Teague was driving. He came up to me as we were loading up, holding up his iPod, which was loaded just like mine.
“Bleed it Out?” he asked hopefully, and I grinned. I don’t know what I looked like, but his grin back was ferocious and bloodthirsty, and nobody had better fuck with us because we were bad fucking business.
“Bleed it out!” I answered back. We bashed closed fists together and got ready to roll.
I don’t know when we had started the tradition of listening to head-banging music on the way to our ass-kicking runs—I think I just started co-opting the stereo and playing stuff that got me pumped. It didn’t matter, because when Teague joined us in November, the tradition became locked in stone. Now we even had a couple of playlists culled from iPods full of every metal, rock, or alternative CD produced in the last twenty years.
Without a doubt, the vampires’ favorite was Adrian’s favorite—Linkin Park—and their hands-down, love-it-forever, rhythm-pumped-in-their-veins favorite kickass song was “Bleed It Out.” We’d built a four-hour playlist around that song, and on nights like this, it felt good to thunder that shit through our veins.
—from Rampant, Part II, out in November
About ten years ago I was standing outside of my classroom, welcoming my fifth period in, and wishing I was dead.Or in hell.
Or anywhere but in front of that classroom.
Because my administrator hated me—this is not an exaggeration. He designed this class to make my life miserable so I’d quit. It was a class of thirty-two juniors at the beginning of the year. Fourteen of the thirty-two students were bound for continuation school. Twelve of those continuation school students were male.
When I say, “bound for continuation school” this doesn’t mean I was meanly assessing their future. It means they were in their third year of high school and had passed fewer than three classes in two and a half years. They were going to continuation school—they’d been looking forward to it, and at the end of the first semester, they could get the hell out of regular school and go to a place where they could work on packets undisturbed. If they didn’t just drop out completely.
These kids had nothing to lose, they hated authority, hated school, hated female teachers, and I got them after lunch.
As they stomped up the walkway, swearing loudly, I waved them inside, humming Get Set Go’s “I Hate Everyone”.
I didn’t actually hate everyone. In fact, twenty of the students in the room were really wonderful. I just had to send everybody else to the office before I taught the kids who weren’t there specifically to cause trouble. (The school secretary loved me this year. She was like, “Really? You have all those kids in the same class? I mean, I’m used to seeing them in here all day, but you have to refer them all, every day!”) And as the students filed up, one of the quieter girls, a sweet, big-eyed C-student who worked her ass off for every point, heard me singing and started laughing.
“I know that song,” she said, and we both giggled.
It got me in the door.
As I was leading eighteen out of thirty-two kids through warm up, I started humming it again. My co-conspirator whispered to the girl next to her, and they both burst into giggles. I hummed it as I wrote referrals, hummed it as I waited for the chaos to die down, and the kids who were tired of the bullshit—and who, in fact, had seen these twelve boys bring down a lot of the classes they’d been in—joined me in my small musical rebellion.
For that class, thanks to Get Set, Go, we were a united front.Fast forward three years later.
I haven’t been in my classroom for a year and a half, and now it’s time to retrieve what I left when I was pulled unceremoniously out of it for giving a student a book.
It’s been vacant for six months, a dumping ground for unused desks. With the exception of over a thousand dollars of resource books that were taken by other teachers, all my stuff is shoved into boxes, with trash and pencil shavings, the remainder of fifteen years of dedicated service to this school.
I am angry and grieving.
A friend has (against my wishes, actually) insisted on accompanying me. I don’t want to talk, and I plug my iPod into the stereo I brought—I’ve loaded the iPod for this occasion.
“Bleed it Out”, “Numb”, “Seven Nation Army”, “Let it Rock”, “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn”, “I Hate Everyone”, “Thunderstruck”, “Seeds”, “Little Suzy”, “Turn Up the Radio”—the list was over seventy-five songs long, and every song had a part I could scream at the top of my lungs.
My friend tried to get me to bring home student projects, misguidedly thinking I was there to retrieve stuff of practical value. I couldn’t argue with her—I turned up the volume of the stereo and screamed “Bleed it Out” until my throat was raw.
It was the only narrative I had.
