Sunday, February 20, 2022

The Making of Jane Austen

Image source: Arizona State University

She was not born, but rather became, Jane Austen. (p. 1)

In her introduction to The Making of Jane Austen (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), scholar Devoney Looser consciously echoes Simone de Beauvoir's "On ne naît pas femme: on le devient" (One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman). All of the novels issued during Austen's lifetime were published anonymously, and in their initial appearance achieved only modest success. After her death in 1817 her novels went out of print until the 1830s. And yet today, as scholar Claire Harman wrote in her own book on the posthumous creation of Austen's reputation, Jane's Fame (Henry Holt, 2009), "her six completed novels are among the best-known, best-loved, most-read works in the English language" (p. xv). How did this happen?

We might think we know the general outline of Austen's rediscovery by later generations. A late-Victorian surge of interest was sparked by the publication of A Memoir of Jane Austen by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh in 1870 (a second expanded edition followed the next year), the Letters of Jane Austen by her great-nephew Edward Hugessen Knatchbull-Hugessen (the first Baron Brabourne) in 1884, and the best-selling "Peacock Edition" of Pride and Prejudice illustrated by Hugh Thomson in 1894:

Image source: Internet Archive

Then came the mid-20th-century revival of interest after the 1923 publication of the scholarly Standard Edition of her writings edited by R.W. Chapman, and Hollywood's heavily altered 1940 film version of Pride and Prejudice starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson. After another relative lull in Austen appreciation came the six-part Pride and Prejudice BBC series in 1995 starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, which fostered the contemporary mass audience for all things Austen.

Looser's book is a well-researched and lively reconsideration of this too-neat outline. She notes that although Hugh Thomson's illustrations (which rendered Austen's characters as though they were escapees from a Dickens novel) had lasting popularity, the first illustrator of Austen's novels was Ferdinand Pickering in 1833 (a correction of other sources' identification of the artist as George Pickering). Perhaps in a bid to make the novels seem more up-to-date, Pickering portrayed the female characters in 1830s styles: elaborate coiffures, high-brimmed bonnets, leg-of-mutton sleeves, tight bodices, narrow waists, and full skirts, in place of Regency simplicity of fashion. (Looser points out that Pickering's illustrations may have provided a template for the out-of-period costumes of the 1940 film version of Pride and Prejudice.)

Elinor examines Lucy Steele's miniature of Edward Ferrars. Image source: Internet Archive

Looser also highlights the work of Christiana (Chris.) Hammond, the "first identifiably female illustrator of Jane Austen's novels" (p. 62), who among other scenes in Emma portrayed Jane Fairfax's father lying dead on a battlefield—a shocking reminder of the impact of events in the larger world on Austen's characters (particularly evident in the slavery subtext of Mansfield Park and the Napoleonic Wars background of Persuasion). Looser's consideration of the different Austen illustrators and their characteristic styles and scenes is a tantalizing glimpse of a subject that could easily justify a full-length book; eager readers await.

Austen adaptations did not begin with the BBC or Hollywood, of course. Looser offers a fascinating glimpse of turn-of-the-century amateur and professional Austen dramatizations. In 1899 the literary and theatrical Zeta Alpha Society of Wellesley College performed a Pride and Prejudice adaptation with an all-female cast, featuring alumna "Miss Willis" (Looser identifies her as almost certainly Clara Lucretia Willis, Class of '96) as a cross-dressed Darcy:

"A scene from 'Pride and Prejudice' as dramatized and performed at Wellesley," The Puritan, Vol. 8, No. 2, May 1900, as reproduced in The Making of Jane Austen (p. 103). Image source:

In The Wellesley Magazine Clara Willis' acting "in the very difficult rôle of Darcy" was singled out as being "especially artistic and finished," but the whole production was lauded:

Enough cannot be said in praise of the entire presentation. . .Every effort was put forward by the society to make the costuming and stage setting as accurate and artistic as possible, with the result that Wellesley has seldom seen more charming and finished dramatics than this presentation of Miss Jane Austen's delightful old novel. (The Wellesley Magazine, Vol. VII, No. 9, June 1899, pp. 475-476)

I'm guessing that Willis as a dashing Darcy is second from the right holding a top hat and the hand of his Elizabeth ("Miss Childs, '98"), while the other couple is Wickham ("Miss Smith, 1901") and Lydia ("Miss Ball, 1900")—at least, judging by his military-style coat and her frivolously feathered bonnet. (Looser doesn't speculate about the identities of the couples.)

