out in the 80’s and has enormous success, right out of the gate. She’s a black woman from New Jersey singing what sounds like R&B. But it gets really embraced by pop radio, and that helps create this perception that Whitney Houston is a pop star and not a real R&B singer. I think it was Time magazine called her ‘The Prom Queen of Soul,’ which is like…
Speaker 1 [00:28:49] Yeah. Is that a compliment? Hold on a second.
Speaker 2 [00:28:51] It sort of isn’t and it sort of isn’t. But it’s related to this famous (and kind of heartbreaking) thing that happens in 1989 at the Soul Train Awards, where she gets booed by some people when she’s up for an R&B award. Because again, the perception is that she’s not R&B enough. And so on the one hand,
Speaker 1 [00:29:07] it’s like Bob Dylan getting booed at the Newport Film Festival.
Speaker 2 [00:29:13] Yeah, exactly right. Because the idea is, ‘You’re not part of this community anymore, you’re doing something else.’ So what seems like a nerdy debate about chart positions shaped Whitney Houston’s career. She huddles with Clive Davis and they go and recruit some specifically R&B producers, in an effort to shore up her popularity in the R&B world to make sure she can be accepted by this community that feels to her like home. It’s an example of how these things really do shape careers and really do shape the way we listen to music, because often it’s musicians as much as listeners who want to be part of something, except when they don’t.
Speaker 1 [00:29:49] Wow, I really relate to that. Let me just say from my own position as a comedian, it’s extremely important to me to be considered a standup comic. Even though almost nobody knows me from doing standup comedy (folks who are listening have come out to see me do stand up) and I’m hoping to get back on the road now that we’re out of COVID, or at least we’re able to perform again. But it’s really because that’s the community I came out of. I want other comedians to remember, ‘Oh yeah, this guy’s a standup comic. He just doesn’t just do TV shows, don’t just do a podcast. He also tells jokes on stage.’ Yeah, that would be crushing for me; if I were to be rejected by the community or that community of fans.
Speaker 2 [00:30:31] Part of that community, right, is that standup comedy is hard. In theory, anyone could do it, but not everyone can do it, and not everyone does do it. Part of what gives community membership in that sense, its power, is that it’s a little bit exclusive. They’re like, ‘Yo, you haven’t done this, you haven’t done these bringer shows.’ Like, that’s part of it, and so that’s what makes it feel like a community.
Speaker 1 [00:30:56] You’re right, it’s inclusive and exclusive because my favorite thing about standup is (and I forget where I heard this, but I as soon as I heard I was like, ‘This is absolutely true’) all you got to do to be a stand up comedian is to do it. As long as you’re doing a couple sets a week: if you do three sets a week and you do that for a year. You’re a comic. You might be a bad comic. You might be a bad open mike comic. You might be a bad open mic comic who no one has ever paid a single dollar to perform. But you’re still a comic. It’s like you have to go through that fire a little bit, it’s inclusive and exclusive simultaneously.
Speaker 2 [00:31:32] And at various times within the comedy world, it’s been more divided than that. You have nights where the black comic does chocolate sundaes or whatever, right? And then there’s a black comedy world you have. You have people playing alternative rooms that don’t want to play the normal standup rules.
Speaker 1 [00:31:46] Yeah, alt comedy was a big divergence that now I don’t know if it exists to the same degree.
Speaker 2 [00:31:53] Because wasn’t that part of the knock on, alt comics is, ‘Look, they can’t hack it at Giggles in Cincinnati. They wouldn’t last on that stage, they need to do it on this little comfy stage.’ I suspect it’s a very American tendency, but it’s also just a very human tendency to spawn these communities and be like, ‘Deep down, me and my friends are doing something and you guys, I don’t know.’
Speaker 1 [00:32:22] There’s a lot of comedy fans (and one of my least favorite things that comedy fans do) will go, ‘Oh, this is real comedy. That’s not. These are real comics,’ and that is always supporting some narrow vision of comedy that I personally object to. And I’m like, ‘Well, fuck you, this is your little own thing over here.’
