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Disco Dreams

Songbook

by Nick Hornby
Riverhead, 207 pp., $13.00 (paper)

Over the last twenty-five years the mix tape has become a paradigmatic form of popular expression. It is one part Victorian flower album, one part commonplace book, one part collage, and one part recital. The maker dubs onto cassette or burns onto CD a group of songs by other hands, the selection and sequence intended to compose a billet-doux, score a dance party, prove a point, or simply demonstrate the compiler’s taste and expertise. It is a natural outcome of home-recording technology, and represents a back-porch, scaled-down amateur version of the highly competitive art of the DJ.

Being a DJ demands not just sophisticated equipment but access to advance releases of records, an ear for matching beats, and a finely tuned sense of dance-floor dynamics, among other things, while making a mix tape requires only a modest record collection and appropriate sentiments. The mix tape can be transitive—a letter—or intransitive—a diary entry. It can follow a particular line or expansively juxtapose. It can be ruled by sound or by concept. It is almost always fleeting—often more so than the songs it comprises—and endures best as a time capsule of a vibe gone by.

Both of the books under review are mix tapes, or rather they are track listings with commentary. Nick Hornby’s is exactly that, a thirty-one-song, ninety-minute cassette, with a few quasi-related essays bringing up the rear, while Geoffrey O’Brien’s is a collection of essays on pop music that includes four chapters of autobiography via mix tape and, for good measure, ends with an idiosyncratic account of the history of popular music in 150 titles, which roughly would amount to a six-CD compilation. As a way of writing about popular music that admits the intense subjectivity and chance associations that define the topic no matter how much intellectual ballast is brought to bear, the mix-tape approach is an honest one. The mix tape, after all, is the fruit of contingency; it has no truck with canon-building. And while such a book is at first glance pretty easy to put together, or at least not much harder than compiling the tape, since any fool can go on at length about the circumstances under which he or she first heard “Ebb Tide” or “Bring the Noise,” it is vexingly tough to shape. If the mix tape itself is by nature a transient object, the book is, as it were, a permanent record.

Thanks to his 1995 novel High Fidelity, Nick Hornby has a well-known association with mix tapes. It may not have been the first novel in which they figure significantly—in Alan Warner’s bleakly lyrical Morvern Callar (also 1995), a sort of rave-era parable, the eponymous heroine makes compilations, lovingly enumerated, to mark stages in her disaffected progress from Scottish poverty to Mediterranean indulgence—but High Fidelity is all about mix tapes, or at least it’s about a culture of repressed, squirrelly, obsessive young men who use pop songs as emotional surrogates, and for whom a mix tape is the equivalent of a feverish eight-page letter handwritten on both sides of ruled sheets torn from a notebook. It’s a charming, lightweight book, invisibly crafted, self-deprecatingly funny, a direct address to its demographic.

High Fidelity is a coming-of-age novel, the age in question being middle age. The three principals are thirty-year-old adolescent boys, fixated on pop minutiae; in the course of the story one wins back a girl-friend, one finds a girlfriend, and one achieves the possibility of someday getting a girlfriend, as a result of their respective rates of progress toward responsibility and personal hygiene. The girls, of course, are more mature, even though their taste is so often horrid. The book ends with a big dance party during which all the major characters are seen constructively compromising. You can imagine a coda in which everyone would go off to Ikea to buy furniture. Like a populist moral tract, it is a sunny, upbeat wet blanket.

Songbook is an obvious spinoff from High Fidelity, although they are chronologically separated by two further novels. No one who picks up the book on the strength of its author’s name, therefore, will be confused about what sort of book it is, for all that its contents page—a list of random songs and their artists—suggests neither a collection of essays nor a work of criticism. The songs are big and small, loud and soft, famous and obscure, oldish and newish. Nothing connects them other than that they are all pop tunes and that Hornby likes them (or, in one case, that he deplores it, and in another that he has outgrown it). He loves most of these songs, then, and he wants to share this love with the world. And he emphatically likes songs: “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.” So what does he like in a song? “In the end, it’s the songs about love that endure the best. Songs about work are good. Also songs about rivers, or parents, or roads.” “‘Thunder Road’ [by Bruce Springsteen] knows how I feel and who I am.” “I need somewhere to run to, now more than ever, and songs like ‘Ain’t That Enough’ [by Teenage Fanclub] is where I run.”