There's a chapter on Rosina Filippi, an actress, director and performance teacher who in 1895 published Duologues and Scenes from the Novels of Jane Austen Arranged and Adapted for Drawing-Room Performance. Filippi was continuing a tradition of adapting novels for private performance in which Austen herself may have participated: a dramatic adaptation of scenes from Samuel Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison exists in Austen's handwriting, and she is known to have appeared in family theatricals.

Looser writes that "Filippi's focus is on Austen's humor and on the villainous characters' delectable awfulness" (p. 89), such as the odious Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility discussing how little money he can get away with offering his dispossessed stepmother and half-sisters (the ultimate answer, of course, is none). Interestingly, only one of the seven scenes involves a pair of lovers, Emma and Mr. Knightley. The final two duologues showcase Elizabeth Bennet's strength of character: her refusal of Mr. Collins, and her confrontation with Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Illustration by Miss Fletcher from Duologues and Scenes from the Novels of Jane Austen, arranged and adapted by Rosa Filippi. Image source: Internet Archive

Looser connects Filippi's dramatizations to the New Woman movement, saying that her Austen adaptations "gave expression to the idea that females are strong, capable, and intelligent" (p. 90).

The connection to progressive social movements, particularly women's suffrage, is even more evident in Filippi's later full-length play The Bennets, based, of course, on Pride and Prejudice. Given a performance at the Royal Court Theatre in 1901, it was probably the first professional performance of an Austen adaptation. Playwright Filippi herself appeared onstage as Mrs. Bennet, while the actor portraying Elizabeth, Winifred Mayo, was one of the play's co-directors (the other was its Darcy, E. Harcourt Williams).

Later in the decade Mayo would become a leader of the Actresses' Franchise League, get arrested for participating in suffrage demonstrations, and publish the powerful article "Prison Experiences of a Suffragette" in The Idler magazine (1908). Mayo also became the first woman to portray Jane Austen herself in Cecily Hamilton's suffrage play A Pageant of Great Women (1909). Suffragists adopted Austen as an example of women's ability and achievement; Mary Lowndes designed a Jane Austen banner that was carried  in demonstrations, along with banners celebrating Mary Wollstonecraft (whose A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) may have inspired the plot of Sense and Sensibility) and Austen's favorites Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth.

Jane Austen Suffrage Banner, 1908, by Mary Lowndes. Photo credit: Women’s Library at the London School of Economics. Image source:

In "Prison Experiences of a Suffragette" Mayo writes of her first arrest, "I was still under the impression that you must do something illegal to get arrested" (The Idler, p. 86). Once that assumption was proved wrong, however, she seemed to have decided that as long as she was going to be arrested she might as well actually do something illegal: in November 1911 she participated in a Women's Social and Political Union stone-throwing campaign, breaking windows at the Guards Club in Pall Mall.

Her target was not chosen at random. Men's clubs were where members of Parliament, government officials, and leading cultural figures gathered. And as Looser points out, while the suffragists were marching through the streets carrying banners emblazoned with Austen's name, Austen was also being invoked by the suffragists' opponents inside the clubs as a contented exemplar of traditional women's roles. As Looser writes, "The invention of Jane Austen has been, and continues to be, a fraught public process" (p. 1).

