Thursday, 4 August 2016

Book review: The Importance of Music to Girls

There are a lot of books about music written by men. You might have noticed. There aren’t very many written by women.

There have been a few memoirs lately by women musicians, like Viv Albertine’s excellent Clothes Music Boys, and they’ve been good. But not much by women non-musicians.

But why shouldn’t we be allowed something to say, as well? After all, the BBC series The People’s History of Pop is so much better than the usual dull documentaries. Because there are more women’s voices. And because it’s about fans, not “experts”: it’s personal.

There are plenty of very serious books out by men rock writers. And more than enough vaguely humorous books by men about their record collections, or being a failed rock star.

I’ve been thinking for a while that I should try to blog about as many music books by women as I can. And this seemed a good time to start, because I’m doing a week of blog challenges and today’s is “write a review”.

I really liked the title of Lavinia Greenlaw’s memoir The Importance of Music to Girls. Because music IS important to us. And it doesn't just belong to the boys.

Lavinia Greenlaw occasionally turns up as the token woman on those other music documentaries, presumably because of this book. She’s not a music journalist but a fiction and poetry writer, and that comes across in the book. It’s quite literary: there’s an epigraph at the beginning of each chapter, and the occasional footnote. And it’s quite poetic and in places it reads like a novel.

Music is the thread that holds it together. And it’s also the central relationship in the book.

The story begins in childhood, with the dancing and singing that starts us all off in life (if we’re lucky). Pop comes later: her parents’ Bob Dylan albums, then Top of the Pops LP cover versions.

Then (aged 10, 1972), discoveries about the meaning of pop: understanding “music as social currency” (this comes up a lot later on) and declaring an allegiance to Donny Osmond; using Top of the Pops as a map to understand the style and structure of pop.

Later, music and dancing is a way to understand the “style and structure” of teenage society: learning about boys or belonging or boredom. I love the description of village hall discos: “If I had not kissed anyone, or danced with anyone, or had a reason to cry, the music made me feel as if I had gone through all that anyway.”

And then there’s the arrival of punk: “After three years of trying to fit in, I liked the idea of being different.”

After the musical snapshots of the childhood chapters, the book becomes more of a narrative here: it’s a real story, with real people (names have been changed), and some drama. But there’s so much here that is universal. It’s about the search for love, the search for freedom, the search to be allowed to be serious about music as much as the boys were. “I declared my allegiance, took a position, and always had a view, not noticing that girls were bemused and boys found me boring.” (That was me, too.)

I love the detail of records and radio, music papers and gigs, where and with whom you listened to, and talked about, music. It’s written so evocatively that you can immerse yourself in the story, and recall so much where it crosses over into your own.

Music, always, is in the foreground: “There were those for whom music was soundtrack and those of us for whom it was, well, music.”

The importance of music to girls, or just one girl? Can we be allowed to be serious about music as well as the boys? There were, and are, more of us than people think. This feels like my story too. It feels like a women’s history of pop.

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