I used to tell my students—and I still tell my children and young writers—that music is the closest thing mortals get to time travel.
The melody evokes our emotion, the instrumentation stimulates our reason, the words give us language and narrative, and the rhythm embeds it in physical response. It’s the perfect memory stimulator, and one auditory prompt can take us back to an exact moment of our past with heartrending clarity.
In short, you can be forty years old and working in Michigan in the winter, but one half-heard bar of the song that came out in the top forty of your senior year, and you are suddenly seventeen and walking barefoot on the hot asphalt of your hometown, wondering what the future will bring after high school.
For me, it was “Boys of Summer” by Don Henley, but I’m sure you have your own summer songs.
So music is a powerful storytelling element, and one I find myself going to—sometimes consciously and sometimes instinctively—again and again.
I have two entire books--Mourning Heavenand Racing for the Sun--that were inspired by Bruce Springsteen songs. I get frequent pings on social media telling me, “I heard ‘Gypsy Biker’ today—oh God—Michael!” or “’Racing in the Streets’ kills me every time!” I wrote an entire book (it almost counts as two, given the length!) about a rock star named Mackey Sanders, and that playlist can crack a heart wide open. In particular, “In One Ear” by Cage the Elephant, Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt” (where the title, Beneath the Stain, comes from) and “Wish You Were Here” from Pink Floyd hit people right in the solar plexus. “The Ocean” by The Bravery has a few hearts breaking too.
Music has the power to brand a character, a mood, a moment, indelibly on the minds of the reader. It has the power to unite a group of readers around a book to say, “Yes! That moment right there! That moment is part of the human experience and we claim it as our own!”
It’s an intoxicating sensation—and one ripe for the taking—but it does need to be used with care.
I spent an awful lot of time as a teacher begging students to listen to the songs they were dancing to.
“What’s it saying?” I would demand. “Do the lyrics say something the music doesn’t?”
I used music a lot when I was studying American Romanticism, and one of my favorite exercises was to play Bruce Springsteen’s My Hometown and Bowling for Soup’s My Hometown and make the kids fill out a chart that looked something like this for each song:
Summarize one of the stories told in the song:
What was the moral of the story:
Underlying message of whole song:
When we got to the end of the exercise, the kids were compelled to admit it—the same title did not the same song make. Then I would ask them to bring in one song that they would use to teach with one of the poems or stories we’d covered—and the results were, often, inspiring.
But they had to do the headwork first. They couldn’t just grab Tupac or Green Day of the shelves and come in singing, “We did our homework!” They had to think.
And as writers, if we’re going to reference a song, one we think will brand this story in so very many ways, we need to think.
In 1985, Ronald Reagan called Bruce Springsteen a patriot because he wrote a song called “Born in the U.S.A.”. The song was an anti-war, pro-veteran benefit song that pretty much opposed most of Reagan’s cherished political hot buttons. The press didn’t let him forget it.
Not getting a musical choice right in a book right might not be that dire—or that memorable—but it does pull the reader out of the work. Instead of having someone say, “Yes! That song and these human beings! They are together twined in my heart!” you might have them say, “Well, dude. Worst D.J. EVER.”
So, within the bounds of acceptable use (which, for those of us in the indie presses means we can reference a song but not quote it, chapter titles being the only exception) a memorable soundtrack can give a work incredible depth and resonance.
But while you’re playing D.J. to your characters, never settle for the easy song, or the song everybody’s listening to at the moment. Be as careful with your song choices as you are with your character choices—if it’s a song you might be embarrassed to love ten years down the road, maybe go for something more classic. If it’s a song you find yourself screaming while dreaming of your enemy’s blood, maybe not for a sex scene, unless it’s hatesex, and that’s a whole different thing.
Music is the ultimate in communication. It’s time travel in a sound file, an instant mood-in-a-box with a single line. (Bruce Springsteen once established mood and ironyin a song by mentioning another song in the lyrics. Damn.)
It’s a powerful tool in a writer’s imagination—as long as it’s wielded with grace and love.
And a little bit of homework when studying the lyrics, so the song says exactly what you want it to, in the moment when it counts the most.