August 4th, 2011

Songs for The Big Dream

The Big Dream has music in it, but no lyrics. Music is ubiquitous in our culture–with the advent of iPods, less and less of our lives is unsoundtracked, and if you’re going to write real life, you need at least some ambient music popping up sometime. When I wrote Once, there were occasional snatches of whatever the characters were listening to. When I was finished, someone told me that you can’t use song lyrics, even just a few, even if they’re diegetic, even for atmosphere, without paying the artist who wrote them, and the licensing company and whatever-expensive-nightmare.

So I went through the whole book and took out all the direct quotations. I left some vague references and titles in–surely they can’t sue for that, and I guess most readers would be at least slightly familiar with the sorts of music I was writing about, so they’d be able to tune in inside their brains. And it’s not as if music is a huge aspect of my work–it’s just there, a part of things, a thread in the fabric… It was just frustrating, is all, to have to leave things out, even little things.

But since I found out the rules, I’ve been writing with them in mind. In Road Trips, when I wanted to show a character flipping through the radio stations and hearing a little snatch of rap, I wrote the lyrics myself (the joke was how bad it was, so it was ok that I that; I’m not planning an alternative career as a rap lyricist). And in *The Big Dream* I found other ways of describing music besides direct quotations. Sometimes it works better than others, but I think I was largely successful in creating the impression of certain music without using the lyrics. Again, this is a really small part of the book, but I worked hard on it.

Except…somehow I didn’t think all these rules applied to epigraphs. I have no idea why I believed this–probably just because I wanted to, as none of the fair use exceptions of study, review, criticism, etc. applied. I just found this really really perfect epigraph for TBD, and I wanted it and I couldn’t write my way around it–an epigraph is a direct quotation and only that.

So I’ve come to my senses, looked into the matter further, and finally deleted the epigraph. I am sad, because the song and the quotation I picked said the perfect thing, I felt, to introduce the book. So I’ll write this post, I figure, reviewing and critiquing all the music that meant a lot to me and the process of writing TBD, and then I’ll have an excuse to include the quotation here–not in the book, where I feel it belongs, but at least somewhere where people can read it and make the connection. And there’s actually a lot of other music to give credit to, here. I think a lot of writers have music they keep in mind as they write or think about their work, whether or not it’s on in the room where we’re actually tapping at the keys–see Dani Couture’s playlists series or Large Heart Boy’s Book Notes. So it’s a proud tradition of us song-listing authors that I join now–onwards.

Believe it or not, I had never ever heard Dolly Parton’s working-girl classic 9 to 5 until less than a year ago, when my friend K played a dance mix of it in the aerobics class she teaches. True! I don’t generally like the “they let you dream just to watch’em shatter” type of song–too reductive, too whingy. But this song is *very* catch, great for aerobics, and it has two great lines: “there’s a better life and you think about it / dontcha?” and “in the same boat with a lot of your friends / waiting for the day your ship will come in / the tide’s gonna turn and it’s all gonna roll you away.” Have *you* heard a better extended metaphor in a pop-song? A nice bit of solidarity, too! And I like “pour myself a cup of ambition,” too. Someday, I may write a story called, “A Cup of Ambition”–or is that not fair use? Oh, probably not. Sigh. (Query: I’ve still not seen the movie nor the stage show; should I?)

My background in songs about work is, well, work songs. I’m from that sort of family. So I was pleased to find a collection of our old favourites in Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions. A bit more modern than the original Seeger, and also easier to find on CD (oh, sigh, sacrilege), this album is delightful. I certainly realize that a lot of these songs are about work done by slaves, and that it’s grossly offensive to align office work with that history. I don’t do so–I just like songs about work in any form. My favourites are “Jacob’s Ladder,” (that’s actually a really wonderful video there, which I hadn’t seen before now), for the incredible line, “Every new rock just makes us stronger,”  and “John Henry”, about the strongest man in the world. But no kidding, there’s everybody else and then there is Mr. Seeger–a singer for us all.

I’m a literalist, and I always felt that The New Pornographers’ The Crash Year is actually about a market crash–no idea if that’s true or not, although the album being released in 2010 would indicates so, as do lines like “you’re ruined like the rest of us” and “oh my child you’re not safe here.” And there’s a whistle-chorus!

You know you’re a serious Simon and Garfunkel fan when you are into the B sides–the tracks with a horn section, and more ribaldry, less tender reflection. One of my favourite all-time S&G works is Keep the Customer Satisfied. This is essentially a barstool plaint by a travelling salesman, exuberantly sung even when the lyrics are, “And I’m sooo tired / I’m oh-oh-oh so tired/I’m just trying to keep the customer satisfied.” You just don’t hear that line in rock’n’roll very often, and it makes me feel like these guys really know what it’s like to have a not-too-great job–though, as far as I know, they mainly didn’t. I mean, quirky musical icon isn’t a bad gig, right?

Of course, I like lots of music by folks who don’t work at job-jobs or write about them. In fact, I spent most of my time while writing this book listening to music by Vampire Weekend and The National, with a little Neil Diamond and Arcade Fire thrown in. And none of those artists give the impression of having done their time in the salt mine, but that’s ok–I really don’t theme my life by what I’m writing, I just shape it for posts like this.

And there’s Weezer. Silly, irreverent, possibly outdated Weezer, whose music is mainly about flirting and being awkward at parties–not that isn’t awesome, because it totally is. But sometimes, especially this one time, they manage to get right at the heart of things, and write the line that encapsulates not only my book but a chunk of my life’s philosophy. It was in the song Keep Fishin’ (yes, it’s the video with the Muppets–watch it if you haven’t, it’s brilliant). Note that throughout this post I have offered an evaluative judgement on all directly quoted material–it’s criticism, people, and therefore fair use. That *wonderful* line, which really should be my epigraph–fie on the greedy music industry and their selfish need to keep all their good lines for themselves, is:

You’ll never do
The things you want
If you don’t move
And get a job

2 Responses to “Songs for The Big Dream

  • Kerry says:

    I love this post. I think you are allowed, or actually CONTRACTUALLY REQUIRED to write a story called A Cup of Ambition.


  • Rebecca says:

    Thanks, Kerry! I met a music publisher at a party on Saturday, and he told me that this all could’ve probably been solved with a minimum of drama/cash–oh, well, now I know for next time.

    I’ll see what I can do for you on the Cup of Ambition!


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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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