Once again I’m excited to boast of my upcoming reading at The Soundtracks Series where I’ll be telling a story about a song by Operation Ivy. I’ve done a fair amount of scribbling on this East Bay Punk band in the past, including an interview with the lead singer Jesse Michaels, but this coming Thursday’s story will be far more personal. If you’re not familiar with the series you should check out their website and podcast. I particularly recommend this installment by Hold Steady front man Craig Finn about the Velvet Underground song Afterhours.
This got me thinking, how can you bring this up your column this week without it coming across as shameless self-promotion? Answer: you can’t but you can be charming about it. It also got me thinking, what place does music have in my writing life? The answer is multi-faceted and this week we delve into those facets, take them out, clean them off and make them look pretty. For more on my Freelance Life check out my blog or follow me on Twitter.
Music in Your Writing
Elvis Costello once said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” In other words, it’s futile to even try and capture the essence of a song via prose. It’s the same reason why writing song lyrics can often be a lot easier than writing prose. I’m sure many songwriters will disagree here, but they’ve probably not done much prose writing.
In a lot of my earlier short stories, I included music as a signifier, as a sort of hook for the reader to hold onto when sometimes swimming in a sea of the unfamiliar. You might be writing a book about a hit man, exploring a world that is alien to most readers, and having him walk into a bar where Elton John is playing on the jukebox can serve to ground your reader in the familiar. Similarly, it can be a sweeping character development tool. For instance, in Homeland, we’re often reminded of Carrie’s affinity for jazz music as a general signifier of how next level intelligent she is; we don’t understand jazz and therefore we don’t understand Carrie’s brain.
The thing is, sometimes using music in this way can feel like cheating. Instead of taking the time to describe the music a character is listening to, we call it something everyone can recognize and move on. Ultimately it’s a choice. Some people pull it off and other don’t. My general advice is that you have to go all or nothing. This is as true with music as it is with anything that is time-specific. For instance, Bret Easton Ellis uses musical references in almost all of his books. Most recently in Imperial Bedrooms, he drops a reference to “Hungry Like The Wolf” as a man walks into an ominous, debauched party scene, and it works, it adds to the creepiness. In American Psycho, he drops endless references to songs, fashion designers, and celebrities of the early 90s. Will that serve to pigeonhole his work to the time he wrote about? Will his work only emerge during brief periods of 80s and 90s fetishization? Only time will tell.
If you’re going to choose to mention an actual song or band, it’s rather important that it have a very specific purpose, one that you can say, (out loud) to yourself. Otherwise you should be mentioning every cultural artifact in your book specifically, like American Psycho, from music, to movies, to clothing brands, to famous people, employing it as a device for characterization. In American Psycho Ellis uses cultural artifacts as a device, a way in which his character fills his own void. However, if you’re filling a void in your storytelling ability by merely referencing a song as a quick fix, then you’re doing your work a disservice.
Certainly people disagree with me, and if so, I’d love to hear some other thoughts on this below.
For a fantastic blending of these two worlds, Largehearted Boy does a series called Book Notes, wherein he asks authors to essentially pick a soundtrack to their novels. Check out this installment from a recent favorite novel of mine, Julliann Garey’s Too Bright To Hear Too Loud to See.
What You’re Listening To
Whether or not you can listen to music while you write is different for everyone. Personally, to listen to music while I’m writing it usually has to be something that would bore me to listen to if I weren’t writing: instrumentals, classical, or movie scores. Certain coffee shops, you’ll find employ especially jarring pop songs, or death metal, to clear out all the folks who are working on their laptops, and it’s effective. I personally use music as a treat for myself. I will listen to audiobooks and podcasts almost non-stop, and then once all of my work is done for the day, I’ll reward myself with some music. Although, I find that too much talk (audiobooks, podcasts, etc.) can be detrimental if I’m on my way to a social gathering. You get used to having people talking around you and not participating.
New Music for a New Year
With the New Year just behind us, you may have noticed the slew of music lists crowding the internet from bloggers everywhere, including this sweet playlist from our own David Chiu. Each year I try to read all of these lists and listen to the albums that are the most ubiquitous. This year, I can confidently say that there were some releases that a lot of people missed. Check out these overlooked albums or listen to the Undersung Heroes of 2012 playlist we put together . But note, Jeff Rosenstock is not on the playlist.
Hop Along: Get Disowned This album is like Fiona Apple’s fantastic new record, with a bit more umph.
Friends: Manifest Everybody is obsessed with neo-R&B and don’t get me wrong, Channel Orange was hands down 2012’s best record, but most people missed out on this Brooklyn based island-style R&B band who sound almost like a updated TLC.
Matt and Kim: Lighting The Brooklyn duo gets better with every album and remains one of the most entertaining live bands out there.
The Heartless Bastards: Arrow This alt country/rock band will soon be on everybody’s radar.
Jeff Rosenstock: I Look Like Shit Even though he did one of the versions of “Little Boxes” on the last season of Weeds, Jeff Rosenstock remains Brooklyn’s unsung hero of the local music scene.