Wednesday, December 30, 2009

It's All About the Music

This post starts with a movie, but ends up being about books.  Feel free to skip to the book part if a) you hate "Love Actually," b) love "Love Actually" but don't care to read about it, or c) only have time to read about books.

I do love this movie, I truly do.  And if I'm being really honest, I love it because it starts with people greeting each other at the arrivals section at Heathrow.  There are several arrivals areas at Heathrow, but I've been greeted with tears & kisses -- and love -- at the arrival area at Terminal 3 (normally a domestic terminal, but for some reason flights from Philadelphia land there).  So all those nice, normal, non-movie star people being happy to see each other?  Been there, felt that.

But my husband and I wouldn't watch it every holiday season just to see the nice normal people.  We watch it because we're romantics and because it delivers the goods.  For us.

I have to mention, at this point, that this blog post is inspired by the juxtaposition of reading this post on Jessica's blog and having in the diary to watch LA with Ross.  Jessica has strong feelings about the morality and/or ethics (in case there's a subtle distinction) of  Mark's (Andrew Lincoln's character) actions at Christmas time in the situation where he's in love with his best friend's bride.  I disagree with Jessica's argument (pretty much all of it:  her assumptions, her interpretations, and her conclusions -- otherwise, of course, she makes a point...), but as I wasn't around when she posted, and the comments are closed, and she's now in South Africa, I will gnaw my fingers to the bone and NOT write a defense of that particular scene.

However, in the comments to Jessica's post a lot of people claim to hate the film.  Well, they must not have been Twittering last night because before we headed off to watch it, I asked who loved it, who hated it, and who thought "meh."  I only got a few responses, but they were all in the "loved" column.  Hardly scientific and it doesn't mean anything other than it's a film that seems either to do it for people or it really ticks them off.

What I enjoy every year is how the film depicts that sense that maybe it's not going to work out.  Richard Curtis did a good job of getting the emotional anxiety right -- even for the couples who do work out in the end.  I like crying during this movie.  (Which is no defense, I admit.  Just a preference.)  Not everyone has a HEA, and not all the HEAs are hard-won, but the ones that are (Colin Firth's, for example, and Sam's, the motherless little drummer boy) seem sufficiently organic.

This year, though, I really noticed the music.  It's got a great soundtrack, with the Beach Boys and The Pointer Sister's "Jump" as well as some holiday classics.  Maybe not "The Big Chill" level, but it's good, and Curtis really makes each song work hard and in a good way.  Which is something movies can do.  Think about these movies:
Star Wars
Brief Encounter
2001: A Space Odyssey
Saturday Night Fever
The Big Chill

 -- they all had both specific pieces (or songs) and incidental music that became part of the movie itself.  (By definition movie musicals are all in this category.) 

Books can't do this.  (I supposed someday e-readers may come with speakers...)  I love Julia Spencer-Fleming's Miller's Kill books with a white-hot passion, but even she disconcerted me by referencing specific songs in the middle of Russ & Clare's "we can't be together" misery.  Yes, we listen to romantic ballads very differently when we're unhappy.  I even have a "Tears & Tissues" playlist on my iPod for when I need a nice, cathartic cry.  But unless the author is referencing a song so ubiquitous that everyone -- absolutely everyone! -- knows it, it can be a misstep to stick it in a book.

I'm currently reading Sea Swept, the first of the Nora Roberts' Chesapeake Bay series.  (It was mentioned to me recently as a candidate for the 100 Romances We've All Read (or Should Have Read) list.  Which I don't think exists.  But it should.)  The heroine, Anna, is tooling around in her convertible with Aretha Franklin singing "Respect."  That song qualifies as ubiquitous enough, but then it's not really conveying much in the scene.  It's a small play list of songs we all know, and all of us have songs that mean so much more than merely "ubiquitous."  The difficulty is, the song I might think of as the perfect "I'm in love with a married man" song isn't the song the next person might pick.

We don't all like the same songs.  When Ross and I were (no, really) just good friends, I would mail him CDs to try.  At that point in time, he only knew classical music and opera, and was pretty esoteric even there.  (For example, Brahms and Mozart were already pass√©; he'd moved on to Mahler and Wagner.)  My first couple efforts failed; music I liked didn't interest him.  Then I hit pay dirt with, of all things, Alison Krauss & the Union Station, a pick I'd gotten from their song, "New Favorite," which had been used as incidental music in an episode of the TV show, "Medium."  (If you want to hear it, here's the music video.)  Next thing I know, I'm getting an email from him telling me he was riding aroundon  a bus in Oxford listening to that song and hitting replay over and over.  But if I were reading that scene in a romance, I don't think I'd want the author to tell me which song the hero was listening to.

