The Importance of Music to Girls

Lavinia Greenlaw




Trade Paperback

224 Pages


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Lavinia Greenlaw’s memoir, The Importance of Music to Girls, is the story of the adventures that music leads us into—how it forms and transforms us. As a soundtrack, it’s there in the background while we go about the thrilling and mortifying business of growing up: raging, falling in love, wanting to change the world. Greenlaw, in prose of pure fury and beauty, makes us remember how the music came first.

For her, music—from bubblegum pop to classical piano to the passionate catharsis of punk rock—is at first the key to being a girl and then the means of escape from all that, a way to talk to boys and a way to do without them. School reports and diary entries reveal the girl behind them searching for an identity through the sounds that compelled her generation. Crushing on Donny Osmond and his shiny teeth, disco dancing in four-inch wedge heels and sparkly eye shadow, being mesmerized by Joy Division’s suicidally brilliant Ian Curtis—Greenlaw has written a razor-sharp remembrance of childhood and adolescence, filtered through the art that strikes us at the most visceral level of all.


Praise for The Importance of Music to Girls

“Greenlaw is a lovely prose stylist and displays a wide-ranging intellect. She's just as likely to launch into a meditation on the myth of Persephone as she is to discuss the impact a Buzzcocks single had on punk . . . Greenlaw brings her youth to life in this book. And whether it's madrigal singers rehearsing in the living room or metal blasting from the radio in a car full of partying teenagers, readers will hear the accompanying soundtrack wafting off the pages.”—Chrissie Dickinson, The Washington Post

“Brilliantly traces the shaping of a rich, complex self.”—Chicago Tribune

“Designed . . . to be dipped into, puzzled over, and read repeatedly.”—Sheena Joughin, The Times Literary Supplement

"Few writers are memoirists by profession, and it’s hard to imagine what the qualifications might be. A compelling and even awful life history helps (Mary Karr), but it’s not really necessary or a guarantee. Exceptional success in some other field (Barack Obama) also creates basic narrative interest, but a talent for politics, for example, doesn’t always translate into a talent for meaningful reflection. What does seem to distinguish many great memoirists, though, is an almost supernatural intuition with language: the ability to take recollections that have personal resonance and make them echo for readers in written sentences (Joan Didion, Jamaica Kincaid, and Elie Wiesel). In comparison with this gift, experience seems almost beside the point. It’s no surprise, then, that poets so often write memoirs, and that they take to the prose form so naturally. Karr is the blockbuster example of a contemporary poet-memoirist, but other young poets who have written in the form in recent years include Nick Flynn (Another Bullshit Night in Suck City) and Paisley Rekdal (The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee). Most recently, both Sarah Manguso and Lavinia Greenlaw have written memoirs that press on the boundary between poetry and prose and affectingly describe, in intentional fits and starts, the poets’ tumultuous girlhoods . . . Lavinia Greenlaw was lucky enough not to suffer physical crises so early in life. Instead, her adolescence in Essex, England, in the late 1970s was characterized by intense but more benign influences. Her most formative experiences involved pop music, and she writes her memoir by describing her first encounters with it. Like Manguso’s memoir, Greenlaw’s The Importance of Music to Girls is written in short sections that often verge on poetry. Greenlaw takes 56 of these sections to describe how she went from being a small girl who danced on top of her father’s feet to the type of young mother who has an ex-boyfriend and a Public Image Limited record with her on the day she takes her daughter home from the hospital. The sections are loosely chronological, but for the most part they are held together thematically. These include the social and actual circles that young people dance in and use to include and exclude one another; the interplay between language, noise, and music; and the life-changing effects of art . . . Greenlaw often casually plays with chronology, but at the same time she remains intensely aware of the contradictory and painful aspects of her adolescence. She renders the year her family moved to Essex and she started secondary school in a meticulous way that makes its strangeness vivid . . . Here and elsewhere, Greenlaw uses music not only to situate her young adulthood but also to convey exactly how it felt."—Carla Blumenkranz, The Poetry Foundation

