It’s the spring of 1989 and over at the netball courts three girls from my class are working on a cover version of “Eternal Flame”. A few, pale-faced first-years are sitting on a wall watching with rapt attention as one of the performers falls to her knees in a passable impression of Susanna Hoffs, lead singer of the Bangles. The others face her, their wet-look gelled quiffs set quivering with the strain of their exertions. I stand at the far end of the court near the goal post, then go the long way back for afternoon register. There might have been four Bangles, but I wasn’t going to be the one stuck with the triangle.
For me, music has never been a group thing. Partly because you aren’t meant to like the kind I prefer. And also because music is tied up with my experience of grief. I’d spent much of the previous year in my bedroom, waiting for my father to die. Music was my hymn book. Guns N’ Roses were slipping back down the charts and the highest climber was a sun-kissed Jason Donovan with “Nothing Can Divide Us”. Kylie Minogue and Belinda Carlisle had a strong showing with their bouncy assurances that “everybody’s doing a brand-new dance, now” and that heaven was “a place on earth”. I clung to the relentless upbeat of Yazz & the Plastic Population, and the sunshine mix of Bill Withers. My father was still dying. New in at 37 was “Revolution Baby” from Transvision Vamp, all bleached hair and frosted pink lips. Anthrax had gone down two spots with “Make Me Laugh”.
I remember waking up to a sound. I could tell from the volume that my mother was standing somewhere near the airing cupboard, the one with the copper cistern wrapped in a red life jacket. The baby – my sister – started crying. I got out of bed. As a short, flat-chested 13-year-old with unfeasibly large feet, I spent a great deal of time thinking that I had nothing to wear. But that morning, I felt it more distinctly than usual. Neither the teen-advice columnists of Just Seventeen nor the matronly ones of Good Housekeeping’s “A Look for a Lifestyle” had covered the matter of what to wear on the day your father dies – painfully and messily, before his time, when you have a day of corpse-viewing ahead of you. In the end, I put on the black skirt that I wore for choir, a navy sweatshirt with an ersatz-Victorian plasticised floral bouquet on it and my best electric-blue loafers. The black tights were a mistake. It was going to be, as Bill said, a lovely day.
There was a funeral. A cremation. A return to school. And a fortnight later, my best friend Emily’s dad dropped us off at Rachel South’s bat-mitzvah disco. At multiple after-school practices Emily had patiently tried to teach me the double bounce in exercises of military precision, before performing her own version of “Flashdance” on the shag pile. I watched in awe as she leapt off an armchair in her Christmas leg warmers. As with most of teenage life, the anticipation of Rachel’s disco was more pleasurable than the experience. When we arrived, I made my way through the youth-club lobby, pushing the swing doors to reveal an underwhelming imitation of Kylie Minogue’s peppy “Locomotion”. Michelle Stevens and Laura Palmer had nailed their double bounce and Emily, wearing a mini-skirt over a pair of cycling shorts, joined their circle. I bided my time. Soon after hot dogs were served, the DJ put on something called “The Time Warp”. Everyone except me seemed to know that we were meant to line up in parallel. I went to the loo.
On the way back, David Clark’s friend asked me if I wanted to kiss David in the car park. (At these kinds of discos snogging people was usually contrived by the Cyrano de Bergerac method of seduction by proxy.) I paused. I hadn’t imagined my first kiss would happen in a car park. I didn’t really know David. I missed my dad. I looked down at my shirt and shook my head. In biology the next day, Michelle Stevens said it was highly possible I was frigid.
Much of the rest of the year was spent in my bedroom, brooding on this possibility. Over this period a different kind of love affair unfolded: my ongoing crush on a particular form of disco. My private auditory universe was full of the reassuring sounds of Stock, Aitken and Waterman, a British song-writing and production trio that confected hit after hit from the mid-1980s onwards: Bananarama, Kylie Minogue, Rick Astley. By contrast to the complexity and rage of post-punk new wave in the 1970s and early 1980s, that came before, and the resonant dissatisfactions of indie, grunge and Britpop in the 1990s, that came after, the pop music of the 1980s has been overwhelmingly dismissed as second-rate.
