So I’ve never really gotten on with Nick Hornby’s fiction. I’ve tried a couple of his novels, but there’s something about them I don’t like, or there’s nothing about them I do like, or something like that. Anyway, I have read, or been told, or imagined I have read or been told, that Hornby’s real strength is his non-fiction writing about popular culture. Released from the obligation to scatter his musings amongst extravagances like plots and characters, Hornby is meant to have quite the eye for what makes pop culture tick.
Having read 31 Songs, I’m inclined to give this view my qualified assent. Hornby in non-fiction mode can be a witty and perceptive commentator. 31 Songs is a collection of essays, ostensibly concerning the eponymous tunes, but in fact covering a range of subjects, some only tangentially related to the appreciation of pop music. Overall I liked the book, which only increased my disappointment with certain aspects of it. I suggest we do “liked” first, then move on to “disappointment”. How does that work for you?1
31 Songs works best when Hornby is playing the pop fanboy, a la High Fidelity. He is writing about songs that he likes, or liked at some point, and there are some lovely explanations as to how he came to feel as he does about them. My favourite essay is on “Smoke”, by the Ben Folds Five. It is a brilliant defence of pop lyricists in general, and an appreciation of Ben Folds, who (although it is hard to believe now) used to be able to write wonderfully witty or heart-breaking lyrics. (“Whatever and Ever, Amen” must be the most devastating critique of incapacitating slackerdom yet commited to record, all dressed up as a merry little pop song.) I like the way Hornby uses the tunes to springboard into discussions about peripheral matters: guitar solos, American-envy, disabled offspring, the misinterpretation of Bruce Springsteen. In fact, there’s a lot to like about 31 Songs. For the most part, it is solid, unpretentious, and intelligent writing about a subject that doesn’t often get treated with a great deal of respect. Hornby clearly loves music, and knows how to express that love, as it were.
Subjective and idiosyncratic as it is, 31 Songs is the kind of book that is often labelled “critic proof”. But if that’s the case, critics aren’t trying hard enough. Good as it often is, 31 Songs rubbed me up the wrong way on a number of occasions (given the copy was a library book, I probably shouldn't have been rubbing it at all), and while that’s to be expected with a book like this, I feel I ought to respond, however ineffectually. It is futile to argue over matters of taste – I either don’t like or have never heard at least twenty of Hornby’s selections – but there are wider assumptions at work in several of the essays that are worth commenting on.
Now, I wouldn’t normally invoke postmodernism save for in defence of my loved ones, but it’s probably fair to say that Hornby is representative of a strand of mainstream cultural appreciation that is distinctly postmodern in its professed disregard for traditional cultural boundaries. Hornby quite rightly defends pop music (
As a lover of music both high and low (or “high” and “low”, if you prefer your cultural hierarchy safely shackled between scare-quotes), I’m all over this view like unguent on a weeping sore. Elitism be damned: there is good music, and there is bad music, and although we might disagree on the merits of specific examples, surely there is room enough for good music of all kinds. Therefore, it is as natural and as worthwhile for Hornby to write about pop music as it is for me (or you, or yo’ goddamn mama) to listen to it.
Yet in every rejection of elitism there is the danger of an equally repugnant inversion. Hornby demonstrates this in his essay on Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop” and Teenage Fanclub’s “Ain’t That Enough”. In his introduction to the book, Hornby informs us that he rarely listens to jazz or classical, that the song (by which he means the modern pop-rock song) is his main, even sole, musical interest. In the essay under discussion, he writes that he used to listen to the Suicide track (“ten and a half minutes of genuinely terrifying industrial noise”) in his twenties, but these days he has no use for it; the Fanclub’s “three minute blast of Byrdsian pop” is now more his style. Fair enough. As Hornby says, the Fanclub song is simply more likeable, and at this time better suits his world-view. I can relate: I still listen to negative or aggressive music, but not nearly so much as I once did. I still find it interesting, and I still in some way need to hear it on a regular basis, but it is no longer my abiding interest.
