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Buddha Suburbia Hanif Kureishi Essays

The Buddha of Suburbia Glossary

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An area controled by someone


To hate something


To compliment someone on their achievement


To feel sorrow for others


To be giving


to lack


A build up of something

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Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 The Semantics of Music

3 Pop Music and Hanif Kureishi

4 Cultures, Subcultures and Music

5 Charlie, Music and the Quest for Self-Fulfilment

6 Summary

7 Literature

1. Introduction

Issued in 1990 Hanif Kureishi´s novel The Buddha of Suburbia has become a world-acclaimed masterpiece ever since. It´s protagonist, Karim, takes the reader on his riveting journey to discover and explain life of the seventies in and around London. The author masterfully depicts the multiple cultural facets this time had to offer and creates a plot replete with stories of ethnicity, class and gender. However, one element seems to be of peculiar importance in its reoccurring implementation within the story – music. This paper is intended to examine the element of music and attempts to determine the role it plays within the world Kureishi illustrates.

In order to fully grasp the element of music within the book it will be necessary to have a wider look on the phenomenon first. How can music in a most general sense be described and what makes it such a meaningful subject matter for scientists of linguistics, philosophy and anthropology? In a second step the paper will try to find reasons why Kureishi might have decided to use this motif at such length and what messages he tries to bring across.

However, the major part of the paper will, of course, be dealing with the novel: What are the major themes that are related to music? In how far is music affiliated with the broad spectrum of culture that Kureishi draws in his book? What subcultures can be detected and to what extent are they influenced by music? The single most intriguing aspect connected to this issue is the character of Charlie. That is why his odyssey through a life so profoundly determined by music will be especially focused on. What effect does music have on the decade of his life pictured in the novel? What stages does he go through and what does the author provide the reader with in order to interpret Charlie´s decisions, the development of his character, and his final state at the end of the book.

Although The Buddha of Suburbia will be the main source of the investigation, the articles of Bart Moor-Gilbert and Sussane Reichl, which discuss Kureishi´s novel, will be consulted, too. Moreover, various monographies and papers dealing with the issue of music and culture will also be substantial to the examination.

2. The Semantics of Music

When it comes to examining music within The Buddha it is necessary to have a closer look at this particular phenomenon, i. e. music, beforehand. As music “seems to have been with homo sapiens from the beginning,”[1] and must be regarded as one of the most dominant anthropological constants – in a phylogenetic as well as an ontogenetic sense – it is of little surprise that it has been the subject matter of many scientists throughout the course of history. Claude Levi-Strauss highlights the significance of music by saying: “(…) music itself [is] the supreme mystery of the science of man.”[2] Although his statement seems to be hyperbolical it cannot be denied that it functions as one of the most powerful cultural constituents of any given society. No matter whether music is produced to express an individual´s feelings by softly humming melodies to his lover, whether it is used to accompany a tribal initiation procedure, or whether it is “ab(used)” to indoctrinate people with a certain kind of propaganda at a political rally, tunes take part where people interact.

According to this supposition it can be concluded that music “is situated in (…) locations that are a product of complex intersections of culture,”[3] and generally “originates and resides in the social and cultural worlds of people.”[4] Some even claim that it helps to precipitate the lately developed concept of transculturality – the idea that “everything is within each;”[5] thus, on the level of music, various “hybrid forms” which express the merging of cultures.[6] But before getting to grips with culture and music within The Buddha, it needs to be elicited in what way music actually “works,” what does it express and how?

When Barthes claims that music “speaks but says nothing,“[7] he leads us on the right trail of understanding the difference between music and language. Although music consists of both lyrics and tunes, it is the latter which is of predominant interest for researches. It is the unique character of the “speaking” melody which sets music apart from language. If a song is stripped of its lyrics, the remaining component, the sound, still holds an incredible potential of expressing meaning only by itself. To elucidate this point, it should suffice to point out to the example of Jimmy Hendrix` instrumental version of Star-Spangled Banner. Without adding any words of protest his rendition of the US national anthem, interrupted by disturbing, almost shrieking guitar chords, is still regarded as one of the most profound criticisms of US society. Thus, it can be deduced that “meaning in music is (…) immanent to music´s sounds.”[8]

When music, i.e. its sounds, “speak” to us our natural response is not immediately given by means of words or even sentence structures, it is feelings which are evoked and which instinctively generate a pre-lexical state of mind in accordance with these incoming sound-patterns. It is a code other than language which gives input and communicates meaning on a level much harder to conventionally define than a specific set of vocabulary. Nevertheless, it can be said that “music acts in relation to the emotional world in the same way that language acts in relation to the propositional world of objects, events and ideas – symbolically.”[9]

