LAVINIA GREENLAW, the British novelist and poet, remembers the first time that pop music let her down. Like many surly English teenagers in the late '70s, Greenlaw was entranced by Joy Divison's Ian Curtis -- a gangly, disturbingly intense singer whose morose lyrics were matched by his pained gyrations onstage.
But when the epileptic and severely depressed Curtis hanged himself in 1980, leaving behind a wife and child at age 23, something snapped in Greenlaw's heart. As she writes in her new memoir, "The Importance of Music to Girls," "I realized he was not [Goethe's] Werther, but a man in pain. I wasn't twenty-three but seventeen, and I was a girl."
For Greenlaw, Curtis' suicide was a lesson in how music shapes a person's identity but can't erase fundamental truths about who they are. "Music has a dangerous sense of grandeur. It was a mistake in thinking that this man was an impossibly glamorous, tortured artist," Greenlaw said by phone from her home in London. "In many ways he was, but I didn't understand what that meant until he hanged himself."
In time, Greenlaw saw how such revelations signaled the turning points of growing up. They inspired her to write a memoir that would demonstrate how music can rescue a young girl from the sicknesses of adolescence while it also, in the end, becomes only a shorthand for the true challenges of young adulthood.
The memoir is laid out chronologically in vignettes of Greenlaw's life as an adolescent pop fan from the '60s through the '80s. There's the adorable (how the decision to be a Donny Osmond fan warranted the utmost seriousness at age 10), the poignantly musing (do girls who like boys in suits love the Jam, or did Paul Weller make skinny ties hot on guys?) and the genuinely rueful (when a friend overdoses on pills and Greenlaw wonders what music can cure a coma). As in her novel "Mary George of Allnorthover," the minute details of an Essex village teenager's life take on an almost fantastical quality through fine-bore reminiscences.
"I was writing this awful torrent of memoir and decided the only way to make anything out of it was to focus on specific memories so precisely that they opened up into something about broader experience," Greenlaw said. "I tried to not make it about my growing up with music but about anyone growing up and how music can formulate that for them."
"Importance" isn't stridently about being female, the way that a Nick Hornby or Chuck Klosterman book can feel like it's aggressively about nerdy boys. Greenlaw's insights, like the particular relief she felt in gender-neutral insults like "punk" as opposed to "slag," come off as nuanced realities.
"I really didn't intend to write a book about the whole girl aspect at all," Greenlaw said. "But it became a book about how I tried to be a girl and how I was really bad at being a girl and had to in the end give in and accept that I was a girl. I was quite naive that I didn't foresee that it would be cast as some sort of counterblast to men writing about music."
What "Importance" does do is show how pop music is a perfect vessel for a teenager to explore an ever-shifting sense of self. Greenlaw's perpetual horror at her own record collection every time a genre goes out of style is a recurring joke. And a self-conscious episode when her ironic punk fashions are mocked -- she's in America, visiting friends, at the time -- is an example of a post-'60s social climate in which young women reaped the benefits of feminism but weren't quite sure what that meant for them as individuals.
"I thought it was possible to not be a girl, to just 'be.' My generation grew up in the '70s thinking the war between sexes was over and won," Greenlaw said. "I thought I could be exempt from the whole gender thing and didn't really notice that I was the only girl in the record shop hanging around in my raincoat talking about Martin Hannett and the digital delay on Joy Division's 'Atmosphere.' "
"Importance" ends in the '80s, and a lot has changed in the interplay of gender, sexuality and pop music since then. Younger readers who grew up with Missy Elliott's avant-garde bawdiness, Liz Phair's lo-fi breakup wisdom and Paramore's feminist revision of stadium emo may wonder why Poly Styrene and Debbie Harry were such particularly inspiring figures for Greenlaw.
Jessica Hopper, a Chicago-based music writer currently writing a field manual for teen girls starting rock bands, notes the "glut of nostalgia for that era of music" coming largely from male writers and critics like Michael Azerrad and Simon Reynolds, who are documenting the punk and post-punk era. "We owe it to girls today to give a full picture of how it changed women's lives" as well, Hopper said. "Someone will always say, 'But Kira Roessler was in Black Flag.' People pass off exceptions as if they were the rule."
A universal bridge