I know what boys like
And the girls want to be with the girls
‘This one is for your girlfriend’
Alex Turner introducing I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor
When I was 10, my older brother and I pooled our pocket money to buy our very first single: Ebony and Ivory by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, a song that is powered entirely by earnestness. I resented my adored brother’s leap into the mysterious world of adolescence, but over the following years our old complicity was shored up by our jointly-funded musical crimes: Hard For Me To Say I’m Sorry by Chicago, I Can Make You Feel Good by Shalamar, albums by The Police and Hall and Oates. We shelled out sweaty coins for Africa by Toto; we had a strong preference for ‘best of’ compilations. Tucked away in my all-girls comprehensive, I pursued an oblivious path to the warm, welcoming middle of the road.
When I was young I thought my brother was God
He’d lie in bed, and turn out the light with a fishing rod
Everything But The Girl, Oxford Street
When I returned to mixed-sex education for my A Levels and my degree, it was a jolt to discover the boys there cared very much about which bands you liked, and all the bands I liked were wrong. The first Stone Roses album was cool for a few weeks, before it was discovered to contain tunes. I thought I might be on a winner with Here Comes Your Man by the Pixies, but it was the sell-out track from their poppiest album. Colin the Goth sought my company less after hearing my anecdote about seeing U2 at Live Aid. My only victory from those years - the only song that I loved and was unimpeachably cool - was Eye Know by De La Soul.
Because the music that they constantly play
It says nothing to me about my life
The Smiths, Panic
The Asian boys listened to RnB and the white boys were hypnotised by John Peel. Every man who liked me wanted to play Nick Cave for hours; it never seemed to be my turn to choose. It became painfully clear to me that if I was ever going to start having sex, I was going to have to pretend to be someone else. My mix-tapes rapidly filled up with songs that other people liked (I still don’t know how to pronounce Hüsker Dü).
You better run for your life if you can, little girl
Hide your head in the sand, little girl
Catch you with another man
That's the end, little girl
The Beatles, Run For Your Life
The older I got, the harder it became to ignore the mounting evidence. The music we listened to with our male friends was grindingly tuneless, emotionally distant, and shot through with a sour strand of misogyny, from Pussy Galore to the Pharcyde. The music I played with my girlfriends was gloriously melodic and life-affirming, and happily embraced the notion that girls and women are fully human.
And I often wonder, how did it all start
Who found out that nothing can capture your heart
Like a melody can?
Well, whoever it was
I’m a fan
Abba, Thank You For The Music
I bought myself a Walkman just as my male friends were buying mini-disc players, and strutted the streets listening to Corduroy.
I finally stopped caring, completely, during my first long-term relationship. My partner had attended a music school and played several instruments to near-professional standard. He would point into the middle distance and say ‘listen to that diminished seventh’. His favourite noises were wasp-in-a-jar-era Miles Davis and Genesis P Orridge’s attempts to hit the bass frequency that causes involuntary bowel-emptying. He spoke often about the time Aphex Twin played a piece of sandpaper during a DJ set. He really didn’t care about being cool (he wasn’t); this was just the music he liked.
But just because a record has a groove
Don't make it in the groove
But you can tell right away at letter A
When the people start to move
Stevie Wonder, Sir Duke
His occasional DJ nights were miserably unsuccessful because of his conviction that everyone could be persuaded to love vintage Detroit techno as much as he did. He explained to me once that after years of study and performance he found melody boring, much as literature PhDs don’t enjoy Dan Brown. He needed aural novelty and experimentation with form; I needed The Isley Brothers. I may have been his one and only, but to him my tastes were merely as unfathomably poor as everyone else’s: no more, no less.
I decided to like the music that liked me right back, that needily closes the distance between subject and object.
I’ve got my teeth white
And my jeans tight
I’ve got my hair long
And it’s still wrong
The Staves, Teeth White
We had two children together, boys, to whom I played uncool records at will. Emotionally fervent music is entangled with some of my most vivid memories of their childhoods: massed ranks of infants belting out Don’t Stop Me Now, the nativity performance of Feliz Navidad, a play scheme dance routine to Cartoon Heroes by Aqua. As they’ve grown older their tastes have diverged: my older son reveres Radiohead and Moses Boyd and denies that he ever liked Vampire Weekend. My younger son has just discovered Off the Wall.
My brother died a couple of years ago. I chose Strawberry Fields Forever for his funeral, but his friend told me that in his last few weeks he had actually listened to There Must Be an Angel by The Eurythmics, on repeat.
Next week: When is Art Good? Answers via provocateur Philip Guston and the ultimate Rebel, Tony Hancock.
Last week I spent a large part of my day listening to album recommendations from a variety of people in an attempt to broaden my musical horizons. Some of it I liked, some of it mystified me, but what I realised a few hours in was that none of it brought me joy. I don’t believe music should be an intellectual exercise - although analysing why you love something can be a lot of fun. First and foremost it should make you want to turn up the volume and sing at the top of your voice. Great music is entirely subjective. It doesn’t matter what you want to listen to but whatever it is, it should feed your soul.