Surprisingly, some of the anti-suffragist members of men's clubs thought of themselves as "Janeites." Today "Janeites" can be a somewhat disparaging term applied (mainly by men) to enthusiastic fans of Austen (mainly women); it is also a term avidly reclaimed by those enthusiastic fans. However, the term was first applied to the (mainly conservative) men who expressed admiration for her work, such as critic George Saintsbury, who first used the term in print in 1894, and the writers G.K. Chesterton and Rudyard Kipling.

"The Janeites," as published in Hearst's International, Vol. XLV, No. 5, May 1924, pp. 10-15, 152, 154. Image source: "Shakespeare and Beyond," Folger Shakespeare Library

Kipling's story "The Janeites," about WWI soldiers who form a secretive group devoted to her works, was published in Hearst's International magazine in 1924, the year after R.W. Chapman had completed his scholarly edition of Austen's writings and as she was becoming a fixture in schoolrooms and on college syllabi. However, scholarly and educational interest in Austen had emerged long before. According to Looser her novels had appeared on lists of recommended readings for schools beginning in 1838, and were highlighted in John Cordy Jeaffreson's Novels and Novelists from Elizabeth to Victoria (1858)—so much for the Austen rediscovery not beginning until 1870. 

And so much for R.W. Chapman being the first to supply scholarly notes to Austen texts: in 1908 a Missouri schoolteacher, Josephine Heermans, produced an edition of Pride and Prejudice that involved textual comparison and correction, copious annotations, apposite quotations from Jane Austen's letters, a bibliography, suggestions for further study, and questions for classroom discussion or individual reflection. It was issued in the Macmillan Pocket Classics series and aimed at elementary and secondary school students, rather than an adult audience. But nonetheless, a scholarly and educational approach was taken, by a woman, to editing Austen's works 15 years before Chapman's Standard Edition. 

I've only touched on a few highlights from The Making of Jane Austen. Nearly every page offers intriguing surprises. My only regret is that the book isn't longer. In researching this post I discovered on that there were many early television adaptations of Pride and Prejudice that Looser doesn't mention, including the first, hour-long BBC adaptation from 1938 (!); a Philco Television Playhouse version from 1949 written by Samuel Taylor, later screenwriter of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (it's quite the leap from Darcy and Elizabeth to Scotty and Madeleine); a Matinee Theatre adaptation from 1956 written by Helene Hanff, later of 84, Charing Cross Road fame; and an episode of the Canadian TV series Encounter in which Darcy was played by Patrick Macnee, later John Steed in The Avengers, and which was directed by Paul Almond, later producer and director of Michael Apted's Seven Up! (1964). A comprehensive critical companion to Austen theatrical, radio, film, and television adaptations is clearly needed. (Deborah Cartmell's Screen Adaptations: Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice: A Close Study of the Relationship Between Text and Film, Methuen, 2010, attempts this impossible project for screen versions of Austen's most popular novel.)

Each of us, whether illustrator, critic, editor, scholar, activist, educator, playwright, actor, enthusiast, or reader for pleasure, remakes Austen in our preferred image. We may no longer throw rocks through the windows of those who don't share our ideas about Austen, but perspectives on her are still fiercely contested. And there is a constant concern that she is becoming too popular, which essentially means that she is being discovered by people who don't like her in the same ways or for the same reasons that we do. 

One writer quoted by Looser asks, "What does this mean—that we are beginning to have a Jane Austen cult? How the idea would have amused the innocent subject of it all!" (p. 202). Was this written after all of the events and celebrations (of which the publication of Looser's book was one) marking the bicentenary of Austen's death in 2017? After the twelve months in 2004-2005 which saw Elizabeth Bennet played by both Kiera Knightley (in Pride & Prejudice) and Indian superstar Aishwarya Rai (as "Lalita" in Bride & Prejudice)? After the massive success of the 1995 BBC adaptation? No: it was written in 1898, when the first wave of Austen's popularity was still building. As Looser writes in her concluding chapter,

Henry James worried that commercializing Austen had run amok by 1905. . .Today's Jane Austen societies have not stained her good character by introducing cosplay. People have been dressing up as Austen, on stage and at society parties, for more than a century. . .Every previous blow that Jane Austen's reputation has supposedly endured at the hands of popular audiences who would sully her has failed to rub her out. Reports of Jane Austen's posthumous death have been recurrently exaggerated. (p. 222)

Let's hope that it will always be so.