Speaker 2 [00:32:44] But there’s no way to get away from that. When I was converted to the gospel of punk rock as a 14 year old, my friend gives me this mix tape and I’m like, ‘OK, that’s it. I’m in. This is all I do now, is punk rock. This is all I care about.’ That was, of course, an extreme version of that narrow mindedness. But I think all of us who listen to music, the experience of listening, of listening to a song that we love, deep down when you’re listening to a song you love, you believe it’s actually good and you believe that on some level, anyone who doesn’t get it is actually stupid. I mentioned in the book but the idea of music snobbery actually turns out to be really hard to get away from, because there’s no way to have an opinion about something or to love something, without kind of hating something else or disliking or not being interested in something else. Those things go together. There’s no way to have any musical opinion or any musical taste without being, in some sense, a snob. Whatever that means. Everyone is snobby about something, and often professional music critics are actually less snobby than your average person who might be like, ‘I hate Justin Bieber. I hate everything to do with Justin Bieber.’ Whereas you won’t find anyone who’s writing about music that would be likely to say that. They’d be like, ‘Well, this song and that song and I really like Peaches, but the rest of the album wasn’t so good.’ That’s what it means to be a fan, to love music. Is, on some level, to hate something else and feel like people are wrong for liking that crap that they like.
Speaker 1 [00:34:21] On that note. Let’s go to a break. When we get back, I want to ask you about rock specifically because I feel like for me, that’s the genre that hovers above my life and I want to get into it, but we’ll be right back with more Khalifa Sanneh. OK, we’re back with Khalifa Sanneh, I want to ask you specifically about rock music. I grew up with rock music as almost being the hegemony of music; just being ‘This is what music is. Everything else is either old and dusty or new crap.’ Specifically, like I said earlier, I grew up with my cool friends who listened to the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, a lot of post-punk, that sort of world. I always had broader tastes than that, but I always sort of existed in that universe. Now I’m living in a world where I’m looking around and I’m like, ‘I think rock is dead.’ Like, not dead, dead, dead. But I think it’s kind of in with jazz as a thing that people talk about as being in the past and they’ll be revival acts. I love The War on Drugs. But at the same time, I’m like ‘The War on Drugs is kind of a revival act, to a certain extent.’ It sounds like something older. Or a new band will come out, I love this musician here from L.A., Jaysam. She also put out a record with a group called Bachelor last year. And I love it, but I’m like, ‘I love it because it sounds like The Pixies.’ I didn’t expect to see that happen, not just in my lifetime, but in a very short span of my lifetime.
Speaker 2 [00:36:10] Well, yeah, it’s a sure thing. And it’s two things at once. One is the ongoing (even still to some extent) hegemony of rock and roll, as you put it. The Rolling Stones are pretty central, even now. They’re pretty popular, you can hear them in every bar. Even now, a Rolling Stones tour is a big deal. Even now, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a big institution and you can get in there as a rapper, but it kind of helps to have a certain rock and roll spirit. So there is that right, rock and roll is still a thing. It’s maybe kind of old fashioned, but it’s still huge and still hugely popular. If you spin around the radio dial (if you have a still have an FM radio in your car) there’s rock and roll everywhere.
Speaker 1 [00:36:56] But it’s going to be old acts, you’re long past the point where The Strokes were a band you’d hear on Top 40 radio.
