It’s raining today in Nashville. One of those slow, all-day rains that makes you want to sit by a fireplace in footie pajamas. Well, that’s what I would like to do. Instead, I’m embracing the mood and listening to Agnes Obel’s Philharmonics (YouTube), which is a nice blend of catchy, sparse piano instrumentation and almost-a-whisper vocals. It was made for grey days. I was first introduced to Obel’s music via an early episode of Revenge last year, and it’s a perfect winter soundtrack. Perfect. I wrote to it a lot last year, and thus, it set a specific tone and compelled me to think about the role music plays in narrative.
For me, music is an intrinsic part of the experience of reading and writing. It helps establish the attitude, the chill or relative un-chillness of the characters and perspective; it’s all over the place. If the narrative transitions to film, the playlist can either really set everything off, enhance the overall experience (Forrest Gump, 1994), or, be the only redeeming element (Romeo+Juliet, 1996). I was surprised then, to see this article from The Millions, talking about Picador USA’s playlist making.
Check out this Spotify playlist Picador USA put together to promote the paperback release of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot. The novel follows three college seniors as they transition from semi-complicated collegiate lives into arguably heavy, adult lives in the 1980s. On making the playlist, Picador choose songs “Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell might have been listening to in the early 1980s,” and the playlist includes selections by Talking Heads, The Plasmatics and The Smiths, all completely age and time appropriate that absolutely could have helped shape the lives of the characters as they might also have affected our lives during the same period.
The downside of playlist-making by the author or publisher is that they also affect the reader’s experience, right? When you set the scene and appropriate emotion so exactly, is there room for imagination? Is imagination inherent in someone else’s narrative or are we, as readers, just being greedy? We’re often compelled to emotion and/or action because of music, so what if we’re compelled in an unintended direction? Largeheartedboy has been making so-called “Book Notes” for years; here’s Toure’s playlist for his 2011 release Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?; and Erin Morgenstern‘s for her novel, The Night Circus and I’ve always thought of it as a cool side project for enhancing my personal experience. One of my favorite playlists includes every song Patti Smith mentioned in her 2010 memoir, Just Kids. Literally, all of them. 168 tracks.
So, is music an important part of the narrative to you? Are you more likely to “get” a character based on their musical interests or would it turn you off to know they thought Nicki Minaj is a better lyricist than Joni Mitchell? Do you care? Does it make you value the author’s intentions more or less? Is it only appropriate for non-fiction works? When will the questions stop?