Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Nick Hornby, Songbook, 2003.

Hornby's collection of essays about pop music--31 songs and 5 albums--is a good example of what it means to take pop music (at least as a broadly inclusive term) seriously.

Hornby discounts the idea that memorable songs are indelibly associated with specific memories, moments, or feelings; rather, he argues that good songs are in some way catchy and arrest the hearer in some way, be it for melodic, lyrical, or some other reason. As he puts it, "I wanted mostly to write about what it was in these songs that made me love them, not what I brought to the songs" (5-6). The book is, in one respect, and extended polemic that demands that pop be taken seriously:
That's the things that puzzles me about those who feel that contemporary pop (and I use the word to encompas 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 yeards, decades, centuries ago? Do you really deny yourself 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. (16)

He goes on to talk about how much he's enjoying being driven "potty" by "I'm Like a Bird" by Nelly Furtado. While I can't say I've ever been a fan, I remember donning and having a whole bunch of friends and students going about singing that for months on end, seemingly ceaselessly. Horny acknowledges that he'll eventually "solve" the song, and that it "will seem thin and stale soon enough," which means that it is "disposable" in one sense, but what's interesting in his argument is that he asks why disposability "makes any difference to anyone's perceptions of the value of pop music" (17). He argues that the disposability might be "a sign of pop music's maturity, a recognition of its own limitations, rather than the converse" (17-18). (There's also a funny moment where he writes "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 argument's exhausted itself?" [17]) Going through all these songs, showing what attracted him to them is the single best argument in his arsenal in the war to convince people to take pop seriously.

Because our tastes in music are so different, there were only one or two songs that I would have included in my own discussion. His chapter on Aimee Mann's "I've Had It" and Ani DiFranco's "You Had Time" is one of my favourites, but I don't think it's because I like the two songs so much; it's because he's so good about "You Had Time":

"You Had Time" sets itself a further handicap: it begins with more than two minutes of apparently hopeful and occasionally discordant piano noodling.... DiFranco's song is nothing if not ambitions, because what it does--or at any rate, what it pretends to do--is describe the genesis of its own creation: it shows its workings in a way that would delight any math teacher. When it kicks off, the noodling sounds impressionistic, like a snatch of sound track for an arty but emotional film... But it cheers up a little when DiFranco makes out that she's suddenly hit upon the gorgeous little riff that gives the song its spine. She's not quite there yet, because she hasn't found anything to do with her left hand, so there's a little bit more messing about; and then, as if by magic (although of course we know that it's merely the magic of hard work and talent) she works out a counterpoint, and she's there. Indeed, she celebrates the birth of the song by shoving the piano out of the way and playing the song proper on acoustic guitar--the two instruments are fused together with a deliberate improbable seamlessness on the recording, as if she wants us to see this as a metaphor for the creative process, rather than as the process itself. It's a sweet idea, a fan's dream of how music is created; I'd love to be a musician precisely because a part of me believes that this is exactly how songs are born, just as some people who are not writers believe that we are entirely dependent on the appearance of a muse. (46-47)

Hornby goes on to talk about the song proper and its peculiar attractiveness that astonishes him by not being "anticlimactic" after the song's introduction, but this description of the beginning of the song is so spot-on in terms of its close-reading of the song and depiction of just how it works that I wish I could write music criticism like this--if, perhaps, with a little more variety in sentence structure. (The man uses more colons and semi-colons than I do, and more clauses than a lawyer hell-bent on obfuscating fourteen different meanings, so I may just like the collection because I have a bad habit of writing like that, too.)

At any rate, this is a nice little collection that I wouldn't buy--maybe if more of the analysis was like this chapter, and maybe if more of the music was music that I cared about I might acquire it, but as is, it was a nice one to take out from the library. I am looking forward to reading Hornby's collection of essays about books, Polysyllabic Spree: I think I may bite the bullet and buy that one.