Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Music & Pop Culture References in Books

Music in crime fiction: the insert of a lazy author, product placement or an often essential ingredient?

Let me qualify part of my position before I state it. Undoubtedly, how each person feels about music will influence where they fall on this issue. It would be exaggerating to say that every Ruttan is musical, but growing up it certainly seemed that way. For me it was piano, fiddle and bass guitar. (And have I mentioned Deric Ruttan has a new single due to hit airwaves soon? He’s co-written hits What Was I Thinkin’? and Lot of Leavin’ Left To Do with Dierks Bentley. The lead-off single for Deric’s new album? A Deric and Dirks duet called Good Time.)

But I digress. (That was product placement, btw. It did nothing to create atmosphere, was pure indulgence.) The main thing is, for me, there’s always been music. Having an appreciation of music, and how to play, gives you an interesting insight into writing. With music, there’s as much said in silence, in the breath between the notes, as there is with the notes themselves. Timing is a critical element. As a writer, I look to my musical knowledge to remind myself to give pause where appropriate.

As someone who loves music, I actually love musical references in books. So, perhaps I’m a wee bit biased…

This came up in one of those weird flukes of timing. Last night I watched the program on Peter Robinson that Evil Kev had recorded for me. When he was sitting on his couch talking, there were bookshelves behind him and right beside him was the prominent display of Ian Rankin books. (Not really surprising, but there is a point.) When he was in his office he was showing how he researches, and for one book that part of the story happens in 1969 he has books with pictures of the location from the era, and he had a collection of popular music from 1969 that he listened to.

Then, I stumbled across this post about Rankin and music at Detectives Beyond Borders. (Well, okay, I was over there to reference the post about Ken Bruen’s appearance on the Craig Ferguson show. Evil Kev had expressed surprise that nobody – none of the industry blogs – had even mentioned it, and he hadn’t seen any posts on the show, so I pointed out the two I had seen…)

So, it was complete coincidence on both sides of the equation that I ended up reading this old article on Rankin’s radio series, Music To Die For. A series I remember listening to.

In my opinion, the Telegraph article is bizarre. It begins by injecting what the writer would have liked to see. However, there’s no author name on the article, so I don’t know who it is expressing this opinion. One assumes it was a reporter…

But the words “sadly” and “vainglorious” put it squarely in the realm of editorial opinion (although it isn’t noted that way. Or even as a review of the program).

And I feel like taking issue with the statement It's true that Rankin's dominance of the British crime-fiction market is remarkable - he commands maybe 10 per cent of all sales - but then again this may be partly because the competition here is not so hot. The Americans do it better. Whoever wrote it, I wonder what the hell they’re on. Um, Martina Cole. Val McDermid. Stuart MacBride. Mark Billingham. Simon Kernick (a Richard and Judy summer read pick, which is the UK equivalent of Oprah). Ruth Rendell. PD James. Alexander McCall Smith. Denise Mina. What a loaded, unqualified opinion thrown in the mix of an article that’s supposed to be about music in crime fiction.

The article goes on to say, But the harder questions, such as whether the use of music is not sometimes just lazy piggybacking, if not product placement, and whether or not resorting to it so readily further suggests that crime fiction as a genre is condemned never to be much more than mood music itself, were not raised. The most original use of music in crime fiction wasn't mentioned either, the appearance of the Goldberg Variations, beautiful 'beyond plight and time', in The Silence of the Lambs.

Um, I actually listened to the program, and I distinctly remember Karin Slaughter mentioning thoughts on using music as a lazy way to convey emotion. Factual error is followed by another opinion, as I’ve seen no survey or pronouncement from some identified body of authority to suggest that the music he’s referring to is, in fact, considered the most original use of music in crime fiction.

And then the article goes into a summary of some other show with a “real music-inspired policeman,” which apparently makes his strong Christian roots and references valid.


Um, are you sort of sensing I didn’t like the article? No, not much. I write opinion as well as (and occasionally even better) than whoever penned that but I don’t have the audacity to stick it in a newspaper and try to validate it as relevant. What really bugs me, though, is how often people will read something like that and, because it’s in the Telegraph or whatever paper, consider it to have some authority, but I’ll steer away from that. I may have pissed off everyone else in the world this week, so I need someone to offend next week.

Getting back to the issue, let me answer my own question. Music in crime fiction: the insert of a lazy author, product placement or an often essential ingredient?

My answer? Yes and no, yes and no, and yes.

I want to be clear that this is a generalization. There are undoubtedly those who use musical references as a lazy way to set the mood. I can’t say off-hand that I have an example that comes to mind, but I’m sure this is true of someone, somewhere. Claiming otherwise would be silly when I haven’t read everything in the world.