Speaker 2 [00:37:06] Bands like Imagine Dragons (or even Coldplay) have succeeded partly by de-emphasizing rock a little bit, embracing electronic bits of production and being sort of like the pop acts as much as they are rock acts and collaborating with Rihanna, or whoever. So there is that. But there’s also this other thing, and I talk in the book about a specific discussion that begins in England in the early 80’s in the aftermath of punk rock. There is this new crew of musicians from Boy George to The Human League – a lot of what’s called New Wave or New Romantic or New Pop in the 80’s. And they kind of had a rallying cry, and they talked about something called ‘rock-ism.’ Rock-ism was the idea that this rock and roll way of thinking was bullshit. That this rock and roll way of thinking was boring and it was lame. It was just a bunch of scruffy, sweaty dudes in bad clothes and it wasn’t cool anymore. Pop was going to be the cool thing. So that was the whole thing. ‘We’re not going to pretend to be afraid of selling out. We’re going to try and make a hit single. We’re not going to be earnestly telling you about our guitar tone or about politics. We’re going to be having fun.’ People in the press had arguments about this, about like, ‘Maybe rock-ism is lame. Maybe even making albums is kind of like passé, right? It should all be about singles. Maybe music videos are cooler than concerts, actually. Maybe we should rethink all of this.’ When I was at the Times in 2004, I wrote an essay about rock-ism that kind of helped revive that debate in America, I think, and by then people were talking about something called ‘poptimism’ and poptimism could be the opposite of rock-ism. The optimism part suggests that it’s kind of fun and celebratory, but the pop part means like, ‘Well, let’s rethink what we value. Let’s think about how the fact that the rock and roll archetype that so often celebrated is a bunch of white dudes. Let’s celebrate music that’s made by other kinds of people,’ and that can go in a whole bunch of directions. But in the world of people who argue about music for a living, what people would say is that poptimism won. When I wrote that essay, I was like, ‘Yo, this is ridiculous that we don’t take Destiny’s Child seriously.’ I was a Destiny’s Child fan. Nowadays, Beyonce is the most admired musician on the planet.
Speaker 1 [00:39:30] Yeah, she’s like Bob Dylan level; considered a genius and will be considered a genius 50 years from now.
Speaker 2 [00:39:37] And she doesn’t care about rock and roll. It’s not like the old fashioned thing where she grabbed an acoustic guitar and sat down in the chair with Rick Rubin to make her serious album, no, she has a totally different musical tradition and people love that. But one of the reasons I wrote this book, is to explore the fact that every genre has its own -ism. They weren’t as dominant as rock, but there’s R&B-ism, there’s country-ism. There’s pop-ism and there’s definitely hip hop-ism. Every genre has an ethos, has a way of looking at the world. The effort to push back against rock-ism was partly an effort to say, ‘Look, if we’re just looking for the next Springsteen all the time,’ as critics but also just as listeners. If we’re saying like, ‘Oh, this album is not that good because it’s not that earnest or it’s not that scruffy or it’s not that rebellious,’ then we’re going to miss a lot of stuff. We’re going to miss Anita Baker’s super smooth, jazz inflected R&B. We’re going to miss the country ballads of Alan Jackson. We’re going to miss stuff because it doesn’t fit that paradigm. But the further irony is that as listeners, even professional listeners who listen to an unholy amount of music, we’re always missing stuff. Whatever we’re focusing on, there’s something going on outside our periphery. Whatever broad minded, inclusive way we think we have of listening to music, we’re still excluding some stuff
Speaker 1 [00:41:06] Because you have some -ism that you are following that you’re maybe not even aware of. Is that the implication?
Speaker 2 [00:41:10] Yeah, because you have some preconception. Preconception, I sometimes think, is just a fancy word for an idea. You have some ideas in your head about what kind of music you like and what kind of music you don’t like. Sometimes someone comes along and makes you rethink all that because it connects with you on some level that you don’t even understand. Sometimes (more often) you just miss stuff because it’s not what you’re looking for and not what you’re paying attention to. And again, I don’t want to blame anyone for that. I think that’s just how brains work. You can’t take everything in. And as I say, if you were someone who literally liked all music, that would mean you literally had no taste. Because you’re just accepting everything. And to me, the beginning of loving music and really obsessing over it, as you might be able to tell, was from getting into punk rock as a 14 year old and realizing like, ‘Oh, you can actually rule some stuff out.’ You can say, like, ‘The Sex Pistols are great. The Rolling Stones are bad.’ Like ‘Mainstream music is bad,’ not just in the sense of being mediocre in terms of quality, but in terms of being wrong. Evil, maybe. It represents all that is wrong with the world. Obviously, I did not stop listening to the Rolling Stones forever, but the idea that music can matter in that way, that it can really make a difference: what you like and what you don’t like, and you can reject some stuff if you want. In fact, you will end up rejecting some stuff. That was really powerful to me, because it kind of got me interested in just thinking about music, and got me thinking about other stuff beyond music. But punk was my gateway into that way of looking at the world.