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres

Image source: Allen & Unwin

Do genres even exist in popular music anymore? Here's a comparison: a list of the Billboard top ten singles of 2021, compared with the same list from the pre-Internet era of 40 years earlier [1]:

# 2021 1981
Song Artist Song Artist
1 "Levitating" Dua Lipa feat. DaBaby "Bette Davis Eyes" Kim Carnes
2 "Save Your Tears" The Weeknd & Ariana Grande "Endless Love" Diana Ross & Lionel Richie
3 "Blinding Lights" The Weeknd "Lady" Kenny Rogers
4 "Mood" 24kGoldn feat. Iann Dior "(Just Like) Starting Over" John Lennon
5 "Good 4 U" Olivia Rodrigo "Jessie's Girl" Rick Springfield
6 "Kiss Me More" Doja Cat feat. SZA "Celebration" Kool & the Gang
7 "Leave the Door Open" Silk Sonic (Bruno Mars & Anderson .Paak) "Kiss on My List" Hall & Oates
8 "Driver's License" Olivia Rodrigo "I Love a Rainy Night" Eddie Rabbitt
9 "Montero (Call Me by Your Name)" Lil Nas X "9 to 5" Dolly Parton
10 "Peaches" Justin Bieber feat. Daniel Caesar & Giveon "Keep on Loving You" REO Speedwagon

In 1981 radio was the chief way most people heard new music. It was segregated into formats (Top 40, MOR [Middle of the Road]/Easy Listening, Quiet Storm, AOR [Album Oriented Rock], R&B, Country, etc.) and genrified playlists that were largely pre-determined by program directors and heavily dependent on major-label promotion of long-established acts. [2] 

Each entry in the 1981 list (with the possible exception of "Bette Davis Eyes," a synthpop arrangement of a 1974 Jackie DeShannon song) is pretty firmly associated with a particular genre/format. Notable for their absence are any artists associated with rap; notable for their presence are artists associated with rock (John Lennon, Rick Springfield, REO Speedwagon) and country (Dolly Parton, Eddie Rabbitt, and Kenny Rogers—although "Lady" was written and produced by Lionel Richie).  [3]

Kim Carnes: "Bette Davis Eyes" (1981). Image source:

In 2021, most of the chart entries require slashes in their description (generally rap/R&B/dance: rapped or rhythmically delivered verses over a dance beat followed by a melodic chorus); more than half involve collaborations or feature guest stars (versus one in 1981). Three tracks are throwbacks (The Weeknd to 80s synthpop, Silk Sonic to 70s soul) while only one ("Good 4 U") could be described as rock; none are country.

Of course, since 1981 the U.S. has seen demographic shifts, the mainstreaming of rap, and changes in the way the chart positions are calculated so that they reflect more closely what (young) people are actually listening to. But I think something else is going on as well.

With the rise of streaming services, video platforms, and social media, virtually the entirety of recorded popular music (yes, I know, with exceptions) is available to everyone all the time. Since new popular music is often a recombination and reinterpretation of older elements, I'd expect genre boundaries to become blurred and get blurrier over time. And no, even though I've aged out of the target audience of popular music I'm not saying that it all sounds the same. I am saying that most hit songs seem to be converging on a hybrid style that draws on elements from multiple genres, especially rap, R&B and dance.

So Kelefa Sanneh's Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres appears at a time when genre may no longer define how popular music is made or heard, at least by people who came of age with YouTube (founded 2005), Spotify (founded 2006), and TikTok (founded 2016). Sanneh acknowledges this: at the end of the book he writes,

In theory, the popularity of companies like Spotify might have driven further fragmentation, because they made it so easy for listeners to explore far-flung genres. In practice, though, Spotify and its competitors, including Apple Music and YouTube, encouraged a new pop consolidation. Freed from the burden of having to decide which albums were the ones they wanted to pay for and add to their collections, millions of listeners gravitated toward similar sounds.

