Words and music - over the generational border
I’ve written something which is inspired by the new Saint Etienne album but is more about music fandom in general and growing up with Top of the Pops and the internet. Behind the cut because it’s quite long.
I’ve been listening to Saint Etienne’s music-about-music new album Words and Music. I’m a newcomer to the band and had my reservations about their take on gig-going in “Tonight”, but other songs do a fantastic job of capturing the joys of a life following pop music. Chief among these is “Over the Border”, which in its wending spoken rhythms and nostalgia steeped in the weirdly exacting details of long-term memory reminds me of “Wickerman”, my favourite Pulp song.
Where “Over the Border” is something different is that its adolescent specifics are so similar to my specifics. The rhythm of a week marked out by charts and leagues. For me the charts weren’t Tuesday lunchtime at 12:45 but Sunday at 4, and Top of the Pops on Friday at 7:30, but I felt the same way about them. Saturday at 5 for the football results was the same. Even the idea of putting those charts and leagues together feels right. I watched football with a similar obsessive eye for the collection of information and detail about everything which meant and I didn’t quite fit with other fans at school, not least because I never managed to find it in myself to support a particular team.
“Over the Border” is also on point on the feeling of taking all of the amazing emotions that music could provide and as a result investing much of that affection into the physical objects which carried it. For me it wasn’t vinyl and its “green and yellow Harvests, pink Pyes and silver Bells” (only Arts & Crafts’ colour swatches come close to as strong a visual label identity among my collection), but the CDs meant the same to me, the excitement of new ones the highlight of the week. I can still quickly work out which day of the week almost any date between 2000 and 2003 was by extrapolating from the album and single release dates every Monday, seared into memory. Sarah goes on to speak of mock exams and spending the time longing to get back to listening to music. I took that a step further - I finished my final (real, not mock) exam of secondary school on a Thursday morning and was at Glastonbury festival by that evening.
My formative experiences and those narrated in “Over the Border” were twenty-five years apart, going by the handily included date of first single purchase, but still had all of that in common. Yet people born less than ten years after me are living their teenage years in a new world of YouTube, advance album leaks and constantly updated download charts, and I doubt that most of them could relate in the same way. I thought about this gap while reading a fascinating post by backleftlitz and jrichmanesq about Instagram and nostalgia for the less perfect recording of life, and about shortening generations. I think there are some really excellent observations in there, and when I was reading it something clicked about the aspects of “Over the Border” which don’t fit so well for me.
“Over the Border” is populated with kids at school, parties and cars and houses, where conversations about music take place. It’s set in a world where, the distance-reducing effects of music aside, physical distance seems vast. “All the way to Somerset”. Aside from my brother listening and watching and discussing and obsessing alongside me, I didn’t have that much connection with anyone in my school or town about music. There was the school acquaintance who gave me a cassette of The Bends and OK Computer (which wasn’t long enough to fit every song and means that the latter still sounds wrong to me when it doesn’t skip straight from “Electioneering” to “No Surprises”), and the girlfriend who gave me a tape with Idlewild’s awesome 100 Broken Windows, but that was a small deal compared to another thing that I had from pretty much the same time as I started following new music: the internet.
Saint Etienne had those friends and they had Sounds and the NME and Smash Hits. I did read published music criticism, online and off, but that wasn’t how I made the majority of my discoveries of new music and new ways of thinking about music, and about myself. The internet was getting the critical mass needed to sustain big communities around bands but hadn’t yet made its way to being an interlinked thing with all of those same kids from school on the same sites . I posted on several music message boards, nervously and ignorantly at first but with growing confidence and enthusiasm as time went on. It was through talking to people on those message boards that I had my introduction to a lot of music and to other things, too. I met people who brought me new ideas and I met people who are friends to this day, with whom the boundary between online and off has blurred or vanished.
The Glastonbury trip that I mentioned earlier was with an Australian friend that I met on a band’s message board. I met my fiancée on the same board, when she was living in the US. Older posters who I have never met in person have spoken a few times about how they felt that, over the best part of a decade, they watched me and others of my age grow up. At the same time as being able to connect through shared interests, I also met a far more diverse range of people than ever would have been possible if I was confined to my physical locale. Looking back I’m massively thankful that my interests took me there rather than to other less generous and more homogeneous internet communities that I could have fallen into.
Words and Music has its own song devoted to an internet music community, of course, though I don’t know if I would have picked up on that aspect of “Popular” if I wasn’t a fellow reader of the project. For all of the excitingly familiar namedrops, I hear the thrust of the song as more about the fun of a shared vocabulary of number one singles than about the specific community, which obviously makes sense to relate to a wider audience. “Popular” is also a song about having an established identity and interests and meeting like-minded people, rather than those interests giving the power and confidence to try out new identities and ways of interacting with people, making it up as you go along.
So I think I’m in one of backleftlitz’s very specific generations, though a couple of years out from the dates suggested. To put it in Words and Music terms, my own time growing up was like “Over the Border” multiplied by “Popular”, a foot-in-both-camps hybrid that means that I know and love the worlds of both. On the downside, I don’t quite fit natively into either, but on the plus side I also have an awareness that neither way of being is a timeless certainty.