Speaker 1 [00:43:01] The value judgments that some (at least some of these) genres apply to certain behaviors or certain ways of making music; like the ethical judgments, are really interesting. I got a couple of questions about that. First, do you think that is universal to all these genres? Because obviously rock, I know what the ethical judgments are. Punk, obviously DIY and ‘mainstream bad.’ Country, same thing. Does dance music have – Are there are people going like, ‘Oh, that’s not real dance music, that’s a bad way of doing it?’
Speaker 2 [00:43:32] Absolutely. You have disco, which was ironic because disco was almost open source. There weren’t prominent disco critics making pronouncements and writing manifestos. It was more like anyone could make disco records, and eventually it seemed like everyone was making disco records. I think that’s what led to the backlash, is that it gets associated as this thing that’s just inescapable and ‘We’re sick of The BeeJees and this John Travolta movie, it’s just too much.’ That drives the backlash. Ironically, disco is the one genre that is the most associated with literal gatekeepers. There’s someone with a clipboard at the Studio 54 saying like, ‘No, you can’t come into this club.’ In fact, one of the greatest disco songs; ‘Freak Out’ by Chic was written as a protest song after they got denied admission to Studio 54. Disco is huge, it’s kind of all embracing. It generates this huge backlash and then obviously gets rediscovered. It spawns all these dance undergrounds: to the house and techno genre scenes that emerged in Chicago and Detroit, respectively in the 1980’s. These days, some of the people that are the most into that music, the most into obscure house and techno records, the most into these these disco 12 inches from the 1970’s that you never heard on the radio but are actually totally amazing. Those are often some of the people that are the maddest at like EDM
Speaker 1 [00:45:01] Ahhhhh, okay.
Speaker 2 [00:45:03] And the spectacle of a bunch of kids dressed in fluorescent fishnets going apeshit in a stadium. Just like anything else, it generates true believers. Often these rules, it’s not always musical, right? In hip hop you have ethical codes; for a long time people were talking about ‘no snitching’ and that was related to your hip hop authenticity. In country music, likewise, being really part of that world in some vague sense is kind of more important (sometimes in some scenes) than what instruments you use. Even in R&B, which has sometimes been a little less of a battle flag genre, you get these discussions about who’s really making R&B, what does it mean to be making R&B? What does that word even mean? In the late 60’s when soul music arose, part of the idea of soul music of Stax Records and of Isaac Hayes and some of these records was that somehow they’re going to be a little more authentic than what Motown is doing. That Motown is making these pop crossover records, where everyone’s smiling and wearing matching clothes and soul is going to be a little more southern and a little more gritty and have a little more funk to it. Maybe have a little more message to it. Maybe be a little harder to co-opt. Soul isn’t just a genre you play, it’s something you have. And in that sense, it seems little more intrinsically linked to black communities and black cultures in America. So soul music is maybe perceived as being a little blacker than R&B. Even Motown, which in the 60’s has been making these beautiful records that we can all kind of tap our foot to. In the 70’s, it’s Marvin Gaye with ‘What’s Going On?’ It’s those five incredible Stevie Wonder records. So even Motown gets kind of psychedelic, and they’re doing some protest music and they’re doing basically soul music as a reaction to that. Then by the 80’s, it switches again and soul starts to seem really old fashioned. So you get a new version of R&B, which then has to do battle with hip hop, right? Because for so long, R&B is the definitive black music. Now all of a sudden, by the time hip hop gets mega-popular in the late 80’s/early 90’s, R&B becomes like the other black music. It’s kind of like, ‘Well, what is this? Who is who’s this for? Is this just for old folks? Is there some way we can kind of keep up with hip hop? These communities are always struggling to redefine each other. And again, that’s what keeps it fun. That’s what means that the top songs in America are always a little bit different, that it’s always a different kind of golden age going on somewhere, and there’s always stuff to explore that hopefully will (maybe, if you fall in love with it) kind of change the way you think about music.
