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Confessions of a female music anorak

She's never played air guitar, doesn't keep her records in alphabetical order, and she won't make you look at her collection of Dylan bootlegs. But Karen O'Brien still counts herself among a rare breed: the female music fanatic

SOME WOMEN meet men, start chatting and get asked for their phone numbers. Me, I get asked for my favourite Bob Dylan album. A friend tells me that it is one of the all-time great chat-up lines. I think he's just trying to make me feel better. My contention is that men ask that question, not as an ironic code for "are you mad for it?" but because they truly want to know, they want to exchange opinions on the Basement Tapes and the Manchester Free Trade Hall gig. And they're surprised that they've found a woman who's not going to glaze over and fall asleep or throw an Alan Partridge-type tantrum and shout, "stop going on about Bob Dylan. You're never going to meet him!"

Those men know they're in the presence of one of a small but perfectly formed group of women who eat, sleep and drink music, who are reclaiming that least cool of sub-species, that object of pity for the tragically hip: the Anorak. Say it loud: "I'm a Trainspotter and I'm proud".

From childhood, music has been my consuming passion, and unlike for many women, it didn't end with the hormonal haze of adolescence.

As to the vexed question of aural sex, I'm told it's perfectly possible to fall in love with a man who has no interest in idiosyncratic singer- songwriters, left-field indies or retro rock; it's just that I've never done it.

I know women who compile lists about men, grading the contents of their prospective partner's psyche, trousers, bank account and genetic inheritance. My own version of that is simple. If you could have either a or b, choose:

1. a) all of the Spice Girls or

b) Joni Mitchell;

2. a) Pamela Anderson or

b) Laurie Anderson;

3. a) Courtney Love or

b) Suzanne Vega.

It may not be everyone's idea of a compatibility test but the results speak volumes to me.

Nick Hornby did not invent the music anorak with High Fidelity; he just out-ed and marketed us and our home-made compilation tapes and top-five lists. I unashamedly deconstruct liner notes, haunt record fairs and buy CDs based on who the producer is. But unlike many of my Hornby-esque male counterparts, I've never played air guitar, don't keep my records in cross- referenced alphabetical order, have no desire to become a musician or display the "mine's bigger than yours" attitude to a collection of bootlegs.

Sean Body, of London's specialist music bookshop Helter Skelter, says women are not as obsessed with detail or as prone to the stalker mentality as men tend to be. "It often seems like an egotistical thing. Some male writers or fans would rather be the world's biggest fan of a particular artist, seeing that as an end in itself, and a creative act. People may say that the amount of time one would spend cataloguing and poring over the minutiae probably leaves less time to go and live a life, because their own life is dedicated to poring over the ashes of someone else's.

"Women, on the other hand, make room for music in their lives rather than try to have a life around the music. Whether they have children or not, there's always something central pulling them back to their own life. Often men lose track of that and they do fixate on someone else's life."

Helter Skelter has defied predictions that it would become a boys' anorak paradise, and of the 20 per cent of its customers who are women, most are dedicated fans, writers or music professionals.

Sisters under the Anorak-skin, inspired by the music itself rather than an image or fantasy, are fans like me and musicians like Caroline "Nevi" Ross, guitarist and singer with Delicate AWOL. Ross has played in bands from the age of 12 and believes that while men can indulge their musical obsessions, women often feel excluded. "A lot of women think `I could be into music but that's my husband's or my boyfriend's thing. I'm going to define myself through fashion or books, or family or the home'. Women just have so many other ways of defining themselves".

There are two theories about my passion for music. I am either a deeply sad person who should just get a life or someone for whom music is such an integral part of existence that I can't imagine its absence. I'm opting for the latter. It is, as Anthony Storr argues in his book, Music and the Mind , because music possesses the capacity to restore our sense of personal wholeness in a culture which requires us to separate rational thought from feeling, that many people find it so life-enhancing. What a joy it would be to live in one of those cultures that has no word for music because it is inseparable from all aspects of life. Or one in which men ask for both your phone number and your favourite Dylan album.