“The memoir is laid out chronologically in vignettes of Greenlaw's life as an adolescent pop fan from the '60s through the '80s. There's the adorable (how the decision to be a Donny Osmond fan warranted the utmost seriousness at age 10), the poignantly musing (do girls who like boys in suits love the Jam, or did Paul Weller make skinny ties hot on guys?) and the genuinely rueful (when a friend overdoses on pills and Greenlaw wonders what music can cure a coma). As in her novel Mary George of Alinorthover, the minute details of an Essex village teenager's life take on an almost fantastical quality through fine-bore reminiscences . . . The most moving passages in the book are often ones that, like Curtis' underscore how music is merely a means, not an end, to learning about others and oneself . . . Some of the particular cadences of Greenlaw's experience—the fevered genre allegiances, the LP sleeves are talismans—might seem foreign in today's everything-all-the-time music culture. She wonders if something got lost. ‘For me, each phase was accumulated as a kind of autobiography. Sometimes I think young people are moving too fast, not absorbing anything,’ she said. But Greenlaw understands that the most crucial—and empowering—thing about being a young music fan is how it gives you the space to come into your own self, whatever that might be.”—August Brown, Los Angeles Times

"The Beatles had already broken up by the time my friends and I became true music fanatics in high school, but that didn't stop us. They—along with the Rolling Stones, the Who, and Bob Dylan—became our reason for living. We knew every lyric, learned to play their songs on our acoustic guitars, and, for a few absurd years, often spoke in what we believed were perfectly calibrated British accents. I assumed I would outgrow this obsession with pop music, but, oddly, that particular form of maturation never came to pass. Even now, I have favorite bands, can worm my way close to the stage at a live show, and consider rock lyrics a potent form of poetic expression. Nor am I alone. I've always been lucky enough to have at least one close female friend who felt the same way. That's why The Importance of Music to Girls—a highly original (actually quite strange) memoir by London-based novelist Lavinia Greenlaw—resonates so strongly. I've never read anything like it. In shorthand: It’s High Fidelity for chicks. It has all the coming-of-age angst and humor of Hornby’s classic, and, too, all the sense of pop music knowledge as secret handshake. In its grasp of music’s greater meaning—the way it can seem the only thing that really matters—it also echoes Mark Lindquist’s Seattle-based novel, Never Mind Nirvana. The difference is that it’s written from a female perspective. And that’s part of what makes this memoir so fresh. It grabs hold. Reading it is like hearing Roger Daltrey’s famous 'Won’t Get Fooled Again' scream on eight Bose speakers at full blast: Are you awake now? Greenlaw's memoir wakes us to our own memories. She gets it just right, for example, on the deeper meaning of mix tapes . . . Set in London and the British countryside, these pages bristle with a sense of place, whether a Hampstead schoolroom or the Marquee Club at 90 Wardour Street. Impressionistic and deeply felt, Greenlaw's style is a pastiche—or maybe just a jumble—of poetry-like prose and novel-like reminiscence. With many a reference to Hesse or Rilke or Tolstoy, this gritty memoir is richly literary. (And you can dance to it.) Greenlaw's greatest strength is her exploration of how an adolescent's identity unfolds, the mysterious process of a child's becoming an adult, and how deeply music can affect that process . . . The Importance of Music to Girls begins in toddlerhood, lingers in the teenage years, moves to young adulthood, and ends with the soothing of Greenlaw's fractious baby daughter. Her memoir's lovely last line brings us full circle: 'We'd sung her to sleep.'"—Margaret Sullivan, The Buffalo News

“Highly original . . . Beautiful . . . Will resonate with everyone who has ever danced around a handbag or played air guitar.”—The Daily Mail (UK)

“Ever since High Fidelity . . . there has been a sense that girls are not allowed to stake a claim to the power of pop . . . Greenlaw’s book sets out to reclaim this lost territory, and does so with such vigor that it should be impossible for anyone to assume ever again that [girls] are physically incapable of remembering the names of bass players or putting records back in their sleeves.”—Time Out London

“Exhilarating . . . perfectly evokes the sense of release and rebellion of a teenage girl driving through the countryside with boyfriends, blasting heavy metal on the car radio . . . An amazing feat of inventiveness.”—Salon

“It should probably be required reading for all teenage girls.”—Kate Chisholm, The Spectator

