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'This one tape had all these memories': Pop music, mixtapes and young-adult fiction

‘Pop music’ is a slightly ‘slippery concept’, partly because what can be considered ‘popular’ in any given period of time, is always changing. Generally speaking however, pop music can be viewed as distinct from classical music, or other styles of music which are deemed to rely on cultivated ‘listening skills’. It is a democratising form of music – in that it is intended to be accessible and of general appeal. It also typically stems from the ‘mood’ or zeitgeist of the contemporary period, and is usually associated with a younger listening demographic.

There is a long-standing interdisciplinary connection between literature and music. "All art aspires towards the condition of music" the essayist Walter Pater believed, and throughout the centuries artists and writers have testified to the potent impact of music on their work: as an art-form that can touch on the most visceral aspects of the human experience. But what of the more specific association between pop music and writing with a particular audience in mind; for example - young-people?

There are a variety of recent novels published in both the UK and North America that demonstrate an interest in the association between fiction for young people and music as a formative element in characters’ lives. These include works such as Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Hayley Long’s What’s Up With Jody Barton?, all of which portray characters making musical discoveries, relating specific songs to an emerging and evolving sense of self, as well as using music as a means by which to communicate with others; for example; through the giving and receiving of ‘mix-tapes’.

“Sex and drugs and rock and roll” are, the singer Ian Dury proclaimed in his 1977 hit single, ‘all my brain and body need’. These three (interrelated) components are integral to young-adult fiction to the degree that the lyric could almost be interpreted as a ‘mantra’ for the genre. Sex, drugs and rock and roll become ‘limit-experiences’ to cite Michel Foucault - they are illicit components in the journey towards adulthood we call adolescence. They ‘reign supreme’ as part of the teenage experience, and because literature is primarily interested in the representation of formative human experiences (and arguably young-adult literature is even more concerned with this), it is no surprise they play a key role in the stories of adolescence we encounter in recent YA fiction.

This is the case in terms of early examples of YA, like the The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, set in 1950s America during the Rock and Roll era (notable because it demonstrates the ever-present alliance between popular music and adolescence, originally forged in mid-twentieth century America), to more recent books such as Melvin Burgess’s Carnegie Medal-winning novel Junk about the UK Punk scene in the 1980s. Sub-genres of music are notable here, because it is often through these that teenage characters are depicted locating a sense of ‘ingroup’ belonging. For example in Barry Lyga’s graphic-novel Fanboy and Goth Girl, as well as Philana Bole’s Glitz about an African-American teenager’s love-affair with hip-hop. This is because as Magdalena Waligorska argues: ‘Purchasing, listening to and dancing to music implies a profound sense of belonging to and participation in the creation of a scene, subculture, culture, or imagined community’.

Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower (written and set in the 1990s) is a good place to start thinking about the role of music in YA fiction, as music is referred to regularly in this novel, and plays a key role in the character development of its protagonist, Charlie. In the book, Charlie recounts his freshman year of high school and in particular, his initial feelings of being an outsider in this environment. He eventually befriends Sam and Patrick who are similarly marginalised, but have learned to own their difference, humorously defining themselves against the more popular high-school cliques (predictably, the jocks).

As well as joy-riding in cars on the freeway and smoking joints, Charlie, Sam and Patrick’s favourite activity is listening to, and sharing music with each other. Charlie’s favourite song is ‘Asleep’ by The Smiths (worthy of note because of its lyrics focusing on discovery and escape – [‘there is another world / there is a better world’] central themes in this book), but also as the novel goes on, his friends introduce him to other bands, such as Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins, as well as singer-songwriters like Suzanne Vega (whose records often speak for the dispossessed), in addition to the insular, melancholic Nick Drake. At one point in the novel, Charlie decides to create a mix-tape for his friend Patrick’s Christmas present. He begins by describing its contents:

“The present is going to be a mix tape. I just know that it should. I already have the songs picked. It has Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana, Asleep by the Smiths, Vapour Trail by Ride, Scarborough Fair by Simon and Garfunkel, A Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum, Time of No Reply by Nick Drake, Dear Prudence by the Beatles, Gypsy by Suzanne Vega, Landslide by Fleetwood Mac, and finally... Asleep by the Smiths (again!) I hope it’s the kind Patrick can listen to whenever he drives alone and feel like he belongs to something when he’s sad”.