Having arrived at this point, de Saussure’s model of the sign should be called back to mind. It consists basically of two components, which cannot be separated from each other: the signifier (the sound pattern) and the signified (the image evoked). The random linkage between those two elements must be regarded as arbitrary by origin (a priori); it became inseparable, like two sides of a medal, by convention and tradition (a posteriori).[10] The idea brought forth by many linguists is now that music essentially works the same way, with one crucial difference: Although tunes function as a sound pattern, i.e. a signifier, which invokes thoughts, feelings and ideas within the listener´s head, the notions which are signified are not nearly as fixed and standardized as it is with words (sound patterns) of a language. Therefore, the sound patterns of a song are part of a polysemic sing, able to bring about many different ideas.[11] It that holds true, if images are seemingly randomly conjured, can the term sign actually be applied to that phenomenon? Julia Kristeva and others would approve, because, according to their thesis, the process of signification within music is determined by “the framework of the cultural system” in which the song and its interpreter occur.[12] Hence, it must be concluded again that music cannot be investigated detached from its cultural background; the analysis of one must necessarily take into account the investigation of the other since both are inseparable entwined. These interim findings must be taken into account when a novel like The Buddha, loaded with culture in its manifold manifestations, is about to be examined. In his novel Hanif Kureishi displays a unique understanding of the significance of music on the cultural and individual´s level, which is about to be elucidated in the following chapters.

3. Pop Music and Hanif Kureishi

Kureishi´s affiliation to music cannot only be assumed by taking a closer look at all the references to bands and artists he implemented within The Buddha but also by contributions of him to collaborations like the tome The Faber Book of Pop, which was co-edited by him. In one of the introductions to the book he expresses his belief in the fundamentality of pop music as an, at least to the sixties, entirely neglected “method of communication.”[13] Ignored by the elites, it became a powerful instrument of young people’s self-awareness and identity.

The novelist highlights the impact of pop music as a new element juxtaposed to established forms of culture. Kureishi points out to the energy progressive pop and rock bands set free and how these vigorous waves of individuality shook the spirits of those who felt let down by elites writing neither about nor for them. A new instrument of protest had been created; ready to be used not merely to detach oneself from the detested tenets of overcome ideologies but also to attack these very principles their fathers and mothers had been preaching. Kureishi considers pop music as the liberating factor, which enabled young adolescents to finally have a voice that would lay claim to lives of their own, lived by their designs and decisions. Another aspect he points out to is the accessibility of this new phenomenon. Anybody could enter this world of freedom and become part of its movement, regardless of gender, ethnicity or background; only the individual´s volition would matter. Moreover, it was not just passive participation; everybody could contribute to the character and the nature of its message by making their own music, creating art forms which were linked to it, or just simply screaming out the lyrics which dared to loudly express what used to be a grumbling whisper.[14]

It is thus no coincident that The Buddha portrays young men and women who, despite all their differences, share a spirituality, longing and discontent which, consciously or no, attaches them tightly to pop music. The novel simply could not have worked without youth. Kureishi believed to have found the origin of all this inner turmoil, which was set free by pop music: “It sprang from a momentary but powerful impulse: teenage sexual longing.”[15] – another important theme the author implements within his novel in order to stress the young folk’s restlessness and search for self-fulfillment. The linkage between those two, sexual drive and music, is prevalent throughout the entire book; a connection Shepherd and Wicke also indicate to: “(…) music comes to have a special relationship to sexuality as a consequence of its special association with the unconscious.”[16] The “soundtrack,”[17] as Susanne Reichl calls it, is thus cautiously set into and interlinked with other facets of youth culture, which all together generate a credible atmosphere of the main protagonist`s forlornness.

Hanif Kureishi is aware that “pop is a form crying out not to be written about,” because it is “sensual, of the body rather than the mind.”[18] Yet, he felt what potential music holds for a novelist to explore. It is in a large part due to his decision to utilize music and all its cultural implications that The Buddha of Suburbia feels real, that the reader identifies not only with the protagonists but also with the time he depicts – a form of nostalgia but without the embellishments it usually implies. It seems that Kureishi, as maybe the first litterateur, understood pop music as what it is – a phenomenon born from and belonging to youth.

4. Cultures, Subcultures and Music

“It seems that poems and songs of protest and liberation (…) preserve their truth in their hope, in their refusal of the actual.”[19] With these words Marcuse put the peculiarity of protest songs in a nutshell: they are made to introduce an outlook towards future, they are the manifestation of the refusal of the status quo – one of the major principles of the Frankfurt School. This philosophy was particularly influential during the seventies, the setting of The Buddha. Thus, it does not seem coincidental that “after 1968 music came to be regarded chiefly as a medium through which the revolutionary message might be conveyed.”[20] Hence, Music acts as mirror through which youth culture, the predominant origin of protest especially at that time, can be detected and examined. In other words: “(…) important changes in musical styles have paralleled important changes in social and cultural (…) life.”[21]

