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A youth spent obsessing over pop biographies

A youth spent obsessing over pop biographies was the basis for a life of information-digging

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In the ensuing years, the pop memoir has blended with the Twitter climate of familiarity through oversharing. John Taylor recently recounted his cocaine-rimmed blurry ’80s through the pleasantly entertaining looking glass of recovery (In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death, and Duran Duran), landing him an unexpected worldwide bestseller. Last year’s Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir found the kooky wailer rambling about her checkered past, abortion included, riding the hair-color hit parade down to its inevitable nadir. Blind ambition has a price.

But what becomes of the seemingly unambitious who find themselves swept up into the swish of the hit parade? Everything but the Girl singer (and solo artist) Tracey Thorn brilliantly addresses that conundrum in her new memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Popstar. For much of the book, Thorn breezily – though sometimes archly – chronicles a Top of the Pops material world of ’80s excess and what it looked like from the sanity sidelines. It wasn’t so much that Everything but the Girl weren’t trying to be successful – indeed, they did score several chart hits in their prime – but rather that they didn’t want to play along with the puppetry of sell-out social climbing. They were tenuously connected to leftist politics, playing benefits for the Labour Party and crafting indie bedsit dramas with a thumbed-nose jazz approach.

But even that ambivalence wouldn’t spare them indignities. In 1985, Thorn and partner Ben Watt (who wrote his own medical memoir, Patient, in 1996 after nearly dying of a rare disease) were recruited as “delegates” to play to students in Moscow.

“Before we went on stage a magician performed, in top hat and tails, pulling doves out of thin air,” Thorn writes. “Then a woman in a pink evening gown came on to introduce us, her long speech in Russian referring to two famous names of English pop: John Rotten and Tracey Thorn.”

By the mid-’90s, following Watt’s brush with death and an artistic low, the band’s career found new life in odd places. First, Thorn guested on a Massive Attack song, “Protection,” then Todd Terry remixed their 1994 acoustic single “Missing” into a dancefloor anthem, selling millions of copies and landing them near the top of the charts around the world (it reached No. 2 on the U.S. charts). The odd appearances began anew; the junkets were beckoning; U2 called upon them to be openers on their tour. Fearing the consequences, Thorn declined. A decade later, Thorn bumped into Tennant at a party – in my pop memoir world, everybody goes to the same parties – and discussed the idea of yet another go at notoriety.

“[Tennant] immediately asks what I am doing these days ‘with my lovely voice,’” Thorn recalls. “‘Shouting at the kids,’ I answer. It’s meant to be wryly funny, but comes out sounding like Waynetta Slob. He looks dismayed.”

These little pieces, the seemingly mundane details that plague even the most glittery life: These are the bits that matter, and these are the books that taught me to look for them.

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