Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Pet Shop Boys

American Stories #9: 808s & Heartbreak

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

If there’s a common thread that connects many of the works of art that I’ve been discussing here, it’s the way in which our private selves can be invaded by our lives as members of a larger nation, until the two become neurotically fused into one. This is probably true of all countries, but its deeper connection with the notion of personal reinvention feels especially American, and no celebrity embodies it as much as Kanye West. It might seem impossible to make sense of the political evolution of a man who once told us that President Bush didn’t care about black people and then ended up—despite the efforts of a concerned time traveler—taking a very public meeting with Donald Trump. Yet if one of our most ambitious, talented, and inventive artists can be frequently dismissed by critics as “oblivious,” it may only be because he’s living two years ahead of the rest of us, and he’s unusually committed to working out his confusions in public. We should all feel bewildered these days, and West doesn’t have the luxury of keeping it to himself. It might seem strange to single out 808s & Heartbreak, which looks at first glance like his least political work, but if this is the most important album of the last ten years, and it is, it’s largely because it reminded us of how unbearable emotion can be expressed through what might seem to casual listeners like cold detachment. It’s an insight that has crucial implications for those of us who just want to get through the next few years, and while West wasn’t the first to make it, he was remarkably candid about acknowledging his sources to the New York Times:

I think the fact that I can’t sing that well is what makes 808s so special…808s was the first album of that kind, you know? It was the first, like, black new wave album. I didn’t realize I was new wave until this project. Thus my connection with Peter Saville, with Raf Simons, with high-end fashion, with minor chords. I hadn’t heard new wave! But I am a black new wave artist.

This is exactly right, and it gets at why this album, which once came off as a perverse dead end, feels so much now like the only way forward. When I think of its precursors, my mind naturally turns to the Pet Shop Boys, particularly on Actually, which was first released in 1987. A song like “Shopping” anticipates 808s in its vocal processing, its dry drum machine, its icy synthesizers, and above all in how it was widely misconstrued as a reflection of the Thatcherite consumerism that it was criticizing. That’s the risk that you run as an ironist, and West has been punished for it more often than anybody else. And while these two worlds could hardly seem further apart, the underlying impulses are weirdly similar. New wave is notoriously hard to define, but I like to think of it as a movement occupied by those who aren’t comfortable in rock or punk. Maybe you’re just a huge nerd, or painfully shy, or not straight or white, or part of a group that has traditionally been penalized for expressing vulnerability or dissent. One solution is to remove as much of yourself from the work as possible, falling back on irony, parody, or Auto-Tune. You make a virtue of reticence and understatement, trusting that your intentions will be understood by those who feel the same way. This underlies the obsessive pastiches of Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, whose 69 Love Songs is the other great album of my adult life, as well as West’s transformation of himself into a robot programmed to feel pain, like an extended version of the death of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. West has taken it further in the years since—“Blood on the Leaves” may be his most scandalous mingling of the political and the personal—but it was 808s that introduced it to his successors, for whom it serves both as a formula for making hits and as an essential means of survival. Sometimes the only way to make it through the coldest winter is to turn it into the coldest story ever told.

Listen without prejudice

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George Michael

In The Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson says of Tuesday Weld: “If she had been ‘Susan Weld’ she might now be known as one of our great actresses.” The same point might hold true of George Michael, who was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou and chose a nom de mike—with its unfortunate combination of two first names—that made him seem frothy and lightweight. If he had called himself, say, George Parker, he might well have been regarded as one of our great songwriters, which he indisputably was. In the past, I’ve called Tom Cruise a brilliant producer who happened to be born into the body of a movie star, and George Michael had the similar misfortune of being a perversely inventive and resourceful recording artist who was also the most convincing embodiment of a pop superstar that anybody had ever seen. It’s hard to think of another performer of that era who had so complete a package: the look, the voice, the sexuality, the stage presence. The fact that he was gay and unable to acknowledge it for so long was an undeniable burden, but it also led him to transform himself into what would have been almost a caricature of erotic assertiveness if it hadn’t been delivered so earnestly. Like Cary Grant, a figure with whom he might otherwise seem to have little in common, he turned himself into exactly what he thought everyone wanted, and he did it so well that he was never allowed to be anything else.

