Jude Rogers’s The Sound of Being Human begins in January 1984. She is five years old and standing at the front door of her parents’ house in south Wales. Her father is about to leave for what should be a routine hospital surgery. He’ll be gone for five days – a lifetime for someone that young. Still, five days. Like him – because of him – she loves pop radio. The new Top 40 will be announced the following day. “Let me know who gets to No 1,” he says. He died, just 33, a couple of days later. Years go by, decades. Often, at moments she can’t anticipate, in ways she can’t always grasp, she finds herself caught short, lonely.
Music becomes a crutch for Rogers. A community – or at least a notion of one. She thinks about the songs she and her father shared. The songs they might have shared. In pop she discovers father figures, fantasies of escape, ways to feel less unmoored. She grew up in small towns before the era of the internet. Pop seemed miraculous then, a kind of abduction. She chances upon a copy of Smash Hits – all funfair colours and splashy exclamation marks – in a local newsagent: “It lifted me above the red-tops, the black-and-blue Biros, the duplicate receipts books, the faded toys on the carousel, the sun-blasted birthday cards, the old boxes of penny sweets.” She progresses to buying REM bootleg tapes from a grimy record fair held in a hotel showroom “next to the market that sold polystyrene pots of cockles and laverbread”.
Later, Rogers starts writing about music for the Llanelli Star, much-missed fanzine Smoke: A London Peculiar, the Word magazine (started by former Smash Hits editors). She’s not interested in hyping up the new, new thing or in being cool – she likes Yazz as much as Atari Teenage Riot, Kylie Minogue and Boards of Canada. Her sentences are warm, enthusiastic, hugs from a much-missed friend. She recalls throwing a pair of knickers (with Biro’d phone number) at Jarvis Cocker, dancing all night to Kraftwerk, Orbital and Daft Punk at Tribal Gathering in the late 1990s (high, not on speed or ecstasy but coffee and an egg bap), breaking up with a boyfriend at Digbeth coach station to the soundtrack of David Essex’s A Winter’s Tale.
At the heart of The Sound of Being Human is Rogers’s hunger to find out why and how music has the power it does. Her chapters take the form of “tracks” – among them Abba’s Super Trouper, Shirley Collins’s Gilderoy and Talk Talk’s April 5th – that serve as cues for learning about music’s ability to detonate memories, feed self-expression, help in parenting. She also racks up hours at the British Library and speaks to sociologists, psychologists, neuroscientists, anthropologists. They, in turn, talk to her about the brain’s subcortical structures, dopamine pathways, synaptic connections, the anterior cingulate cortex. Few of them speak with the punchy eloquence of musician Richard Norris, who says he loves a meditative drone because “when your brain’s concentrating on one thing, it’s probably cutting off something, isn’t it?”.
Rogers is alive to pop’s giddy powers, its ability to intoxicate and unreel. She even mentions a neuroscientist who used an MRI scanner to show that the same parts of the brain are aroused by music as orgasms. At the same time, she values music for the ballast and security it can provide, form in a world that seems formless, hope in a darkened heart. Her favourite song, she says, may well be Martha and the Vandellas’ Heat Wave: “The joy I find in Heat Wave is its cycle of doubt and delight, worry and wonder. In the chorus, Martha sings about not being able to stop crying, but sounds like she’s almost relishing that release.”
It’s been for ever since I read a book less jaded about music than The Sound of Being Human. There are no scandals here. Scant mention of streaming or business. Instead, music is treated as a balm, a torch of memory, an Esperanto of the human heart. Music education in the UK, long underfunded and more buffeted still during Covid, needs an ambassador; Rogers, so contagiously ardent, would be perfect.