Speaker 1 [00:47:55] Yeah. But when we talk about these labels, you said that a lot of musicians and a lot of fans like to think of them as being artificial. And to some extent, though, they are. There’s a history of – When you say rhythm and blues, my understanding is that’s a racially based label that record executives came up with close to 100 years ago. It’s a matter of the people at the record stores wanting to come up with different names for the boxes. We know that’s what’s happening, and yet that somehow shapes the music. I don’t know. How does that factor into your analysis? Because you’ve been talking to so positively, but there’s another view where it’s like, hold on a second. We were tricked into classifying music this way because it served a particular racial narrative or a particular commercial narrative. How about that question?
Speaker 2 [00:48:44] Well, I think there’s something in music where there is often a suspicion like, ‘Oh, the record companies are just tricking us into liking this.’ But the truth is there’s lots of record company plots, and most of them fail. There’s lots of artists that are hyped as the next big thing.
Speaker 1 [00:49:00] They’re not smart people.
Speaker 2 [00:49:01] Well, no, I wouldn’t even say that. I think that we are just really kind of unpredictable and fickle as listeners, thank God. Certainly when I was a music critic full time, that’s what I noticed. The record company executives were always scrambling to keep up with what was going on. Half the time they were baffled (and sometimes even bummed out) by what we, the public, were buying. They were like, ‘Oh, really? You guys bought, [whatever] 5 or 6 million copies of Nellie’s album?’ I love that record, but I don’t think the executives at Universal were expecting that this was going to be one of the decade’s big stars. I suspect some of the people who worked on that album might not even have liked it that much. They’re just like, ‘Oh, here’s some rapper from St Louis doing something that seems to be resonating, so we’ll put it out.’ I don’t know, but that’s that’s my sense. I’m also very, very skeptical (have been for a long time) of any musical narrative that says ‘If only it weren’t for those dastardly record companies, people would be listening to the stuff I like.’ That’s always a temptation. Like, ‘Here’s this great record. Why isn’t it more popular? Well, those horrible record execs, they don’t want people to hear it.’ No, it’s just that, often, the record companies and the other industry professionals are a step behind what’s going on. In addition, certainly as a listener myself, I have no sense that I know better than everyone else what they like, or what they should like or what they would like. I’m not going to go to a country fan and say, ‘You shouldn’t be listening to that. You should be listening to this.’ If I meet someone, and they tell me what they’re into then I might have a more a few suggestions along those lines of other stuff they might check out. But the idea that somehow things would be better or different and similar to the world that we imagine if it weren’t for the people trying to make money off of music, I don’t think that’s really true. I think one of the fun things about music is (now, but also in the past) the barriers to entry have always been relatively low; compared to how hard it is to make a movie, it’s not that hard to form a band or sing a song. You can throw a lot of music out there, and that means it can really be audience driven; the audience can hear a lot of stuff and really respond to certain stuff and not others. In a way, again, that seems often kind of mysterious, Thank God. That even now we’re kind of hard to predict, as listeners.
Speaker 1 [00:51:25] Yeah, but there’s no part of you that says, ‘Oh, these decisions that were made at some point and this label that we all use today, is there not an irony in that it came from a strange place and yet we all still use it, you know?
Speaker 2 [00:51:46] I mean, yeah, we’re talking about popular culture in America in 2021. There’s ironies everywhere you look. None of these categories (or these ways we think or these institutions) are innocent in some sense, I’m not even sure what it would mean for them to be innocent. They reflect our society; they reflect the segregation of our society, the divisiveness of our society. They reflect our grudges and our prejudices, as well as our hopes and aspirations. It’s all there in the music, and you’d expect it to be all there. You would expect that if we’re living in a society where (for instance) there are patterns of residential segregation, you’d expect to see some similar patterns reflected in the music. You’d expect there to be black music for at least as long as there are black neighborhoods. In that sense, no, I don’t think these categories are innocent in a sense, but I do like that they reflect really well (because there is so much music and because the barriers to entry are relatively low) the way we live and the way we have lived, and that’s not always the way we would like to live, or the way we would like to think we do live.