Therefore, when contemporary outlooks and spirits are about to be analyzed within Kureishi´s novel, one must take into account his musical references as a guide which leads the reader through the lifestyles of the 70s. When Karim explains the impact of the latest Rolling Stones album, it displays the young folk´s readiness to let go of everything that attaches them to civilized society: “(…) the lads went crazy. They threw off their jackets and ties and danced. I was on top of my desk! It was like some weird pagan ritual.”[22] – an incident which might have taken place many times during the play of rock band records shouting out messages which automatically set free the listener´s subconscious. Moments later Karim expresses what could be regarded as the epitome of the contemporary zeitgeist: “I wanted to live always this intensely: mysticism, alcohol, sexual promise, clever people and drugs.”[23]

Theodor Adorno and others criticized popular music heavily, stating that it reduces human behavior, like Karim´s table dance, to “die Reaktionsweise von Lurchen.”[24] His disapproval reflects once more Adorno´s revulsion at anything that even remotely unifies human thinking and generates processes of group formations. Although it might raise the legitimate question of when subculture ceases to exist and mainstream culture is born, he misses to take into account the quest for identity an adolescent undertakes. “Perhaps it is the odd mixture of continents and blood, of here and there, of belonging and not, that makes me restless and easily bored,”[25] is Karim´s first contemplation the reader encounters. One could be tempted to answer him: “No! It is not your unique background that makes you suffer. It is these many thoughts and ideas which circle around the word perhaps that make you young boys and girls feel gone astray.” Along with this pursuit of one’s belonging it is necessary to reject what you certainly do not want to be affiliated with, an ex negativo definition of your own culturality so to speak – this is the point where protest is born.


[1] Tim Murphey, Song and Music in Language Learning (Bern: Peter Land, 1990) 94.

[2] John Shepherd and Peter Wicke, Music and Cultural Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997) 9.

[3] Robin Ballinger quoted in Ian Peddie, “Introduction”, The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest, ed. Ian Pedding (Burlington: Ashgate, 2006) XVI.

[4] James Lull, “Popular Music and Communication. An Introduction”, Popular Music and Communication, ed. James Lull (London: Sage, 1992) 2.

[5] Wolfgang Welsch, ”Transculturality – the puzzling form of cultures today“, Spaces of Cultures: City, Nation, World, eds. Mike Featherstone and Scott Lash (London: Sage, 1999), 194-213, 24 Feb. 2011 <http://www2.unijena.de/welsch/Papers/transcultSociety.html>.

[6] Cf. James Lull, “Popular Music and Communication. An Introduction”, Popular Music and Communication, ed. James Lull (London: Sage, 1992) 18.

[7] Roland Barthes in Daniel K. L. Chua, Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning (Cambridge: CUP, 1999) 123.

[8] John Shepherd and Peter Wicke, Music and Cultural Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997) 11.

[9] John Shepherd, “Music as Cultural Text”, Companion to Contemporary Musical Thought, eds. John Paynter, Tim Howell and Richard Orton (London and New York: Routledge, 1992) 132.

[10] Cf. Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics (London: Routledge, 2002) 18 ff.

[11] Cf. John Shepherd and Peter Wicke, Music and Cultural Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997) 20 f.

[12] Cl. Julia Kristeva, Language the Unknown: An Initiation into Linguistics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989) 309.

[13] Hanif Kureishi, “That´s how good it was“, The Faber Book of Pop, eds. Hanif Kureishi and Jon Savage (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995) xviii.

[14] Cf. Bart Moore-Gilbert, Hanif Kureishi. Contemporary World Writers (Manchester: MUP, 2002) 115 et seq.

[15] Hanif Kureishi, “That´s how good it was“, The Faber Book of Pop, eds. Hanif Kureishi and Jon Savage (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995) xix.

[16] John Shepherd and Peter Wicke, Music and Cultural Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997) 58.

[17] Susanne Reichl, “Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia. Performing Identity in Postcolonial London”, A History of Postcolonial Literature in 12 ½ Books, ed. Tobias Döring (Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 2007) 139.

[18] Hanif Kureishi, “That´s how good it was“, The Faber Book of Pop, eds. Hanif Kureishi and Jon Savage (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995) xix.

[19] Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969) 33-34.

[20] Leon Hunt, British Low Culture. From Safari Suits to Sexploitation (New York: Routledge, 1998) 119.

[21] John Shepherd, “Music as Cultural Text”, Companion to Contemporary Musical Thought, eds. John Paynter, Tim Howell and Richard Orton (London and New York: Routledge, 1992) 128.

[22] Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia (London: Faber and Faber, 1990) 14.

[23] Ibid. 15.

[24] Theodor Adorno und Max Horkheimer quoted in Roger Behrens, Ton Klang Gewalt. Texte zu Musik, Gesellschaft und Subkultur (Mainz: Jens Neumann Verlag, 1998) 22.

[25] Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia (London: Faber and Faber, 1990) 3.

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