[Interjection from me: I would say that rather than listeners "gravitating" towards similar sounds, instead they are being pushed by social media algorithms that have been successfully designed to give them new music that closely matches the music they've previously listened to.]

In the new streaming era, the pop charts were full of moody, atmospheric songs that combined slangy, conversational lyrics with hip-hop-inspired beats. The new pop stars tended to draw influence from diverse sources, and yet their songs were highly compatible, blending seamlessly together on the online playlists that were displacing albums as the dominant form of music consumption. . .That development shaped this book, in which. . .many of the chapters end on a note of convergence, with broadly popular performers who are eager to shrug off the weight of genre identity. (p. 452)

Even before streaming, of course, many musicians rejected the confinements of genre. But indeed, popular music genres may be headed for the same obsolescence as (alas!) the record stores that used them as ways of organizing their stock. (Perhaps, then, one reason for Sanneh's loyalty to the idea of genre is the time he spent as a record-store clerk. In my fantasy record store, everything would be shelved alphabetically, so Motörhead would be flanked by Wes Montgomery and Mozart, and Handel would be next to Hendrix (as they were in real life). You can be glad you never had to shop there.)

The genres Sanneh chooses as his focus are rock, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance, and "pop," each of which receives a separate chapter. Of course, entire books can be (and have been) written about each of these genres, so Sanneh can only provide a broad overview of each. He is an excellent, thoughtful guide to a huge range of music: his taste is broad, and he has interesting things to say about each of the genres he covers.

However, I think his book inadvertently illustrates the truism that the popular music we listen to from the time we enter our teen years (when many of us first start developing our own tastes) until the time we're exiting young adulthood 15 or 20 years later (by which time our tastes have become more-or-less fixed) remains the most emotionally resonant for us. Sanneh reports that "I didn't start obsessing over music until my fourteenth birthday, in 1990, when my best friend, Matt, gave me a mixtape. . .carefully compiled from his own burgeoning punk-rock collection" (pp. 216-217). (Ah, mixtapes, those unique gifts of friendship and musical seduction. Sorry, young moderns, but Spotify playlists just aren't the same, especially if you send the same playlist to different people.) Sanneh's teen years (late 1980s to the mid-1990s) also witnessed the emergence of rappers such as Public Enemy, Dr. Dre and NWA, Ice-T, Eric B. & Rakim, LL Cool J, Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z. Guess which are the two most energetic, engaged chapters of Major Labels?

Public Enemy: "Fight the Power" (1989). Image source:

But perhaps because he came of musical age in the late 1980s and 1990s, Sanneh does not always do full justice to developments in his chosen genres in earlier decades. For example, the chapter on pop highlights the Carpenters, jumps to Britain's New Pop bands of the mid-1980s (Human League, ABC, Culture Club, Pet Shop Boys), namechecks 1980s and 1990s boy bands (New Edition, New Kids on the Block, NSYNC), and briefly acknowledges Madonna, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake, K-Pop bands BTS and BLACKPINK, and Canadian chanteuse Céline Dion (or more properly, Carl Wilson's slim book on the Dion phenomenon, Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (2007)).

But pop existed for decades before the Carpenters: it can be traced back to 18th-century ballads, 19th-century music halls, early 20th-century Tin Pan Alley. Later came the influence of Broadway and film musicals on the hit parade in the 1930s and 1940s, and the development of the American Songbook of standards. Even if Sanneh wanted to focus on pop music after the emergence of rock 'n' roll, he doesn't discuss the refashioning of the music of black artists by mainstream white singers (Pat Boone's version of Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" is a notorious example). Sanneh uses Lulu's "To Sir With Love" as an example of the pop that successfully co-existed in the 1960s alongside the Beatles, Stones and Hendrix, but doesn't mention chart-topping groups such as The Association ("Cherish," "(Everyone Knows It's) Windy"), The Seekers ("Georgy Girl"), The Mamas & The Papas ("California Dreamin'," "Monday, Monday," "Dedicated to the One I Love"), or the 5th Dimension ("Aquarius," "One Less Bell To Answer"). Also lacking any acknowledgement: New York's Brill Building, the L.A. session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, or pop hitmakers Lou Adler, Don Kirshner, and Phil Spector (!), none of whom appear in the book's index.