Speaker 1 [00:52:55] I guess my only hope is that I wish we, as listeners and as a community of music listeners, were able to build more of an historical understanding of what you’re talking about; the way the genres have grown and changed. I remember the first time, we did an episode of ‘Adam Ruins Everything’ about music and we were looking at the history of rock music. I saw for the first time a clip of Big Mama Thornton playing guitar, and I was like, ‘Holy shit, how have I never seen this before?’ I’ve heard of Chuck Berry at least, right? But I’m watching this clip going, ‘This is rock guitar, and this is being played by a middle aged black woman in England’ and the Rolling Stones and all that narrative. This was just left out of everything, certainly out of my musical education. As someone who had been listening to rock music my whole life, that’s a shame in my view.
Speaker 2 [00:53:53] If you think about how long ago that was, and you think about how much we know now (the average listener, even might know) about what was happening 50 or 75 years ago. There is a lot of historical knowledge, and in some ways that stuff is easier to come by than it ever has been.
Speaker 1 [00:54:09] Yeah, true.
Speaker 2 [00:54:10] The other part is that most normal people are only going to have so much musical knowledge in their brain. So this is what I go back to: whatever you’re paying attention to, that means you’re leaving something else out. It’s great to know about Sister Rosetta and black pioneers of rock and roll. I would be the last person to say that we shouldn’t know that, but there’s lots of other stuff you could know too. You could learn about the history of dancehall music in England and how that affected The Beatles. You could listen to the history of Irish song and how that came to American and was a different influence in country music, it’s incredibly complicated when you go back. I think that’s one difference between now and 20, 40, 60 years ago is that there is maybe a little more knowledge of the historical context, just because that stuff is accessible. I’m old enough to remember a time where, even if you heard about some of these black pioneers of rock and roll, what are you going to do? Are you going to go get an Ike Turner record? Where are you even going to find one? Even if you read about that in a book, you might not go and buy the CD, right? Whereas now, you can click on what you want and hear what you want. So there is a lot of history available. I think it’s true that most listeners aren’t necessarily doing that research. But you know, that’s true of most people in general, right? There’s only so many hours in a day. On the grand scale of how much musical research you want you want to do in a day, I’m probably close to one end of that scale. But one thing I learned really quickly when I was a pop critic at the New York Times was that I’m never going to be an expert. Compared to the real experts, whatever the subject is, I’m always going to have so much to learn. I might think I’m really into death metal (or whatever), compared to a normal person. But when you meet someone who’s been running a death metal label for 30 years, you’re just ignorant in comparison. That is one of the exciting things, and one of the humbling things is that there is so much more to learn about anything and you can push back in any direction; certainly the history of race and the story of black contributions to popular music, I think there’s probably more effort being put forward and the more of a spotlight on that than there has been in any time in recent history. So I think that’s one thing that separates the current moment from a lot of earlier moments.
Speaker 1 [00:56:36] First of all, I love your optimistic viewpoint on all of this. But it also rhymes with exactly what I love about music so much, which is that for me, it’s always been a process of, ‘Oh, I’m into something. Let me dive deep into it and discover all the different hidey holes.’ The last three years, I’ve gotten into ambient music and I’ve learned all the different little micro movements within it and etc. I’m not the only one doing this, it’s a whole little resurgence of ambient music happening over the last half decade or so. That’s a thing that we are able to do now that we weren’t able to do prior to the MP3 era, at least, or at least was a lot harder to do. You had to go to the public library and check out some vinyl.
Speaker 2 [00:57:21] And the flip side about music is that you also don’t have to be a nerd, that’s the other nice thing about it. Unlike a movie where you kind of have to stop your life and turn off the lights and spend a couple of hours with it. Music is so sneaky, man. You’re in the supermarket, you’re watching a commercial and it’s in the background. You can go and learn the roots of ambient and read the Brian manifestos and think about how Windham Hill and the New Age tradition fits into the more avant garde ambient tradition. You can do all that work because it’s fascinating, but you can also just type ‘ambient’ into Spotify or YouTube, and sit back and listen to whatever you get. It’s possible to enjoy music (and especially popular music) without becoming a nerd, without becoming a scholar. When I wrote this book, that was part of the hope: that someone who’s not a nerd and you hear the terms ‘house’ and ‘techno,’ but you were a little afraid to even ask what the difference between them even was. It can be fun, you don’t have to spend years and years listening to old 12-inch records in order to maybe enjoy a story of how these people created these things. That’s the fun of music; is that you don’t necessarily have to be a nerd to find some stuff you like and some stuff you hate.
