A recent reviewer of The Syndrome Diaries said the book made her want to go and dig out her Nirvana albums. A mention of an album or a song can dredge up many associations for the reader, so I wanted to talk about putting music in writing, rather than just listening to it while you write.
My central characters in the novel are the same age as me, and the music references in the novel will be familiar to anyone with a bit of a penchant for early 90s indie/alternative. The Wedding Present’s release of a single a month in 1992 crops up, the characters dance to PWEI’s ‘Defcon One,’ New Model Army get several mentions (because they’re still my absolute favourites) and one scene takes place at a Senseless Things gig. That might not seem an obvious choice, but I needed a band who toured at the appropriate timepoint and who played a gig in Leeds. That took some trawling through weblinks, and I thought I’d hit gold with Carter USM, those staples of Student Union discos, until I read the tour schedule and discovered they’d played every single town in the UK except Leeds – it almost looked as if they’d purposefully avoided it to spite me.
Music is fundamental to many people’s identities. For Bourdieu in Distinctions, music preferences are used as cultural capital – a means of displaying status. In Club Cultures, Sarah Thornton develops a theory of subcultural capital which subverts social hierarchies, with particular reference to the dance music scene of the late 80s and early 90s. Reading these books now, the dynamic nature of music and identity is striking. Does classical music still confer social status? I’d argue that memories of Spike Island are, among many of us, more respected (here’s an explanatory link for my Dad).
I found that putting many of these songs on a playlist while I wrote Syndrome helped me get into the writing zone. Other songs were contemporary, but seemed to resonate somehow – Hearts and Minds, by Exit Calm, for example: whether to follow your head or your heart is one of the central themes. Some songs had dual resonances: New Model Army’s Green and Grey is on Thunder and Consolation, which is namechecked early in the novel, but also reminds me of my time as a student in West Yorkshire, the frequent rain, and many a “bus-ride that meanders through the valleys of green and grey” (NMA have associations with nearby Bradford).
Ultimately, the catalogue of music running through the novel may say more about me than any of my characters, but I hope it’ll resonate with at least some of my readers too.