8 Jul

At the risk of betraying myself as the pseud I so patently am, I’d like to begin this post by referring to a higher authority;

Shortly after fleeing Germany for Paris in the late 1930s, the Jewish writer and academic Walter Benjamin wrote an essay entitled (my affectations don’t quite reach as far as quoting the original German) Unpacking my library. In this engaging and, in hindsight*, tragic article, Benjamin examines his bookshelves as a way of summarising his identity. According to him, whatever the respective relationship between the library and its owner, the important thing is what he or she chooses to display; this tells us about how they desire to be interpreted as a text, and thus their aspirations in terms of being judged objectively betray more about their true character than they might specifically intend.

I am a pop music geek. I make no excuse for this. I am, as Alan Partridge might say, sad. While I admit that no pop music (with the possible, retrospective, exceptions of early Elvis, psychedelic-era Beatles and Straight outta Compton-vintage NWA) has had the same cerebral cultural impact as, say, Plato’s Republic or Benjamin’s own Passagenwerk (let’s forget what I said about affectations), I sincerely, utterly believe that an individual’s record collection is, in the latter author’s terms, as important, if not more so, in defining them both in terms of self-perception and in unmasking their delusions.

Take me, for example. My father has a record collection as comprehensive as that of anyone who has spent more than half an hour of their life in a music store. As a result of this, I never had an imperative to buy the classics– I grew up in the age of the CD burner. I spent my pocket money keeping bang up to date with the pop developments of the last decade, from Pete Doherty to Paris Hilton, shopping mainly at Soho’s Sister Ray and Reckless and Newcastle’s Steel Wheels, places where a teenage wannabe with time on his hands could find cheap promo copies of pretty much anything, often before it was actually released.

I moved to London, taking only a select volume of CDs with me, and every Sunday bought something new; I was pretty sure it appeared casually cool; an Elvis Costello record or two, the first Strokes LP, and a dazzling array of trendy dance music. In truth, though, its screams of self-consciousness could be heard from as far away as the South Circular. It was a bunch of around 60 discs so studiously chosen that it could have propped up a window display in Rough Trade**.

To paraphrase Iggy Pop, it was in the summer of my twenty-second year that I suddenly realized I was alone, and there wasn’t a hell of a lot I could do about it.

I had been living in the same West London apartment for over three years, and was due to move to Paris within the month. For some reason, I became convinced that I was going to die before leaving. I began by making daily trips to Fopp Records at Cambridge Circus, buying up all the music I had hitherto plundered from Warde-Aldam snr’s alphabetically ordered shelves. Finally, I was in legitimate possession of the albums I’d grown up with- Leonard Cohen’s I’m your man, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Pulp’s His’n’Hers. My CD rack (not to mention my burgeoning identity crisis) swelled beyond its capacity, and despite the fact that Fopp was unloading these “classics” for £3 or less, even my budget for gin and fags began to contract.

Whatever the psychoanalytical implications of this consumer binge, my music shelf succeeded in communicating to a young Japanese photographer who passed by in my absence that I was a male in my early 20s, the spawn of tasteful parents, and rather too prone to faddishness. In short, my attempt to present the real me to my guests was an unqualified success.

 Individual pop cultural taste tells us a lot about a person; books have been around much longer than recorded music, and as such conform to a more universally accepted form of snobbery. For example, no self-respecting pseud would include the Da Vinci code on their bookshelf, even in the name of postmodern irony. Their record collection, however, might follow the Specials with the Spice Girls, or Wham with the White Stripes. Don’t get me wrong, the prejudices of pop are no less fervent than those of literature, but crucially, the canon is less concrete. There are metal snobs, soul snobs, techno snobs. Being a podgy thirtysomething hip-hop geek is now as acceptable as being a podgy thirtysomething film geek. This is the acid test; you might find yourself dancing to Mariah Carey without shame at a party, but would you ever accept the consequences of being seen reading a Geoffrey Archer novel on the bus?

I am perhaps not the best person to be writing about this; my top ten records of all time include the Fireman Sam theme tune, Aqua Marina off Stingray, and Whigfield’s Saturday Night. I have arrived at the last base camp of pop snobbery- not yet ready to accept Queen or the Red Hot Chilli Peppers as anything other than proof of evil, but willing to accommodate pretty much anything else as worthy of inclusion on a self-consciously “eclectic” mix CD.

Behold my record shelf, ye hipsters, and despair…

 *Benjamin was forced to flee Paris in 1940, perishing in mysterious circumstances close to the Spanish border. Whatever the cause of death, this was to be the last time he unpacked his books anywhere. Both the whereabouts of his library and his likely opinion of Cheryl Cole’s solo career remain unknown. 

**Where today I had the pleasure of purchasing the new Horrors LP four days early. Cool, no? No. Anyway, review to follow shortly…


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