Speaker 1 [00:58:44] It’s so funny, how much the stuff you hate matters, though. It took me until I was around 35 to stop self evaluating what I was currently listening to; about how cool I thought it was and how cool I thought other people would think I was for listening to it. I was simultaneously had what I would call snobbish tastes: very iconoclastic in what I liked and would to go down these weird rabbit holes. But in the back of my head, there always be someone going like, ‘Oh, you’re listening to that? That’s not cool, man. That’s not cool, to be into that.’ Now I finally treat music more like food I’m eating. Is it pleasurable to have it right now? There’s not much other value judgment to put on it. Why do you think that happens so much with music, more than (I would say) other art forms. That we put up these fences and walls and judge it on ethical grounds and on the grounds of coolness.
Speaker 2 [00:59:44] I think it has something to do with the social and antisocial nature of music. Often, we listen to it together. Often, it’s a soundtrack to people getting together. Maybe historically it was that, if you look at deep human history. I don’t know. As a result (certainly for me I often find that when I’m listening to music even now, I think about other people. Obviously, I think about the musician. Part of what we love about music is the connection to the human being (or human beings) who made it. But I also find myself thinking about who else is listening to this music, who else likes this music? That doesn’t have to be second guessing and hoping your cool, or whatever. But for me, that’s part of the fun of listening to it. Knowing, ‘OK, here’s a group. Who are the other fans? What are they like? What are they into? What are their lives like? What are they getting out of this thing? What am I getting out of this thing’ And so, being part of a virtual community is one of the great joys of listening to music and one of the reasons why we’re always fighting over people. When we’re insulting music or thinking music is bad, what we’re really doing is saying, ‘We think these people who listen to it are bad.’ That impulse, again, that’s a very human impulse to be like, ‘Oh, I’m not like these people. I’m like those people.’ In fact, the idea that music (or some kind of music) is somehow cool (even now) is what draws a lot of people toward music. That’s a lot of the fun. Even if it’s something as simple as the way you nod your head when you listen to your favorite hip hop track, or something. The fact that it’s cool is part of what’s so seductive of it. What cool means is – Cool is a social term and a relative term. It means you’re somehow above someone else, socially. That reflects a competitiveness in humans, but it also reflects a desire for connection and desire to be part of this particular group that other people maybe aren’t part of. I think it’s hard to get rid of that, just like it’s hard to get rid of snobbery or judgmental-ism or any of these things. These are baked in and music and maybe sometimes be a relatively harmless way to work out those warring feelings that most of us have.
Speaker 1 [01:01:57] See, I love your point of view because not only are you taking a broad minded view, three or four steps back. Not only are you looking at, ‘OK, well, here are the value judgments that these genres are placing on each other that we, maybe, should understand and not cleave to.’ You’re also then saying, ‘Let’s be accepting of the fact that those value judgments exist, because they’re kind of fun to have, and we don’t need to beat each other up for participating in rock-ism because rock-ism is part of what is fun about rock? Like, as long as we’re aware of it.
Speaker 2 [01:02:31] We’re still going to want to beat each other up. In the book, and I kind of go back to this experience of being a punk rocker and being a few years older and being part of a hardcore punk collective in Boston, which is literally, like, everyone’s vegetarian and straight edge, no drinking. We’re having potluck meetings and we’re planning protest and we’re putting on shows by bands and all the bands are part of this thing. All the labels that the bands are on are part of this thing and that tribal spirit is so powerful and it’s so exciting. That’s not my life now, but not only would I not want to begrudge people that tribal experience, but I actively seek out music helps create that tribal experience for people now. Because that’s one of the many powerful things music can do, even as some other music gives you a sense of freedom; of an artist that’s kind of unfettered and just going on their own journey.