Jerry Butler: "Make It Easy On Yourself" (1962). Image source:

Also absent are 1960s pop performers such as Cilla Black ("Anyone Who Had a Heart," "Alfie"), Jerry Butler ("Make It Easy on Yourself"), Petula Clark ("Downtown"), Jackie DeShannon ("What the World Needs Now Is Love"), Tom Jones ("What's New, Pussycat?"), Sandie Shaw ("There's Always Something There to Remind Me"), and Dusty Springfield ("I Just Don't Know What To Do with Myself," "The Look of Love"). Most surprising, perhaps, is the glancing mention of Dionne Warwick ("Walk On By," "I Say a Little Prayer," "Do You Know the Way to San Jose," and many others), the great exponent of the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David—who don't appear in the book at all, and who wrote all of the songs mentioned in this paragraph except "Downtown" (written by Tony Hatch).

Sanneh was also born too late to personally experience punk in its original incarnations. (And back then punk could never have been described as "popular" except in the sense of "carried on by ordinary people." Tom Carson wrote a memorable Village Voice piece in the early 1980s entitled "25,000 Dead Kennedys fans can be wrong," a reference to the 1959 album 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong, which is itself a reference to the 1927 song by Willie Raskin, Billy Rose, and Fred Fisher, "50 Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong.") As a result Sanneh's account of 1970s and early 1980s punk and post-punk focuses on the records he played during his time as a college radio DJ two decades later, and draws on zines (primarily MAXIMUM ROCKNROLL) and other people's books.

The first issue of Maximum RocknRoll (1982). Image source: Fanzine Addiction

While I understand that Sanneh's project is to trace the histories of his chosen genres, rather than focus on specific bands, a lot is omitted. For example, he talks about the attention focussed on the punk scene's racial and sexual politics by the 1990s zine riot grrrl. But such questions were also hotly debated in the 1970s. Sanneh has a section on punk politics that discusses the contradictions in 1970s punk imagery (swastikas were worn at various times by the Sex Pistols' Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten, as well as by Siouxsie Sioux), the tensions between punks and racist skinheads, and the Rock Against Racism movement. But the multi-racial punk-adjacent ska-influenced 2 Tone bands such as The Specials, The Selecter, and The (English) Beat go unmentioned, and more could have been made of the influences of reggae, dub, and funk on the music of punk and post-punk bands such as The Clash, Gang of Four, and Public Image Ltd.

(One fond memory from my misspent youth is of a concert by the hardcore punk band 7 Seconds in 1983 or 1984 at Ruthie's Inn, a neighborhood bar in a working-class black area of Berkeley. The (black) promoter Wes Robinson had begun booking hardcore shows there, and the older black clientele at the bar would generally look on warily at the spike-haired white teenagers and early-20s who would throng the stage and mosh at shows by thrash bands. But that night when 7 Seconds launched into their anthem "Racism Sucks!" I watched in astonishment and delight as the band and stage divers were joined onstage by one of the Ruthie's regulars, dancing and singing along with the chorus: "Racism sucks! Racism sucks! Ra-cism fucking sucks!")

7 Seconds: Skins, Brains & Guts (1982).  Image source:

It's not until Sanneh's discussion of the emergence of Bikini Kill and Riot Grrrl in the 1990s that the role of women in punk and post-punk is (glancingly) mentioned. This does a disservice to the many bands from the 1970s and early 1980s that were led by (or composed entirely of) women: The Slits, The Raincoats, Au Pairs, Delta 5, The Mo-dettes, Kleenex/Liliput, Essential Logic, Young Marble Giants, The Bloods, and Bush Tetras, to name a few (most of which are not referenced).

