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'Down with Childhood' - a review

Sheila Chandra - Monday, September 11, 2017

I have to admit, this is going to be a rather personal and emotional review of this book. But I hope it will be helpful to readers despite that…

 

A masterful, and comprehensive understanding of the way childhood has been used to represent both ‘innocence’ and the fall of innocence in pop music

 For anyone interested in this subject it’s a joy that the author undoubtedly knows his stuff. In ‘Down With Childhood’ he takes a chronological journey through the many musical genres that have either used children’s voices, or drawn on children’s literature or nursery rhymes, to evoke the changes that the concept of ‘innocence’ is undergoes at that particular point in popular music culture. He deftly points out what childhood is being used to express for fans about their own lives – whether escapism, or degeneration or despair.

He goes further, and frames that ‘innocence’ as a construct in the very first place – putting it in the context of the changes in labour laws, the division between leisure and work, and rightly, pointing out that an ‘innocent childhood’ has always been the preserve of those who are relatively privileged.

His description of the recordings and genres he references is masterful. When illustrating the sound of tracks I knew well, I instantly recognised and mentally recreated their rhythms and timbres. And that gave me confidence in his descriptions of tracks I didn’t know at all. Describing music in words – and doing it well – is indeed a rare talent.

 

Many eras and genres, and the role of the concept of childhood in each

This ‘putting the concept of childhood (in pop music) in context’ is the meat of the book. And the author leads us through various ‘scenes’ – from the surreal evocation of the perfect Edwardian childhood (in the 60s), via the escapism and hedonism of ‘endless rave’ culture (in the 90s) through to the unravelling of childhood itself – indeed a denial that ‘childhood innocence’ ever existed – in the ‘Hard Knock Life’ of Jay-Z. He has the talent of almost making you feel you were there.

I wanted to state all this because it’s obvious that the author, Paul Rekret, absolutely knows what he’s talking about. At both micro, macro and the historical context level, he displays an easy knowledge of and understanding of his subject, that can only come from a thorough familiarity with the subject matter. He switches smoothly between detailed descriptions of tracks to the wider social contexts of the scenes and eras they appear in. He effortlessly mines the common subconscious for connotations both of children’s voices and rhyme as well as our notion of childhood itself.

 

But I must confess that this book drove me crazy on first reading

I’ll admit up front here, that I don’t have a degree. But what I do have is an enquiring mind. I love to read non-fiction books that make me drag my eyes from the page – as much as I’m enjoying the subject – and stare into space for 10 minutes while I get my head around the implications of a point the author has just made. This book made me stare into space alright. But not because I was thinking of implications. It was because I couldn’t understand what the author was saying.

 

And why?

Well in the first place, I think this book suffers from a ‘framing’ failure. Neither the title nor the back copy frame clearly enough what the angle and scope of the book are. At least they didn’t for me – as someone who casually picked this book up. Even the subtitle of the book, although better, is somewhat ambiguous. And so I couldn’t be absolutely sure why I was reading it, other than a vague sense that I would like the subject matter.

The other thing is, I really didn’t get on with the author’s ‘voice’. And when you’re not sure what the point of a book is, or which ground it will cover and which it will exclude, that makes the whole thing excruciating to read. In fact, the whole impression I got, was of this book being rather like an instruction manual written for someone who basically knows how to operate the item concerned anyway, i.e. it makes sense to the expert who wrote it and would to any expert who reads it, but doesn’t to a novice.

 

It’s a question of accessibility

Maybe the author is writing for an academic audience. Maybe he expects his reader to know many of the concepts and points he’s making when he refers to other cultural analysts and philosophers. Maybe he’s simply recombining known arguments to build a bigger case. All these are possibly valid starting points when writing a book.

However, I’d make the following point. One of the authors starting points is 1982 with a child act hit − ‘Pass the Dutchie’ by Musical Youth. Now this interested me because I was there. I was in the charts in 1982 as a sixteen year old (although not presented as a ‘child’ and therefore not part of the cultural territory this book explores). And as a child actress prior to that, who was part of a (then) controversial BBC TV show (Grange Hill), I’ve since become intensely curious about how our concept of childhood is manipulated by popular culture. In other words, I’m prime reader fodder for this book, although I may not be the person it was aimed at. And yet the author made it incredibly difficult for me, because the book included no proper summary of arguments at the beginning or end, the language was self-consciously (and I suspect smugly) over-complex, and the sentence structures were criminally convoluted. Yes, I got the feeling that the author was having fun – but I wasn’t.

Most of us are not employed by academic institutions and do not have time for this sort of self-indulgent stuff. Nor are we interested in buying books that simply make us ‘look clever’, but that we never read. Many of us read a lot on the web. And the web has had a huge influence on what the average reader finds palatable – and not just because we’ve been ‘dumbed down’. What reading on a screen (and the resulting eye strain) has forced writers to do in order to compensate, is more obviously signpost their points with subheadings, shorten their sentences, and avoid convoluted clauses. And that’s no bad thing.

It’s a very good thing, in fact. Because it means that educated people, making important arguments, are forced to present them in a way that’s accessible to any curious mind – rather than only those that have been squeezed through the ‘pasta machine’ of academia. This is what a disciplined writer has to learn to do, and it’s an important and democratising point. Why shouldn’t the day-to-day consumers of popular music culture enjoy reading an analysis of that culture? Why isn’t this book written in such a way that will allow them to?

 

To be fair, I think this book could have been better edited

I note that the author regularly broadcasts his essays on radio. And perhaps that gives him a false sense of how his voice appears on the page. If I’d heard him read this book, no doubt many of those ‘unintelligible on first reading’ sentences would have made more sense. But that’s something it’s an editor’s job to correct. An editor should have the mental distance to be able to say ‘Go away and halve the length of all your sentences – and then add the proper number of commas to them…’.

Don’t get me wrong. There were some gems of sentences. Short, yet complex and beautifully expressed. But I didn’t have brain strength enough for them after struggling through the almost ‘paragraph-long’ ones that came before. Perhaps the editor was too dazzled by the strengths of the book, or even its self-consciously academic tone, to see all this. The inaccessibility of this book made me furious though – can you tell? The writer made me feel unqualified to read an analysis of an era and experience I’d actually had myself…

 

And regarding ‘scope’…

The scope of this book is very clear. It keeps to its territory. But as with other books that have made me think, I found myself wishing it had gone further. It may be an unfair thing to ask of an ‘objective’ academic writer, but I found myself wishing that there was a whole other section to this book, cataloguing what the experience of actually being one of the many child artists the author talks about, was like. Their undoubted exploitation would have made for an achingly bittersweet and cruel contrast to the ways in which ‘innocence’ and an idealised childhood were being presented for the purpose of selling records. But that’s just a personal interest. I can’t fault the writer for not delving into that subject.

 

In short…

If you’re interested in how childhood has been presented and used in pop music, to express various states of optimism, hedonism and despair, then do read this book. It’s a beautifully informed analysis. But get your mental machete out before you start, so that you can cut through the ‘verbage’.

 

Down With Childhood – Pop Music and the Crisis of Innocence’ (published by Repeater) is out on 21st September 2017.

 


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