Speaker 1 [01:03:28] Yeah. Wow. Because you were saying all that and I was like, ‘Ahhh the tribal experience, that explains K-pop fans.’ You’re drawing the line from punk to K-pop. Also as to why, in my own youth, I saw all those punk communities and I was like, ‘Oh, those punk kids are such nerds about it.’ You know what I mean? I had my own rejection of that tribe because I was in my own little bubble that I was trying to create for myself.
Speaker 2 [01:03:57] Yeah, I think it’s this thing where when we’re talking about other topics, like politics or something, it’s easy to decry the divisiveness of America. Part of what I like about music is, it just gives you a different lens to look at that divisiveness. That’s the slightly mischievous thing I tried to do in the book, is say something about the upsides of that divisiveness. Or at least why that reflects something deeply human about us.
Speaker 1 [01:04:27] Wow. That is a truly avant garde, contrarian position. That might be the most contrarian position anyone’s ever espoused on this show. The benefits of tribalism. That will get you canceled in 2021, I think. To say tribalism is the way. No, but no, I love that. That’s such a wonderful point of view, because it acknowledges our humanness. Even as we’re describing this thing that we’re doing.
Speaker 2 [01:04:51] Well, it’s not a coincidence that tribes keep forming. It’s not a coincidence that in the history of music after this 1960’s explosion, when ‘We’re all listening to rock and roll and R&B. Youth culture forever!’ It goes off in a billion different directions. That’s something that keeps happening, and maybe music is a place where you can see that particularly clearly.
Speaker 1 [01:05:14] That is so fucking cool. I can’t thank you enough for coming here to talk to us about the book. The book is fascinating. I can’t wait to read it myself, at this point, because this has been such a fascinating conversation. If folks want to pick up the book, it’s called ‘Major Labels.’ You can get it at our special Bookshop: factuallypod.com/books or wherever you buy your books. Your local bookshop, anywhere in particular you want people to check out to get it?
Speaker 2 [01:05:36] Anywhere books are sold, you should be able to find it. After you read it, I’d be happy to come back. And then we could argue.
Speaker 1 [01:05:42] Oh, that’s amazing. I would love to do that. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I can’t thank you enough.
Speaker 2 [01:05:50] Thanks, man. It’s been great.
Speaker 1 [01:05:56] Well, thank you once again to Khalifa Sanneh for coming on the show, if you loved that conversation as much as I did; hey, check out his book once again at factuallypod.com/books. That’s factuallypod.com/books. When you do, you’ll be supporting not just this show but also your local bookstore as well. That is it for us this week on Factually. I want to thank our producers, Chelsea Jacobson and Sam Roudman. Our engineer, Ryan Connor. Andrew W.K. for our theme song. The fine folks at Falcon Northwest for building me the incredible custom gaming PC that I’m recording this very episode for you on. Check them out if you’re looking for a gaming PC yourselves. If you want to find me on the internet, you can find me at @AdamConover wherever you get your social media or at adamconover.net. You can send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I do love to hear from you, and I sometimes even reply. Thank you so much for listening. We’ll see you next week, on Factually.
July 26, 2022
How can we best help animals, when it’s we humans who cause their suffering? Animal Crisis authors Alice Crary and Lori Gruen join Adam to explain how the same systems that hurt and kill animals also harm humans. They discuss the human rights abuses that happen in industrial slaughterhouses and how palm oil monocrops are devastating the world’s rainforests. They also share how we can have solidarity with animals in our daily lives. You can purchase their book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 19, 2022
In times of turmoil, it can be useful to take a longer view of history. Like, a LOT longer. Paleontologist and author of “The Rise and Reign of the Mammals” Stephen Brusatte joins Adam to explain how mammals took over the Earth hundreds of millions of years ago, and why we survived and achieve sentience when dinosaurs died out. Stephen goes on to discuss why taking a deep look at our history can help prepare us for the crises of the near future. You can purchase Stephen’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 13, 2022
Trans people have existed as long as, you know, people have. But the barriers to legal inclusion and equality are still higher than most people realize. “Sex is as Sex Does” author Paisley Currah joins Adam to discuss why institutions have been slow to give legal recognition to trans identities, why Republicans have shifted their attacks from bathroom policies to trans youth in sports, and why the struggle for trans equality is tied to feminism and women’s liberation. You can purchase Paisley’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books