Music. It’s a life force for so many people. Music forms our ideas, passions and opinions. A song on the radio makes us recall a distinct moment in our lives. A song can inspire us to change ourselves or change the world. A song is there when we fall in love or when our hearts our broken. Music is so much more than “it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.”
But when music is discussed in these terms, it’s usually done by the boys. Nick Hornby and Chuck Klosterman can obsess over bands, discuss guitar solos and argue over the importance of lyrics. Girls gossip over the cuteness of the band members or service roadies in hope to meet their favorite musicians. They shake their barely-clad butts in videos. If they are lucky, they might inspire a song. When it comes to music, girls have to fit very narrow stereotypes-groupie, muse or slut.
But British poet Lavinia Greenlaw knows girls and music add up to a lot more, and she tries to explain this in her memoir The Importance of Music to Girls.
In The Importance of Music to Girls, Greenlaw captures what music meant to her as a young girl in 56 brief essays. Greenlaw, who came of age in 1970s Britain, uses the soundtrack of pop, disco and punk to describe the sometimes mortifying and often thrilling act of growing from girl to woman.
The Importance of Music to Girls starts with the vague memories of early childhood. Music comes in bits and pieces-her mom singing folk songs, learning how to play piano and classical music filling the family home. But Greenlaw ached for a different type of music.
This music came to her once she got older. Like lots a young girls, she squealed and got crushes on baby-faced pop idols like Donny Osmond, hanging posters of Donny and his toothy grin on her bedroom walls. Any young woman who felt the same way over other teen idols whether they be David Cassidy, Duran Duran, New Kids on the Block or (someday) One Direction will nod their heads in recognition.
When she wasn’t pinning posters of pop stars on her walls, Greenlaw was attending local youth discos, watching the iconic music show Top of the Pops on TV and trying to maneuver the tricky world of the opposite sex. Despite the fun of dancing and dressing up in her finest, Greenlaw felt awkward, like she didn’t fit in.
Fortunately, she discovered punk. Punk’s promise of rebellion liberated Greenlaw. She wore garbage bags in a declaration of anti-fashion and dyed many of her clothes pitch black. She spiked her hair and put on bondage pants. Suddenly, Greenlaw felt free from the shackles of acceptable femininity. She writes, “Punk had nothing to do with being a girl. It neutralized, rejected and released me. I made myself strange because I felt strange and now I had something to belong to, for which my isolation and oddness were credentials.”
Punk was more than just a pose; it was the music that truly spoke to Greenlaw. And the songs of the Sex Pistols and Joy Division became a part of her DNA. Punk was more than music; it completely altered her life and her sense of aesthetics. Greenlaw found herself dissecting lyrics and taking passionate positions on different bands.
However, punk didn’t mean girls had become truly liberated. Greenlaw wanted her ideas on music to be taken seriously. She wanted to discuss music on the same level as the boys. But the boys just wanted to make out and take off her clothes. And often her obsession with punk was off-putting to her peers who just considered music a good time and nothing more. Still, it was punk that gave her life meaning.
Despite Greenlaw’s teenage allegiance to the brashness of punk, her writing is muted. It takes a while for The Importance of Music to Girls to gain steam. The early chapters seem to be barely- focused, perhaps this is due to Greenlaw’s young age at the time. Who has exact clarity as a three-year-old? However, once the book arrives at Greenlaw’s early adolescence, it becomes more gripping. Greenlaw’s descriptions of smoky, sweaty discos, the acidic pink and yellow cover of the Sex Pistol’s album Never Mind the Bollocks and the roving hands of pimply teen boys are written with poetic explicitness. And youthful diary entries and school reports give the reader a sympathetic look at a teenage Greenlaw. Who can’t relate to embarrassing scribblings in a diary or less than flattering comments from a teacher?
If I have one problem with the book, it’s the title. The Importance of Music to Girls is too broad of a title for one young women’s experience in the trenches of pop, disco and punk. A book about the importance of music to girls of all generations, races, experiences and favorite musical styles still needs to be written. But fortunately, we have Lavinia Greenlaw to show us that music to one girl was very important indeed.