Break-Up Songs: How Popular Music Got So Divisive

People love to talk about how popular music transcends boundaries and brings people together. I’m not so sure. I think that popular music has often pushed us apart. As listeners, we often choose the kind of songs we like by figuring out what kind of songs we *don’t* like—and, sometimes, by figuring out what kind of people we don’t want to *be* like. The result has been a riot of styles and subcultures: punk rockers cherishing defiance, techno obsessives chasing oblivion; R&B fans celebrating Blackness, country fans grappling (or not) with whiteness. Especially in America, we have lately grown used to hearing people bemoan our divisiveness. Is it possible that popular music shows us how we might appreciate that divisiveness, instead?

Kelefa Sanneh is the author of “MAJOR LABELS: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres” (Penguin Press). He has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2008, before which he spent six years as a pop-music critic at The New York Times. He is also a contributor to CBS Sunday Morning. Previously, he was the deputy editor of Transition, a journal of race and culture based at the W. E. B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He lives in New York City with his family.


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