New Times,
New Thinking.

Michel Faber’s tin ear

The novelist’s arresting study of the power of music is marred by a clumsy structure and snobbish tone.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Listen is not an ordinary book about music. Michel Faber makes that clear from the start. “This book will not do for you what other books about music will do for you,” the novelist declares. It “will not help you bond more securely with the artists or genres you’re already bonded with”, and “will not confirm your cleverness or good taste”. Instead, Faber says, he is interested in bringing his readers closer to understanding why they relate to music at all.

What follows is a disjointed yet often fascinating series of musings on the ways in which music appeals to us – though he leaves the “why” element of his thesis mostly untouched. Best known for the Victorian melodrama The Crimson Petal and the White and the science-fiction novel Under the Skin – both of which were adapted for the screen – Faber was born in the Hague and has lived in Australia, Scotland and Kent. His music tastes are disparate: he loves the experimental post-punk of Wire and the Birthday Party, the acclaimed jazz of Miles Davis and the Australian electronica of Severed Heads. He despises the English 1980s act Spandau Ballet.

[See also: The rise and fall of the British music press]

To chart music’s effect on our lives, he visits a hipster-filled parent and baby “Miniature Music Makers” class held in an “artsy” Folkestone café, where he considers whether babies in the womb could really hear the Mozart symphonies their well-meaning parents played them. Later, he watches a YouTube video of an elderly man who has dementia. The man sits, mostly silent, “staring dully” in his care-home room, until he is played familiar tunes from the 1940s and his eyes light up. The music stirs him to speak and he even scat-sings in imitation of the American jazz singer and bandleader Cab Calloway. “Speech is a pushover, but the music in us is damn near impossible to kill,” Faber concludes.

There is an entertaining chapter about the damage that can be done by overexposure to music. For six years Faber has had tinnitus, a “metallic squeal” only he can hear. “The ultimate in contemporary absurdity is a concert where the performers and the audience are all wearing ear plugs,” Faber observes. Elsewhere he examines why he is unable to love classical music, despite his best efforts. He comments that whereas pop rewards originality, “classical music punishes deviation from an established norm”. He comes to see prestigious orchestras as “nothing more than tribute bands”. 

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For all these arresting views, Faber’s tone is often unappealing. “You are a confident reader – confident enough to tackle a substantial book that’s not a rehash of stuff you know already,” he writes near the beginning of Listen. He may as well have written, “I am an arrogant writer – arrogant enough to think that my readers are a cut above.” and then goes on to say almost that: “Up to a quarter of people in the UK have ‘very poor literary skills’. The percentage who can manage the occasional undemanding thriller or celeb biography but who steer well clear of a book like Listen must be much higher still. If you’ve made it this far, you’re already exceptional.” This kind of praise is barely veiled snobbishness, and contributes nothing to his theme.

Faber is right to point out that, historically, the large majority of writing about music has been by and for men. His willingness to challenge that is commendable, but his method grates. “Females often relate to music in ways that male music critics find baffling or contemptible. If you have ever felt the chill of that contempt, I hope the atmosphere will be a bit warmer in here,” he writes. (Even worse than the dehumanising use of “females”, elsewhere in the book Faber employs the archaic term “handmaiden” to describe women in R&B.)

His approach assumes that the problem of under-representation lies in inherent differences in the way women respond to music, rather than in the misogynist outlook that has dominated music writing for so long. But my response to music is a human one, not a female one.

[See also: Corinne Bailey Rae’s radical return]

Faber is also right to address the dominance of white, anglophone artists in popular culture. In his chapter “Different Strokes for Different Folks”, he observes that until 2020, when Rolling Stone revised its list of the 20 best albums ever made, the records typically deemed the worthiest of all time were almost entirely by white artists. In an attempt to challenge this, he interviews “half a dozen non-white people I know personally or have met in the course of my researches for Listen”.

The transcripts of those interviews follow. Interesting details come out of the conversations, including the musician Art Terry’s explanation of the industry’s “songwriter takes all” structure, which goes back to the 1920s, when white producers set up a system that would allow them to claim all the royalties from black performers. Faber makes “no grand scholarly claims” about his statistical sample. But grouping “non-white” listeners in their own chapter, however well-meaning, is a clumsy attempt to include people of colour that only serves to further separate them from the main narrative.

The author seems to be somewhat conscious of this. “I’m aware that this chapter is long,” he writes at its end. “It was an obvious candidate to be cut when my editor and I were hunting around for things that could be cut.” Throughout the book, Faber often references his original 249,000-word manuscript, of which Listen is just a part. It feels as though he is disappointed that he had to cut so much: one wonders whether he really believes in Listen as a finished product. I share Faber’s endless fascination with the power of music to affect human lives – but I was relieved that this book wasn’t any longer.  

Listen: On Music, Sound and Us
Michel Faber
Canongate, 368pp, £20

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[See also: The strange corporate rebirth of NME]

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