School of rock

Sting turned his fans on to Nabokov and the Special AKA alerted a generation to apartheid. Dave Eggers on how music makes you smart

Friday November 19, 2004
The Guardian

Musical muse … Sting (top, photo: Eamonn McCabe) and Dominique Swain and Jeremy Irons in Adrian Lyne’s 1997 Lolita

Since the advent of rock’n’roll, most teenagers and dumb people have learned about sex through music. This has been proved recently by some researchers somewhere. I won’t insult you by citing the exact study – you probably know the one I’m talking about. It was done in America. It was an excellent study. One of the very best.

The report’s chief finding was that music is highly educational and, like many citizens, I think a regular regimen of intense listening to the more literary or even pretentious songwriters should replace standard education. There is legislation in the works to this effect, and I entreat you to send your friends urgent pleas to sign email petitions that will be sent to our elected representatives and promptly deleted by their aides.

Six months ago I finally read Albert Camus’ 1942 novel The Stranger, and at last – this would be very funny to the gothier types from my high school – I connected the book to the 1978 Cure song Killing an Arab. Though the song has taken on unfortunate connotations, originally it was an innocent enough reference to an existential crisis that drives a man to kill a stranger standing on a beach. The effect on a generation’s reading was enormous. According to another study – this one with Dutch night-school students – legions of susceptible youth came to Camus via Killing an Arab, and it’s time we said thanks to those lyricists who, through reference or tribute, sent us to books, causes and the sweet cocktail of birth control and hot pants.

Music-as-learning-tool combines the three most potent sources of persuasion: a trusted voice, sublimity and endless repetition. In the 1980s, you could have read a wall of books about apartheid in South Africa, but none of them would have crawled inside your head as permanently as the Special AKA’s Nelson Mandela, Peter Gabriel’s Biko, or even Little Steven’s Sun City. Did these songs end the oppression of the black majority? Well, no, but music can make simple mantras out of complex issues, and with even the most tangential reference, artists can slip edifying messages into the most pervasive mass medium we have.

Though such allusions are probably considered pompous by some, the net effect – that thousands or millions of people are getting even a cursory education – is significant. The best recommendations come from a friend, someone you trust, and if that person has your ear for hours at a time, the effect is profound. It’s like listening to motivational tapes while sleeping (It works! It totally works!).

Because my junior-high self thought Sting was my spiritual father every new Police or solo album sent me to the dictionary, to my dad, or to the library. Because he was going to appear in David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune, I read the Dune novels. Because he bought the film rights to a series of books called Gormenghast, I tried, unsuccessfully, to read them. (Ridiculously dense books, and grim, too – but you’d like them.) Any mention he would make of anyone – scientist, writer, composer – commanded me to investigate, lest I be considered stupid and less like his forgotten son. And though his references now sometimes seem forced – or, say, awkward or affected or embarrassing – it was through him I heard about Mephistopheles (Wrapped Around Your Finger), Robert Oppenheimer (Russians), and the men who were “disappeared” during the Pinochet regime in Chile (They Dance Alone). Thanks, Sting-man!

When I was 14, listening primarily to music made by not-tough British songwriters – Aztec Camera, Prefab Sprout, the Smiths – my favourite artist was Lloyd Cole. His music was melancholy, crinkly voiced, understated and very smart. He had a Dylan-esque way with words, and had clearly read widely. I trusted him implicitly, wanted more time in his brain, and was ready to do his bidding, whatever he deemed necessary. It was while studying his first album, 1984’s Rattlesnakes, that I found Joan Didion. In an interview, Cole said the song Speedboat was based on Run River, her first novel. Feeling as if I’d been given a divine directive, I rode my Huffy down to the library and read the entire book, there in the back by the bathrooms, where the fast kids went to give each other hand jobs. Didion became a major influence on my young mind – I plowed through everything she’d written – and I still wonder if I would have discovered her without Cole. Either way, I thank him. I also wonder what the connection was between the lyrics and the book, because I’ve read both many times and – no offence to Cole – it’s totally goddamned unclear.

Back to science: I asked a random sampling of my best-looking friends for examples of how they were educated through lyrics. Their answers and anecdotes are below. To protect their privacy, and so I can make their stories more interesting, their names have been changed to those of male tennis stars from the 1970s.