I’m sure there are also those who use music as product placement, or in such a way that it comes off as product placement. I haven’t really experienced it coming off that way to me. In reality, I’m not keen on product placement. I’ll split hairs on it. This is part of what I stated recently on the subject on 4MA:

I consider the appropriate interests of a character before I put a book in their hands, or music on the stereo. Just because I like something, it doesn't mean it will be their thing. For example, it's not at all a commentary on quality but there's just no way either of my protagonists from SC would read Vicki Hendricks - Lara and Farraday are both a bit...reserved about sex.

There's a difference between product placement and pop culture references, and that's something else to consider. In all things, there's a degree of "know your audience". I suppose if you're targeting people who like fashion because you're writing a series of fashion designer murder mysteries, making multiple references to brand name shoes and clothes and designers would be appropriate. As a reader, I'd be lost, though, because I know nothing about that world. That is always the risk that you face when you decide to mention stuff.

I love musical references, and have bought albums/tried out artists solely from references in books. I love book references. I'm not crazy about fashion references, but I own fewer than nine pairs of shoes. And offhand I only know where three are - my regular shoes, my running shoes and my sandals. (A characteristic no doubt influenced by the fact that I partially severed my right foot as a child and actually am not supposed to wear most types of shoes.)

However, products might have a specific purpose. They may denote wealth or lack thereof. They may also reveal character. We might assume someone who drives a Ferrari is more vain than someone who drives a Pontiac Firefly. (Said with absolutely no intention of offending anyone here!) It may also reveal things about access. I've been up to the Arctic, and there are some things that simply aren't available locally that we might take for granted. In a book if someone was missing and a search of their house revealed items that locals typically wouldn't have, it could be significant to developing the case. I'm trying to think of a good example but my head's blank - suffice to say that if a search of a home in Inuvik revealed a recent Canadian Tire receipt and there was no indication this person had been away recently, it might indicate they'd had a visitor who may have had something to do with their disappearance.

But even then, it would be delicate to use clues such as that, because unless you've been there maybe you wouldn't understand the significance. (And even those of us who've been there are left wondering what new stores they might have since I last visited. I mean, I can remember when Muskoka had NO McDonald's. Then Bracebridge got one... And eventually Gravenhurst. Referencing a stop at McDonald's in Gravenhurst automatically dates the book in my head, because it opened in 1989.)

On the subject of dating the work... Just about everything is dated, in some capacity. Cities grow or decline over time. Women today are able to hold different jobs than they were hired for fifty years ago. When I read something set in the 50s references to places/products that were common then establish the setting. And that actually communicates a lot to a reader. The world wasn't the same September 5, 2001 as it was September 12, 2001. One week and a world of difference. The timing communicates far more to the reader in a case like that - it carries with it fears and uncertainties, etc. Works that are timeless are not ones that don't have a sense of the era they're set in, but ones that reflect issues/concerns that are relevant to people as much today as they were whenever.

One other thing. There may be references that have some significance to the setting. If someone here is going for coffee there's probably as much chance they're going to Tim Hortons as Starbucks. (Okay, I don't know what share each company has of the market, because I hate coffee, but I know a lot of coffee drinkers who love Tim Hortons.)

For me, this is one of those things there are no hard and fast rules on. If it's the protagonist's car knowing more details (make, model) might make sense. It may also make sense to know something about the suspect's vehicle if it's significant to the story. A person's choice of vehicle might also indicate how easy it would be to identify it. You drive a red Honda Civic you won't stand out much, but if you're driving a gold Porsche you'll be easier to find. one book the references might work for me perfectly. In another, they might not work at all.

I can’t honestly say I remember reading anything that felt forced with regards to musical references. The truth, for me, is that music is something I consider important. Walk down the average street past houses and you’ll hear the faint (and sometimes not-so-faint) murmur of music from inside. People listen to music when they’re driving, many people wake up to music with alarm clock radios. Kids have Discmans and iPods. Almost every place I’ve ever worked has had music playing in the background or used music in the program.

In some respects, music is the international language. When you hear a song that’s heartwrenching you often don’t need to understand the words to know it’s sad. Here in the real world, music does invoke mood. That’s a reality. If I’m in a certain mood, where I could go either way, choosing to listen to sad music may make me cry and choosing to listen to something upbeat may get me out of my melancholic state.

To be honest, with music being as important to people as it is, I find it hard to fathom characters that never intersect with music. They never listen to anything on the radio when driving. They never turn on the stereo when at home. They notice a house/suspect/location/suspicious vehicle and remember intricate details about it but never walk through a neighbourhood and notice the music. That seems a bit unrealistic to me. Even if it isn’t something they ‘know’ or ‘like’ why not reference the noise pollution emanating from the neighbour’s house? You noticed their flower bed.