But consider the songs. Michael was a superb songwriter from the very beginning, and “Everything She Wants,” “Last Christmas,” “Careless Whisper,” and “A Different Corner,” which he all wrote in his early twenties, should be enough to silence any doubts about his talent. His later songs could be exhausting in their insistence on doubling as statements of purpose. But it’s Faith, and particularly the first side of the album and the coda of “Kissing a Fool,” that never fails to fill me with awe. It was a clear declaration that this was a young man, not yet twenty-five, who was capable of anything, and he wasn’t shy about alerting us to the fact: the back of the compact disc reads “Written, Arranged, and Produced by George Michael.” In those five songs, Michael nimbly tackles so many different styles and tones that it threatens to make the creation of timeless pop music seem as mechanical a process as it really is. A little less sex and a lot more irony, and you’d be looking at as skilled a chameleon as Stephin Merritt—which is another comparison that I didn’t think I’d ever make. But on his best day, Michael was the better writer. “One More Try” has meant a lot to me since the moment I first heard it, while “I Want Your Sex” is one of those songs that would sound revolutionary in any decade. When you listen to the Monogamy Mix, which blends all three sections together into a monster track of thirteen minutes, you start to wonder if we’ve caught up to it even now.

George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley

These songs have been part of the background of my life for literally as long as I can remember—the music video for “Careless Whisper” was probably the first one I ever saw, except maybe for “Thriller,” and I can’t have been more than five years old. Yet I never felt like I understood George Michael in the way I thought I knew, say, the Pet Shop Boys, who also took a long time to get the recognition they deserved. (They also settled into their roles as elder statesmen a little too eagerly, while Michael never seemed comfortable with his cultural position at any age.) For an artist who told us what he thought in plenty of songs, he remained essentially unknowable. Part of it was due to that glossy voice, one of the best of its time, especially when it verged on Alison Moyet territory. But it often seemed like just another instrument, rather than a piece of himself. Unlike David Bowie, who assumed countless personas that still allowed the man underneath to peek through, Michael wore his fame, in John Updike’s words, like a mask that ate into the face. His death doesn’t feel like a personal loss to me, in the way that Bowie did, but I’ve spent just about as much time listening to his music, even if you don’t count all the times I’ve played “Last Christmas” in an endless loop on Infinite Jukebox.

In the end, it was a career that was bound to seem unfinished no matter when or how it ended. Its back half was a succession of setbacks and missed opportunities, and you could argue that its peak lasted for less than four years. The last album of his that I owned was the oddball Songs from the Last Century, in which he tried on a new role—a lounge singer of old standards—that would have been ludicrous if it hadn’t been so deeply heartfelt. It wasn’t a persuasive gesture, because he didn’t need to sing somebody else’s songs to sound like part of the canon. That was seventeen years ago, or almost half my lifetime. There were long stretches when he dropped out of my personal rotation, but he always found his way back: “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” even played at my wedding. “One More Try” will always be my favorite, but the snippet that has been in my head the most is the moment in “Everything She Wants” when Michael just sings: Uh huh huh / Oh, oh / Uh huh huh / Doo doo doo / La la la la… Maybe he’s just marking time, or he wanted to preserve a melodic idea that didn’t lend itself to words, or it was a reflection of the exuberance that Wesley Morris identifies in his excellent tribute in the New York Times: “There aren’t that many pop stars with as many parts of as many songs that are as exciting to sing as George Michael has—bridges, verses, the fillips he adds between the chorus during a fade-out.” But if I were trying to explain what pop music was all about to someone who had never heard it, I might just play this first.

The slow fade

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Pet Shop Boys

Note: I’m on vacation this week, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 16, 2014.

