September 29, 2011

Music in Fiction

We're used to opera, musicals, music in drama, music and dance.  The soundtrack is recognized as an essential part of a movie, as important as the cinematography, the sets, the dialogue, and the acting.  Some of the greatest composers of the 20th century, guys like Ennio Morricone, Nino Rota, and Bernard Herrmann, are primarily movie composers.  Quentin Tarantino is brilliant in his use of pop music in film: he understands pop music not only in its vital soundtrack function, but he understands how pop music functions as cultural indicator, and how that can weave another level of meaning.  It is this "cultural naming" function that is the primary value of music in fiction.

One of the things I do when I'm writing a character is to figure out what kind of music he/she listens to, and how music functions in his/her life.  I may not necessarily bring it up in the story, but I usually know what my characters listen to.  In a couple of cases, I've gone so far as to put together playlists or load up mp3 players with music for my main characters, and listen to that music while I am writing the story.  It's a pretty easy way to define a character, since we (especially we Americans) have used music to define ourselves since the dawn of the jazz age; but it also can be very lazy shorthand.

Frank Bill doesn't use music in this way in Crimes In Southern Indiana, but he does make a mistake that bugs the hell out of me when I run across it: the bogus soundtrack provided by the radio.  In this conceit, a character turns on the radio and a song is playing, and that song is meant to be the soundtrack for the scene.  That, of course, requires that the reader be infinitely familiar with the song and/or artist . . . it is almost as if the writer plants the song in your head so he has a soundtrack.  Now, if the music is tied into the characterization, I don't have a problem with that (if it's done right); but it's cheating just to use the song for backdrop, for atmosphere.  Bill mentions specific music only twice in the book, so it's a very minor problem for him . . . but it is a problem.  First of all, I think he's using it sketch atmosphere, and as I said, I think it's a cheat.  Secondly, both times a character turned on the radio, and there was either a Johnny Cash or a Dock Boggs song on the radio.  Okay, that's just not realistic: the only way you'll turn on the radio in Southern Indiana and hear either Johnny Cash or Dock Boggs is to pick up the Louisville public radio station on a Sunday night.  There's no way a bunch of ultra-violent tweakers or tragically doomed redneck fishermen drinking Natty Lights out of styrofoam  coolers tucked away in the front of their pickups are going to be cruising around Southern Indiana listening to Louisville public radio.  Now, there is a spot on the dial down here that plays old-time country, but even then, the Cash songs are few and far between, there's no Dock Boggs whatsoever on that station. And again, the audience is either the folk who were old enough to hear the music first time around in the 50's, 60's, and 70's (and are probably much more interested in Jim Reeves or Eddie Arnold than Johnny Cash), or they are hipsters, not tweakers and rednecks.  It throws a kink in the characterization, if you know what I mean.  I can totally see where, at that point in the movie, a Dock Boggs song comes up on the soundtrack, but not on the radio.  Lynyrd Skynyrd makes sense, not Dock Boggs.*

Like I said, not a huge problem for Bill.  But look at this name-check pile that Elmore Leonard drops in Mr. Paradise:
I like to go to clubs and wave my arms in the air, thrash around, get down with the beat.  I think there's more energy here than in New York, a working-class audience getting their release.  You know what I mean?  I've seen Eminem at the Shelter, in the basement of St. Andrews?  Iggy at the Palace, back with the Stooges.  Hush, white hip-hoppers, and the Almighty Dreadnaughtz at Alvins.  Karen Monster, a cool chick, the Dirt Bombs, they're high-speed Detroit punk.  The Howling Diablos any Sunday out in Berkley.  There's a new band called the Go, kind of glam but they're okay.  Aerosmith I love, they keep coming back to town.
Obviously, besides name dropping Iggy for, like, the hundredth time, it looks like all Mr. Leonard did was go pick up some free weekly rag in Detroit and drop a few names onto the page . . . Jesus, what a mess.  Where to start?