Subsequently, Charlie explains what the process of making the mix-tape (which is of course created on an analogue cassette, for those who fondly remember this format!) has taught him about music itself:

“I had an amazing feeling when I finally held the tape in my hand. I just thought to myself that in the palm of my hand, there was this one tape that had all of these memories and feelings and great joy and sadness. Right there in the palm of my hand. And I thought about how many people have loved those songs. And how many people got through a lot of bad times because of those songs”.

Music, as Charlie observes, is strongly associated with ‘memories’ and ‘feelings’, it is an accompaniment on life’s journey and also functions in the novel to underscore the ‘coming-of-age’ nature of his narrative. Music is also, as Charlie indicates in the first extract, associated with ‘belonging’ and an erasure of difference. But, we might ask, is he simply falling victim to pop music’s excitement and escapist characteristics? Interestingly, the criticisms that have been made between YA fiction and pop music, are actually quite similar.

They predominantly centre on the argument that both are inherently frivolous, ‘disposable’ and ‘escapist’ forms – in contrast to the ‘weightier’ more established music from the classical tradition, or, of course, what is ambiguously and problematically defined, from the perspective of children’s literature studies, as the ‘adult novel’. I however, identify with Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, who explained his belief that: ‘I’ve never believed pop music is escapist trash, there’s always a darkness in it’. The same could be said for YA, a genre which is consistently ‘written off’ by the literary establishment for similarly reasons as mentioned before, but which nevertheless has managed to produce some of the most arresting and compelling works in the English language. These include for example, J.D Salinger’s The Catcher In the Rye, William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy etc (to name but a few!)

Although set in the previous decade, the 1980s, Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park shares some common ground with The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Both novels focus on high-school misfits and their attempt to negotiate the rocky terrain of school. Both also explore burgeoning romantic relationships, which, whilst they primarily play out between the secondary characters in The Perks of Being a Wallflower (notably in terms of a calamitous gay relationship between Patrick and closeted athlete Brad), the titular Eleanor and Park discover their romantic attraction early in the novel, and its development is chronicled throughout the book, the narration of which shifts between both Eleanor and Park’s perspectives.

Their courtship is mostly conducted with head-phones on, (because as Eleanor explains ‘where there was a Walkman, there was the possibility of music’; only a ‘possibility’ because of the characters’ frequent need throughout the novel for new batteries; Sony’s 1980s portable cassette players not being renowned for their long battery life!) Ultimately, Rainbow Rowell depicts music as being, not just a shared interest, but a crucial means of emotional connection between Eleanor and Park. Like Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Park makes Eleanor a mix-tape. The chapter in the novel in which she is described receiving and listening to the tape is noteworthy because of the way Rowell explores the notion of music, not only existing as an auditory experience, but also as a physical one:

“She had Park’s songs in her head – and in her chest, somehow. There was something about the music on that tape. It felt different. Like, it set her lungs and her stomach on edge. There was something exciting about it, and something nervous. It made Eleanor feel like everything, like the world, wasn’t what she’d thought it was”.

Park’s comments later echo Tolstoy’s sentiments in What is Art? – ‘Art, if it is about anything, is about connection; about ‘feeling something’. Often though, as Eleanor discovers, such a ‘connection’ with a song is reliant on sustained and repeated listening.

"She felt like someone was hooking her insides out through her chest. ‘It was awesome. I didn’t want to stop listening. That one song – is it “Love Will Tear Us Apart”?’ ‘Yeah, Joy Division.’ ‘Oh my God, that’s the best beginning to a song ever.’ ‘I just want to listen to those three seconds over and over.'"

Wanting to reciprocate, Eleanor finds herself struggling with what tracks to choose to make as significant an impact on Park, as his tape has had on her:

“She flipped through the records matter-of-factly, on a mission. Looking for Rubber Soul and Revolver. It seemed as if she would never be able to give Park anything like what he’d given her. It was like he dumped all this treasure on her without even thinking about it, without any sense of what it was worth. She couldn’t repay him. She couldn’t even appropriately thank him. How can you thank someone for The Cure? Or the X-Men? Sometimes it felt like she’d always be in his debt. And then she realized that Park didn’t know about the Beatles.”

For Eleanor here then, music becomes a kind of ‘currency’, in which extraordinary records or bands the recipient has not yet discovered, are particularly valuable – it is what Paul Hernardi terms a ‘cultural transaction’.