All of Hornby’s little essays are similarly artless and, often enough, equally vague. He succeeds so well at not sounding like a critic that he could easily be mistaken for the average inarticulate consumer, someone who wears his heart on his sleeve and doesn’t care to probe much underneath. This is in fact his particular genius: he is l’homme moyen sensuelof pop culture. What he expresses and how he expresses it could almost pass for a replica of your neighbor’s or your cousin’s explanations of why they love “Take It Easy,” by the Eagles—although they would be unlikely to command such fluidly plain prose, its plainness giving luster to every stammer and ellipsis:

Like a pretentious but dim adult who won’t watch a film unless it has subtitles, I wouldn’t listen to anything that wasn’t smothered in loud, distorted electric guitars. How was I to know whether the music was any good otherwise? Songs that were played on piano, or acoustic guitar, by people without mustaches and beards (girls, for example), people who ate salad rather than rodents…well, that could be bad music, trying to play a trick on me. That could be people pretending to be The Beatles when they weren’t. How would I know, if it was all undercover like that? No, best avoid the whole question of good or bad and stick to loud instead. You couldn’t go too wrong with loud.

In that way Hornby is like a comic actor imitating a drunk—the audience thinks anyone can lurch around the lamppost like that, until they try it themselves—although there is no indication that he’s pretending. As a critic (Hornby was until recently the pop music critic for The New Yorker, and the last five essays in the book first appeared in that journal) he is notable not because of his insights, but because, like a politician, he speaks to a constituency.

This bloc is made up of youngish adults who still remember the good times but concede that responsibility has subdued and contained them. Like Hornby they can laugh at their younger selves, listening to that silly heavy metal (“The thing I like most about rediscovering Led Zeppelin… is that they can no longer be comfortably accommodated into my life”), and are relieved to find that they no longer have to subject themselves to anything challenging. The shock of the new is something they sought between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four, if at all; now, however, a pop song should be like a cold beer on a hot day, with a bit of uplift worked into the transaction. Just as Hornby sets up a straw pop star—who in Eighties fashion applies heavy makeup, among other torts—when he needs a hissable villain to contrast with one of the hard-working, unaffected singer-songwriters he admires, so he crumples everything he finds emotionally or intellectually difficult into a wad and labels it with the damning adjective “edgy.” Whatever kinds of music this advertising cliché might be applied to Hornby is content to represent it all as assaultive screeching with lyrics about murder, against which he can propose something or other by Teenage Fanclub, “packed with sunshine and hooks and harmonies and goodwill.” So no problem, then. For that matter, he seems to think that jazz is that velveteen-textured pap you hear in commercials, and classical music is “something that makes the room smell temporarily different, like a scented candle.”

Hornby reassures himself and his readers not only that adulthood does not mean having to renounce catchy tunes with jangly guitars in favor of music requiring jackets and ties, but also that pop music can once and for all assume its true function, as a salve. Teenage evenings spent pumping a fist in the air in time to Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” may now seem ludicrous, but teenage nights spent sobbing to the accompaniment of Carole King’s Tapestry remain rich in beauty and meaning. And despite crunk1 and grime2 and death metal and underground hiphop or any of the other dozens of current genres that might trouble the adult nervous system, you can easily find brand-new examples of the same stuff you’ve been listening to for the last thirty years, so there’s no reason to feel snagged on a branch while the tide of history surges on.

Geoffrey O’Brien’s Sonata for Jukebox is also concerned with the role that popular music can play in adult life, but it approaches the matter with considerably more nuance, depth, and curiosity. O’Brien has previously proven himself to be tirelessly receptive to every kind of cultural emanation, fearsomely retentive of it once it entered his magnetic field, and able to draw unexpected connections between widely disparate elements. This book on music follows not dissimilar works on books (The Browser’s Ecstasy) and movies (The Phantom Empire and Castaways of the Image Planet). In the latter two books he sometimes seemed to be reporting back from some point in outer space around which every movie ever made orbited simultaneously, borne on microwaves, so that correspondences and echoes were evident regardless of age or genre or ideology or national origin. That disregard for category is present in this book, and the clairvoyance, too, but with the important difference that music is so much more personal. And whereas his extraordinary Dream Time was a slice of autobiography in which personal details were artfully blurred and characters turned into types, so that the stories about O’Brien’s youth could apply to nearly anyone who was young in the 1960s, here he can’t entirely avoid the first person.

