nick hornby on music

this guy writes like I think. it’s eerie, uncanny, and homely and comfortable all at the same time. I recently finished his book 31 songs which is basically just him writing about how he thinks and feels about music, through 31 of his favourite songs. I have this deep and abiding love of music (as evidenced recently by my irrational panic when my mp3 player went down for the count) and in so many ways Hornby describes that love better than I ever could. It’s also a useful apologetic for pop music, which is my main musical diet. I’ve picked out some of my favourite quotes from the book (some of them rather long, admittedly, but worth the read):

Songs are what I listen to, almost to the exclusion of everything else. I don’t listen to classical music or jazz very often, and when people ask me what music I like, I find it very difficult to reply, because they usually want names of people, and I can only give them song titles. And mostly all I have to say about these songs is that I love them, and want to sing along to them, and force other people to listen to them, and get cross when other people don’t like them as much as I do…

So seriously…why doesn’t everyone else get how incredible Sullivan St or Anna Begins are? “Her kindness bangs a gong” may be the stupidest lyric ever on paper, but I still say it’s the climax of the most incredible four minutes of anyone’s life. Maybe that’s why I love Counting Crows fans too…they just…get it, with no need to explain the unexplainable.

On the snobbery of music fans:

That’s the thing that puzzles me about those who feel that contemporary pop (and I use the word to encompass soul, reggae, country, rock – anything and everything that might be regarded as trashy) is beneath them, or behind them, or beyond them – some preposition denoting distance, anyway: does this mean that you never hear, or at least never enjoy, new songs, that everything you whistle or hum was written years, decades, centuries ago? Do you really deny yourselves the pleasure of mastering a tune (a pleasure, incidentally, that your generation is perhaps the first in the history of mankind to forgo) because you are afraid it might make you look as if you don’t know who Harold Bloom is? Wow. I’ll bet you’re fun at parties.

I remember someone asking Adam Duritz outside the Palais in Melbourne, “I’m trying to write music. Do you have any advice for me?” Adam replied (and I’ll never forget it, because it redefined what was “good” or “acceptable” music for me) “Just make music that you like.” The girl goes, “But how do I make it good?” and he said, somewhat exasperated, “It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about it – make music that makes you happy. It doesn’t matter it if it’s happy or sad or whatever – if you get a kick out of it, what does it matter?”

It was an incredibly liberating moment – because if a song’s catchy but was performed by a boy band, who cares? You don’t become fun at parties (or in other words, enjoy life) by denying yourself such simple, cheap pleasures.

on pop music’s disposability:

…a three-minute pop song can only withhold its mysteries for so long, after all. So, yes, it’s disposable, as if that makes any difference to anyone’s perceptions of the value of pop music. But then, shouldn’t we be sick of ‘Moonlight’ Sonata by now? Or Christina’s World? Or The Importance of Being Ernest? They’re empty! Nothing left! We sucked ‘em dry! That’s what gets me: the very people who are snotty about the disposability of pop will go over and over again to see Lady Bracknell say ‘A handbag?’ in a funny voice. They don’t think that joke’s exhausted itself? Maybe disposability is a sign of pop music’s maturity, a recognition of its own limitations, rather than the converse.

On generational musical snobbery:

There is no doubt, though, that lyrics are the literate pop fan’s Achilles heel. We have all lived through the shrivelling moment when a parent walks into a room and repeats, with sardonic disbelief, a couplet picked up from the stereo or the TV. ‘What does that mean, then?’ my mother asked me during Top of the Pops. ‘”Get it on/Bang a gong”? How long did it take him to think of that, do you reckon?’ And the correct answer – ‘Two seconds, and it doesn’t matter’ – is always beyond you, so you just tell her to shut up, while inside you’re hating Marc Bolan for making you like him even though he sings about getting it on and banging gongs. (I suspect that this humiliation continues, and that it makes no difference whether the parent doing the humiliating was brought up on a diet of T. Rex, or Spandau Ballet, or Sham 69, and therefore should avoid the literary high ground altogether. My mother, after all, belonged to a generation that danced – danced and smooched – to ‘How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?’ and if she felt able to be snooty about ‘Get It On’, then surely snootiness is a weapon available to all. Rubbishing our children’s tastes is one of the few pleasures remaining to us as we become old, redundant and culturally marginalized.)

I have this memory of trying to decipher the lyrics of Peter Blakeley’s “Crying in the Chapel” (which I found immensely engaging at the time), and thinking that what I heard couldn’t possibly be the real lyrics, whereupon my mother entered the room and confirmed for me just how inane they were. Then she said they used to dance to “Do the hot potato” and somehow that admission was enough to destroy any credibility she might’ve had in her generation being musically superior.

Theological reflection, Hornby-style; his chapter on Rufus Wainwright’s ‘One Man Guy’:

I try not to believe in God, of course, but sometimes things happen in music, in songs, that bring me up short, make me do a double take. When things add up to more than the sum of their parts, when the effects achieved are inexplicable, then atheists like me start to get into difficult territory. Take Rufus Wainwright’s version of his father Loudon’s ‘One Man Guy’, for example. There should be nothing evoking the spirit about it, really: the song’s lovely, but it’s a little sour, a little sad, jokey – the joke being that the song is not about the joys of monogamy but is about the joys of solipsism and misanthropy, a joke that is given a neat little twist by Wainwright junior’s sexual orientation – and it’s hard to imagine that God has time to pay a visit to something so wry and self-mocking. And yet, weirdly, He does. There’s no doubt about it. (And of course, in doing so, He answers once and for all the question of what He thinks of homosexuality: he’s not bothered one way or the other. Official.)

