Monday, August 15, 2011

Courtney E. Smith - Record Collecting for Girls

One long-ago day in 1995 I was sitting in the Cafe Iguana with my friend Dulcie, washing down lunch with a pint, when she asked me if I’d read High Fidelity yet. This was the first time I’d heard of Nick Hornby or his debut novel. Until that point, “High Fidelity” was something I associated with the mysterious concept of “Dolby NR” and the backs of record sleeves.

“You have to read it,” she told me, “it's about us!”

She was right. That book was about us. It was about our life. We both worked in a small record shop that specialized in all things collectible with a heavy bias towards the obscure, the rare, the white-label promo, the test pressing, the limited edition 10” clear vinyl in hand-stamped dayglo gatefold sleeve and the acetate recovered from the skip (that’s a dumpster to those of you in the US) by the apprentice studio engineer. If you are a record geek, all of the above will make sense to you. If not, I may as well have been writing in Swahili. Anyway, where was I?

On Dulcie’s recommendation I hied me to the closest branch of W.H. Smith to pick up a copy of High Fidelity, and promptly found myself wondering if this Hornby guy was in fact one of my curmudgeonly male colleagues writing under a nom de plume. Or did everyone who worked in secondhand record shops while away the quiet weekday hours refining their Top Five lists and scaring away potential customers by offering unsolicited judgments on their musical selections? Apparently so. Our shop only differed from Hornby’s fictional one in that, well, ours had girls working in it. Us.

Our acceptance within those hallowed, vinyl-lined walls of male-dominated music-geekdom didn’t come easy, though. I’d wormed my way into the place not long after it opened a few years previously, pretty much by virtue of spending all my free time in there, poring over every piece of vinyl the owner had in stock. At one point I came in to sell most of my record collection so that I could afford a ticket for the Reading Festival, and I think the guy took pity on me. Hell, by this point I probably knew the exact shelf location of any given record better than he did and had been instinctively re-alphabetizing the things for months now, as if they were my very own. He offered me a Saturday job, and I gladly accepted. Dulcie came along a couple of years later; the daughter of a bona-fide rock journo, she’d been schooled in the proper way to obsess about music since the day she exited the womb.

Are you still with me here? Thought not. If by some chance you are still reading, though, you might just be the kind of person who will tolerate the music-loving ramblings and anecdotes of some random girl you don’t know, in which case you may well enjoy reading Record Collecting for Girls. Author Courtney E. Smith is a random girl with a respectable music-industry pedigree and all the additional insight that may afford her, but she’s still a random girl for all that. And that’s OK. My point, such as it is, is that this book is one for the seriously not-faint-of-heart music devotee. One who isn’t afraid to stick with a chapter on why Smiths fans don’t make great boyfriends, or why one should never, ever date a boy who is in a band.

What we have here is basically a girl I would probably want to be friends with if I knew her in real life, a girl who obsesses and fixates to just the right degree (that is to say, the nth degree) about the bands she likes, the bands she doesn’t like, and the bands she might like but hasn’t heard yet. What’s not to love about a girl who can’t get enough of Swedish indie music, keeps a special place in her heart for Car Wash Hair by Mercury Rev, and who lets slip that she has listened to Pulp’s Razzmatazz forty-one times since 2008? Nothing, that’s what. (Wait... only forty-one times?!)

The title “Record Collecting for Girls” is a little misleading, or maybe just not meant to be taken literally; this book is not some kind of “guide” to being a female music lover. It’s actually part memoir, part collection of essays on the music industry and its treatment of women, and on music fandom from the female perspective. Smith seems like someone who would be fun to sit in the pub with, putting the musical world to rights over a few pints.

For the most part, this book made for an enjoyable, engaging and interesting read. It didn’t bring me much in the way of new insights into sexism in the music industry or what it means to be a music-fixated female. Then again, I’ve spent the better part of the past twenty years being a music-fixated female more comfortable holding my ground in arguments with boys about favourite Bowie albums and the like than discussing proper “girl” subjects with my female counterparts, so I already know what that means, inside-out. While I can’t say I learned much from the book, I mostly found myself nodding along in agreement with what Smith had to say. Well, except for the Beatles vs. Stones debate, on which I will always come down firmly on the side of the Stones. More to the point, the better part of five decades on, it's as irrelevant and hackneyed a debate as it’s possible to have.

There were a few occasions while reading where I zoned out and found myself flicking through the pages until we could get back to something I could relate to. These chapters would include those when Smith was detailing the ins and outs of her longtime affection for bands that do absolutely nothing for me, and the one where she exhaustively debates whether there will ever be another Madonna, and if so, whether it might be Lady Gaga. The latter subject is one I could not have less interest in if I tried, and which I tuned out in this book just as I do whenever it (not-infrequently) comes up elsewhere in the media and in other people’s conversations.

For me the great thing about this book is that it’s the first music-related memoir I’ve read that’s written by someone of roughly the same age as me, and the fact that that someone is female comes as a bonus. I enjoyed reading the thoughts of someone who’s grown up (albeit on a different continent) with the same musical landscape as me. All in all, hats off to the girl for getting her point across, exposing the fact that even now us “chicks” are often put at an extreme disadvantage in the world of all things musical, no matter how much we may pride ourselves on thinking we’re on an equal footing.

Record Collecting for Girls will be available in bookshops from September 7th. I'd recommend it to anyone, female or not, who’s grown up and learned to make sense of the world via a borderline obsessive interest in music.

Michelle's top five of total (but wonderful) randomness:

Soda Fountain Rag - I Wanna Be Your Cat
Architecture - Pregnant (R. Kelly Cover)
Tomihira - World Class
The Floor is Made of Lava - Do Your Sister
Hello Saferide - High School Stalker

Casey's top five for listening while the wife fetches his pipe & slippers:

The Fine Arts Showcase - Chemical Girl
Atombook - All The Ways to Find Nothing
The Legends - Seconds Away
Sticklips - Bedding Wells
Luff - Blanket Ice

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