March 2008

Marisa Atkinson

nonfiction

The Importance of Music to Girls by Lavinia Greenlaw

The Importance of Music to Girls is not your typical coming-of-age story. Rather than chart her early childhood and teenage years through run-of-the-mill family drama and teenage angst, author Lavinia Greenlaw spins her story through the emotional landscape of her musical awakening. The story is enhanced with an array of artifacts: mix tape track listings, school dance set lists, excerpts from mid-century pamphlets on dancing and bomb shelters, Greenlaw’s own report cards and diary entries, and music-centric epitaphs from a diverse list of novelists, poets, and artists. The result is part Music History 101, part memoir, and part philosophical manifesto.

The story begins, however, typically enough. The reader is introduced to a young Greenlaw embarking on her musical journey with a yearning to experience genuine emotion and secure her place in the world. Growing up in England in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Greenlaw finds her world growing more confusing and stifling with each passing day. Greenlaw writes, “Real life was abrasive, brutal, off-key. I did not know how to get it in proportion and so every encounter -- whether it be with a story, a stranger, an insect, a piece of candy, the weather -- was exhausting.”

Greenlaw begins her self-directed musical education gradually, with the childhood soundtrack of her own piano lessons and her mother’s voice humming classic folk songs. She survives her preteen years while rifling through her Top of the Pops compilations, and eventually discovers Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and the Moody Blues by happenstance in her parents’ stack of records. Finally, Greenlaw hits her stride and finds herself simultaneously entering her teenage years and the heart of the punk movement, which infuses her seemingly drab life with the color and noise she’s been yearning for: “I caught sight in a shop window of the cover of the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks. The offending word had been covered with tape but that didn’t thrill me nearly as much as the bubblegum pink and acid yellow of the cover. It was strident, lurid, and magnificently out of place in that damp mall. It buzzed.”

In music, Greenlaw finds revelation and refuge, while revealing a poetic prowess in her keen and succinct observations: “This is what music could do: change the shape of the world and my shape within it, how I saw, what I liked, and what I wanted to look like… Does it depend upon whom you come across or is there something building up inside you, as I believe there was in me -- a half-formed vision needing an external phenomenon, such as music, in order to complete itself?”

The Importance of Music to Girls is poetic, clever, surprising, and incredibly endearing. Readers will root for Greenlaw’s teenage self, recalling their own missteps with fashion, friends, love, and of course, music. Greenlaw’s apt depiction of the thrill of musical discovery will bring back your own feelings of excitement (and naiveté) in believing you were the first person to ever listen to the Beatles or David Bowie. And even if you rocked out to New Kids on the Block or Hanson instead of Donny Osmond, Greenlaw’s story will have you regressing to the glee you felt hanging your own personal heartthrob’s poster on your wall, or cringing at that summer when you were the only one who thought your electric blue hair looked cool.

The Importance of Music to Girls by Lavinia Greenlaw
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374174547
208 Pages