Sanneh mentions the admiration of the Riot Grrrl bands for Joan Jett, but what he doesn't say is that the admiration was mutual. After the brutal murder of Mia Zapata, singer for the Seattle band The Gits, Jett co-wrote the song "Go Home" with Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna to publicize and help fund the investigation into Zapata's death (the song was released on Jett's album Pure and Simple). Jett also toured with the remaining members of The Gits under the name Evil Stig ("Gits Live" backwards) to raise funds for the investigation and the social justice organization Home Alive. She also produced and performed on Bikini Kill's New Radio EP, which includes their signature song "Rebel Girl."

Bikini Kill: New Radio (1993). Image source:

Another odd omission for a history of popular music: Sanneh doesn't discuss in detail the exploitative economics of the music industry, which have come to the fore once again in recent years as it has become clear that streaming services pay to artists an infinitesimal fraction of the value of their music. It's a rich subject that Sanneh avoids almost entirely.

I realize that this post sounds like a pan, but I don't intend it to be so negative. I enjoyed reading Major Labels very much. Sanneh is an excellent writer, and I will be forever grateful to him for untangling the differences among some of the main sub-genres of electronic dance music (Wikipedia lists nearly 400 sub-, sub-sub-, and sub-sub-sub-genres of EDM). He also makes interesting connections between seemingly disparate musical forms, such as his comparison of metronomic electronic dance music to the Grateful Dead:

Like dance music, the Dead's music was rather hard to put into words: listeners describing a particularly good live set tended to wax abstract about energy and vibes. Like dance music, the Dead's music sounded rather monotonous to people who didn't like it, and who couldn't register the subtle variations and innovations that so exhilarated fans. Like dance music, the Grateful Dead's music did not translate particularly well to albums; true believers insisted that studio recordings were no substitute for hours-long live sets. And like dance music, the Dead's music was said to be enhanced by chemical intoxication—and, by outsiders, to be intolerable without it. (p. 401)

Ultimately, Sanneh's project of is one of synthesis, not fission; his church is syncretic, not factional. And the sections of the book that deal with his own experiences and enthusiasms are highly engaging. Read Major Labels for its useful overviews of the past few decades' worth of developments in popular music, and especially for the experiences of a music obsessive who became a thoughtful critic for cultural arbiters such as the New York Times and the New Yorker at a time of fundamental change in the music industry. For in-depth analysis of specific musical artists and time periods, I'd suggest looking elsewhere. And in the interests of directing readers to those sources, may I suggest that the paperback edition might be enhanced by the addition of a "Further Reading" list? Just a thought.

  1. Of course, the very idea of a Top 10, 20, or 40 was antithetical to the way I approached music in 1981: I generally listened to albums, or album sides, not individual songs, and the idea of ranking them in numerical order would have been risible. But for comparison's sake, and a sense of how far the Top 40 was from the musical taste of at least some people in their teens and 20s, here is my personal list of the top 20 songs released in 1981 or late 1980, in alphabetical order by artist:

    Just missing the list: Joan Armatrading ("When I Get It Right"), Flipper ("Sex Bomb"), The Go-Gos ("Our Lips Are Sealed"), Rick James ("Give It To Me Baby"), Public Image Ltd. ("Flowers of Romance"), Ramones ("Don't Go").
  2. The average age of the charting artists in 1981 was 36, with the youngest (Robert "Kool" Bell) being 31; in 2021, the average age was almost a decade younger, with the youngest (showbiz veteran Olivia Rodrigo) being 18.
  3. Parton and Rogers are in the Country Music Hall of Fame; Rabbitt is in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, won Country Songwriter of the Year in 1979, and had been the opening act for tours by both Parton and Rogers.