If there’s one thing that rivals my love of books, it’s my love of music. While I’ve very occasionally found myself less obsessed with reading than I am these days, music has been a constant companion; whereas rereading a much-loved book requires time and effort, listening to my favourite songs again and again requires earphones and 3 and a half minutes. Music has made me as much as literature has, and so it is one of my favourite things ever when I find characters whose music taste is a feature of their personality.
Because of this, I have become a bit obsessed with music references in books and now get very excited when I find one. It’s a way into understanding a character: a shortcut to really getting them, perhaps before their persona is otherwise fully formed.
It’s been at least eight minutes since I last mentioned Simon Vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda (she says, while eating an Oreo cupcake from a Simon Vs plate), so let’s start there. Simon is lovable enough without his awesome taste in music, but the fact that, within 6 pages, he’s already listening to Tegan and Sara, just adds to his immense appeal. Obviously, Simon’s main musical obsession is Elliott Smith, and this is a perfect example of how a musical reference can help an author to show, not tell; as soon as Simon puts in his earbuds to listen to Smith, I know exactly what kind of person he is. Only awesome people love Elliott Smith. I love the way that Becky Albertalli uses this to develop the gorgeous relationship between Simon and Blue; with Blue using “the mighty Googler” to find out about Smith and learning more about Simon as a result – a fact that renders Simon “speechless.” And isn’t that just completely perfect? That moment when someone listens to an artist you love and understand why you love them so much?
Adding to my love of Simon Vs is the fact that Simon’s love of Elliott Smith means he and Mim from Mosquitoland by David Arnold could be friends, which makes me very happy indeed. I adore Mim, and, as with Simon, much of that love stems from the fact that her taste in music is exemplary and we could consequently be friends. Music is so important to Mim that her narrative even features analysis of her musical loves:
Even the music I listen to now has a certain tragic honesty to it. Bon Iver, Elliott Smith, Arcade Fire – artists whose music demands not to be liked, but to be believed.
And I do.
I believe them.
Mim spends so much of Mosquitoland isolated, alone and doubting herself, there’s a raw emotion in this statement which makes me want to cry a bit. And, while we’re talking about music taste reflecting the listener, Arnold’s phrasing could just as easily apply to Mim herself here: it is her “certain tragic honesty” which makes her such a goddamn amazing character. I love Mim. Have I mentioned that? And her mum is a Johnny Cash fan, so she’s awesome too.
While I’m match-making friendships between fictional characters – Simon and Mim, meet Lydia from Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King. She displays a level of music fascism which I completely relate to and, although she can be a little much, her impeccable taste shows me exactly who she is, citing Dolly Parton, Debbie Harry, Natasha Khan, Jenny Lewis, Patti Smith, Meg White, Florence Welch, PJ Harvey, Beyonce and Stevie Nicks as her musical influences. Just read that list again and tell me Lydia doesn’t have the most flawless taste possible. Lydia also states, in no uncertain terms, that “Love Will Tear Us Apart is my favorite song on Earth,’ and you can’t argue with that. Yes, perhaps she’s a tad precocious for an 18 year old, but, man, I wish I was that cool when I was 18. Or now.
Sadly, Matt from Seven Ways We Lie would probably be ruthlessly bullied by my supergroup of teens with good taste, as he freely admits, “I have this thing for whiny pop-rock, lots of Nickleback and Avril and latter-day Weezer, and it’s morbidly embarrassing, but it can’t be cured, not by my mom’s classic rock or Burke’s hipster Bon Iver shit.” I mean, ouch. Although I have not yet been lucky enough to read Jesse Andrews’ new book, The Haters, I have seen that here, too, poor old Bon Iver gets a bashing, described as “way too emotionally high stakes for casual listening in the sense that it makes every single part of your life feel like the part of a TV show where you are in a hospital saying goodbye for the very last time.” Mim, sort these heathens out. Also, I REALLY want to read The Haters.
So, I feel like I’ve proved that YA authors use musical references very cleverly to show us subtle aspects of their characters. This isn’t exclusive to YA; the brick that is City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg features teens with an intense love of Patti Smith, as well as a fictional band who are clearly supposed to be the New York Dolls. Further impeccable musical touchstones. And, because the rest of the book was so terrifying, I retain a particular amount of love for Patrick Bateman’s epic rants about 80s pop in American Psycho. I love Huey Lewis and the News. I’m not even sorry.
I’ve been thinking about this post for a ridiculously long time, and consequently have developed actual theories about the topic. Primarily, I think music references only work if a) the character would genuinely listen to that artist, b) the reference is relevant, and c) if the artist mentioned will stand the test of time. Becky Albertalli can sleep soundly at night knowing that Elliott Smith will be known, if not world famous, for as long as people are listening to good music. Likewise, Lydia’s choices are safe because Dolly, Debbie and Stevie have already proved their lasting appeal, and there’s basically no chance anyone will forget them.
There are times when I don’t think music references work. For example, in Sara Barnard’s Beautiful Broken Things, the main character wears a Haim t-shirt. Don’t get me wrong: I really like Haim. I question whether anyone likes Haim enough to own a Haim t-shirt, and I also wonder how relevant that choice is going to look in a couple of years’ time. Conversely, Mim wears her mum’s old Led Zeppelin t-shirt, and I’m pretty sure Led Zep aren’t going out of fashion. Radio Silence by Alice Oseman (which, I will admit, I did not like) name-drops Skrillex and London Grammar, which are clearly relevant to the teenage characters in 2016, but surely won’t resonate a few years down the line. In my view, music references only work when they mean something to the characters, not just for the purpose of showing how cool the writer’s taste is.
So now you know the extent to which I ignore actual plot details in favour of putting post-its next to references to Arcade Fire in books, help me out. Is this something you’ve ever thought about? If you have any more music references to add to my collection, please share in the comments.
Also, this was really long. Thanks for sticking with it. You are nice. As a treat, here is a playlist.
7 thoughts on “Thank You for the Music(al References in Books)”
I wish there were more music references in YA books, although I guess it’s a fine line between serving the story and doing it just t do it. Still I haven’t read any of these so it’s nice to know the references that are there. And Stevie Nicks… love that Edge of Seventeen is on that playlist. 🙂
I’m actually really ignorant when it comes to music because I pretty much only listen to Christian radio – I started it when my kids were small and I didn’t want them to hear the random really questionable things that announcers would often say and just never switched back. So, when there are music references in books I usually just shrug and move on – I KNOW that I’m way in the minority on this, though! (And somewhat strange.)
First off – great post topic, and I love the playist addition!
I agree that musical references have to mean something to the character/character development. I don’t care how relevant the references are to setting the scene IF they really have nothing to do with the characters.
As a writer who is extremely “musically-influenced,” myself, I know how tempting it can be to just toss in all your favorite songs – but it doesn’t always help the book!
“The Serpent King” is sitting on my to-read pile right now, and the only one of these books I’ve read is City of Fire, so I can’t really opine on these specific books – but the characters all sound like they have pretty good taste!
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Thank you! It’s really interesting to hear from an actual writer on this; I assume authors choose their characters’ favourite bands really carefully to say something about their personality, but it must be really hard not to just give them all your favourite influences. If I wrote anything, any readers would be put off by my MC’s miserable taste in music and probably stop reading after about 3 pages!