At this point Hornby comes over all old-fartish and I start having problems with the essay. He wonders why so much attention is given to music that is characterised as “edgy” or “dangerous”, conluding that it’s because critics tend to be young and inexperienced, and listen to so much music that anything vaguely different stands out. Praise is meted out based on novelty, or shock value, rather than actual talent or skill. I’m not sure how much truth there is in this. I suspect good critics most savour a combination of talent and novelty (or rather innovation), regardless of the emotional content of the work. That actually seems to me a description of good criticism, at least of popular music.
Hornby reports that when the Suicide’s first album was re-released, a critic wrote: “All these years later and Suicide still feels like a shot in the head”. Hornby sees this as hyperbolic (which it is), and indicative of a modern obsession with danger, borne of peace and prosperity (which it isn’t). The search for “edginess”, Hornby reckons, emerges from complacency. “”Would the same critic have told someone coming back from the Somme that a piece of music ‘feels like a shot in the head’, one wonders?”. Well, probably not, but what’s your point? It’s a fucking simile, for Christ’s sake, drawing on the same extravagant romanticism that is inherent in all rock culture. In any event, Hornby’s point is idiotic. It’s not like Europe emerged from the Great War singing Teenage Fanclub songs; perhaps “Frankie Teardrop” would have suited the mood of the era. I’m not sure what Hornby’s on about here. Is bleakness verboten to those who have never been machine gunned in Flanders Field? It’s an absurd position, and one that Hornby arrives at solely by extrapolating from his own taste, then applying an anachronistic historical hypothetical.
This where the inverted elitism comes in. Hornby concedes that art should be disturbing sometimes, just not all the time. Indeed, he pleads for this to be so - but who exactly is he pleading with? Who comprises this mysterious elite that demands all music conform to some rigid code of socio-political agitation and/or nihilism? Hornby depicts himself as the weary old-timer, for whom life is sorrowful enough without subjecting himself to the negative vibes of so-called “dangerous” artistes. “Shock-art”, as Hornby curmudgeonly labels it, can only appeal to those “who have managed to avoid more or less everything that life has to throw at you”. Not our Nick, though. He’s all growns-up, and been through things you kids have only heard Tom Waits croak about, consarnit.
This condescending little segue culminates in a deft piece of defensive elitism. You might like bleak, depressing music, but “don’t you try to make me feel morally or intellectually inferior.” In other words, musical taste is an individual, illimitable thing, except if you happen to listen to music other than that which Nick Hornby likes, in which case your preference is based not on sincere appreciation or emotional connection, but on an elitist stance designed to make Nick Hornby feel morally or intellectually inferior. (But why not morally and intellectually inferior?) Reading this essay, I was reminded of certain people of my acquaintance who defend commercial pop music while at the same time sinking the boot into practically everything else. If you don’t give a fuck about the opinions of a particular clique or sub-culture, why bother deliberately setting yourself up in opposition to it? In other words, if you profess not to care, why do you appear to care so much?
In his essay on Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” (great choice, by the way), Hornby writes of “acquiring a musical confidence”. In many – in fact most – of the essays in 31 Songs, Hornby’s musical confidence is high. This is one man’s taste, and it is well and interestingly expressed. Occasionally, though, as in the essay discussed above, his confidence falters, and bitterness creeps in. I found it annoying, but I’m sure I would be guilty of the same uncertainty if I were to write a similar book.2 Perhaps it is part of the fun of 31 Songs that Hornby’s writerly confidence is high enough to reveal the lapses in his musical confidence. It's a lot better than his bloody novels, too.3
1. Note my chatty, Hornby-esque tone. Reader, will you be my friend?
2. The blogger in me notes that the 31 Songs concept would translate well into a series of blog posts. I may have to give it some thought.
3. This post started off as a quickie review and somehow turned into an essay. I have 2500 words on Robert Menzies’ Prime Ministership due by midnight Thursday. Do you think they would accept 1700 words on Nick Hornby instead?