To me, this is where balance comes in. It’s all about what else is in the book. If the character is the type to notice and reference everything in detail, then I would expect music to be there. If the character’s a music fan, I’d expect it as well. There’s no one right amount of references that work – it will vary story to story, character to character, author to author.

One thing I do find curious is when someone says that the character’s musical tastes don’t fit the character as they see them. I suppose it’s fair as a personal observation. But one of the things I enjoyed Peter Robinson saying was that he’d given Banks eclectic music tastes because his own musical interests were diverse. I think that’s true of a lot of people. We all have some degree of range. Some who read here are crime fiction fans solely. Others are sci fi and fantasy fans first. Some like horror. Others don’t. If we can have range in our reading, why not range in what we listen to?

In reality, I don’t see how music can be carte blanche labeled as a cop-out for creating emotion. There’s a lot that goes into the atmosphere that tells us how a person is feeling. Music might be one component, but it’s only one component. In books it comes nowhere near being the substitute for acting that it often is on TV.

To me, anyway, music is natural atmosphere. A moment ago I was listening to someone working with power tools a few yards over. Not so long ago, it was my own dog, demonstrating his vocal skills. Right now, silence. If you step outside and hear Eminem blasting, or if you hear birds chirping, or if you hear nothing at all it might all be relevant as one component in establishing the setting. That silence might be coupled with houses with all the windows covered, and although it’s 4 pm and kids should be outside playing there’s nothing but a ball rolling across the yard, blown by the wind. Gives you a sense that something isn’t right. People perhaps hiding in fear. In another scenario, someone might be listening to some loud rap music and one of their crew tries to whistle a warning to them, but they can’t hear it because of the music so they get caught by the police or another drug dealer they’re beefing with…

It’s writing to our ears. And we talk all the time about writing to senses, about not just showing but letting the reader taste, hear, touch, smell when appropriate.

In my opinion, it doesn’t matter whether or not I like the music. It’s part of giving a picture of a scene, a person, a mood. Used as such, I think it’s tremendously effective.

Incidentally, I heard Rankin on a radio program a few years ago and as a result heard The Blue Nile and Jackie Leven, and loved their stuff. The Blue Nile’s album High is one you can get lost inside and Jackie Leven is a poet.


Anonymous said...

I have mixed feelings about music in books. Sometimes it's really distracting, it seems like it's there just to be there. Rankin, Robinson, Billingham, Connolly-they make it seem natural.

The best music in a book I've seen though, and you're going to hate me because I can't remember which one, was one of the Prey books by John Sandford. Lucas Davenport had been given an iPod and a gift cert. for 100 free downloads. But of course he couldn't just download any old songs with it-they had to be the best 100 songs, so throughout the entire book, he and his pals were debating the list. The biggest debate-should the Beatles be on the list or the Stones?

The best for me, I came out of it with a new favorite cover version-Hotel California by The Gipsy Kings. As far as I'm concerned, The Eagles can stop singing that song.

Sandra Ruttan said...

It's okay - I haven't read the Prey series, but that particular scenario sounds interesting. But I'm with you, in that what I've read from Rankin and Robinson and Mark's stuff seems natural. (Haven't yet read Connolly.)

I'll have to check out the version of Hotel California you mention...

Peter Rozovsky said...

Sandra, that was an excellent comment, and all in far less space than a term paper would have required. I will link back to it on my blog, calling my readers' attention especially to your comments about the Telegraph article.

First, with respect to your confusion over whether the article was reporting or editorial opinion, British newspapers have traditionally not drawn as strong a distinction between the two as have North American ones. In any case, I read the article simply as a review, which made it a proper place for the writer to express opinion. I also think British writes have a tendency to make deliberately provocative, even outrageous statements. "The Americans do it better" would fall into that category. A statement like that demands examples, which the writer did not give. (And I would offer Bill James as an example of a British writer better than anyone else in the world at what he does.)

Granted that I have not heard "Music to Die For," I think the writer may have been justified in calling Rankin "vainglorious." I chided Rankin gently for doing something similar in his foreword to The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction. I wrote that "Rankin invokes Dostoevsky, Dickens and Ian Rankin." There is sometimes a whiff of self-promotion about the man where it may not belong.

I'd better stop before this comment hurtles past term-paper length and turns into a thesis, but first, I'll add one example of musical (and literary) references that seem intrusive, if not forced: Ken Bruen's use of quotations as chapter headings, with the interesting exception of Calibre, which I wrote about at you know that I like Bruen's writing.