Well, this little diatribe is meant to tell us something about the femme fatale of Mr. Paradise, Kelly Barr.  It seems that Ms. Barr, in addition to being a music aficionado, is a fashion model best known for her appearances in the Victoria Secret catalogue (the novel opens with Kelly and her Playboy-bunny-high-dollar-escort-soon-to-be-murder-victim roommate Chloe having cocktails in a bar when Kelly is approached by the frumpy waitress who idolizes her for an autograph).  Ms. Barr is twenty-seven.  This novel was written sometime around 2002.  So, let's start with Iggy:  the final Stooges performance was indeed at the Palace, on February 9th, 1974.  Which would have made young fan Kelly approximately . . . ready to be conceived. And even if we allow that she could be referring to the 2003 reunion, that show was at Pine Knob, not the Palace.

But it goes deeper than this kind of knit-picking.  We are talking about music as a sense of identity, and even if you choose music of locality to be your marker, then you are still stretching.  Who in the hell identifies with Aerosmith (a Boston band, by the way, which kind of throws a monkey wrench in the locality thing), the Dirt Bombs, and Eminem?  The crossover there is extremely limited, and the musical taste demonstrated is democratic, to say the least, and doesn't define the character at all.  But even more crucial is the language: this is not the language of a twenty-seven year old who is "hip" enough to be into the Dirt Bombs.  "Get down with the beat?"  Who under the age of fifty would say that?  "Working class audience getting their release?"  I would lay money that a Victoria Secrets model hasn't used the term "working class" outside of school . . . and even if this "chick" was "hip" enough to be down with the "working" "class", she wouldn't talk about the sweat and dank of a Detroit club being a "working class audience getting their release".  Besides, there isn't much of the working class left in Detroit; there are the rich, and the wage slaves of the service industry, which qualifies as sub-working class.

It's not only music that gets this treatment - fashion, cars, pop culture, all are there to be misunderstood.  Mr. Paradise is a dismal novel, and I say that as a Leonard fan.  All it amounts to is a 291-page exercise in the misuse of pop-culture shorthand, as if it were written by a tragically square community college lit professor.  It's a shame, because Leonard has produced some of the very cultural artifacts that any hipster should know.

And it's a shame because music can contribute a lot to fiction, if it is used with some intelligence.

*  I have only read Crimes in Southern Indiana once, and when I went back to find the two musical interludes in question, I was not able to find them.  If I have misrepresented the circumstances in any way, please correct me in the comment section.


mwhybark said...

Three things.

I am highly amused to beagle to point out that it's more generally "nit-picking," as in removing lice. I do like the image of plucking pills off a sweater or choosing a pair of socks, though. it reflects lived experience, if you will.

Perhaps it is Ms. Barr who is intended to be depicted as clueless rather than the author, although I doubt this.

Thanks for taking a moment to write about Crimes in Southeen Indiana. I concur with your analysis of the incorrect mise en scene, should said narrative events occur in the text as described. I wonder if the thought is to extend the hyperfictive aspects of the narrative; after all we live in a mediasphere in which Breaking Bad is justly celebrated as a distaff cousin of The Wire, but the two shows are polar opposites with regard for their concern for realism. Thus the song thatbactually plays on the radio is whatever clear channel country is running heavy on that week but the song the audience hears is Dock Boggs. A weak stab, but there's a bridge to be built there. I'd the guy looking at Blood Meridian etc. at all, or just at Ellroy and upstream at Hammer and Chandler et al.?

Matt said...

Excellent, thoughtful piece.

I too have liked the crime fiction I've read from Leonard. But his name dropping/cultural references seem to have the reverse effect for me. Instead of coloring a character a certain way, it seems to betray Leonard as a dude who fleeced a hipster for info in a college town coffee shop.

I guess when it comes to writing, I'm a firm believer in the a few carefully chosen details. Note that details don't have to be as specific and as copious as Leonard tends to be.

At any rate, Leonard is totally obnoxious in that way, even in books of his that I like. I guess it's time to check into his early western/cowboy works.

Matt said...

P.S. I linked to this article at my blog - hope that's okay.

Bill Zink said...


Guess that's what happens when I live in a house of yarn.

Bill Zink said...

I think Bill is shooting more towards McCarthy . . . or, if you will, Ellroy writing McCarthy: a little less Blood Meridian, a little more No Country for Old Men. Worth a read, either way.

mwhybark said...

man, the typos i make when I am using the ding dong ipad!