A while back, William Weir wrote an excellent piece in Slate about the decline of the fade-out in pop music, once ubiquitous, now nearly impossible to find. Of the top ten songs of 1985, every single one ended with a fade; in the three years before the article was written, there was only one, “Blurred Lines,” which in itself is a conscious homage to—or an outright plagiarism of—a much earlier model. Weir points to various possible causes for the fade’s disappearance, from the impatience of radio and iTunes listeners to advances in technology that allow producers to easily splice in a cold ending, and he laments the loss of the technique, which at its best produces an impression that a song never ends, but imperceptibly embeds itself into the fabric of the world beyond. (He also notes that a fade-out, more prosaically, can be used to conceal a joke or hidden message. One of my favorites, which he doesn’t mention, occurs in “Always On My Mind” by the Pet Shop Boys, which undermines itself with a nearly inaudible aside at the very end: “Maybe I didn’t love you…”)

The slow fade is a special case of what I’ve elsewhere called the Layla effect, in which a song creates an impression of transcendence or an extension into the infinite by the juxtaposition of two unrelated parts—although one of the few songs on that list that doesn’t end with a fade, interestingly, is “Layla” itself. As Weir points out, a proper fade involves more than just turning down the volume knob: it’s a miniature movement in its own right, complete with its own beginning, middle, and end, and it produces a corresponding shift in the listener’s mental state. He cites a fascinating study by the Hanover University of Music in Germany, which measured how long students tapped along to the rhythm of the same song in two different versions. When the song was given a cold ending, subjects stopped tapping an average of 1.4 seconds before the song was over, but with a fade-out, they continued to tap 1.04 seconds after the song ended, as if the song had somehow managed to extend itself beyond its own physical limits. As the Pet Shop Boys say elsewhere on Introspective, the music plays forever.

Joe Mantell and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown

In some ways, then, a fade-out is the musical equivalent of the denouement in fiction, and it’s easy to draw parallels to different narrative strategies. A cold ending is the equivalent of the kind of abrupt close we see in many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, which rarely go on for long after the demise of the central character. (This may be due in part to the logistics of theatrical production: a scene change so close to the end would only sow confusion, and in the meantime, the leading actor is doing his best to lie motionless on the stage.) The false fade, in which a song like “Helter Skelter” pretends to wind down before abruptly ramping up again, has its counterpart in the false denouement, which we see in so many thrillers, perhaps most memorably in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon. And the endless slow fade, which needs a long song like “Hey Jude” or “Dry the Rain” to sustain it, is reminiscent of the extended denouements in epic novels from War and Peace to The Lord of the Rings. The events of the epic wrench both the protagonist and reader out of everyday life, and after a thousand crowded pages, it takes time to settle us back into Bag End.

The fade, in short, is a narrative tool like any other, complete with its own rules and tricks of the trade. Weir quotes the sound engineer Jeff Rothschild, who says that in order for the fade to sound natural to a listener’s ear, the volume must “go down a little quicker at first, and then it’s a longer fade”—which is a strategy often employed in fiction, in which an abrupt conclusion to the central conflict is followed by a more gradual withdrawal. There are times, of course, when a sudden ending is what you want: Robert Towne himself admits that the original dying close of Chinatown isn’t as effective as the “simple severing of the knot” that Roman Polanski imposed. But it’s a mistake to neglect a tool both so simple and so insinuating. (A fade-in, which allows the song to edge gradually into our circle of consciousness, can create an equally haunting impression, as in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and one of my favorite deep cuts by the Beatles, George Harrison’s “I Want to Tell You.”) These days, we have a way of seeing songs as discrete items on a playlist, but they often work best if they’re allowed to spill over a bit to either side. An ending draws a line in the world, but sometimes it’s nice if it’s a little blurred.

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April 27, 2016 at 9:00 am

The vinyl age

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Moonrise Kingdom

Note: I’m on vacation this week, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on January 21, 2014.

