Put Another Dime In The Juke Box, Baby
or WHY KNOWING TOO MUCH ABOUT WILSON PICKETT AND/OR CRISPY AMBULANCE IS BETTER THAN THE ALTERNATIVE

    But don't forget the songs
    That made you smile
    And the songs that made you cry
    When you lay in awe
    On the bedroom floor
    And said: "Oh, smother me, Mother..."

    The Smiths, 'Rubber Ring'

A culture that exiles harmful stereotypes to whatever lies beyond the pale simply spawns harmless replacements. As the inanely grinning black man and the limp-wristed homosexual ooze away to a place where even irony cannot reach them, their place is taken by the woman who thinks her bum looks big in that, the Indians who want to be British and the man who wastes his life on lists of pop records.

The latter type reached its apogee, of course, with Nick Hornby's High Fidelity: Rob Fleming embodies the post-slacker male psyche, as men are educationally over-fuelled for the mundane economic reality of their lives. As society becomes centred on 'female' abilities (co-operation, teamwork, empathy, care) the 'male' attributes (competition, factual recall, polytonal flatulence) become ends in themselves rather than necessary attributes for a fulfilled life. Listing one's Five Favourite Bands With Female Bass Guitarists contributes nothing to the material good of 21st century Western society, so devotees of this practice, if they are to maintain any level of self-esteem, must raise it to the level of a blessed sacrament. The Guinness Book Of British Hit Singles is the Bible and the weekly pub quiz is Holy Communion.

At times, Hornby seems merely to be imposing his own nerdy media-bloke persona onto his characters, especially when the staff of Championship Vinyl bicker about each other's lists; but it is when Rob's faith collides with an agnostic (such as his on-off girlfriend) that the true perception shines through:

    'I remember the song. I just couldn't remember who sung it.' I shake my head in disbelief.
    'See, this is the sort of moment where men just want to give up. Can you really not see the difference between "Bright Eyes" and "Got To Get You Off My Mind"?'
    'Yes, of course. One's about rabbits and the other has a brass band playing on it.'
    'A brass band! A brass band! It's a horn section! Fucking hell.'

    Nick Hornby, High Fidelity (Gollancz, 1995)

Hornby turns the piece into a wry piece of self-deprecation: the only significance to Rob's obsession is how insignificant it really is. So when the critic Ruth Padel turns this paradox into a 400-page scholarly tome, we're either embarking on the World Irony Championships or the gold medal for Missing The Whole Damn Point:

    ...I always loved dancing. I loved throwing myself around to 'Satisfaction'. But I didn't know who played it and I didn't care. Blues? Never heard of them.

opines Padel. Er, duh? And:

    ...the people who are preparing to pounce on mistakes of rock fact and judgement, and who despise others for their record collections like Nick Hornby's hero in High Fidelity, are nearly all male.
    Ruth Padel, I'm A Man: Sex, Gods And Rock'n'Roll (Faber, 2000)

With this serendipitous get-out clause in her back pocket, Padel then proceeds to lay herself open to the metaphorical pouncing of every thirty-something male who's ever opened a copy of Mojo. Jackie Brenston's 'Rocket 88' becomes 'Rocket 66'. The Prodigy spawns a member called 'Keith Flyte' (Flynt last time I looked) and hip-hop finds a new pioneer in the mysterious 'Afrika Mombaataa'. And from her description of the infamous cross-dressing Vanity Fair cover, she doesn't know the difference between Cindy Crawford and kd lang.

    Cufk,
    Tish,
    Sips

    Nirvana, 'Tourette's'

Ironically, in her ability to pontificate about subjects where her knowledge is as shaky as Stevens, Padel has an emphatically male role model in Patrick Bateman, Bret Easton Ellis's psychopathic/sad and twatty (delete as your politico-literary bent determines) anti?-hero in American Psycho. It's not just the notorious chapters on the dubious merits of Genesis, Whitney Houston ('the most exciting and original black jazz voice of her generation') and Huey Lewis that pin Bateman as a loser; his inability to distinguish between the Crystals and the Ronettes, the Beatles and the Stones (while maintaining an encyclopaedic knowledge of tie designers and big TVs) is more pitiful than the fact he can't tell psychopathic fantasy apart from mundane reality.

Because this ain't, despite Padel's assertions, a gender thing by any means. What is there to choose between the obsessions of a boy in Colchester:

    I wasn't nearly as interested in sleeping with Marc Bolan as I was interested in pasting neatly clipped articles about him into my specially designated T. Rex scrapbook... I had no desire for him which throbbed as loudly as my desire to collect his records, keep them together in unblemished condition and label them thoroughly in biro - name of artist and song in top left-hand corner of sleeve, number of record in top right... and, written round the rim of the hole in authoritative capitals, THIS RECORD BELONGS TO GILES SMITH.Giles Smith, Lost In Music (Picador, 1995)

and a goil in New Jersey:

    1977
    First UK #1 of the year: 'When A Child Is Born'/Johnny Mathis Biggest Roller Hits: 'It's a Game' (UK, #16); 'You Made Me Believe in Magic' (US, #9)
    Caroline Sullivan, Bye Bye Baby: My Tragic Love Affair With The Bay City Rollers (Bloomsbury, 1999)

Smith and Sullivan, need it be added, both grew up (sic) to be journalists.

Sullivan's statistical precision bears comparison with Bridget Jones, that other emblematic psychopath of the 90s, but at least the cheerleader of All Things Tartan writes about something; the whining avatar of ChickFic focuses her nerdiness inwardly. The prevalence of pointless, geeky obsessiveness is a sad indictment of the modern world, as it is the human drone's only escape from the 24/7 pressure of his/her job (or perceived lack thereof). But if we as a race are lumbered with this psychic defence mechanism, surely it is better directed towards the outside world. There's a slim chance that one of Hornby's characters might occasionally find a fellow damaged soul who shares his passion for the Sid James Experience; the only way a reader can derive any fellow-feeling for Bridget Jones's Chardonnay intake is to compare it with his/her own. The end result of Jones's navel gazing (if she can contemplate her navel without grizzling about perceived weight gain) is the pile of sordid self-help volumes (Chicken Soup For The 14-Year-Old Bulimic Taurean Bisexual Soul and its ilk) that clag up the checkout at Books Etc. Sullivan's obsession is mirrored in meaty, contentious, endearingly daft tomes like Ian MacDonald's Revolution In The Head; David Cavanagh's My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For The Prize; and Nicholas Pegg's The Complete David Bowie. MacDonald accuses John Lennon of aesthetic sabotage via crap bass-playing; Cavanagh betrays a knowledge of the Jasmine Minks unseemly in a person not in a secure unit; Pegg, who seems intent on producing as many batty quotables as his subject, manages to imply that 'This Is Not America' was influenced by Shakatak. Bridget Jones can't get a nice boyfriend. Both lines of attack are endearingly crap, but which really contributes more to the sum of human delight? Let's just say that the movie version of High Fidelity was untainted by Hugh Grant's simpering visage.

    I knew it all the time but now I confess
    Yes yes yes how deliciously meaningless
    Yes yes yes effervescently meaningless

    The Magnetic Fields, 'Meaningless'

Oh, in case you're interested: Talking Heads; Sonic Youth; Pogues (first two albums only); Urusei Yatsura; My Bloody Valentine.

TIM FOOTMAN 2001


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