(Ironically, today Burlesque Press posted my poem in which I quote Nirvana lyrics.)
I’ve been on a Francesca Lia Block bender ever since I read The Rumpus’s recent interview with her.
First I reread her 1989 classic, Weetzie Bat, a book I absolutely gushed over at twenty-three. Ten years later, I still love the fast-paced fairy tale of misfits in L.A., but it didn’t entrance me quite the way it did before. It was like re-watching a movie you loved as a kid: it holds a place in your heart, but now you see its flaws.
Next I read Violet & Claire, a YA book from 2000, which was fun and cute and clever but bordered on overly-sentimental towards the end. And then I found myself somewhat annoyed with The Elementals, Block’s adult novel from 2012, which still seemed like YA to me. I haven’t given up on Block by any means, but I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve outgrown her.
But this post is not a review FLB. She has dozens more books that I haven’t read, and I don’t pretend to be an expert on her body of work. I do admire her and think she holds an important place in literary history because she was writing edgy and lyrical Young Adult fiction before the YA genre was really a “thing.” But that’s not what this post is about either. Instead, I want to use her novels as examples in order to pose a question: should you use real band names and song lyrics in your novels?
Let’s take Violet & Claire as an example. Main character Violet has a fling with the hot lead singer of super cool rock band. Instead of making Violet have a fling with a specific star who would both date the novel and alienate readers who don’t find that musician particularly hot or his band particularly cool, Block creates a fictional band and a fictional rock star: Flint Cassidy, lead singer of Spent Pleasure. Readers can imagine the hottest star and the coolest band — whatever that might mean to them.
So it’s strange that, after making up a fictional band, Block then proceeds to name-drop real ones. Violet and Claire listen to PJ Harvey and Tori Amos, which helps to characterize them, I suppose: angsty, artsy, alterna-teen girls…but I knew that without the music references, and I worry that both PJ Harvey and Tori Amos are a little out of date, even for the year the book was published. Still, I was willing to forgive the quoting of Tori Amos songs… I, too, was once a teenager who wrote my favorite lyrics all over my notebooks and jeans and best friend’s bedroom walls… maybe mentioning bands and songs is good thing for the YA genre?
It wasn’t until I started reading The Elementals that I couldn’t handle Block’s band name-dropping anymore. I wanted to shout, “OK, FLB, enough with the Tori Amos already!” Ariel, the overly-naive narrator of The Elementals is constantly listening to and quoting from Tori Amos songs, and since I don’t particularly care for Tori Amos, it made me even more annoyed with Ariel than I already was.
Ariel’s favorite band, however, is a fictional one: Halloween Hotel. Why, I wonder, did FLB give Ariel a fictional favorite band, but then mention Smashing Pumpkins and Tori Amos and other bands that peaked in the mid-90’s and (in my opinion) tend to make this current novel seem dated?
I don’t know. But I have some theories.
I think writers name-drop real bands in their fiction for a couple of reasons:
1. Short-hand character description. If a character listens to the Sex Pistols, or Vivaldi, or Justin Bieber, we instantly form some opinions about who they are as a person. This could be good or bad, I suppose, but you do run the risk of stereotyping.
2. To seem cool and/or current. Some of the goodreads reviews accuse FLB of this. A reader named Leah said:
Block seemed to shout at the reader, “I know what’s cool! Hipster boys and Tori Amos! I’m still relevant!” I love Tori as much as the next alternative girl who grew up in the 90s and early 00s, but I don’t need her songs constantly referenced in an apparent attempt to seem contemporary. It will cause the book to become outdated quickly.
3. Because they themselves love the band, and, like teenagers who wants to write lyrics all over their notebooks, they can’t help but want to include their favorite bands in their own fiction. I have a feeling that THIS is what’s going on with FLB. I bet she is a big Tori Amos fan herself.
4. Because it adds to the story or helps illuminate a character in an important way. So I’m not saying you shouldn’t mention bands — it could be a good thing.
The bottom line is, you have to be very careful with mentioning bands in your fiction. Not only might it date your work, but people tend to be very opinionated about music, and you can’t expect readers to share your opinions about what constitutes good or bad or cool music. Band name dropping in your fiction can also come off a little bit like it does in real life: like you’re trying to sound cool and impress people.
On the other hand, I personally know writers who use bands, songs, and lyrics in their fiction, and it works for them. Stephanie Kuehnert, who I recently interviewed, named her first novel (I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone) after a Sleater-Kinney song, and the opening quote of the book is from a Social Distortion song. Mentioning real music helps set the scene and explain the characters in this realistic-fiction novel.
Lish McBride, who I interviewed a few months ago, also uses music in her fiction. In Hold Me Closer, Necromancer (a play on Elton John’s “Hold Me Closer, Tiny Dancer” — a witticism that took me nearly two years to get) and Necromancing the Stone, McBride names each chapter after a song title that also has to do with what happens in the chapter: Another One Bites the Dust; Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting; Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car. I think it’s pretty clever and fun, but I grew up in the same era as Lish, and I know these songs; I wonder if her younger readers get the joke. On the other hand, if teen readers don’t get the references, it’s not a big deal because they’re only chapter titles.
In the end, my question is this:
When should you use real band names in your fiction, when should you make up fictional ones, and when should you abstain from specifics at all (for example, writing something like, “she listened to punk rock bands from the 80’s”)?
Dirk and Duck played guitar, My Secret Agent Lover Man bass, Valentine and Raphael drums. Weetzie and CHerokee and Witch Baby and Ping sang. They performed “Ragg Mopp,” “Louie-Louie,” “Wild Thing,” and their own songs like “Lanky Lizard,” “Rubber Chicken Strut,” “Irie-Irie,” “Witchy Baby,” and “Love Warrior.” – From Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block