This is so in part because his father, Joe O’Brien, was a prominent radio disc jockey—I listened to him regularly during the mid-1960s, the golden age of the Top Forty, when he was the early morning Good Guy at New York City’s WMCA, the more interesting and quirky of the two rock-and-roll AM stations in town then. He had his finger on the pulse of youth, even as a middle-aged man whose personal tastes remained on the other side of the generation gap. But equally emblematic of its time was Geoffrey’s maternal grandfather’s tenure as leader of a dance band in eastern Pennsylvania in the 1930s, one of ten thousand such regional outfits of the era, whose sound was suave and modern and enthusiastic, whose primary values were discipline and restraint, whose compensation was five bucks and maybe dinner, and whose members were due back at the factory or the mine the next morning. So the history of popular music in the twentieth century is not merely of passionate interest to O’Brien; it is virtually encoded in his genes.

The book is idiosyncratically structured, oscillating between loose, wide-ranging, partly reminiscent narratives and more formal essays on specific topics: Burt Bacharach, the Beatles, Brian Wilson, film soundtracks, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. As excellent as the latter pieces are, O’Brien, who is after all a poet, most truly finds his groove when he free-associates. And that’s where the mix-tape aspect of the work comes in. He scores his father’s career, and then his own youth, assembling a documentary of sonic artifacts, some of them pregnant with personal significance and others more obliquely evocative. Those essays are broken up by “cues”—as on a disc jockey’s work sheet—naming a piece of music or other audio item which may or may not be discussed in the section of text that immediately follows, but which sets the tone, as if it were actually being played in the background while you read. The sequences are intriguing even if we can’t actually hear them (one bit, for example, runs from Tito Puente’s “Night Beat” to Bach’s Sonata no. 1 in B minor for violin and harpsichord to “conversation and ambient noise, home recording, c. 1965” to “experimental recordings incorporating verbal messages from deceased subjects, recorded in Romania, circa 1963” to the WMCA jingle to Bill Evans’s “My Foolish Heart” to Booker T. and the MGs’ “Home Grown”). The items are mnemonic cues, madeleines, theme songs for miniature essays that flow together to form a memoir of sounds that is a little bit like a pop-culture, late-twentieth-century-American version of one of Elias Canetti’s sense-driven autobiographies.

O’Brien was destined by his upbringing to be omnivorous. Not only did his father bring home 45s and glamorous shoptalk, but his mother acted on the stage and knew the worlds of show tunes and cabaret, one older brother obsessively taped grand opera off the radio, and the other formed a rock band that in the mid-Sixties bobbed tantalizingly close to the big time (their recordings went nowhere, but they played a stretch at Arthur, New York’s first disco). And this was in addition to the vast eclectic mix that naturally wove through that time and place. The 1960s, now tiresomely oversold on the nostalgia counter, were an unrepeatable time not only because a hundred flowers bloomed—or maybe a million—but also because the period was free from the tyranny of niche marketing, a respite between the race- and class-based earlier model and today’s culture of infinitesimally fragmented shares which ensures that no one need be exposed to anything unexpected. O’Brien is very good at evoking the exhilaration of the time, when potential surprise lurked around every corner, and anything could prove to be the trigger for a large-scale change of consciousness:

Pieces are thrown out like cards in a fast-moving game whose rules are reconfigured at each hand: the new Godard, the new Lichtenstein, the new Realist, the new Beatles single, the new Tom Wolfe article, the new Ginsberg poem, the new Sam Fuller movie, the topless bathing suit, the solarized publicity photo, the Green Beret who said “I QUIT!” on the cover of Ramparts, the newest and even more absurd-looking long-haired band to hit the Village club circuit—is it the Barbarians, the Mojo Men?

The music brushed close to home in all sorts of ways. In an eerie passage he recalls an old friend, a troubled girl he calls Susie, who seemed to be drifting into insanity. She was fascinated by the singer in Geoffrey’s brother’s new band, a young man named James who had spent time in a mental hospital. Susie got worse, then better, then worse again, was hospitalized and released several times over, and then one day she killed herself. Some time later Geoffrey heard the song James wrote for her, on its way to becoming a worldwide hit: “Fire and Rain.”

