Monday, January 11, 2010

I-(Don't Get Your)Tunes

by Sophie

Do you use music to define your characters?

I recently spent a very pleasant half hour going through Peter Robinson’ very fine FRIEND OF THE DEVIL, checking out all the music he references throughout the book. (Or rather, music that plays on Inspector Banks’ iPod, which he keeps in shuffle mode, evidently enjoying surprising himself.) I even bought a couple of tracks, so perhaps Robinson can congratulate himself on successfully shilling for his favorite bands.

There’s no doubt that Banks’ musical taste is a telling window into the character. It confirms for me that I would love, love, love to sit in a pub with the guy – or rather, drive around in his Porsche listening to his music, perhaps with a flask. Music colors his relationships (a cd is central to his hookup with his new flame) and provides backdrop to his ruminations. (I especially liked his conviction that his shuffle is capable of discernment, that the playlist it puts forth on any given day contains a message or even a wry commentary).

Other authors do this too, of course. Music references are excellent for setting tone, particularly if you’re going back a few years. (I knew I was going to be a Cornelia Read fan when her book referenced all the music I loved from the 80’s. Violent Femmes, anyone?)

Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus is another mope who can’t seem to function without music in the background. The thing is, I haven’t done the iTunes exercise with Rebus, and I feel like I’m missing something. And I wonder if that detracts from the book. If a book came with, say, 3-D glasses, and you read it without them, wouldn’t you feel a little ripped off? (Dennis LeHane’s books should, come to think of it, though if they keep making movies that are better than we have any right to hope, it won’t be necessary – do see Gone Baby Gone – it’s that good.)

It’s almost like there’s an “in” joke and I, un-hip as it’s possible to be when it comes to music, am missing out entirely. Although sometimes the characters listen to ridiculous music, which makes me feel a little better. (Hey, don’t you feel like, when the characters listen to nothing but classical, the author’s sitting there googling “oboe music” and going “oho, that’ll make me sound smart”? I just read a book where – honest – the character listens to Wagner whenever she’s mooning over her beloved. Don’t know much, but I do know Wagner’s far better suited to, say, marching into your boss’s office and demanding a raise.)

There are books out there that do require you to sit near your computer. I recently read a Didion, for instance, that had me wiki-ing just so I could understand the historic context. So maybe I’ll just have to read Robinson with iTunes queued up and ready to go. As always, though I believe that any book that asks more of you than immersion is a lesser book.

Until they figure out how to have the book itself launch tracks when you turn the pages – and in adequate sound quality, not like these Hallmark cards that scare the shit out of you when they start squawking when you open them – I think the whole device will continue to leave me feeling a little left out.


Meredith Cole said...

I think the musical book is coming soon, Sophie (based on reports from CES in Las Vegas last week)--but I think I prefer to use my imagination when I read. That's probably why I'm often disappointed when the movie based on one of my favorite books comes out.

Anonymous said...

story has to drive everything, but Ms. Littlefield/Sophie makes an excellent point about music references contextualizing scenes, action, romance, crisis, catharsis,as the story is unravelled. A song like Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" has a certain meaning to all of us of a certain generation. To the more informed, we know that Cohen did most of his best work on the island of Hydra, Greece. Knowing that would help a writer to locate his fiction---you might want to background a story on a greek island with Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, since they notoriously wrote on greek islands. Along with greek, turkish and middle eastern music.

Oud that sounds good...

--arthur (athanasios) kyriazis
jan 12 2010 (while listening to

ps jazz is not used enough and rock/pop is used way too much. also, movies use the same songs over and over--Public Enemies seems to only use Billie Holiday, when it seems far more likely that you'd of heard country bluegrass or even the blues in the midwest in 1932, or swing or dixieland jazz. that's just wrong. Bessie Smith, not Billie Holliday was the reigning queen of the blues then.

Shane Gericke said...

It would be grand if we could use a few lines of music lyrics time to time to illustrate a point in our books, without being napalmed financially by the music industry. That's why authors don't quote lyrics, only the song title, even when quoting a line of lyric would illuminate the point SO much better.

it'd be neat if publishers could strike a deal with the music industry to let us do it for relatively few bucks. I can't afford what it would cost the way things stand now.

Shane Gericke said...

P.S. Maybe an "iTunes" type system where authors could "download" the rights to a line of lyric from a song for a few bucks. The musicians would make money, as they should, from their labors, without losing the sale of the music itself, as ours are two different art forms.

Or, I could be full of shit ...

Jen Forbus said...

Well, as I'm presently steeped in Kelli's CITY OF DRAGONS right now I can comment that I heard "Someone to Watch Over Me" in my head all yesterday afternoon. Her references to music definitely set the tone of the book and that's almost magical.

Tom Schreck uses many references to Elvis songs in the Duffy Dombrowski books. When I asked him to pick a theme song for Duffy he cited "If I Can Dream." He wanted to use the lyrics in the first, but as Shane mentioned, it was too expensive...but lord how powerful it would have been. Just listening to that song and thinking of Duffy put a whole new complexity to the character.

And another reference I'll pop in here is Sean Chercover, who uses a number of music references in TRIGGER CITY. I was shopping in Marcs after finishing the book and they had "We Are Family" on the store radio. It brought the book right back to me.

Dana King said...

Depends on which Wagner you're listening to. If she's in mooning mode, she may be listening to the love-death music from Tristan and Isolde, which is perfect for wallowing in self-pity.

Still, that example makes your point. Using music to define a character or to set a scene can be risky. If it's not known to enough people, it falls flat. Too common, and it's banal.

I enjoy George Pelecanos, though I don't get into him as much as most people think I would. I think it's because of his frequent music references to set his periods and moods. I misspent my youth listening to jazz and classical music; my knowledge of pop tunes is woeful. I don;t get many of his references, so I sometimes don't get him.

Good post.