Some thoughts on autobiography and the history of popular music
When I was a student someone bought me Sleeper’s first album for Christmas. I don’t remember who it was or whether I had asked for it. It’s getting frightening how I can’t remember details of my student days. I don’t recall at all where I got Sleeper’s second album from. I have it my head that I borrowed it from someone but never gave it back. But perhaps I imagined that.
Listening to Sleeper now vaguely reminds me of dancing around a room I had in a shared house and of fancying the lead singer, Louise Wener. She embodied the kind of cool girls who smoked, were recklessly romantic and wore jeans and trainers, girls who were out of my league.
Music is a good jogger of the memory. It’s hardly original to point out that hearing a song can remind you of certain people, places and emotions. But when you repeatedly listen to a song or album its associations get confused. I liked Sleeper a lot but their records now prompt a jumbled mix of half-remembered associations that are mixed up with other bands from a period when I spent too much time at indie nights. I can’t even remember for sure whether I ever saw Sleeper live.
I am prompted into self-indulgent nostlagia by having just finished Louise Wener’s autobiography. Its second half, recollections of being a sex symbol in one of Britpop’s key bands, is funny and self-effacing but it’s the first half, the story of being a geeky, music-obsessed teenager in a small town, that makes the book stand out.
Her stories of how music helped her cope with self-doubt, social awkwardness and the ruthlessness of teenagers brought all sorts of things flooding back that I haven’t thought about in a long time. But they also illustrate the power of popular music. Songs are the trigger of memories because they are more than sounds and melodies to have fun to. At its best, music isn’t something in the background of our life events, it’s something that twists and shapes what’s happening in the foreground. It can make us who we are. Wener calls David Bowie ‘the sticking plaster I apply to my teenage awkwardness’. Maybe such power fades as we get older and subsumed by work, family and money, but it’s always there if we want it.
That’s why the history of popular music matters and that’s what historians who write about music should be interested in. Understanding the form, the fashion and the lyrics only makes sense if we look at how they were received. Historians of popular culture should concentrate on the audiences rather than bands.
That’s easier said that done because audiences’ memories of music shift and blur. Some of Wener’s descriptions of seminal moments in her musical life are remarkably detailed and it’s hard not to think that occasionally they are an older, wiser woman looking back on what her younger self probably felt. Indeed, she finishes the book saying she hasn’t made any of it up: ‘It’s all exactly the way I remember it’. Presumably, the implication is that other people might remember it differently.
Events are all about perception. Historians can’t ‘tell it how it was’, because it was always different for different people. The trick is trying to come to generalizations that work, without losing sight of the variations of experience within them.
For some of the groupies in the book, Sleeper were life. For other people, they were just another example of how pretentious Britpop was. For me, they were some great tunes, sang by the kind of unattainable cool woman that I was too nervous to talk to in a dingy Cardiff indie club. Music can be everything and nothing.
British social and cultural history is still lacking a definitive book that looks at the impact of pop music on everyday life. When someone gets round to writing it, Wener’s autobiography will be an excellent source. It might not be typical of the impact of Haircut 100 or David Bowie on every teenager. It might not even be quite right on Wener herself. After all, all autobiography involves reconstructing incomplete memories and some degree of image management, conscious or otherwise. But in this second element, it’s no different to deciding what music you are into. Popular music has never just been about the tunes.
Sleeper on Top of the Pops in 1995, a show that is central to the cultural history of post-war Britain.