Why Music Matters

Nick Hornby, Songbook

Nick Hornby’s Songbook is, at first glance, a collection of essays about 31 disparate songs, from Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” to Ani DiFranco’s “I’ve Had It.” The concept was interesting enough for me to buy the book, and I looked forward to reading Hornby’s in-depth descriptions of the songs and how they worked (or didn’t work) for him.

But what the author of High Fidelity and About a Boy is actually up to in Songbook is much more compelling. The songs referenced in the table of contents aren’t so much the essays’ subjects as their examples. For instance, the “Heartbreaker” chapter is more about why teenage boys latch onto — and eventually abandon — guitar rock. Hornby writes:

I was unable to trust my judgment of song. 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?

This essay encapsulates the true subject of Songbook: our relationship with music, particularly as we mature. Hornby notes that as he’s gotten older, he’s become afflicted by a reverse hesitancy:

And, of course, you stop listening to music made by shrieking, leather-trousered, shaggy-haired men altogether. Because how are you supposed to know whether it’s any good or not, when it’s played that loud, by people apparently so hostile to the aesthetics of understated modernity?

Songbook is, simply put, some of the best writing about music I’ve ever read, not because you can hear the songs by reading about them but because they’re not really relevant; the essays use the songs as springboards to larger questions and themes.

Many chapters in Songbook barely mention their nominal subjects. A piece on Bob Dylan’s “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” and the Beatles’ “Rain” doesn’t get to those songs until midway through the last paragraph, and they almost seem afterthoughts. The point of the piece is summarized in one great, dense sentence:

If you can hear Dylan and the Beatles being unmistakably themselves at their peak — but unmistakably themselves in a way we haven’t heard a thousand, a million times before — then suddenly you get a small but thrilling flash of their spirit ... .

This sentence resonates with me because I’ve struggled for a long time with the Beatles; the Fab Four are so loved and so ubiquitous that I can’t stand them, and Hornby suggests that the band’s “classics” are of no more interest to him than they are to me, for a similar reason: They’re so familiar that there’s nothing left to be mined from them.

The British music magazine Q complained in reviewing Hornby’s book that “there’s little insight to the music here, just a collection of desultory reminiscences ... ,” but it missed the point. Hornby doesn’t often do the typical rock-critic nuts-and-bolts descriptions of music, because he recognizes that a good song’s power is greater than the sum of its chords or lyrics, that its effect is probably more important than its mechanics.

Beyond that, Hornby’s book is about music, not the specific songs, and the author is vivid, smart, passionate, and funny in chronicling the importance of music — even the lightweight, meaningless pop song — in our lives. A piece on a reggae version of “Puff the Magic Dragon” is a touching account of the relationship between Hornby’s autistic son Danny and music, and in it the author asserts that a love of music proves “he has something in him that he wants others to articulate.” Hornby expands the point to say that music expresses the “something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out.” Hornby is using Danny as an extreme example of what music does for all of us.

What’s thrilling about Songbook is the way in which Hornby gives voice to and answers some of the great pop-music questions: What’s the value of a solo when solos really don’t serve songs? How can some of us smart people with good taste be underwhelmed by giants such Dylan and the Beatles?

And although we have wildly different tastes, Hornby’s conclusions feel as if they came from within me. To steal shamelessly from Songbook’s author, Hornby has given me the gift that pop music regularly gives to him: He has expressed things that have eluded and defied my best attempts to spit them out.

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