For Christmas, I got a record player, the first one I’ve owned for many years. My setup isn’t going to impress any audiophiles—my only real request was for a portable turntable that I could plug in and play without worrying about wires or external speakers—but it’s exactly what I needed. I wanted it, first of all, because I live just up the street from an independent record store that I’d only visited a couple of times in the last two years, and I wanted an excuse to browse there. There’s also a trove of enticing records at the thrift store a block away, and along with the selections from the Osmonds, Andy Williams, and Mitch Miller, you’ll often find an unexpected treasure for a dollar. My first purchase there was Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which was only fitting, since it was the sight of those three little brothers in their pajamas, seated on the floor with their record player in Moonrise Kingdom, that reminded me of the basic pleasure that vinyl affords. And although my record collection is still pretty sparse, I expect it to expand considerably soon, at least if my habits with used books are any indication.

Vinyl itself is a fascinating medium. I’m well aware that arguments for one format over another are highly subjective, and few listeners can tell the difference with their ears alone. (The “warmth” over which wax enthusiasts enthuse may be real, but it might also be due to the inherent limitations of vinyl for rendering bass.) Still, there’s no denying the emotional, tactile appeal of the rituals involved: sliding the record out of the sleeve, setting it on the turntable, removing the dust, gently dropping the needle into place. At a time when the process of listening to music has become increasingly abstracted, along with nearly all the other forms of media we consume, there’s something satisfying about an encounter that brings you that much closer to the mechanics of recording and playback. It isn’t quite like the case for reading physical books, which have enormous advantages for serious readers that have nothing to do with nostalgia. But if we’re willing to concede that these objects have value in themselves—and that the physical look, feel, and aroma of these interactions are meaningful—then it’s hard to imagine a better way of listening to music.

Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra

And I’m also thinking about my own daughter. I’ve written before about the value of physical books from a parent’s perspective, since a bookshelf with the spines all arranged at the level of a child’s eye is a much greater invitation to browsing and discovery than the sterile slab of a Kindle. You can make much the same argument for music and movies: I spent endless hours exploring my dad’s CD, video, and record collection, which shaped my tastes enormously, even if it put me slightly out of step with my friends. (It’s safe to say that I was the only kid at my middle school who was obsessed with the Pet Shop Boys, and although it caused me a few headaches at the time, I’d like to think that I got the last laugh.) Beatrix is already curious about the record player, perhaps because the logic of its workings is so transparent. You put the record on here, the sound comes out there—and the records themselves, of course, are enticing art objects in themselves. I’m still looking for a place to keep them all, but it’s safe to say that wherever they end up, they’ll be somewhere near the ground, in a spot where they’re likely to catch a little girl’s eye.

That said, none of this would make any difference if I didn’t benefit from it myself, and if it didn’t express something fundamental about who I am. I don’t have much in the way of advice for other parents—if there’s one thing that being a father has taught me, it’s that parenting is about doing whatever works, as long as it’s within a loving family—but if I’ve come to believe in one principle, it’s that values, especially artistic ones, need to be visible. I’m used to living in my own head, but my daughter is still gathering the materials of her own inner life, and it helps if the raw ingredients are readily at hand. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to transform myself into something I’m not, just for the sake of providing her with what I think will be a good role model; but it does mean externalizing the things I care about and find worthwhile about myself in a form that she can find on her own. That record player, like the ukulele, is an attractive toy, but it’s also a tangible extension, right into the living room, of art and ideals that might otherwise be locked up between my ears or in a hard drive that she won’t be able to explore. These books, movies, and music are a part of me, and by keeping their fragile, anachronistic shells within easy reach, I’m hoping that they’ll become a part of her, too.

Written by nevalalee

April 25, 2016 at 9:00 am

A delivery system for furniture

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Es Devlin

I’ve just finished reading the recent New Yorker profile of Es Devlin, the theatrical stage designer who has famously branched out into concert productions for the likes of Adele, Miley Cyrus, and my beloved Pet Shop Boys. The article, by Andrew O’Hagan, is maybe a touch too starstruck—we hear of Devlin’s “beautiful skin, dark eyes, and long, lustrous brown hair, usually piled up and held in place with a pencil”—but it also shares one story that I love:

“When I did Betrayal, it was my first big job,” Devlin told me. “And I was doing it as if my life depended on it. I was designing the fuck out of it. That show did not need anything. It was much better as a pure white room, but I was spraying my need over it. And Pinter didn’t care. He’d done it fifty times, he’d seen it the right way fifty times, and here was mine, with projector images of children between the scenes and conveyor belts.” She went on, “Pinter was able to just laugh it off and set me free. But when he introduced me to someone on opening night he said, ‘Have you met Es Devlin? She wrote the play.’”