My favourites could be seen as the most dismal of all: a predictable assembly line of hits using the same chords, beats and sounds, each song reaching back to the last. This sonic bubble-gum was the only music I really tolerated and it gave me a dizzying high. But loving this stuff felt like a shameful secret. The popular girls were swooning over the translucent Goss twins, the next generation of cool, all black leather and cheekbones and pulsing key changes, or practising dance routines to New Kids on the Block, the boy band that birthed every other one you know today. My tastes were out on a limb. Three decades on, I feel much the same.
Music, wrote Schopenhauer in 1818, “reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality, and remote from pain”. But how? We know intuitively that the rapid synthetic beats of Philip Oakey’s “Together in Electric Dreams” have a different effect to the sonorous majesty of Elgar. Scientists have confirmed this by monitoring people’s brains as they listen to different music. Even if you take the sight of Jason Donovan in stone-washed jeans out of the equation, studies show that our heart rate, pace of breathing and blood pressure, a proxy for the arousal of our bodies, all soar in line with beats per minute. But no lab test can tell us precisely why. Our hard-wired responses to tempo have to be weighed against the moment we are in and the lives we have lived.
Perhaps the feelings that drive my own particular musical highs are a kind of ghost story. This brand of deathless pop has many spectres, not least the suited-and-booted trio that created the hits. Among the most successful songwriting teams of all time, Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman were famous both for the rate at which they worked and their production process. Artists raced in and out of their studio in London, mixed to within an inch of their lives. The process earned them more than 100 Top-40 hits in Britain – and international ones too – as well as a pile of cash and plenty of sneers. The trio countered criticism of their hit factory by likening their work to that of Berry Gordon who founded Motown Records in 1959, and produced greats such as the Supremes, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Motown also came out with records at speed and developed a house style, with different elements of the song laid down separately, vocals last. But their work continued to surprise, whereas the tunes of Stock, Aitken and Waterman offered listeners precisely what they had learned to expect. As critics said, Kylie Minogue didn’t so much have 18 consecutive Top-20 hit singles as the same hit 18 times over.
The sound I love, with all its up-tempo arpeggiated beats, has other ghosts too: its strains reach back to the countercultural world of gay disco. The original disco conjured a world of possibility and permissiveness. It was, for many, a temporary escape from the regular violence, both ideological and physical, they endured. But those who danced to and created the beats were soon to be under a different kind of pressure. Isolated instances of AIDS were recorded in the 1970s, but during the 1980s the number of people suffering from HIV rocketed. By 1987 between 5m and 10m people worldwide were living with HIV. For those in the midst of this crisis, disco was a matter of survival, resistance, lament and escape. When Stock, Aitken and Waterman packaged this sound into the palatable glittery disco of their early stars, much of its disruptive power was lost. But something about the original Hi-NRG vibe, with its defiant determination to live each day as though it could be your last, resonated with my child-shaped grief.
Music gave my emotions something to play with. In my secular, suburban London household there was no prescribed period of mourning or retreat, no set words with which to meet the experience of death. For the adults around me the bleakness of probate and clothes clearing and the other grim details of Death Admin filled a space. For a teenage mourner like me, there was nothing to do but everything to feel. Music was a way of measuring moments, just as it is for many teenagers, in many bedrooms around the world, as they negotiate adolescence. Perhaps the repetitive replaying of repetitive music is a way to smooth, replay and reinvent trauma in order to find meaning in it.
There was also something reassuring to me about the seeming superficiality of this music: it delivered the world back to me in simplified form. For a 13-year-old trying to ward off the messiness of life, this mechanised and managed emotion felt safe. Even the act of collecting it was helpful. Music may be intangible, but many of our audiophilic memories are distinctly tactile – as the recent vinyl revival and “cassette renaissance” show. I remember solitary acts of musical self-harm, messing with the brown tape ribbon, shiny as a conker: pulling it out as far as I dared, then using a pencil to wind it back in, or pressing my fingers into the sharp corners of the tape boxes, piling them up on my desk. There was a calming power in such small acts.
