So there’s already a forthcoming biography of Whitney Houston planned and early this year witnessed the disgrace that was the Big Book of Bieber. Recent years have seen a saturated music biography genre bulge with publications like One Direction, Amy Winehouse, and David Essex. Rihanna’s biography last year was ‘massive’ (apparently) in its shocking tale of childhood abuse, and even old legends like Ozzy Ozbourne and Keith Richards are getting in on the act of bringing out more books about their present and past. Indeed, music biographies are now amongst the most popular of genre filling the shelves ofBritain’s stores and households.
It’s about time then that Bard and Muse posed the question, what, precisely, is the popularity of music biography books all about? Good question I hear you chant- well, yes it is.
It’s tempting to think these books promise to reveal hidden secrets of the superstars we love; secrets we already sensed lingered deep within their souls, but secrets we need the confirmation of the printed word to finally lay to rest. After all, musicians are bound to be tortured souls aren’t they ( there have been seven Jeff Buckley biography’s in nearly as many years), or wild hedonists, or mental cases- and all the sordid and depraved details of their childhoods will be spilled out in ruthless detail by these books.
Clearly there is something about music biography’s popularity that involves revelation; a step-by-step story of the men and women behind their music image, from the mundane details of boy band’s whose industry-led rise is devoured at Christmas time by teenage girls, or the sobering sadness of tales of individual greatness, such as the popular Nick Drake and John Peel recent biography.
But the greatest appeal of music biographies owes something to the distinct mediums of music and books in themselves. When we see our favourite artist at a festival or a gig or on television, we see them briefly, we see them raw or we see them painstakingly choreographed, and we see them momentarily; albeit at their loudest and proudest. But what we don’t see are the curious details of lives, the story of spats and rifts and self-abuse and pain; the agony and ecstasy. We don’t see the hours of practice, the early days of being in a band, the tide of their fortunes, from early breaks to final bust-up’s. We get all this and more with books. We get the full story, warts and all, and for those desperate to seize every possible detail of their favourite artists, we get the reward too.
But do we? All this presupposes that music biography is a high-quality genre of books. It definitely isn’t. Clearly there are many cynical publishes seeking to bring out biography’s of artists who barely deserve a headline in a local paper. Then there’s the writers of these biographies’s, probably an estranged boffin who dedicated himself to learning every facet of a band’s existence and is looking to cash in on otherwise rather superfluous knowledge. And then of course there are the motivations of the artists themselves; having someone write your biography seems a great way to balance the books of all those expensive studio sessions and tours. It’s also a great way for the families of deceased artists to trade off on the memories of their prodigal sibling.
What is most frustrating about the music biography genre is the hurried feel that a lot of them seem to possess; many are poorly written or exclusively special interest. Few deserve their bestseller status, but this doesn’t stop more and more pouring onto the shelves. And whether you love them or hate them, it looks like every band worth their salt will have a bestselling biography if current trends continue.
Before there were horror stories, comedies, biographies, memoirs and adventure novels there were, back in them olden days, plain old books. What! But what kind of books! Well how am I meant to know?
Well actually the only available read was probably the Bible (part adventure, part betrayal, part tragedy, part inspirational…..) So, as the world modernised, its literature became increasingly categorized, though its difficult to credit the translating monks of medieval abbey’s contributing much to the thrillers, slashers and chillers section at Waterstone’s.
No, for our contemporary craving for genre categorization is a peculiarly modern phenomenon; in books, films, music, you name it, there’s a hybrid inter-genre blend just around the corner.
But is it really helpful? If we see any combination of books under the ‘WW2’ genre, do we immediately think, guns, death and blood? Yet books about ‘WW2’ could be about anything; a tale of refugees, of concentration camps, espionage, heroism, tragedy- any number of tales of conflict, adventure and love set against number of wartime background’s. The book could be from the perspective of either gender, from any age, from any country, from any narrator. Yet the reader, without further exploration, is only informed about, quite probably, the book’s most crude feature of categorization. What is common about these books is not their genre, which is often merely background setting.
Initially, genre labelling was presumably meant to direct us, lo and behold, from idle ramblings around the book shop. We must presumably already know what we are in the mood for when we enter a book shop, just like a DVD store. But even now with browse-based, internet-book ordering, online categorisation is instant, user-friendly and receptive to a few buzz words of genre, embellished only with a few sentences of description for those who bother to read the blurb of individual books.
So is it really helpful? Is genre a neat tool to negotiate the pitfalls of excessive, nondescript books. Hmmm….. And does it do the author a disservice? Probably.
Perhaps the most frustrating feature regarding genre is its inflexibility. A book which has elements of two genre’s, becomes a hyphenated mishmash or a brand new genre title which is relatively meaningless to the reader. Do we know anymore about the difference between a comedy and a romantic comedy, except that the former probably doesn’t end up in marriage or a relationship?
The memoir genre is a prime example of book categorization gone out of control. With many of Britain’s book stores conceding to celebrity and quasi-celebrity genre’s, ‘impulse buys’ now reflects the outstanding impatience in both the demand and supply of contemporary books, from publishers to purchasers.
Genre has also seen categorisation based on increasingly superficial lines; those same book stores and websites have ‘Russian Literature’ now all collected together, from Dostoevsky to Bulgakov, regardless of the novel. ‘Classics’ of English literature, now essentially means anything produced before we were all born.
For readers, genre-labelling seems to disguise as much as it directs, to restrict as much as it liberates. It inherently makes comparisons with other novels within the same genre and can only embellish on the attributes of any particular book by describing new themes of genre. Come on, give us some credit.