“Spraying my need over it” is about as accurate a description as I can imagine of the temptation for talented creative professionals to impose themselves on someone else’s material, and to Devlin’s credit, she has clearly devoted a lot of thought since to how the set can serve the play, rather than the other way around. But that tension still remains. To advocate one point of view, the article quotes the British stage designer Ralph Koltai: “I am concerned with conveying what the piece is about, not where it takes place.” And here’s the director Will Frears with the rebuttal:

There’s an argument for not letting the set give the story away…I like to argue it out with the set designer, and sometimes talking about the set as a delivery system for furniture is helpful. You don’t want to turn everything into metaphors that take the audience out of the play.

Devlin, sensibly enough, attempts to stake out a middle ground between realism and expressionism. “England is full of people who will create exactly that room, or execute the detail, way better than I can,” Devlin notes. “Instead, my obsession is to put an audience in an appropriate frame of mind to receive the play.”

Es Devlin set for the Pet Shop Boys

These issues might seem remote from the concerns of writers who serve as their own playwrights, directors, and stage designers, but deep down, the dilemmas are strikingly similar. In theater, the difficulty comes down to the interaction between the instantaneous and the gradual delivery of information. A modern stage set can metamorphose and transform itself before the audience in ingenious ways, but for grindingly long sections of the play, it’s static, and even if our eyes wander from one part of the stage to the other, we’re essentially swallowing a bunch of visual data in one gulp. This creates an unavoidable conflict with the story itself, which is transmitted to us as a linear succession of words and actions, and there’s a very real danger that a set by an ambitious designer who thinks in terms of simultaneous visual elements can tip the narrative’s hand too soon. In On Directing Film, David Mamet mocks the impulse “to make each small and precious moment on the stage or screen both ‘mean’ the whole play and display their wares, to act, in effect, ‘sit down because I’m the king of France.’” And if this inclination causes problems for actors and writers, who do have all the resources of gradual development at their disposal, it’s that much riskier for designers, who for the most part are doing their work—and it’s often incredibly valuable—through a medium that naturally wants to give us everything at once.

The logistics of the stage, which for reasons of budget or manpower are often constrained to one or two sets, mean that these issues are especially stark. But it’s no different from the writers who try to achieve effects in a single paragraph of description that might better be conveyed by a character’s actions and words over time. (Devlin brilliantly evokes this in her discussion of the set for the Benedict Cumberbatch production of Hamlet: “It’s thought materializing into space. But you have to be careful, because Shakespeare is already doing that with language.”) No one element is superior to any other, and ideally, each piece serves to catalyze or activate the others without drawing undue attention to itself. Devlin puts it well: “A stage setting is not a background, it is an environment. Sometimes what these people [directors and actors] want is a liberator, someone who might encourage them to defy gravity.” And this can only happen once the designer, or author, takes the needs of the whole into account, without regard to ego or the desire to be admired. A set can serve as either the background or the foreground, depending on how our perspective shifts, just as all the parts of a novel somehow frame one another in a diagram of forces that can only be visualized intuitively. But even if the set is sometimes just a delivery system for furniture, it’s in the magical sense that a house, as Le Corbusier said, is a machine for living.

Written by nevalalee

March 25, 2016 at 8:41 am

The heartbreak kid

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808s and Heartbreak

I don’t think there’s another album from the last decade that I’ve played as often as 808s and Heartbreak. When I’m doing chores around the house or just want some music in the background while I’m busy with something else, it’s usually the first thing I cue up on my playlist, but I’ll occasionally just sit down and listen to the first six tracks on headphones, which always seems like the best possible use of my time. Earlier this year, when I was driving my daughter to her toddler play program every morning, we’d often listen to “Heartless” on the way there, to the point where she was able to sing along to most of the chorus. (Beatrix: “Why is he so sad?” Me: “Because he loved a woman who didn’t love him back.”) After I dropped her off, on the way home, I’d switch over to Yeezus, especially “Blood on the Leaves,” which I don’t think she needs to hear just yet. I like Kanye West’s other albums just fine, particularly My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, with its apparent determination to have every track be the one that renders all other music obsolete forever. But it’s 808s that struck me, when I first heard it, as an album that I’d been waiting to hear for my entire life, and that hasn’t changed since.

