Monday, 5 December 2011

Pop music in novels

Pop music is a staple in contemporary cinema. It's used as a marketing tool by mainstream moviemakers and emotional signposting by filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino (cf Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, starring Ryan Gosling and College's A Real Hero track). But it's less commonly found in novels, particularly compared to classical or opera.

Other than novels directly about bands and music-making, such as Toby Litt's I Play the Drums in a Band Called Okay (2008), pop is rarely referenced in literary fiction. There are notable exceptions, however: Douglas Coupland has written novels called Girlfriend in a Coma (1998) and Eleanor Rigby (2004); the record shop-owner who narrates Nick Hornby's High Fidelity (1995) regularly makes mix tapes and has Top Fives to cover most of the important things in his life.

Amid the misogynistic horror, Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho (1991) has some very funny chapters on 1980s music including Whitney Houston, Huey Lewis and the News, and Genesis ('I've been a big Genesis fan ever since the release of their 1980 album, Duke. Before that I didn't really understand any of their work...').

The eponymous heroine of Alan Warner's Morvern Callar (1995) soundtracks her life to her Walkman while the music of Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) ranges from Otis Redding to 'the tuneless: King Crimson, Soft Machine, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa and Wild Man Fisher.' Character Shahid has the bootleg CD - bought from Camden market - of The Black Album in his Prince collection in the book of that name, and Prince is back for Arthur Phillips' pop-stalker novel The Song Is You (2009), which cunningly namechecks any number of particularly UK-centric pop sources.

We're back hunting for CDs in Camden and the West End in Malvern Hills, one of five stories in Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes (2009). The narrator goes to stay with his sister and help out in her café, where he meets a Swiss couple - 'We perform many hits. Beatles, the Carpenters... we do some Abba. Dancing Queen. That one always goes down well.'

Robin, one of the characters in Alan Hollinghurst's 1998 novel, The Spell, has 'old vinyls, in bumped, coffee-ringed sleeves... The Beatles and the Stones, the Doors, the Incredible String Band' though he has 'the small accidental CD collection of someone uninterested in music.' Through Robin's son, staid civil servant Alex is turned onto dance; 'Alex switched on the radio, and it was one of Haydn's opus 76 string quartets that he had sometimes listened to with Hugh. It held him for a moment... but he couldn't resist a feeling that it would always be there, and found himself reaching into the glove-box for his latest purchase from Harlot Records, Monster House Party Five, a three-CD compilation of 40 pounding dance tracks mixed by DJs Sparkx, Joe Puma and Queen Marie.'

Set in a parallel 1984, Japanese author Haruki Murakami's latest, 1Q84, could feature any amount of trendy 1980s tunes but instead anachronistically references It's Only a Paper Moon by EY Harburg and Harold Arlen ('It's a Barnum and Bailey world/ Just as phony as it can be'), alongside Janácek's Sinfonietta. While classical music may seem less gauche on the page, there are some great pop references in one of my favourite novels: F Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon (1940).

Driving with Wylie, the alcoholic writer who is in love with her, Celia dreams instead of the producer Stahr. 'I turned the dial and got either Gone or Lost - there were good songs that year... [but they] were the wrong mood, so I turned again and got, Lovely to Look At, which was my kind of poetry... "They asked me how I knew,' sang the radio, "- my true love was true." My heart was fire, and smoke was in my eyes and everything...'

Please do add your favourite pop moments in novels in the comments field below - thank you!

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