For me, He comes in at the beginning of the second verse, just when Rufus and his sister Martha begin to harmonize. Perhaps significantly (or perhaps He is merely demonstrating a hitherto unsuspected sense of humour), His presence first makes itself known on the line, ‘People meditate, hey, that’s great, trying to find the Inner You’. It’s the harmony that does it, although whether that’s cause or effect is a moot point. Does God come in because Martha and Rufus are singing so beautifully together – does He hear it from afar and think, ‘Hey, that’s My kind of music, and I’m going to see what’s going on’? Or does He enable them to sing together – does he spot what they’re pitching for and help them along the way?

When I say that you can hear God in ‘One Man Guy’ by Rufus Wainwright, I do not mean to suggest that there is an old chap with a beard – a divine Willie Nelson, if you will – warbling along with them. Nor do I wish to imply that this surprise guest appearance at the beginning of the second verse prov
es that Jesus died for our sins, or that rich men will have difficulty entering the Kingdom of Heaven. I just mean that at certain spine-shivering musical moments – and you will have your own, inevitably – it becomes difficult to remain a literalist. (I have no such difficulty when I hear religious music, by the way, no matter how beautiful. They’re cheating, those composers: they’re inviting Him in, egging Him on, and surely He wouldn’t fall for that? I think He’d have enough self-respect to stay well away.)

I’m not sure what difference it makes to me, this occasional vision of the Divine in the music I love. OK, maybe it comes as a relief, because a lot of people I have a lot of time for, writers and musicians and sports stars and politicians, have a great deal to say on the subject of God and hitherto I had felt a bit left out; now I have something, a little scrap of spirituality, I can wave back at them. Oh, and as a writer, I don’t normally have patience for the ineffable – I ought to think that everything’s effing effable, otherwise what’s the point? But I’m not sure there are words to describe what happens when two voices mesh (and isn’t the power and beauty and sheer perfection of a simple chord a bit, you know, Outer Limits? It’s no wonder Pythagorus got so worked up about harmony). All I can say is that I can hear things that aren’t there, see and feel things I can’t normally see and feel, and start to realize that, yes, there is such a thing as an immortal soul, or, at the very least, a unifying human consciousness, that our loves are short but have meaning. Beyond that, I’m not sure it changes very much, really. I’m not going to listen to stuff like this too often, though, just in case.

I love this chapter because although he’s coming from a different perspective (atheist as opposed to theist) we share something in common. God is never more real to me than in moments like that in music – in the tinkling piano and harmonies of the “Did She Wanna Run” alt to Sullivan St, in walking along the street to the bouncing guitar riff of The Ramones’ “It’s Not My Place (In the 9 to 5 World)”, in the blasting horns of “Kick” by INXS. There’s a sense in which the pure joy of human life and expression is not so much transcended as intensified (sometimes a thousandfold) in such moments. But then, like he said, you can’t make the ineffable effable.

On thanking God in the liner notes:

The single biggest influence on most of these artists [British Top 10, August 2001] according to the acknowledgements in their liner notes, is…Actually, let’s see if you can guess. Who do you think is at least partially responsible for such songs as ‘Where the Party At?’, ‘Bootylicious’, ‘Bad Boy for Life’, ‘American Psycho’, ‘The Girlies’, and ‘Pimp Like Me’? Who do you think inspired the rapper on D12’s ‘Ain’t Nuttin’ But Music’ (‘Independent women in the house/Show us your tits and shut your motherf***ing mouth’ – a chummy reference, presumably, to Destiny’s Child, whose hit ‘Independant Women Part 1’ opens their Survivor album)? Give up? OK.

You may well be surprised to learn that the very first person thanked in the liner notes of the CDs containing these gems is the Almighty Himself. He gets thanked on seven of the ten albums, by sixteen different contributing artists. Brian, of Jagged Edge, for instance, declares that without God ‘we wouldn’t be here doing this third album’ – incontrovertible, according to much creationist theory, but a somewhat reductive view of the universe nonetheless. Let’s face it, without God the first two albums would have been pretty tricky, too. In a similar spirit, Michelle, of Destiny’s Child, is moved to point out to the Creator, ‘There is no one like you!!’, which is, on reflection, one of the tidiest ontological arguments you could wish to hear.

You really do have to wonder at the credentials of those who thank God in their liner notes, or in their awards speeches…somehow singing “I put it right there, made it easy for you to get to/Now you wanna act like ya don’t know what to do/After I done everything that you asked me/Grabbed you, grind you, liked you, tried you/Moved so fast baby now I can’t find you” and then saying how God made all this possible (or even, in many cases, Jesus) is more than just misguided, it’s literally blasphemous. I’m not even just talking about personal sexual morality; these people usually have no concept of who Jesus is or the way he treated people.

On why he has little time for shock art (or noise music):

That’s the real con of shock art: it makes out that it’s democratic, but it’s actually only for those who can afford it. And some of us, as we get older, simply find that we don’t have that much courage to spare anymore. Good luck to you if you have, because it means that you have managed to avoid more or less everything that life has to throw at you, but don’t try to make me feel morally or intellectually inferior.

I guess this book just goes a long way towards explaining why his novels strike so deeply home for me – he gets it in the same way I get it, and it seems that’s a rare thing. Sharing such a love, even with someone you don’t know and have never met, is a profound bond.