Still, when it was announced yesterday that West would be performing 808s in its entirety at a “surprise” concert in September, I found that I wasn’t particularly excited by the prospect. 808s doesn’t feel like an album that can or should be played live: in many respects, it’s the most writerly collection of songs I know, at least in the sense that it feels like the product of intensely concentrated, solitary thought. Plenty of people worked on 808s and Yeezus, but both albums manage to sound like they were composed in utter isolation, by a man singing to himself in the corner with his laptop. That’s the real genius of West’s use of AutoTune: thanks to samples and synthesizers, we’ve long been able to exclude musicians from the studio, but West was the first to realize that you could dispose of the singers, too, leaving as little mediation as possible between the songwriter’s conception and its creation. In my recent post on Tom Cruise, I described him as a producer who happened to be born into the body of a movie star, and much the same holds true of West, who willed himself into becoming one of the biggest musical acts in the world with little more than the kind of sustained craft and intelligence that can only emerge in private.

Kanye West

This isn’t an approach that would work for most other albums, but it comes across brilliantly on 808s. It was recorded after the death of West’s mother, and it feels like nothing less than a meditation on how unbearable emotion can best be expressed through what seems at first like cold, chilly impersonality. It reminds me, oddly, of the Pet Shop Boys—who were equally determined to exclude musical instruments from their early albums—and their insistence that irony and detachment were the only honest way to get at real unfaked feeling. 808s is like the death scene of HAL 9000 extended over fifty minutes, as he sings “Daisy” to himself as his mind goes away, or, on a lighter note, like the swan song of the robot on The Simpsons who asks despairingly: “Why was I programmed to feel pain?” But that doesn’t even hint at how richly, inexhaustibly listenable the result remains after countless plays. “Heartless” and “Paranoid” are close to perfect pop songs, executed without any room for error, and even in the album’s messier sections, we’re as close as we’ll ever get to music delivered straight from one man’s brain to yours, without any loss in the translation. And it isn’t the kind of effect that you can get at the Hollywood Bowl.

West remains an enigma. He’s a man who punches out paparazzi who wound up marrying one of the most photographed women on the planet; an introvert who only seems satisfied when he has the world’s undivided attention; a songwriter of intense self-awareness, even self-loathing, who can come across all too easily as an unfiltered jackass. The gap between West’s public persona and his meticulous craftsmanship is so vast that it’s easy to disregard the latter, and the number of people who have actually heard Yeezus—it barely even reached platinum status—is minuscule compared to those who know him only from the tabloids. As a result, even when West tries to kid himself, he can’t catch a break. Earlier this year at the Grammys, when he made a show of rushing the stage when Beck won the evening’s top prize over Beyoncé, only to turn back with a grin, it was clearly a joke at his own expense, but it was widely taken as just more evidence of his cluelessness. He’s smarter and more talented than any of his critics, but not in ways that express themselves easily before an audience of millions. For the rest of us, there’s always 808s. It’s just him in a room, and once we’re there, he quietly sets up his laptop, presses the play button, and invites us to listen.

Written by nevalalee

September 1, 2015 at 9:51 am

Turning down the volume

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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 topic: “What do you listen to when you’re working?” (As it happens, I’ve talked about this before, so this is a slightly revised version of a post that originally appeared on February 25, 2014.)