For our poll’s overwhelming No 1 educational moment – cited by Vitas Gerulaitis, Bjorn Borg and Roscoe Tanner – we have to return to Sting, for his nod to the author of Lolita and Pale Fire in Don’t Stand so Close to Me. The song, about a young male high school teacher who can’t decide whether to accept the advances of a smitten student, includes the lines: “He starts to shake and cough/ Just like the old man in/ That book by Nabokov.” Never mind that Sting is mispronouncing the author’s name. Never mind that Humbert Humbert never shook or coughed. Either way, this innocuous and semi-botched mention brought thousands to a story about a somehow sympathetic paedophile in love – easily one of the best novels about twisted obsession, and maybe the best-written novel of the second half of the 20th century. Thanks again, Gordon S!

Borg also cites more recent examples: he says he checked out books on mid-century architecture after immersing himself in the White Stripes’ De Stijl. He brushed up on his first world war history after discovering Franz Ferdinand, and along the way discovered Franz Josef Land, a desolate island north of Russia. Le Tigre introduced him to a different kind of film-making through What’s Yr Take on Cassavetes, and he read Gore Vidal’s Dreaming War after a member of Radiohead (easily the best-read band we have) recommended it.

Rumour has it that the gruesome and perfect novel Perfume was the basis of Nirvana’s Scentless Apprentice, but for some reason, literary references are primarily the domain of British songwriters. Have American musicians, trying to stay true to the Everymanism of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, been distrustful of references, of anything approaching the putting on of airs?

One Smiths song, Cemetry Gates, brought John McEnroe, who is a woman, to the work of Wilde, Keats and Yeats, and might be responsible for her current poverty as she works toward a PhD in English lit. She was also a fan of the not-well-known Jazz Butcher, who wrote very literate and funny music in the 80s and 90s. Through him she was introduced to a creepy 40s actor (Peter Lorre), discovered an assassinated Swedish prime minister (Olof Palme), and, thanks to one catchy number (South America), memorised the names of most of the nations below Mexico.

Ilie Nastase’s opinions about wretched hard-ass former prime minister Margaret Thatcher were shaped by a pair of post-punk songs: the Beat’s Stand Down Margaret and Elvis Costello’s Tramp the Dirt Down, wherein Costello dreams, in grim, grim detail, of the day he can stomp on her grave. Nastase knew little about Thatcher before this – and still doesn’t know much – but finds himself enraged whenever he sees her disgusting mug.

Jimmy Connors says that reference-laden epics such as REM’s It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine) and Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire were crucial to his own brain expansion. The former brought his attention to Lenny Bruce and Lester Bangs, while Joel’s confused rant – which I recently heard on the radio in Sarajevo, translated into Bosnian, and it made only slightly less sense – brought on a long discussion of the cold war between Connors and his dad.

Connors has a friend who claims to have seen the 1945 movie Mildred Pierce because of the Sonic Youth song of the same name, which offers no insight into the movie. It’s almost entirely instrumental, though at the very beginning, a booming, distorted voice announces: “Mildred Pierce!” References like this, usually for comic effect, are the territory of They Might Be Giants, who are, as would be expected, cited by many, including Stan Smith and Borg. They thank TMBG for reawakening their awareness of the 11th US president (James K Polk), for reminding them of the chemical composition of the sun (Why Does the Sun Shine?), and for introducing them to a famed mid-century costume designer (She Thinks She’s Edith Head).

Arthur Ashe reports having no idea what Picasso’s first name was until he heard Jonathan Richman’s oft-covered Pablo Picasso. Ashe, also a woman, also didn’t know the painter was extremely short until Richman relayed it, which proves how ignorant Ashe has always been and remains. Maybe, though, it’s not her fault. She grew up in Montana and wasn’t allowed to listen to rock as a kid, but found eye-opening information in country songs, which were often much racier. She was schooled by Tammy Wynette’s D.I.V.O.R.C.E., and learned a good deal from Loretta Lynn’s The Pill, in which Lynn sings about wearing hot pants, seducing men and enjoying the results now that she has a prescription.

Through music one can learn about the world and its books on dead presidents, but most important, one learns about a misunderstood North American water-dwelling mammal. I have a friend whose real name is Windsor Beaver. Windsor is a very normal and charming woman originally from North Carolina, who works in magazine design and whose paternal grandfather is named Harry. This is all true. Many years ago, she was at a taping of Late Night With David Letterman and was picked to participate in a kind of quiz-show skit. Halfway around the world, an Australian punk band called Blister saw the show and wrote a song (Windsor Beaver) in tribute to her name. Since then, thousands of the band’s listeners have been inspired to research the industrious animal, and many have paid homage to my friend in their own way. In fact, another study, this one done in Adelaide, found that the most popular name for all Australian babies – of either gender – is now Windsor Beaver. Would this have happened without music? Never. Good job, music!

© Dave Eggers. This article was first published in Spin magazine.

Link to original article online

Publication: Guardian

Publication date: 19/11/04