Composure was a watchword. In the months after my father’s death I barely spoke about it. By day I was the teacher’s favourite, the bereaved child who never stopped smiling. I was the girl who was chosen to read Edith Sitwell poems in assembly, who was seated next to the guest speakers, the girl who knew the textbooks inside and out. Occasionally I spoke some words of automated grief. There was a brief chat with a teacher. Another with a friend. A visit to the school counsellor, who held court in the sports-equipment cupboard that smelt of plimsolls. I proffered My Dead Dad at parties when pressed for conversation, much like any fact in one’s social CV, not quite on a par with having been to see George Michael – but still, something to say.
By the early 1990s, everything felt different in Britain. Poll-tax riots. Britpop. Preparing for university. Rick Astley and Kylie were stowed away under my bed, along with my teenage diaries. I wore an oversize men’s v-neck jumper, or a lumberjack shirt and black velvet mini-skirt. Most Saturday nights I fake-ID’d my way into clubs where I skipped around to the folk rock of the Levellers and drank Newcastle Brown Ale. I liked neither very much, but that was hardly relevant. Standing near the back of a Primal Scream concert at Brixton Academy, at last a properly cool band at a properly cool venue, I knew that I was listening to something deemed to be good. But I felt strangely apart from the wave of emotion in the room. I missed the security of the music from my hidden stack of pop hits with their neat chord shifts, their settled electric pulse.
Rationally I can see that the music of my teenage years is nothing special. My compounding of pop and grief is an accident of timing in my life. These songs affect my mood and physiology so much because they were the soundtrack for my teenage bereavement, an effect amplified by some compositional trickery and aching suspensions. We all have our own versions of these: I like the careless whispers of Wham!; you like the swirling romanticism of Mahler. It’s autobiography plus technique. But rationality and musical nostalgia don’t mix. The music that shapes our teenage years, the time when our brains are most synaptically alive, isn’t about thinking but feeling. And that means that the most surprising of grooves may carry an aura of profundity.
There’s a risk of bad faith about this misty-eyed reminiscence. The 1980s was the age of legwarmers and pop tarts, but it was also a period of idle racism, sexism and overt homophobia. Nostalgia is a powerful emotional – and political – force that often eclipses and blurs darker truths. It can reflect a desire to restore and reconstruct an imagined past world: a rose-tinted version of the 1950s is the go-to era for many Brexiteers, but the 1980s can be packaged and commodified too. Watch the working-class brass players in “The Full Monty” and the realities of austerity smooth into a plangent but wholesome narrative arc.
But still, I cling on to my Stock, Aitken and Waterman years as more than retromaniac kitsch. Dead Dad aside, the music of my teenage years allows me to remember what I have lost. Listening to the music of my teens brings me closer to the emotions of my adolescence, emotions that, for all their confusion and pain, also had the power of vivid emotional defiance and energy. We live in such an ironic age, a time where everything is emotionally hedged, where satire and sarcasm pervades every tweet and meme. But when schoolchildren around the world were striking about climate change this year, that struck a chord. It is this aspect of nostalgia, the recognition of our personal force-field, that is both backward looking and progressive. That feels worth hanging on to.
Such a vision of childhood selves – my own and others – may seem impossibly romantic, sentimental, even clichéd. But things that are sentimental can be worth defending. Clichés have a certain beauty and are a useful shorthand for emotional expression. And cliché can also be the language of community. If there are no words adequate to the circumstance we face, then an explicitly inadequate, communal language can feel like a better fit. And with cliché, much like a pop sock, one size fits all. At certain times, 119bpm of Kylie is the only thing that cuts it. Better the devil you know.
Out of the kitchen window, my husband and children are playing. My daughter is performing a dance routine on the grass. Her version, I think, of Little Mix’s “Black Magic”. She has my hair and my eyes. The scene plays out, a cine movie unfolding. The same, but different. Loss never goes away, of course – and sometimes, at a distance, pain comes into sharper focus. The frame freezes as my eyes fill, and I press play on my laptop. Kylie Minogue tumbles into the kitchen with unstoppable force, the spectral glide of her voice like an ambulance circling a bouncy castle, panic held at bay by the regular pumping bass. The happy-ever-after message of these melodies is, at heart, unbelievable. Incredible, even. But the lightness is a kind of protest against the greyness of things, and the siren of loss. It gives us a world, just for a moment, where things can be otherwise.•