You're also right that music is "natural atmosphere." That's why "I Hear Music" is one of my favorite songs. Listen to those marvelous words! Then listen to the world! The question is whether fiction -- an artificial creation, after all -- has a natural atmosphere.

OK, I've taken up enough of your space. I think I'll try to keep this going later, though. You've set off a lot of intellecual sparks, for which, thanks!
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Peter Rozovsky said...

Interesting but not surprising that The Gipsy Kings have recorded "Hotel California." Listen to the introduction to "Taconeo Gitano," as recorded by the great flamenco guitarist Sabicas, and you'll know exactly where the Eagles found "Hotel California."
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Sandra Ruttan said...

Peter, I don't mind, take as long as you like. Interesting thoughts on Bruen. I look on chapter headings the same as a quote at the start of a book, so I actually find that less intrusive...

Ian Rankin self promoting? Why does he need to when I do it for him for free?

I guess it depends on perspective, to some degree. Ian's just never come off that way to me. In fact, my experience of hanging out with him gave me the impression he'd rather not talk about his own books much. But talk music and he gets positively energized. He has a real passion for it.

And if he is keen on self promotion he could actually send out a damn newsletter once in a while to the people who actually want to know what's going on. (Mild rant. I wouldn't get so many emails from people asking me if I know then. And why bother? I don't relay anything I do happen to know if it's not in the public domain anyway.)

I'm not writing a term paper on his use of musical references. I am writing a piece on something else to do with the Rebus books, though I may never share that publicly. :) It's for my own amusement.

"I chided Rankin gently for doing something similar in his foreword to The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction." I haven't read that, so can't say... but there is always a natural inclination amongst writers to cite from their own examples. In a way, it's easier not just because we know our work, but because we understand our motivations. I can sit here and say "When Ian Rankin wrote The Naming of the Dead he was commenting on..." And it's my opinion. I might be able to support my impressions, but can't say for absolute certain that he intended to do whatever I'm saying he did. One of the reasons I used my own book as an example with the Vicki Hendricks reference was because I know my own characters. With other characters, you're on a journey of discovery, just like with people, so I might not know enough about them to make the assertion I did about my own re: book references in books. But Lara and Farraday are old fashioned, and I know that.

Anyway, it's always interesting to hear different perspectives. You know what would be interesting? If you and I took opposing sides on Rankin's use of music, both wrote something up, and put it in Spinetingler. That could be fun. For that, I might even open public commenting for debate...

Peter Rozovsky said...

Here's a link to Rankin's foreword, as published in the Times:

Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Anonymous said...

I'm late to this discussion, so I might be talking to myself now, but I thought I'd toss this in.

As a long-time reader of Stephen King, I thought those who criticised his well-known use of music and pop-culture references were just the usual band of elderly, ignorant snobs. But the more I've had my own stuff published, the more conscious I've become about including such references. My main problem is that they date a book. Granted, a novel is going to date eventually, but a pop-culture reference can ensure that happens in 40 years instead of 400.

So with that in mind, when I'm drafting a novel, I cut all the pop-culture references I can bear to part with. If I keep one, it's usually because it has thematic or subtextual significance.

James Goodman said...

I use music in most everything I write. Music is a big part of my life and it seems natural that it should be extended into my writing.
In all of the books I've read, I can't think of a single instance where musical references where a distraction. Hmmm, surely there must've been at least one, where it didn't really fit. I'll have to give it some more thought.

oh, and as if you didn't have enough on your plate, I've gone and tagged you with a meme. :D

Sandra Ruttan said...

James, do let me know if you come up with one.

Kris, in my opinion, work is automatically dated. What makes it timeless is a sense that it touches on issues/concerns that are relevant to people of all times. Issues of love, loss, our fears, etc. Why does a work like Charles Dickens' Great Expectations endure? It's one of my favourite books of all time. Dated? Certainly. But it's that sense of time that adds to it.

I personally think that it's just about impossible not to date the writing. If you look at the differences in how society treats women and African Americans, for example, you see dramatic differences over time. Cultural attitudes, relevant politics... all that stuff conveys a sense of time as well as pop culture references. I would almost expect something set in the 50s to reference Elvis.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Kris, it sounds to me as if you've adopted a wise course. The trouble with pop-culture references is that they can be cheap and easy. Seems to me a writer with the urge to use a song or movie or brand name needs to ask himself or herself if that is really the best way to get the job done.

One book where such references did not bother me was Ken Bruen's Calibre. That's because the references were so in tune with the spirit of the novel and were not mere labels. Also, one of the references was entirely unexpected.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"