Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘New Order

Teens like us

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Jon Cryer and Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What pop culture prom would you want to attend?”

Babies do not want to hear about babies; they like to be told of giants and castles.

—Samuel Johnson

I know what he means. Growing up, I rarely, if ever, read books or watched movies with protagonists my own age. Even in grade school, after graduating past picture books, I was quickly devouring novels by the likes of Madeleine L’Engle and Zilpha Keatley Snyder, the characters of which tended to be five or so years older than I was. By middle school, I was reading books about the adult world that I desperately—and prematurely—longed to enter. I’m not saying that these were works of great literature; I consumed my share of bad thrillers, horror novels, and miscellaneous junk. But it was all junk about grownups, and even the most mundane novel of adulthood offered a promise of life that I didn’t see in stories about people my own age. (The big exception here is Stephen King’s It, which I did read when I was just about the same age as the protagonists for half the story, and I still think it’s the ultimate young adult novel, although the glimpses it gave of its characters at a later stage were equally revelatory. It isn’t exactly a book I’d give to a twelve-year-old to read, but I wouldn’t discourage it for a second.)

In some ways, my diet of adult novels was partially fueled by the historical moment in which I grew up, in which teenage readers were relatively underserved by publishers. These days, teens have entire sections of books devoted to escapist entertainment with protagonists their age, and if I were growing up now, I don’t doubt that I’d be reading the likes of Divergent. As disposable as many of them are, these books serve the same purpose for teenagers that Bruno Bettelheim identifies in fairy tales for younger kids: they’re fantasies of empowerment, stories that deliberately exaggerate the agency you have at a young age to encourage you to take ordinary risks. If there’s a common theme in these books—or at least the ones that have reached my radar thanks to their adaptations in other media—it’s that the fate of the world hangs in the balance due to the actions of one adolescent, whether named Harry or Katniss. In real life, a teenager has changed history maybe once, and it didn’t turn out so well for the girl involved. But there’s still a place for that kind of daydream: anyone under eighteen gets used to feelings of powerlessness, and sometimes it takes the fiction of a singular destiny that will shake entire civilizations to ignite that first cautious attempt at independence.

Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink

There’s another, more modest vein of fiction for teens, of course, and that’s the high school story. Some are overt fantasies as well: you could write a book or three on how Buffy, Twilight, or The Vampire Diaries use vampirism as a metaphor for a coming of age, and even a more “realistic” show like Beverly Hills 90210 presented an absurdly heightened vision of high school as a cauldron of glossy melodrama. That’s part of their appeal; like fairy stories, they gain much of their power from their displacement, which may be why we’re so willing to accept high school seniors being played by actors in their twenties. When I was in high school myself, I don’t remember latching onto any depictions of it for solace or escape, perhaps as another accident of timing: I was born too late for The Breakfast Club, too early for Freaks and Geeks, and in any case, I was already far down a strange cultural path of my own. Yet part of me wonders if I could have used it. Just as I sometimes feel that I discovered The Smiths ten years too late, I occasionally regret that I didn’t watch My So-Called Life on its first run, or make a point of catching up on John Hughes. I wanted to be told of giants and castles, but while I still feel that it’s important for young people to read slightly above their heads, I’ve also begun to appreciate the importance of a familiar face.

If young adult fiction has taken the place that traditional stories and tales once occupied in the minds of children, it’s no accident that so many center on the big dance: a prom may seem absurdly trivial in retrospect, but at the time, it feels like the royal ball in Cinderella. I had a pretty good time at my own senior prom, so my feelings about it aren’t as charged or ambivalent as they might be. And although I’d be tempted to attend Back to the Future‘s Enchantment Under the Sea, the first fictional prom that comes to mind is the one in Pretty in Pink, which is one of the few John Hughes movies I saw at around the right time. Not so much for the prom itself, but for the montage sequence that comes right before it, scored to the gorgeous instrumental version of New Order’s “Thieves Like Us,” as Molly Ringwald prepares her dress and we cut between the solitary faces of the rest of the cast. It captures something of how high school felt to me: tentative, full of hopes and plans, looking for fragments in beauty in an experience I was otherwise glad to move beyond. It’s about making the best of things when you’re on your own, and I almost didn’t wish it end so happily. Perhaps, as in a fairy tale, that happy ending is necessary to sweeten the rest of the experience, but the real message lies here, twenty minutes earlier, as we get ready for the big dance even if we’re afraid of a broken heart.

