It’s so anti-punk it’s almost punk.
Let’s take its genera in order. Rock, writes Sanneh, “seems to have become repertory music, a new American Great Songbook for Americans who don’t care much for the old American Great Songbook.” He’s as surprised as anyone that “rock ‘n’ roll never really found rock stars to replace the original band”.
His chapter on R&B is a highlight. It focuses on how Billboard magazine tried to keep up with this music, under changing charts for “Race Records” or “Soul Singles” or “Black Singles” or “Disco Action”. He notes how Americans’ listening habits are often segregated by race, and sometimes more universal: Motown hits like “My Girl,” he writes, “seem to pre-exist musical taste itself.”
Sanneh has long been a go-to country music writer. (Her 2004 review in The Times of Julie Roberts’ self-titled debut album led me to buy it, and it’s still a favorite.)
He loves almost everything, even so-called “bro country”, sparing his contempt only for alt-country and Americana, which he too often finds “precious”. He argues – and he convinced me – that the Dixie Chicks became less interesting, not more, when they stopped caring about “pleasing country fans”.
Of the country’s racial politics, he writes: “The idea of a predominantly white gender may seem offensive; All-white places in America have always been restricted places, separate places. But no genre really attracts everyone. Maybe country music is just more honest than rock ‘n’ roll about who its audience is. Admittedly, the whiteness of country music has never seemed like a barrier to me.
In the punk chapter, he praises the sabotaging spirit of the music and dwells on his own punk phase. Of hip-hop, he writes, “It is perhaps America’s quintessential art form, the country’s greatest cultural contribution to the world. He worries about sexism in the genre, but the more progressive hip-hop mostly leaves him cold.
Of hip-hop artists’ penchant for speaking their own name, he writes, more than victoriously: “Calling your own name can be a way of showing off, but it can also be a courteous gesture, a way of checking in with people. listeners and putting them at ease, as any good host would.”