Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: Dancing About Architecture

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."

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?


Huntronik said...

sup john?

interesting ideas. i hadn't given this any thought prior to reading your post. i'm a musician living in new york, and i love pretty much all music references in literature. its funny that you mention king because he refers to lcd soundsystem's album "the sound of silver" in it. i thought that gave it a lot of life somehow. it made it seem real.

originally, i was going to say an act should release an album to be referenced in writing, but then i thought of the countless acts that released outstanding singles but never released albums. perfect example:

this kind of jam is not only a great song, but i feel strongly that it doesn't really mark the era it comes from. yet its super obscure, which kind of means its begging to get referenced so people can find out about it. thoughts?

John said...

I definitely agree about the great obscure single having the potential to be a really interesting reference point. I'm working on something about 1960s girl groups and the difficulty of navigating the mid-to-late 60s pop scene, where you had a different genre topping the Billboard top 100 every week, and it's amazing to see how there would be these one-time flukes at number one from bands that vanished into obscurity. And there are so many artists from that era I really love, like Claudine Clark, who are largely forgotten.

I guess the positive offshoot of talking about acts like these is the fact that some reader may wonder who you're referencing enough to seek out that single or that artist. I think it's rare for someone to write about an artist they hate (with exceptions for bands that everyone universally kind of dislikes--I mean, the line about hating the Eagles in "Lebowski" is pretty timeless and universal) or worse, about an artist they're indifferent about. If they warrant mentioning in the piece you're writing, chances are that you're passionate about the band or the singer and you want them to continue to find a new audience.

Huntronik said...

well said. i'm no writer, but its a good point about writing on artists that somebody's indifferent about. it may be the reason some critics become scornful in their reviews-- they're made to listen to music they often would never choose to.

you know what label is absolutely fantastic for reviving forgotten gems? numero group. i've got about a dozen of their compilations. they generally make it their business to unearth soul and funk gems, but they've got a few power-pop comps of super-obscure but talented artists from the late 60's to mid 70's.