“In this tender memoir, Lavinia Greenlaw [creates] a body of work that plays out as sweetly as any finely tuned mixed tape . . . Greenlaw’s sharp observations on the various rites of passage . . . are richly imagined yet instantly recognizable.”—Anna Miller, Scotland on Sunday

“Lavinia Greenlaw's memoir is like none I've ever read—it unravels identity like a novel. It is as spritely and as curious as an essay. Like music, it honors silence as much as it does sound. Greenlaw, a gifted mix-master of forms, has composed a coming-of-age experience that rings magically true for all of us.”—Heidi Julavits, author of The Uses of Enchantment

“British novelist and poet Greenlaw didn't perform daring feats, conquer cancer, start a business or save anyone; most of her adventures involved sitting in bedrooms listening to records. Nonetheless, her achingly sensitive memoir about trying to grow up through, around and within pop music does not fail to amaze. She presents herself as a young girl bewildered about her place in the world, first as a sensitive child in 1960s London, roiled by hippie and glam crosscurrents, and later as a teenager in a village outside Essex, where her slow ripening coincided with that of the punk movement. During a confusing adolescence, she attempted to fashion a cohesive self through the music she listened to, judiciously acquiring LPs and hungrily listening for furtive signals from the European continent on a little transistor radio. At 14, a pivotal age in her musical autobiography, she exulted in punk style, especially its collapsed gender distinctions. Fortunately, her tolerant, seemingly disinterested parents granted her the freedom (and presumably the funds) to pursue this temporary rebellion, with all its attendant dangers and delights. As the Chi-Lites gave way to the Sex Pistols, Devo and the Damned, she sought but could not regain the easy camaraderie of dancing at the disco with her girlfriends. Though decidedly personal, her story will resonate with those who, like the author, experienced firsthand the sea changes of popular music in the '70s, as well was with those who discovered the era's gems later. The taut, lyric thrum of Greenlaw's prose reflects her poet's skill. Introducing each chapter with epigraphs selected with care from great works of Western literature, she weaves her quietly intense tale into a much larger narrative.”—Kirkus Reviews

“A girl's emotional and aesthetic response to music is the chief concern of British novelist and poet Greenlaw's memoir. This introspective tale of coming of age in and around London—primarily, in rural Essex—in the 1970s conveys the growth and formation of the protagonist's character through her evolving relationship to music in all its forms, from the Sex Pistols to her mother's singing to disco dancing in platform heels, and the insecure, adolescent Greenlaw finally finds understanding in punk music. Greenlaw employs music as a vehicle to invoke childhood experiences and remembrances of time passed. She writes in a poet's prose, and though the pace is slow, what occurs is deeply felt. This title will appeal to music fans as well as all readers interested in coming-of-age stories.”—Katherine Litwin, Library Journal

“In her first memoir, British novelist and poet Greenlaw tells of coming to know the world and her place in it through her love of music. The story begins as she first awakens to her inchoate senses, a tiny child waltzing with her father, lulled by her mother's singing and clamoring amid the boisterous play of her three siblings and the entire family's constant chatter. She discovers that outside her home, the world is a series of social rings she must struggle to break into, from joining Ring-a-ring o' Roses games to finding a sense of belonging as a plainly English girl in a culturally diverse school. Growing up in the late 1960s and '70s, she's captivated by her transistor radio and the shifts in pop culture that it heralds, from hippie music to glam rock to disco. As she matures, she swears her allegiance to the latter, moving en masse with primping and dancing girlfriends. She then turns to punk, which neutralized and released her from the weight of femininity, and then to new wave, which suited her seriousness and pretensions. Her punk sensibilities confuse her sense of how to love and be loved, how to have feelings without ironizing them too. Greenlaw's coming-of-age story is smartly and tenderly told, likely to snag readers like an infectiously catchy tune.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



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LAVINIA GREENLAW is a novelist and poet. She was once in a band. She lives in London and is a professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia.

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  • Lavinia Greenlaw

  • Lavinia Greenlaw is a novelist and poet who has also written opera libretti, songs, and radio plays. She lives in London and is a professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia.

  • Lavinia Greenlaw Sarah Lee