here’s a guest post i wrote for sue howe’s awesome blog a couple of weeks back.
it’s about music. and writing. weirdly enough.
words and music
It’s not easy to write about music.
I realised this as I put the finishing touches to my shamefully biased and narrow-minded account of 2011’s finest music. After all, there are only so many times one can describe a guitar riff as “soaring”, a bass line as “brutal”, a chorus as “anthemic” before inspiration fades. Luckily, I don’t want to be a music journalist. I just want to write about music.
I should explain. My obsession with music predates my obsession with becoming a brilliantly successful novelist by several years. Before I ever put pen to paper, I applied plectrum to string and decided to be a brilliantly successful guitarist. It was not to be; I was – to use a technical term – fucking awful, and soon settled on another way to express myself.
But, even once I started writing, the music wouldn’t leave me alone. It probably didn’t help that I always had some tune or other playing in the background when I wrote, but the songs I adored kept weaving their way into my narratives. Characters shouted to be heard over Blondie’s hits at discos; fights kicked off to the sound of The Clash; drunken, hazy sex was soundracked by…er, Fugazi. Music was all around me, and hugely influenced the words I wrote. Sometimes, I incorporated the sounds I heard well; at other times, my overwrought attempts fell flatter than the bummest note.
Nothing’s really changed; I’m still a sucker for a song. But I’ve been thinking about this unhealthy addiction a lot recently, as the current novel I’m writing, the tracks…, features a character who is near-reliant on music. And I wonder: can a song soar within fiction? Or – like punk and stage musicals – should the two never mix?
The desire to include music within a narrative is easy to understand: the right song can create another world. It could be the words, the sounds, or simply the feelings it evokes, but suddenly a whole new reality exists which – to the listener – was inconceivable three minutes earlier. Individual songs have inspired scenes, characters, plot developments…entire stories for me. That’s usually why I write them in to my fiction; I struggle to separate the sounds I hear from the story I have to tell.
I’ve never incorporated music into my writing to show off how impeccable my taste is. It’s always simply been a case of loving a song, and believing it fitted in with what I was writing, especially if the track in question helped me create a particular scene. At best, I hoped that somebody somewhere would tap their feet in recognition of my reference points, or be excited enough by the mention of new music to seek it out for themselves. Having said that, it’s obvious now that I needlessly padded out narrative with more songs than anyone could care for.
My first book, Stays, was littered with references, ranging from classics to tracks so obscure that the artists themselves would struggle to remember them. It was impossible to ensure every song ‘meant’ something in the context of the story and, as a result, Stays was a case of noise over substance. My second novel, Dead Dom, was a misanthropic dose of viciousness (click here if you don’t believe me), and so was its soundtrack: Butthole Surfers ‘Sweatloaf’ signalled Dom’s death – its “sludgehammer riffs nailing regret” – and the usually well-behaved Blur packed the one-minute-punch of ‘We’ve Got A File On You’ into an explosive bit of carnage. Most of the music worked, but I was still guilty of crowbarring in riff-heavy stompers simply because I wanted to. Though I’m sure there are other reasons why both of these novels remain unpublished, it is tempting to – ahem – blame it on the boogie.
My most successful attempt, I think, to fuse fiction and music is a short story I wrote for Pop Fiction: Stories Inspired By Songs (which, if you do like your tales song-tinged, you really should read about here before investing in here). ‘Disney’s Dream Debased’ is based on the song of the same name by The Fall, which recounts a queasy real-life fatality at Disneyland. My story not only imagines the life of a Disney employee referenced in the song, but also details how this character’s realisation that he’s been mentioned in a tune by his favourite band results in the return of unwanted memories. One reviewer called it “an ingeniously post-Modernist spin on song interpretation itself”, and I feel it would be churlish to disagree.
Maybe ‘Disney’s Dream Debased’ works because its music is integral to the story. The reader doesn’t need to know the track, simply understand the impact it has on one particular listener. But, without The Fall’s song, there is no tale. And, perhaps, that’s the key: if music is to work in fiction, it needs to be essential – not incidental – to the story.
In films, it’s rarely so complicated; sight and sound always seem to lock together in perfect harmony. Film soundtracks are often made up of apposite songs, so well-tied to the image on the screen that they then become synonymous with the film itself. Think of the obvious examples: Tarantino’s masterful misuse of upbeat classics, not least his sickly satisfying take on Stealers Wheel’s ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’, or Danny Boyle’s exhilarating Iggy-fied intro to Trainspotting. Less predictably, film meshes magnificently with music when Mick Jagger unleashes ‘Memo From Turner’ in Performance, and Stanley Kubrick incorporates Richard Strauss’ ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ into 2001.
Being a film music supervisor must be the coolest job in the world. You watch the film, then decide which music goes where. Yes, I know there’s more to it than that, but you get the idea: a great scene deserves a fine song, just as a schmaltzy death-by-incurable-illness scene deserves a scoop of Snow Patrol. However, the same job can’t exist in fiction. The author alone is responsible for the world he or she creates, and it’s up to them to provide the soundtrack. But do writers ever truly hit the right note?
There are a few authors who, I think, balance words and music admirably. Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting soundtracks his reprobates’ lives even more successfully than the film. Haruki Murakami’s fiction frequently mixes in music; many of his protagonists are single, spaghetti-loving jazz fiends and, predictably, Murakami owned a jazz bar when he was young and single. Bret Easton Ellis has repeatedly used 80s music as a shorthand for the superficiality and sadness that defines his characters, most successfully throughout American Psycho, even going as far as to dedicate chapters to the relative merits of singers such as Phil Collins and Whitney Houston. It goes without saying that the person raving about these artists is insane.
Another author who springs to mind is Nick Cave, whose The Death of Bunny Munro offers a protagonist who obsesses disgracefully over Avril Lavigne, and near loses his load every time Kylie Minogue’s ‘Spinning Around’ comes on the radio. Fittingly, his Grinderman 2 album is the perfect soundtrack to the novel, its songs bursting with middle-aged men whose libidos refuse to play ball.
Other writers who incorporate music include Kevin Sampson, Ian Rankin, Hanif Kureishi, Iain Banks and, of course, Nick Hornby…but, still, I’m struggling to recall an author who has written a key scene which ties in a song or an artist as effortlessly as the above-mentioned films do. I’m sure they’re out there; I just haven’t read them yet. And that’s where you come in: if I’ve missed anyone out, let me know. Maybe I’ll discover a great new writer or a fine new tune…and all in the name of research for my new novel.
I believe I’ve got a good reason to tune things up for the tracks…, as Benny, one of the novel’s three narrators, is a sensitive soul who’s only truly happy when immersed in music. His ever-present iPod’s earphones not only ensure his life’s soundtracked by the music he loves, they also handily block out the chattering intrusions of the big bad world. As a result, the music he references – and the way it makes him feel – remains relevant to the story. Or, at least, that’s the plan. Read the opening chapters here, and judge for yourself.
I can’t resist writing music into my fiction, no matter how tricky it seems. And, with the tracks…, I’m determined to justify its noisy intrusion, and finally make my prose sing.