"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."-Anonymous
I was thinking this week about the uses of music in fiction, because I’m currently reading Haruki Murakami and he uses jazz in his books like Woody Allen does in his movies. It makes sense—if I remember correctly, Murakami owned a jazz club before he became a writer. Maybe he still owns a jazz club. But he’s a writer who seems to always have a soundtrack going. There’s the classical music in the beginning of “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” and the acoustic guitar in “Norwegian Wood.” These aren’t just briefly touched upon; these are essential to the novels. And more than that, I think there's an expectation that the readers have at least a basic knowledge of the bands or the songs involved.
So I was wondering what readers think of using music in books: is there a time factor involved, or a level of cultural saturation that needs to be reached before music should be included in fiction? Is it okay to use the Beatles but not Pavement? Where is the threshold? To me, it would seem that the key is how ingrained into the culture the music is--the Kinks are a band that most people know, while a reference to MC5, a band formed at the same time, might not register with as many readers because they never got to the same level of popularity outside of Detroit.
My thought on it is a lot like Stephen King’s thought about the use of brand names in his books: “Do you look in the medicine cabinet and see blank bottles?” Similarly, do you turn on the radio and just hear music? No, you hear the classic rock station, or George Clinton, or Neko Case. To ignore that seems inorganic to me. I use music a lot in my writing because it's an important part of my day--to forget to include music would be taking some truth from the stories I'm trying to tell.
But running counter to this is the possibility of becoming dated. If you write a story featuring some band that briefly flared up only to become a minor pop culture touchstone, your story is going to suffer from being a story of that moment. It might distract a reader from the flow of that story if they have to wonder who the hell you're talking about, or what genre the music is in.
So my questions for today: what are the best uses of music in fiction that you've read? And what are the worst?