British author Hayley Long prefaces her 2004 YA novel Fire and Water with an affectionate nod to a setting also indicative of music’s ‘transactional’ nature, the record shop. The book is dedicated to an Aberystwyth record store she once frequented, called ‘Music Warehouse’ which she explains, ‘intrigued her for over a decade but is sadly now boarded up’ (this sadly being the fate of many such independent record shops after the internet / digital boom when music became much more freely available online). Nevertheless, record shops still hold pride of place in many people’s nostalgic reflections of teenage musical discovery.

This is certainly the case in Hayley Long’s novel Fire and Water, in which twenty-something Ally, in an attempt to pass the time during a long train journey, reflects on her decision to collect vinyl albums as a teenager. She describes the first record shop she ever enters as being ‘like her own Pandora’s box’ in terms of the atmosphere of mystery and opportunity it exudes. However, it is the radio that has the most direct influence on her choice of listening material. And, in particular, she describes the selections the Radio 1 DJ Annie Nightingale plays on her ‘Sunday Request Show’:

I sat and listened and listened and then I began to make some lists in a notebook. The Undertones. The Doors. Lloyd Cole. The Damned. I soon had a whole book filled with information like:

‘Stories of Johnny’, Marc Almond – released 1985 – played by Annie at 8:17 on 8th March 1987.

‘She’s not there’, The Zombies – released 1964 – first track played by Annie on 26th April 1987.

‘Fire and Water’ by Free (a very very good record!) – taken from the 1970 album of the same name, never released as a single (tragically) – played by Annie at 8:42, 3rd May 1987

Radio 1, the teenage radio station writ large has always influenced teenage musical taste (in the UK at least), its DJs playing a selection of mostly contemporary rock and pop music, which historically, along with the so-called ‘pirate radio stations’ such as Radio Caroline and Luxembourg that preceded it, was renowned for its rebellious, edgy and somehow slightly illicit mood. Radio 1 is also notable for being one of the few commercial stations to continue playing vinyl records even when other musical mediums (i.e.: the cassette tape and CD) rendered them obsolete. In this way, the station has contributed to the ideal of vinyl, as the original, best, and certainly coolest way of listening to and experiencing music. This has been particularly evident in recent times, with the BBC recently reporting that vinyl sales are the highest they have been for 25 years. As Ally comments in Fire and Water, ‘when CDs came along, everybody said that vinyl was dead. They were so wrong’.

In addition to being a YA author, Hayley Long is also a music collector and DJ. I was lucky enough to interview her for VOYA magazine recently to discuss the role of music in her life and writing:

Ben: The discovery of music, and its influence on teenagers plays a considerable role in your fiction. What is it about the influence of music that continues to interest and excite you as both a writer (and human being), and what impact did music have on you as a teenager?

Hayley: I can hear a tune on the radio and often date it correctly because it takes me back to a specific flat-share or city or wherever I was at that time. Music is a really powerful thing. Some songs even remind me of smells! I think my record-hoarding love-affair has something to do with my own adolescence. I wasn’t actually very good at being a teenager. I was small (still am), had a crippling lack of confidence. As a result, I wasn’t massively popular and spent hours in my bedroom taping the Top 40 off Radio 1 or listening to pirate radio stations. Music gave me confidence. As a teenager, I discovered The Doors and – for a while anyway - that defined who I was. Then I saw people like Tanya Donelly (Throwing Muses/Belly/The Breeders) playing guitar on TV and I thought, ‘THAT’S who I want to be,’ - even though I had no skills any band could ever use. But I suppose it was just about finding my own identity. Or finding someone to identify with anyway. I still have a very strong emotional connection to a lot of pop music and I hope I always do have that. And that’s why I write about it.

I think this is a good place to make some concluding remarks and observations… Hayley Long neatly articulates the way in which pop music acts as an antidote to what Nick Hornby calls the ‘emotional puzzlement’ of adolescence. Music is, as each of these novels in their individual ways suggest, a way of ‘defining identity’ through ‘emotional connection’. Arguably, this is also one of the main objectives of young-adult fiction itself - if the genre could be said to have such a thing. Also, as Hayley Long suggests, there is a sensory, almost physical aspect to music that ‘takes us back’ to key people and places in our lives, and for many of us, the most pertinent and poignant ‘site’ to which music can transport us, remains adolescence. This is because, as Nick Hornby puts it, in his superb novel about musical obsession High Fidelity, our teenage years are when ‘the really important stuff, the stuff that really defines us, goes on’.

Dr Ben Screech - University of Gloucestershire


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