Written by nevalalee

May 2, 2014 at 9:51 am

And the music plays forever…

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These days, I have reason to be thankful for a lot of things, but at the moment, I’m inordinately grateful for what seems, at least for now, like the greatest thing I’ve ever seen on the Internet: The Infinite Jukebox by Paul Lamere, which has provided the soundtrack for my writing life for most of the past week. Basically, it’s a web app that creates an infinite loop of any song you upload in MP3 format, remixed in real time to move from one point to another by matching beats from throughout the track. You can read more about it here, but there’s no substitute for trying it out for yourself. Before long, I suspect that you’ll be as addicted as I am—it’s really that elegant, ingenious, and hypnotic.

Of course, it takes a little practice to find songs that lend themselves to the form. The ideal track, I’ve found, is long, varied, and self-similar, with enough regularity to afford a large number of possible pathways. A song like “How Soon is Now?” is just about perfect, with its obsessive return to the same lyrics and reverberating chords—although it might be psychologically unhealthy to play it for more than an hour or so. I’ve also had great luck with tracks from Introspective by the Pet Shop Boys and New Order’s “Thieves Like Us” (which allows me to endlessly relive my favorite montage from Pretty in Pink). It’s particularly good for writing: I’m often attempting to capture the mood of a certain piece of music, and this way, I can play it forever. If you’ve got a laptop in the kitchen, give it a try while you’re cooking today. You’ll thank me.

Written by nevalalee

November 22, 2012 at 9:50 am

The mix tape mentality

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It’s always hard for an author to predict which of his works will endure. My novels will hopefully survive for a while longer as physical objects, but whether they’re still read ten or twenty—or five—years from now is another question entirely. The January/February 2004 issue of Analog, which includes my first professionally published short story, is already looking pretty yellow, and it’s only a matter of time before the same fate befalls most of my other author’s copies. None of the journalism or movie reviews I did in print or online before graduating from college has survived, except in fragments, and although my more recent pieces will presumably be available for a while longer, I doubt they’ll be read much, except in the form of a random search result. This blog, too, is inherently ephemeral. But as a writer, I can take comfort in the fact that I’ve made one lasting contribution to our culture. Eight years ago, I created and wrote the bulk of the Wikipedia article for mix tape.

Looking at the page now, I can’t say I feel a lot of ownership toward the result. I haven’t touched or read it much in the years since I created it—mostly in a single burst of energy on August 18, 2004, when I probably should have been working—and without a consistent guiding hand to curate it, most Wikipedia pages start to look a little messy, as this one certainly has. The page was written during Wikipedia’s early, wild years, so the original version fails to meet most current standards for citation and objectivity. And the article, as it stands, suffers from one major conceptual flaw: it distinguishes only haphazardly between the original definition of a mix tape, “the generic name given to any compilation of songs…[that] reflects the musical tastes of its compiler,” and the more specialized and widespread meaning that has since emerged in hip-hop. Somebody should really fix this, although it probably won’t be me.

Still, for all its flaws, the article has managed to retain lengthy blocks of my own prose throughout close to a decade of revision, vandalism, and wholesale deletion. (My sections on mix tapes in popular and global culture seem to have disappeared down the memory hole, perhaps not without good reason.) And I’d like to think that the result has incrementally shaped people’s feelings about mix tapes, even without their knowledge. It’s the first result you get for “mix tape” in Google, and like all Wikipedia articles, it’s been widely cited, quoted, and occasionally plagiarized. As such, it may well end up being the most influential thing I’ve ever written, even as I’ve long since moved on from my own mix tape obsession. I spent most of my high school and college years putting together mixes, and even built a reputation among my friends, entirely undeserved, as a kind of music aficionado. In fact, my knowledge of music was probably narrower than most—it was the act of compilation and arrangement that I enjoyed.

And this explains why I haven’t made a mix in a long time. My passion for structure and juxtaposition still exists, but has been fulfilled in other ways. A mix tape, as I saw it, was a kind of short play, complete with rising and falling action and its own version of the Aristotelian plot pyramid, but now I just write novels instead. When I sit down to figure out the ideal form for a section of a book, switching a pair of chapters, deleting scenes, cutting for rhythm and pacing, it’s the same part of my brain that I engaged while seated before a tape recorder in my living room, headphones on, finger poised over the pause button—or, even better, in the initial stages of planning a mix, with nothing but a pen, a legal pad, and a handful of CDs. And when I find that perfect transition between chapters, it’s with the same kind of visceral satisfaction I felt when I realized that “Vanishing Point” by New Order could segue seamlessly into “Change” by Tears for Fears—a moment I still think about ten years after I made that particular mix. Like screenplays and collage, mix tapes are about structure, a rage for order that expresses itself in all works of art. Someone should point this out on Wikipedia…

Written by nevalalee

October 8, 2012 at 10:04 am

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