We expect TV and movies to have soundtracks.  Do we want our books to come with sound?  Do you want actually to hear what songs Clare and Russ can't stand to play in their vehicles because it reminds them too much of each other?

Is sound going to be part of the Brave New World of book publishing?  And if it is (or isn't), should it?


  1. (I apologize if it's tacky to start the comments thread with one's own comment.)

    As soon as I posted this, the lawyer in me pointed out all the licensing issues if every e-book had an MP3 file attached to play at a certain point in the book. So, let me just get one possible answer out of the way: This technology obviously could exist, and maybe it should exist (that's what I hope people will discuss) but as a reality, unless the author used the music of some indy artist or band -- who might be eager enough to get the publicity in exchange for signing the rights for a pittance -- this probably won't happen.

    But forget the law (and shoot all the lawyers!) -- I really want to know if any of you would like to hear music that's referenced in the book.

  2. My dd and dss have given me soundtracks to my life (all paid for ... thank you iTunes!) and my dh occasionally ventures in too (his are pretty schmaltzy but I love 'em. Do I want music "in" a book ... that might prove too distracting for me but a playlist, YES!

    p.s. Do you think Emma and her estranged hubby end up together or not? I REALLY want to know: I always wonder :)

  3. Alison Krauss... Inspiration for Stay.

    Now, let me say this: Music is THE most important tool I have in my writing kit. I get story ideas from it*, I pull emotion from it, I find layers of meaning I work into my writing in music.

    What I want MOST OF ALL in a book is to incorporate the playlist I used while writing the book(s) into the book (this is one reason I love the promise of digital books so much). BUT if I did that, I'd have to pay out the wazoo for licensing and even then I'd not be able to get everything I wanted. (See how many tracks are not available at

    Music is... My life. My authorship. Everything about who I am as an artist. I would LOVE to embed those notes in my books.

    *The Proviso came from "Walkaway Joe" by Trisha Yearwood. One song...a lifetime of work.

    *Stay came from "Stay" by Alison Krauss. "Lucky One" (Nash) and "New Favorite" (Annie), spawns of Stay, will come from Alison Krauss because they have the same tone and feel.

  4. Okay, I'm coming back and hogging it all, but I have to point you to this post:

    Scroll down to June. That will be me.

    (Yes, I hand-typed that URL. LOL)

  5. Janet -- I love the idea of hearing snippets of music at appropriate points in a text, plus a playlist from authors like Moriah, who are so intensely influenced by music. The technology is there -- and one way to get around the licensing issue would be to let readers "buy" the songs at the same time they bought the e-book.

    [And my guess is that Emma & Alan -- can't think what their characters' names were -- are getting couples counseling at the one-month-later epilogue. They separate briefly because Alan's got his head up his arse, but then Emma starts doing Pilates and dating an instructor at Elliott School in Putney. When Alan sees her, she's finally wearing skirts above her knees (!) and looking happy. He removes said head from said arse, asks her for a coffee and they reconnect. But wait, Pat Gaffney's already written that book...]

    Moriah -- If anyone could pull this off, you could! Now, does Aimee Mann figure in any of your books? She could maybe help you with Cassie's story...

    (And thanks for the url, and the effort it took to type it out. I promise I will emigrate to WordPress asap in 2010. But, wow, did I not understand most of what was being "reported" for 2010. I'm clearly entering my Old Fogey Years.)

  6. If I were to put music on Uninvoked, I would solve the issue by linking to the youtube video posted by the artist or the publisher personally. Thus, the people who don't want to hear music aren't suffering, and those that do can visit the link that is legal in every way.

    I haven't posted any because...well...on a personal level I hate when authors take away my ability to imagine. Nora Roberts is a great example. I refuse to imagine Mallory Price as anything but a perfectly manicured young woman in tailored suits (okay so far) and auburn hair with brown or hazel eyes. Not blue eyed blonde. NO. She is not! I will put my fingers in my ears and say LA LA LA until her descriptions go away.

    And on the same guy driving around in cool car with...Eric Clapton blaring from the speakers? Isn't that guitar? How am I not seeing coolness oozing from him anymore?

