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.
Favorite Chapters & the Quotable Nick Hornby
MM: How about a favorite chapter and line from everyone?
SA: Again, the Ben Folds Five chapter was my favorite. I don’t actually remember that song, but I still love the chapter.
The next chapter is the one about the Badly Drawn Boy song (“A Minor Incident”), and the guy from the band soundtracked the movie that was the adaptation of Hornby’s book (About a Boy). It was completely unintentional, but here was this songwriter who had written something that should have been from his own point of view, and didn’t have to be correct, but ended up being totally spot-on with Hornby’s feelings.
Hornby says, “So there we go. That’s where the excitement lies: in the magical coincidences and transferences of creativity. I write a book that isn’t about my kid, and then someone writes a beautiful song based on an episode in my book that turns out to mean something much more personal to me than my book ever did.”
RB: And I think that line you just read gets back to what is really great and fun and lovely about music writing, which we were just talking about. In this book, in particular, we see how it sparks conversations, and those can happen in real time or through the ways we inspire each other. The act of creating and putting things out into the world is so lovely, and this book is such a great reflection on what creating something or writing about what someone else creates and putting that out into the universe can ultimately mean—and even cycle back around to you in a really positive way.
My favorite chapter was easily the Ben Folds one, both because I had spent more time with that song than any of the others and could relate and also because I so enjoyed his musing on what makes lyrical perfection. It was a little validating, too, because Ben Folds is a really gifted songwriter, and I think a lot of people turn their noses up at him, so it was nice to see him get his due.
SA: And I like that Hornby essentially said, by the way, Ben Folds is every bit as good as Lennon and McCartney. It’s just that the format that he uses—pop songs with a verse-chorus structure—was new when Lennon and McCartney were doing their thing, and it’s just not new anymore, so nobody will ever make that comparison. But if not for that, he’s just as talented. That’s a very ballsy statement, and I sort of agree.
RB: Yeah, it is ballsy and kind of unfashionable.
The passage I’d like to call attention to comes in the “Puff the Magic Dragon” chapter and deals with something I’ve tried to express in my own writing, and he says it so beautifully:
“That’s why I love the relationship with music he [Danny, Hornby’s autistic son] has already, because it’s how I know he has something in him that he wants others to articulate. In fact, thinking about it now, it’s why I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there’s something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It’s the best part of us, probably, the riches and strangest part, and Danny’s got it too, of course he has; you could argue that he’s simply dispensed with all the earthbound, rubbishy bits.”
I just think it’s a beautiful way of talking about music and what it does in its best moments for all of us.
MM: For me, the Led Zeppelin “Heartbreaker” chapter. He talks about being an evolving and aging music fan and learning to trust your taste. Early on, Hornby didn’t trust anything that wasn’t loud. Loudness or a graphic name or album cover was how he knew something was good. If something was more nuanced or subtle, maybe they were just trying to pawn something off on him. I think this chapter resonated with me because now, at age 30, I find myself liking music I never would’ve trusted before. It’s almost as if my tastes shifted without me knowing it. And I thought I was middle-aged, as a music fan anyway, and firmly entrenched in my ways.
HH: The theme of acquiring musical confidence over time and gaining the ability to judge things for yourself, I thought, was the strongest and most authentic part of the book. To him, one of the consolations of art is feeling like he knows who he is and connecting to something. And in that way, he’s reaching out to this larger community, feeling like he belongs. And it’s very comforting. To me, that’s something I look for these days. Something I can relate to. Something that speaks to me. Something I can engage with so as to feel less alienated and isolated behind technology and the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
MM: And my favorite line comes in The Replacements chapter (“Born for Me”) when Hornby wraps up a lengthy diatribe about soloing. He has this to say about Westerberg performing this really rudimentary and plunking piano solo: “A better pianist would have wrecked the moment… Just as you know intuitively when the simplest and crudest brushstrokes have been made by a proper artist, I can never listen to the solo without thinking that it’s played by a born musician—not a virtuoso, not even someone who could make a living as a pianist in a cocktail lounge, just a man who thinks and feels and loves and speaks in music.” That’s a really romantic way to think about art and creativity in general.
HH: The “Frontier Psychiatrist” (The Avalanches) chapter was my favorite, partly because it caught me by surprise. This was a big song for me in opening up a lot of doors in terms of appreciating the genius of what he called “cutters and pasters upping the ante.”
