“We are our stories, and our stories are us”: a reflection on the 2019 Words Matter lecture

Erin Byrne reports back on this year’s Words Matter Lecture, delivered by Dr Fraser Mann.

By Erin Byrne 


The Words Matter lecture is a highlight of the Autumn semester here at York St John University, as one of our lecturers takes to the stage to offer an insight into their work and research.

This year’s Words Matter lecture was delivered by Dr Fraser Mann on the topic of music, storytelling and selfhood. The lecture was funny, compelling, and thick with theoretical speculation on the nature of music literature and the methods we use to preserve and relive our memories. The research in this area was completed by Dr Mann in collaboration with his colleagues Dr Rob Edgar and Dr Helen Pleasance, and their book on this topic, Music, Memory and Memoir is available in the library if anyone wishes to read more.

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To Dr Mann, we are made up of musical moments and memories. Over the course of the lecture he explored the ways in which musical memories are collated, through autobiographies by the likes of Patti Smith and Viv Albertine, and in the smaller, simpler acts of buying a vinyl record or making a Spotify playlist. We are the collators of our own life materials; it is not possible to pin down a memory that exists only in sound, so we use physical, tangible memorabilia as a way to revisit and revel in those musical moments in time. Our homes, says Fraser, are scrapbooks. Shelves full of records, band t-shirts crammed in drawers or shoved into the back of wardrobes. They don’t only represent The Cure or Primal Scream, but rather a moment, a snapshot of our social, political and emotional leanings – the way we identify ourselves and find our place in the world. We are our own curators; we are narratives in progress.

The lecture opened with tales of some of the bands Fraser had been in as a teenager – Stone Death (yes, it does sound like Tone Deaf) and the strangely named 13.5% Extra Free – in true teenage subversive-but-not style, after a promotion on cans of lager. In Fraser’s words, ‘it was a rubbish name- because it was too long to write on a pencil case, or on the back of a toilet door’. He talked about the rise of Top of the Pops and how it led to him buying his first band t-shirts and, from there, identifying people at school who had the same musical interests as him and forming lifelong friendships. In his words, ‘those long-haired friends from school are now my old, bald friends I meet in the pub’. This all led up to a discussion of the nature of nostalgia.  

Nostalgia has become monetised in such a way that we are mutating into the products ourselves. Fraser used the iPod to discuss this idea – how the iPod Classic, with its sleek design and its pleasing navigation wheel, is no longer being manufactured. It has become a device of the past. The wheel on the iPod had a kind of tactile, physical pleasure that record players also had – they have, alongside the record player and the cassette, become ‘old-school’. Musical nostalgia is ubiquitous- every person alive will have memories attached to a piece of music. This makes it a valuable marketing ploy, as we all are seeking to escape the (as Fraser put it so beautifully) ‘total shit-show of contemporary living’. The nostalgia industry, as Fraser says, ignores the complexity of subjective memory, boiling it down to a t-shirt, a coaster, an 80s themed club night. They reduce us to stereotypes and, in the interest of a sliver of escapism from the dystopian hell of the 21st century, we sort of… let them. We are, we should remember, more complex than the simplistic binaries the nostalgia industry tries to impose. This is not to say, ‘don’t buy that Joy Division coaster’ but more ‘be aware that you are more complex than Rupert Murdoch thinks you are.’ (Fraser’s words, not mine).  

The hold of the nostalgia industry also manifests in never-ending farewell tours from bands like Kiss and Black Sabbath. It is easy to be cynical and assume these bands do reunion tours purely as a money-grabbing exercise. Fraser used the Pixies 2004 reunion tour as an example of one of these tours that wasn’t just a cash-grab. The leaders of the band had a volatile relationship and so every night had a kind of jeopardy. Will tonight be the night they fall out? The tour had an element of narrative intensity, which Fraser described as ‘nostalgia with an edge’. This was the transition into how this all relates to the realm of literature.  An early form of music (specifically punk) literature was the fanzine, with its unique visual identity and DIY spirit, painstakingly and passionately created with not much more than a pair of scissors, glue, and access to a photocopier. They were graphically chaotic and a form of aesthetic resistance, mirroring the resistance and subversion of the punk movement as a whole.

Music memoirs, just like fanzines, revel in their process. They are, to Fraser, an act of resistance against the industrial simplification of memory. Music memoirs wear their sutures openly, and gladly expose and celebrate the limitations of their own form. They are chaotic and unreliable. Dr Mann demonstrates this with the first line from Viv Albertine’s autobiography Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. ‘Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke. I’m a bit of both.’ Albertine shows no claim of authority or authorial obedience. She is confrontational in her individuality, she is making the process of her story-writing visible. Much like a lot of punk music, with its screeching microphone feedback and crashing drums, music memoirs communicate the methods of their own composition. They are metafiction. Music, Fraser tells us, resists narrativization- it eludes most attempts to pin it down. This is why we buy objects like records; they are tangible and help to add shape to the shapelessness of sound. They make our memories of music from years past something we can hold in our hands and alphabetise on our shelves. Music memoirs do this as well.  They resist the rational linearity of most literature, because they live in the strange in-between of the worlds of sound and narrative language. In today’s world, the powers that be are raging a culture war, an us versus them mentality of ‘the things I like are better than the things you like’. Music memoir openly resists these simplistic binaries, and remind the world that people are more complicated than this. The storytellers of music memoirs have agency, and a voice, and just as their stories are valuable, so are the stories of groupies, roadies, sound engineers, concert goers, playlist makers. And so are ours. In Fraser’s words, let’s enjoy that.

I can only apologise that this post was so long, but I wanted to give this year’s lecture the post it deserved. I will end by saying thank you to Dr Fraser Mann for such an enlightening, funny, and compelling lecture. Roll on next year!