Each month, our Aux.Out. Book Club reads and discusses either a canonical piece of music writing or something fresh off the presses. We hopped across the pond this month to read English novelist Nick Hornby’s esteemed essay collection 31 Songs. Whether he’s writing about record shops and relationships (High Fidelity), penning lyrics for Ben Folds (Lonely Avenue), or reviewing records, Hornby remains the music lover’s loudest and most passionate voice in the literary community. Read on to see our club’s reaction to 31 Songs.
Book Club Members:
— Matt Melis, Senior Editor at Consequence of Sound
— Paula Mejia, Staff Writer at Consequence of Sound, Freelance writer for SPIN, The A.V. Club
— Rachel Bailey, Associate Editor at Georgia Music Magazine, freelance writer for Paste, Aux.Out.
— Steven Arroyo, Staff Writer at Consequence of Sound
— Henry Hauser, Staff Writer at Consequence of Sound
Previous Book Club Reviews:
Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad
I Would Die 4 U: How Prince Became An Icon by Touré
Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me by R. Kelly
Mo’ Meta Blues by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Love Trumps Memory
Matt Melis (MM): Nick Hornby lays out his intentions for the essays of 31 Songs as follows:
“If you love a song, love it enough for it to accompany you throughout the different stages of your life, then any specific memory is rubbed away by use… I didn’t want to write about memories. That wasn’t the point. One can only presume that the people who say that their very favourite record of all time reminds them of their honeymoon in Corsica, or of their family Chihuahua, don’t actually like music very much. I wanted mostly to write about what it was in these songs that made me love them, not what I brought to the songs.”
What did everyone think of him purposely avoiding the time-place connection that we lean on so heavily in more personal forms of music writing? Instead, it’s all about loving the song regardless of context.
Henry Hauser (HH): I found it refreshing, but on the other hand, he certainly betrays his goal in certain instances. And where he does betray it, it’s actually very effective. For instance, when he’s talking about “Samba Pa It” (Santana) and losing his virginity, Ben Folds’ “Smoke” and the end of his first marriage, or even that silly reggae version of “Puff the Magic Dragon” and how his autistic son is forming a musical identity. When he does bring out that time-place connection, it’s all the more meaningful.
Steven Arroyo (SA): It’s almost like he wanted to do a scientific analysis of songs rather than explain what they’d be the perfect soundtrack to. But that’s impossible to do the entire time. Memories are going to come up. This book was essentially one long “the thing about songs is…” and I wasn’t expecting that. It wasn’t just 31 fragmented chapters about great songs. Some of them he hardly has a good thing to say about. It was such a three-dimensional analysis from both a personal and objective standpoint throughout, and I loved it.
Rachel Bailey (RB): I actually found the chapters in which he succeeds in talking about the songs and not what he brought to them to be some of the least interesting. Like the “You Had Time”/ “I’ve Had It” (Ani DiFranco/Aimee Mann) chapter. He talks in great length about what he thought was going on with them when they wrote the songs and what he thought they were thinking, and that was far less interesting than, say, the chapter on “Smoke” (Ben Folds) and why that song meant something to him. It’s what he brings to the songs, in the end, that makes the book so interesting.
Paula Mejia (PM): I thought it was refreshing to see a fiction writer try to carve out imaginative ways to write about music. Especially right now, with the Internet, it’s very easy to be saturated with content that’s very similar. It’s refreshing. He threads in some very personal and powerful stories, especially when he’s talking about his son. And what is powerful about music to begin with is the connection that you, as an individual, have to it.
Digging the Setlist?
SA: The “Smoke” chapter was my favorite chapter, and it sounds like it might have been everyone’s favorite.
RB: It was mine for sure.
MM: Maybe part of it was a lot of us, given our ages, grew up with that CD. Everyone I knew owned Whatever and Ever Amen by Ben Folds Five. I don’t think there were many other songs in this book that I had a coming-of-age relationship with.
RB: That was the first record I ever bought with my own money. I have strong feelings about it, and I think it’s probably telling that one of the other chapters that really spoke to me was about the Badly Drawn Boy song (“A Minor Incident”), which is another song I listened to a lot in my formative years, and also another one that was touchingly personal. But I found it more fun to read about songs I had actually spent a lot of time with myself.
MM: That’s a good question, though. The chapters read like a setlist. But is liking 31 Songs contingent upon liking or being familiar with these songs?
HH: Well, he comes right out and says it. The book presupposes that you haven’t heard all, or necessarily many, of the songs. What he’s seeking to do is to say what he loved about the music, how he relates to the music, hoping that you can cultivate some sort of equivalent connection. Now, his own musical tastes come out very much throughout this collection. For instance, he prefers musicians—people who love and speak and think in music—to virtuosos, and that’s something I absolutely affirm in my own beliefs as well.
RB: Whether you’ve heard the songs or not, there are songs in your life that have made you think some of the same things that he’s exploring here. And it’s really just a conversation about what it is to exist in a culture like the one we live in.
PM: I didn’t know many of these songs, but I think it’s always interesting to see what types of songs shape people and why—because these songs are the complete antithesis of what I’d choose.
MM: When we read Our Band Could Be Your Life (OBCBYL) by Michael Azerrad, we agreed that book made us want to go explore the music and that this was a characteristic of good music writing. With 31 Songs, I had no desire to run out and listen to any of these songs; Hornby’s writing doesn’t do that for me.
PM: When I started reading the book, I set out to YouTube all the songs I wasn’t familiar with, but I kind of gave that up. There’s a reason I stopped. Some of these songs are really, really good, like “Heartbreaker” (Led Zeppelin). It’s a jam. It reminds me of being a teenager and driving my car. But a lot of these could be karaoke songs, which I always think of as uncharacteristic of people—either a guilty pleasure or something they don’t typically listen to.
