In this week's Pop Is Not A Dirty Word, Douglas Greenwood reflects on how some musical affiliations supersede taste and fashion
When you lose someone, you make a conscious effort to remember every silly thing they expressed an interest in before you had to say goodbye. You begin building a body from your memories: an intangible one, formed of every film they loved, book they read, or song they sang in the car. These things are often sentimental and agonisingly uncool, but that doesn’t matter when they remind you so perfectly of someone you don’t have anymore.
I had to do that when my mother died 15 years ago. I was eight years old, so I didn’t know the names of many of the books she read, and the films she would watch barely sprung to mind (for the most part, I was too young to watch them with her). But I remember the music so clearly. The songs that came before her diagnosis. The ones that pulled us through it. The ones I found solace in after she’d gone.
Because of my age and my mother’s unpretentious tastes, these songs didn’t tell prolific, existential stories about life or grief. They weren’t wrapped up in folky allegory or dressed up in a kind of impenetrable production. She was a mother of three kids who listened to the radio in the car. No matter how hard my dad (a jazz obsessive) tried to push things on to her, art snobbery wasn’t really her thing.
And so Dido always sticks in my mind as the woman who marked my mother’s happy moments and my own ones in mourning. Her 1999 album, “No Angel” was described by NME in a two-and-a-half-star review as “music for people who buy one CD a year”, and they were right in my mother’s case. For what felt like 12 months, between it impacting in the UK in early 2001 all the way into summer of 2002, those 12 tracks were all I heard when I was plonked in the back seat of her car. I never knew what lured her to it, nor why it was so significant to me as a kid beyond the point that I heard it loads. But she loved it and so I did, too.
Nowadays, that record’s proudly melodramatic love songs haven’t aged for me. ‘Here With Me’ is seared into my memory (“I won’t go, and I won’t sleep, and I can’t breathe / Until you’re resting here with me“), and still does something strange to my insides. The sweet delivery of the chorus of ‘Thank You’ will never fail to make me smile. To one person, the track list of ‘No Angel’ might read like a ‘how-to’ reference guide for mundane mainstream pop for the masses, but I can’t ever shake the image of my mum clutching the steering wheel and warbling along to it.
Over a year had passed since No Angel broke out in the UK when she announced the release of its follow-up, 2003’s “Life For Rent”. By this point, my mother had already fought cancer and succumbed to it in the space of six months. Dido’s music, once melodies and words I barely knew the meanings of, suddenly gained a new kind of clarity. The first song from that record, ‘White Flag’, was released exactly a month after she passed, and it stirs a bittersweet sadness inside of me still. I always look back on one line in it that discusses a messy love rather than familial one. Hearing it so soon after she’d gone, I wondered if it had been placed there by some higher power, offering me some catharsis: “And when we meet, which I’m sure we will,” Dido warbles, “All that was there, will be there still“.
In my head, I’ve imagined a world that had that song and my mother in it at the same time, but I realise now that was just me wishing she had been the one to show me it. Now, whenever I hear Dido’s name, I’m not reminded of the way her songs left critics with a sour taste in their mouth, I remember the way it moved my mum in a way that was so visceral, and yet innocent and sweet.
My young memories of this mumsy music star have survived in my head, unwaveringly so, for a decade and a half, and it’s nice to not be ashamed. That’s the power of music, I guess: that context can transform it, and that cynical critics can put their shame aside and appreciate something – not for its technical qualities or deft handling of songwriting – but for the fact that it can take you back to a better place, if only for a few short minutes.