Right away I have a premonition that this song isn’t going to go away. I’m going to be hearing it for the rest of my life, over breakfast, while waiting to take money out of the bank, while preparing for takeoff…. It will become common property, and thus a curiously alien object…. It’s an artifact connected to my own life. Yet for that very reason it can never possess the mystery of the other songs, the ones whose meanings I purloin and invent and remake. Every other song can be a paradise of the imagination, but not this one.

Those other songs, though, are everywhere, numberless, constantly winging into your consciousness whether you seek them out or not. The songs of the past remain even if every circumstance that made them possible has vanished, and old and new music arrives constantly from every far-flung culture, and every day the number of existing songs is increased—a common complaint these days in the music blogs is that there is just too much music! No one can hear more than a fraction, let alone begin to process it. Songs literally mate and spawn, via remixes and mashups and bootlegs.3 It is as if genres were being created at the same rate that songs appeared a generation ago. And this on top of the unbelievable profusion of sounds—songs and themes and jingles and chants—that already exist in the back of anyone’s head.

To move through the world you have to make yourself porous:

Become hollow. Make room. Learn to despise your own internal protests at what bores or irritates you with its unfamiliarity. Be shaped by strangeness. Love what abrades. The future can come into being only by stripping away what was formerly locked in place.

But “you keep building more history, making it up out of the imagined connections between pieces of music.” You can keep tracing those connections back, to before recording, before notation—the evidence of ancient musical genealogies is abundant, if fragmentary—to the first human cries, to bird song, to silence. Whether because of or despite technology, the whole history of the world’s sounds remains in the air.

Sonata for Jukebox attempts the impossible: to give a sense, however imperfect, partial, blurred, biased, of that amplitude of music. It is recklessly inclusive, supererogatively profuse in its desire to account for at least the possibility of everything now extant and someday to be. From the initial footsteps of biography and autobiography it charts a course farther and farther out until it parts the curtains onto a vision of the infinite. The rush of references and inventions is dizzying, headlong, reminiscent of The Anatomy of Melancholy and its sense of the whole world rushing by pell-mell, with O’Brien’s more esoteric allusions occupying the same teasing space as Burton’s Latin tags.

This quixotic ambition and generosity makes O’Brien’s outlook the very opposite of Hornby’s, which for all its consumer-culture avidity is finally inclined toward its own navel. O’Brien closes with a list of 150 songs that, before one has read the book, might seem like a summation of popular music, 1929–1982, a list to be encoded in MP34 form and loaded onto the next interplanetary probe, the way the voices of Chuck Berry and Blind Willie Johnson are currently bound aboard Voyager for the edge of the solar system. After you’ve read the book, however, you can see the list for what it is: a personal pick that probably began to change the day after O’Brien sent it to his publisher. So what if he chooses “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy” to represent Louis Armstrong (not a bad choice, but look what he might have chosen instead) or that almost everything he selects from 1974 on seems willfully perverse? Any canon of popular music will apply strictly to the person who drew it up, on the day that it was drawn. There is simply too much music in the world, whizzing along at every angle, for anyone to be content with anything less than constant replenishment. A canon, therefore, can be no more than a snapshot of a single moment within the flux—it is a mix tape.

  1. 1

    Crunk” is an offshoot of hiphop based in the South, favoring antiphonal group chants and raucous shouts over solo rapping, and with notably pornographic lyrics. Originally—and sometimes still—the vocals and sometimes the backing tracks were drastically slowed down. The style originated in Houston with a subculture of cough-syrup drinkers, syrup being famous for slackening perception of time.

  2. 2

    Grime”—a contentious term at present—is a British analogue to hiphop (which evolved quite distinctly from hiphop, being an outgrowth of UK ga-rage) featuring rapid-fire, often social-realist rhymes over oddly baroque-sounding synthesizer continuos.

  3. 3

    A “remix” is a song whose properties have been altered on the mixing board—bass brought up, echo increased, vocal dropped back, Tunisian string orchestra track introduced, etc. “Mashup” and “bootleg” are synonyms, although their exact definitions vary. In general, though, the terms both refer to the practice of marrying the vocal track of one song with the instrumental backing of another, either or both of those items being subject to further alteration.

  4. 4

    The MP3 is a format for digitally storing and relaying music or other audio items. Although there is some loss of sound quality in the process, the MP3 is notable for its compression—a player no bigger than a deck of cards can hold up to 50,000 songs.

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