OBCBYL discussed so many records that for all of us, I think, were really pivotal. The chapter about Sonic Youth, especially, for me, made me go into this Sonic Youth K-hole, and I listened to all the albums from their most recent going back to their first. Their stories were just so in-depth. I think it’s one of the flaws of Hornby’s book. He touches on very interesting things but then doesn’t expand on them. With some of the chapters, I felt a little short-changed.
RB: The book didn’t make me want to run out and listen to these songs, but it did make me want to come up with my own list of songs that have meant something to me and listen to them again and write about them. So, if the criteria for good music writing is that it makes you want to listen to the music being written about, then, no, this didn’t do that for me. But it did make me want to engage with the music that is a parallel in my own life.
HH: I think there are different types of music writing. So, I agree, and partly I dissent. There’s a feature that I write for Consequence of Sound called 2-4 Tues, with the goal of providing a portal to two songs where you can click the link and listen in on it. The idea for that is to get people excited about the songs, make them interesting in some way. That’s music writing. On the other hand, I think music criticism is a different demand and requires different things. Of course, the work is much more critical, to evaluate and discern the good from the bad and make pronouncements that maybe we’re not entitled to make, but nobody else is going to make them. So, why not?
SA: I agree with Henry. It’s two separate things. There’s far more joy in the wider boundaries of music writing than in the science and formula—because it is a formula—of music criticism.
Everyone’s a music critic… or a music critic critic
MM: Hornby takes aim at music critics here, particularly younger ones, suggesting that they give extra points for edginess or danger:
“Reviewing—especially music reviewing—is, for the most part, a young person’s game, and young people tend not to have had a great deal of life experience. Not only have they not lived very much (which is why they tend to get very excited about anyone with a whiff of hard-drug use about them—hard-drug use is frequently misinterpreted by rock critics as a valuable life experience), but they do possibly the safest job there is to do. Indeed, as most of them get their CDs sent to them through the post, CDs they then listen to on their home stereo before filing their reviews via email—they do not even run the risk of being knocked down by a bus. Who wouldn’t, in these circumstances, get wildly overstimulated by an artist who is expressly trying to liven them up a bit?”
SA: There’s another sentence in this book—in the chapter about The Bible song (“Glorybound”)—that compliments this well. He says, “It’s only when you know and love a band that you become the kind of music critic that every magazine and newspaper should employ.” He seems to realize that there is this tradeoff. When you’re young, you don’t have enough life experience to really talk about these things that you want so badly to talk about. And Nick Hornby, this middle-aged guy, you can tell through so much of this book that he’s struggling to conjure up feelings again for these songs. And that’s the tradeoff. You can be Nick Hornby, with all his life experience, and call out young critics on all the bullshit that they spout, but it’s like that line from the Questlove autobiography. Quest’s dad says, “As you get older, feelings are harder to come by,” and that’s something you can’t take away from a young critic.
HH: Criticism is a young person’s game because we are the only ones who can afford to play it. It doesn’t pay well. You can’t really support anyone on it. I don’t think it’s a matter of playing it safe; I think it’s a matter of actually taking a risk. I think the easiest job out there may be to dump on music critics, which Hornby himself does here.
RB: I didn’t take any of that stuff personally. It seemed a little tongue-in-cheek and a little meta about his own pursuits at times as someone who critiqued for The New Yorker.
What makes this book so great is the distillation of decades of feeling about music through so many seasons in your life. That is something by virtue of the fact that we are young that we simply cannot accomplish in the same way. I don’t think he was trying to shit on what we do. He was just saying that this experience changes as you age with the music you carry around throughout your life.
SA: I didn’t take it personally either. I love how weird this conversation is turning. It’s music critics criticizing a music critic criticizing music criticism. Maybe I should be offended, but I’m probably thinking too deeply about all of this. And that’s one of the things this book gets you to do: think deeply. And then Hornby can just pull back and say, “Yeah, but this Nelly Furtado song sounds great,” and you really can’t argue with that.
HH: I didn’t take it personally—even if that’s the way it’s coming across—but I did see it as self-deprecating with the aim of ingratiating himself to readers. It comes across as him jumping on his former self and how he’s now unabashedly happy about Nelly Furtado and pop songs. There are times when he does that effectively, and I thought that this was one time where it wasn’t as effective.
PM: This resonated with me quite a bit, because he’s directly talking about what each of us do and presenting a critique on it. I’ve actually never thought of music criticism as being a young person’s game. Because so many of my peers, mentors, and friends are a lot older than me, 22, I’ve never thought of it like that. But there is a clear distinction between the twentysomethings and the thirty or forty somethings. The perspectives are really different. Not to generalize, but I think the older critics tend to be a little more jaded, especially with how the industry has shifted in the past few years. Obviously, I have a lot more to learn about life, but I don’t think I’m reviewing music in the guise of selfies or whatever the stupid millennial trends are these days.
But I think that writing about music and putting yourself out there with something so subjective can be really scary at first, especially because people can be incredibly hostile when they have the barrier of the Internet to work with. You open yourself up to a lot of criticism.
MM: I’m 30, and I don’t know that any writer ever stops being insecure about one’s own work, regardless of whatever successes may come. For young writers, it’s different than it was for Hornby. Everything you write, especially online, gets shared and commented on, and it does seem dangerous to me. For a writer, the most dangerous, or scary, thing—even more so than buses—is putting your work out there and waiting for the reception. You expose yourself and put something incredibly vulnerable—your painstakingly crafted thoughts and feelings—out there for target practice. Some days I’d rather take on the bus.