For years, I listened to music while I wrote. When I was working on my first few novels, I went so far as to put together playlists of songs that embodied the atmosphere or mood I wanted to evoke, or songs that seemed conductive to creating the proper state of mind, and there’s no question that a lot of other writers do the same. (If you spend any time on the writing forums on Reddit, you’ll encounter some variation of the question “What’s your writing playlist?” posted once every couple of days.) This may have been due to the fact that my first serious attempts at writing coincided with a period in my twenties when most of us are listening to a lot of music anyway. And it resulted in some unexpected pleasures, in the form of highly personal associations between certain songs and the stories I was writing at the time. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to listen to Eternal Youth by Future Bible Heroes without thinking of my novelette “The Boneless One,” since it provided the backdrop to the wonderful weeks I spent researching and writing that story, and much of the tone and feel of my novel Eternal Empire is deliberately indebted to the song “If I Survive” by Hybrid, which I’ve always felt was a gorgeous soundtrack waiting for a plot to come along and do it justice.

Yet here’s the thing: I don’t think that this information is of any interest of all to anyone but me. It might be interesting to someone who has read the stories and also knows the songs—which I’m guessing is a category that consists of exactly one person—but even then, I don’t know if the connection has any real meaning. Aside from novels that incorporate certain songs explicitly into the text, as we see in writers as different as Nick Hornby and Stephen King, a writer’s recollection of a song that was playing while a story was written is no different from his memory of the view from his writing desk: it’s something that the author himself may treasure, but it has negligible impact on the reader’s experience. If anything, it may be a liability, since it lulls the writer into believing that there’s a resonance to the story that isn’t there at all. Movies can, and do, trade on the emotional associations that famous songs evoke, sometimes brilliantly, but novels don’t work in quite the same way. Even if you go so far as to use the lyrics as an epigraph, or even as the title itself, the result is only the faintest of echoes, which doesn’t stop writers from trying. (It’s no accident that if you search for a song like Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain” on, you’ll find hundreds of stories.)

Pet Shop Boys

This is part of the reason why I prefer to write in silence these days. This isn’t an unbreakable rule: during the rewrite, I’ll often cue up a playlist of songs that I’ve come to think of as my revision music, if only because they take me back to the many long hours I spent as a teenager rewriting stories late into the night. (As it happens, they’re mostly songs from the B-sides collection Alternative by the Pet Shop Boys, the release of which coincided almost exactly with my first extended forays into fiction. Nostalgia, here as everywhere else, can be a powerful force.) During my first drafts, though, I’ve found that it’s better to keep things quiet. Even for Eternal Empire, which was the last of my novels to boast a soundtrack of its own, I ended up turning the volume so low that I could barely hear it, and I finally switched it off altogether. There’s something to be said for silence as a means of encouraging words to come and fill that empty space, and this is as true when you’re seated at your desk as when you’re taking a walk. Music offers us an illusion of intellectual and emotional engagement when we’re really just passively soaking up someone else’s feelings, and the gap between song and story is so wide that I no longer believe that the connection is a useful one.

This doesn’t mean that music doesn’t have a place in a writer’s life, or that you shouldn’t keep playing it if that’s the routine you’ve established. (As it happens, I’ve spent much of my current writing project listening to Reflektor by Arcade Fire.) But I think it’s worth restoring it to its proper role, which is that of a stimulus for feelings that ought to be explored when the music stops. The best art, as I’ve noted elsewhere, serves as a kind of exercise room for the emotions, a chance for us to feel and remember things that we’ve never felt or tried to forgotten. Like everyone else, I’ll often hear a song on the radio or on old playlist, like “Two-Headed Boy Part 2” by Neutral Milk Hotel, that reminds me of a period in my life I’ve neglected, or a whole continent of emotional space that I’ve failed to properly navigate. That’s a useful tool, and it’s one that every writer should utilize. The best way to draw on it, though, isn’t to play the song on an endless loop, but to listen to it once, turn it off, and then try to recapture those feelings in the ensuing quiet. If poetry, as Wordsworth said, is emotion recollected in tranquility, then perhaps fiction is music recollected—or reconstructed—in silence. If you’ve done it right, the music will be there. But it only comes after you’ve turned the volume down.

Written by nevalalee

March 13, 2015 at 8:37 am

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