Review: The Importance of Music to Girls, By Lavinia Greenlaw
If there were an award for the most misleading book title this year, my money would be on the poet Lavinia Greenlaw’s The Importance of Music to Girls. Because any woman – or girl – who expects the memoir to be an unholy coupling of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity and The Great Big Glorious Book for Girls will be sorely disappointed.
As for girls who spend too many nights cramped in sweaty live venues, or have too many tracks crammed on to their iPods, they will feel as patronised by the title as I did. Because, if Greenlaw is to be believed, music is different for girls. According to her, it bridges family, friends and sex. It is not a hormone-infested soundtrack to our deep down and dirty moments. Nor is it a soundtrack to those bedroom moments of despair. In fact it is less soundtrack and more backtrack to the usual rites of passage.
For instance, where I grew up in Manchester, punk sounded like Pandora’s Box opening, a roar of rage and revolution that made life, to this suburban preteen, look like it could be exciting. Not here. Instead, Patti Smith’s sublime poetry is reduced to “fuck-off nudity”, (though Greenlaw at least acknowledges that it was an empowered image of femininity). In Greenlaw’s Essex, punk seems to have been a backdrop to tangled attempts at love and fashion.
That is why The Importance of Music to Girls fails. Because for many girls, as well as boys, music is far more important than the latest style statement. It is about passion and a lack of self-awareness that causes us to throw ourselves in at the deep end when faced with the shallow emotings of a Katie Melua or James Blunt.
A memoir about music should be funny and passionate, but Greenlaw is too detached to be either. Even at the gigs, her prose never thrusts us into the black communion of the mosh pit. We never get beyond the safe observation of the balcony. At a Vibrators gig, the sight of girls in bin-liners eclipses any on-stage action. Not that the jeans-clad teen burns with shame at a fashion faux pas: she merely feels invisible and goes for a wander.
A better title for the memoir might have been “How Some Middle-Class Girls Quite Like Dancing to Music and Think It Is a Good Way to Meet Boys”. But then again, that wouldn’t have worked so well on the enticing black-and-orange cover.
Instead of a musical memoir, Greenlaw has delivered a memento of growing up in rural Essex viewed through the prism of dance, fashion and occasional song.
There are sublime, perfectly observed passages: baby Greenlaw balances on her father’s shoes in a magical waltz; she is isolated in guilt-ridden loneliness after a friend attempts suicide; and her distracted – and bored – mother cooks up a paeon to Fanny Craddock. This last chapter is a joy to read with its Gurdjieff Salad, “a purple foment of beetroot, tomatoes, apples and red peppers”, and a litany of puddings – rhubarb crumble, Eve’s pudding, zabaglione and apple snow.
Though Greenlaw grew up in a comfortable, middle-class family – her father was a doctor first on the edge of Hampstead before moving to Essex – she draws a vivid picture of how unhappy and isolated life can be for a clever girl who does not quite fit, socially or physically.
At folk dance classes she assumes a Celtic identity because being English is simply too dull. While watching Donny Osmond, she decides, “quite consciously”, that he is to be her favourite pop star because music, the 10-year-old realises, “is social currency”. These awkward attempts at establishing an identity are familiar to all: boys and girls.
At her best she anatomises the bathos and terror of teenage female friendship.
Cold war breaks out across the playground as early allegiances are made brittle by hormones and uncertainty. The discovery of punk, or rather “not disco”, alienates Greenlaw and her best friend Cara from the disco bunnies that dominate school.
But that is not about the importance of music. Music is instead a backing track. There are no lyrics, no dialectics on the true meaning of a song, or agonised lusting for Iggy, Joey [Ramone], Adam [Ant] or whoever. Serious talk of music is left to boys. Her only moment of total identification with a pop star comes late. For a moment in the late 1970s, Ian Curtis speaks to her “beyond what a single person could bear”. But he is soon dead and the moment subsides into recognition that the panic her 17-year-old self suffered was her own, no one else’s. The implication is there: music cannot save you.
The book’s final third begins to resemble a more conventional musical memoir: a run-through of albums, gigs and adventurous, ironic friends desperate to seem cool as the music plays, despite the acne and the adolescence.
But it is too little, too shallowly drawn, and the space she does give it is spoilt by, at times, facile observations, such as “Why did we girls never play air guitar?” For those girls who smuggled ourselves to gigs behind our parents’ backs to dance badly to our idols, or who hid the albums we bought with our pocket money for fear of disapproval, it is a question too stupid to acknowledge. Music is just too important.