In terms of my favorite line, there’s this small, extraneous passage where he talks about progressive rock. He describes progressive rock as feeling “airless and synthetic, seeming as if all prog-rockers would rather have been classical musicians and that pop were beneath them.” Now, like most of this book, I feel like he goes about 20% too far. I love Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Yes, and I think that they actually integrate pop into progressive rock and love what they’re doing. But as a general trend, I think that prog-rock heads towards the elitist, bloated, and classical. So, I give him props for stating it boldly—maybe even a little too boldly—but that’s the fun of it also.
PM: I loved the Dylan chapter, the part where Hornby talks about this artist who’s done a series of artworks that consist of verbal memories of Shakespearian plays. And Hornby does the same thing for Bob Dylan, and it’s really funny: Zimmerman, Minnesota, coffee houses, eye-liner.
MM: I like how he opened that chapter, saying he isn’t really into Dylan. He has this Dylan album and that one, but everyone has those, right? By the time he’s all done, he’s not a Dylan fan, but he has 30 Dylan albums.
PM: That was a unique way to talk about Bob Dylan, because he’s usually lauded so much.
What’s Your “Thunder Road”?
MM: Hornby designates Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” as the song he’s listened to more than any other. It’s not necessarily the best song or his favorite song, but it’s traveled with him throughout the years. So, what would be your “Thunder Road”, and, if you were to write about it, what would the gist of that essay be?
PM: “Sunday Morning” by The Velvet Underground. My parents are Latin American, so I grew up listening to a lot of Latin American music and a lot of jazz with my dad. Noise and avant-garde or even punk rock was so foreign to me. Then I heard The Velvet Underground and felt overwhelmed that such different styles of music could converge. Lou Reed’s voice kills me. It’s so vulnerable, and I think when you’re an adolescent and you hear that, it really speaks to you. That essay would be about the first time I heard them and how that’s dictated my music tastes and my career in arts journalism. Ironically, Lou Reed hated journalists and critics, but he sort of ignited that passion.
SA: I’d like to say a Wilco song, because that’s the band I’ve connected to the most and one of the reasons I’m here doing this junk. But it’s probably an OutKast song. Stankonia was the second CD I ever bought. I played that endlessly and have not really slowed down since I bought it when it came out, so I’d have to say “B.O.B.” I think that’s probably a song that I have way too many strong memories attached to… to the point where they’re, like Nick Hornby said, erased or blurred out. I remember way too many things to have any specific chord get struck by that song anymore. But it’s not a stretch to say that it definitely shaped me as an adolescent and as a person.
RB: Mine is “This Must Be the Place” by the Talking Heads. It’s just such a beautiful love song. It feels like it could be about so many different kinds of love. It’s a song I think I’m always going to love.
HH: I guess I’ll be the dinosaur here and go with Dylan’s “My Back Pages”. It’s a song about coming to the realization that wherever we are in life, that could be the time to turn over a new leaf, to reflect back and see if we’re taking things too seriously. This song is him reflecting back on his protest-era finger-pointing songs and coming to the realization that looking at things in black and white, or characterizing certain people as evil, is simplistic and makes you so ingrained that you become inflexible and just as prejudiced as the people you’re criticizing.
So, back in high school, I kind of saw myself as a young conservative, who would battle it out with all the liberal-minded folks at my high school. And this song really helped me look at what’s important, and what’s important is the ability to be young and look at things with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective at any time. And when we start failing to do that, that’s when we start dying.
MM: I’ve listened to “Like a Rolling Stone” more than any other song. If I wrote that essay, it would probably be similar to Hornby’s Nelly Furtado essay. He’s sitting in a doctor’s office, and two little Jamaican girls are singing “I’m Like a Bird”. And he likes the fact that he—a middle-aged, white, English guy—can feel connected in some way and share in something with those girls. And “Like a Rolling Stone” has been like that for me. It bridges all gaps—social, racial, generational. I played it for my ninth graders—black and Hispanic kids from low-income homes who don’t care about a song if it isn’t a rap or something to twerk to—and they felt that line “How does it feel?” on a deep level, too. I’m not sure I’d trust a person who didn’t immediately understand that line. It’s a song that speaks to all types of people.