Jude Rogers’ ‘The Sound of Being Human: How Music Shapes Our Lives’, our April Book of the Month, is published today by White Rabbit Books. Clare Wadd reviews.
The Sound of Being Human: How Music Shapes Our Lives is the story of Jude Rogers’ life, as a music fan and journalist, through 13 songs (including secret track), over two sides of a notional album. From ABBA’s ‘Super Trouper’ to Kraftwerk’s ‘Radioactivity’, The Flying Pickets’ version of ‘Only You’ to Kate Bush’s ‘Among Angels’, REM’s ‘Drive’ to Shirley Collins’ ‘Gilderoy’, it’s an eclectic mix of songs, but a genuine, heartfelt meaningful list.
Jude’s father died when she was five, and his death, his love of music, and the impact of that love and loss on her are at the heart of The Sound of Being Human. ‘One of the reasons why music is so important personally and culturally [is] because it can express things that are beyond words’. It’s a very open, personal, and at times quite raw, memoir.
But The Sound of Being Human also tries to understand, and then explain, how music has had such a profound effect on Jude’s life (and my life and your life). Why can a song evoke such deep memories, take us back to the exact moment, scene, feeling we had one time when we heard it in a pub, on a dance floor, at a school disco, on the radio, on a bus going down that street, at that concert on that day? As well as being Jude’s story, it’s all our stories. ‘I see stage-sets from the past, abandoned locations for short, intense films’. Oh yes, exactly that! Why are some songs so inextricably linked with certain people, places and feelings, despite all the million different times we might have heard them? And how come I’ve never ever even thought about this before?
The memoir is interwoven with conversations with academics and neuroscientists. ‘I’ve loved…speaking to so many fascinating people about why music moves us, transports us, helps us and heals us.’ The potency of memories when familiar songs are being played is borne out by research using fMRI scanners, which show that the part of the brain responsible for music tracking and processing is also integral to the preservation of a person’s sense of self. Painful memories can act as sponges for songs. An academic called Nina Krauss describes music as ‘a portal’, a way into the brains of people when other means of communication become limited. She says, ‘songs excite and exercise our brains in our earliest years, but they also take us back to our earliest years, and do it quickly’.
And whilst The Sound of Being Human is a universal story, it’s also very much a female one, in a world where universal is so often casually used to mean male. Track 9 (Kate Bush’s ‘Among Angels’) is ‘How Music Helps Us Parent’. Jude writes powerfully about motherhood, and about her son reaching the age she was when her father died. And I’ll never again use the Ladies in the Heavenly Social without thinking about her (and probably others) miscarrying there. It’s a salutary reminder that we never know what others are dealing with or going through at any point in time.
Most of us are embarrassed to talk about our teenage selves and obsessions, but Jude happily shares the impact REM, and Michael Stipe in particular, had on her as a teen. ‘The sensations back then were both romantic and thrilling; I really felt like I loved him, that I wanted him to consume me completely’. Of course, we all felt like that about someone, or several someones, but most of us aren’t brave enough to say so in public. Likewise, a decade ago she made Mad About The Boy, an important radio programme looking at the vilification of hysterical girls, the power of female music fans, and teen pop culture’s rites of passage. She talks to Miranda Sawyer about why Neneh Cherry performing ‘Buffalo Stance’ on Top of The Pops might have had such an effect on young girls: ‘what you’re wanting at that age is a sense of freedom and of identity, and pop music offers you that in a really small package’.
Trying to decipher REM’s lyrics and world led her to a wider cultural exploration embracing photography and Americana. And we all have our own version of this too, following the crumbs we thought would take us closer to the object of our desire but which, as we followed them from one discovery to the next, led us to broaden our educations beyond the classroom and into the adult worlds of art, history, counterculture and, of course, more music.
I was quite affected by what she writes about being a music journalist. Shirley Collins ‘remains one of the reasons why music makes me write: because I want to tell broader stories about the people that keep us going through the storms that life creates’. How to ask those questions everyone wants the answer to ‘without sneer or snark’. How to do the job, but do it kindly, to have conversations that are cordial and respectful. Jude writes thoughtfully too about the impact of social media on the profession, the fans you inevitably upset and offend, whilst being a fan yourself, and so understanding why they take it so personally. In a memoir about loss, of course she explores how tweets, texts and emails combine to make a ‘virtual wake’ (‘Why We Grieve When Musicians Die’), with grief beautifully expressed as the ‘dialogue suddenly stopping when you don’t want it to’.
A quote from the author about The Sound Of Being Human explains ‘…when this idea arrived almost fully-formed a few years ago — the day after Mark Hollis from Talk Talk died, and a piece I wrote about the power of his music for the Guardian struck a nerve with many people — I realised it’s the book I’d had inside me all my life.’ I’m so pleased it’s outside now, and in print for us all to read.
‘The Sound of Being Human’ is out now. Signed copies are available in the Caught by the River shop (£16.99).