    I love her writing. I think she's a great author. The little tiny details bother me.

  7. Uninvoked -- I love the image of you with your fingers in your ears to avoid Nora Roberts telling you what her heroine looks like.

    Meanwhile, Moriah (see above) casts her novels straight out of the Internet Movie Database ( so she know precisely what her heroines look like. If you tell her that Cassie (a character in her current book) is blonde & blue-eyed, you'll have a fight on your hands.

    But with respect to music, I would imagine the technology would be optional. Buy the music that the author wants playing with the book, or not. We can all provide the soundtrack to our books now -- it's called a stereo (or at least it used to be called a stereo; now it's satellite radio or an MP3 player).

    Our personal tastes for music and eye-color and the like are among the things we have to negotiate with the author as we read a book. Ignoring specific music, or redressing a character in what seems a better outfit for the scene -- that's the reader's prerogative.

  8. I've been thinking about this post a lot, trying to figure out where the line is between author/reader and really, I always come back to the same thing: It's up to the reader.

    The author is going to do what she does because she's mostly the same person (barring the normal changes that time and experience make in a person). She can't write for every reader and in the end, she can only write for herself and hope that there is a sufficient number of readers who will like her work, and another sufficient number who'll overlook stuff like author intrustion (WRT description and [pop] culture references) in favor of the big picture.

    Hopefully, that gives her about 2/3 of her readers who are, to some extent, on her wagon for the next ride. The other 1/3 won't show up again, and I suspect that's about normal.

    After all, Magdalen, even though Fleming jolted you out of her story with the song references, you'll go back for more, right?

  9. Moriah -- The only thing that keeps me from standing outside Julia Spencer-Fleming's house with a huge placard that reads "Write More Russ & Clare Books" on one side, and "Write Them Faster, Damn It!" on the other is that there are LAWS against that sort of behavior.

    So, yes, I will be back for more -- and I wouldn't care if the whole book was a string of song titles. She really could write the phone book and I'd be right there, buying it in hardcover.

    (I'm uh, a rabid fan.)

    As to the underlying principle -- of course all the author can do is write the best book she (he) can write. This is edging into the whole "lazy author" / "short cuts" / "cliches & tropes" subject, covered pretty completely over at Dear Author. (We needn't go back to that thread...)

    I don't think references to music is lazy writing. I think it arises organically: the author is imagining the scene so thoroughly that she can even hear the music on the car stereo!

    I doubt Nora's lost any readers because someone didn't think that Anna Spinelli wouldn't be listening to Aretha Franklin. And I don't think anyone would be reading a NR romance simply for the soundtrack, if the technology were made available. (For that matter, no one watches Grey's Anatomy for the songs!)

    I have a question for you (just because I'm curious): I understand that Alison Krauss helped spark "Stay," but is that the same as any of the characters in "Stay" actually listening to Alison Krauss & the Union Station? In other words, are their musical tastes your musical tastes even though they don't necessarily have your personality?

  10. I only ever referred to "soft bluegrass playing in the corner" and never the song by name or the artist, either. In Stay.

    I did refer to Alison Krauss in The Proviso because hero #2 was trying to make a point to heroine #2: "Eilis, music can lift the soul or it can destroy it. Melancholy music doesn't do anything good for a soul that's hurting."

    But yeah, I litter my writing with references, oblique and explicit, mostly through chapter titles.

    As for what their taste is and my taste is, that intersects about half the time. For instance, Mitch (my bishop) loves ZZTop. I can't stand ZZTop, but it fits him and I listen to it when I'm writing him because I need that to capture that part of his personality.

  11. Moriah -- very funny! I can't think of ZZTop without thinking of the music video for "She's Got Legs" (which is the right lyric if not the right title). Now I'm thinking about a bishop thinking about weird bearded guys thinking about legs... (Oh, and did you see the cameo one of them had on Bones as Angela's dad?)

    But I disagree with Hero #2's sentiment about melancholy music. I was definitely raised to believe that there's solace in music that resonates with our own private sorrows.

  12. Hero #2 has a hard time with empathy. While what he says I think *can* be true, he doesn't much dig below his surface understanding of the things other people go through. (It's part of his character arc to try to start learning this.) He doesn't much understand pain and failure (or possible depression), and this was a rare moment of (albeit shallow) epiphany for him.


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