I was recently asked to write about some of the music included in Dearly, Departed, and how I use music as a writer – thing is, there’s so much to say! There are so many different ways to tackle the topic. Music definitely serves as a huge source of inspiration for me, and has done since I was a child.
There are several musical inclusions in D,D, and I’ll talk about two of them in detail (although each one is important!), before chatting a bit about how I use music to feed my characters and actually aid in my writing. This is going to be a long post!
Gangstagrass is mentioned during a party scene in D,D, and is definitely not my own creation. It’s a real, awesome form of music, and if you’re into the show Justified, you’ve probably rocked out to it. It’s a mashup/blend of bluegrass and gangster rap, and it is amazing.
“The digital Victrola was turned up very loud and was playing desert rag – a venerable form of Punk music, descended from something called “Gangstagrass,” that combines folksy fiddles and banjos with ancient rap beats.” – pg. 302
As one reviewer has noted, although I’m writing about a futuristic Victorian/steampunk society, I bring in a lot of references to things that aren’t necessarily Victorian or the product of the contemporary steampunk movement. This is because it’s not my goal to create a future-Victorian world where anything “not authentically Victorian” is suppressed or vilified – for the simple reason that to do so would open up a toolbox full of symbolism, meaning, and ideas that I really don’t feel like using in this particular story. (For instance, maybe I’d need to add a group of obsessive American Civil War reenactor “thread counters” who rule their town with an iron fist and conduct regular “historically accurate bloomers only!” inspections. As amusing as this might be, I really don’t want to go there.) I’d much rather the societies I’m writing about come across as organic, fluid, and believable. I also like creating a sense of anachronism, of impurity, of cultures working with what they’ve been handed. The New Victorians (and even the Punks, to a certain extent) are people who know that they’re basing their society on an ancient one, and that they are incapable of recreating it wholecloth. They borrow what they like or need, and they ignore what they don’t (and it’s interesting to consider what they’re willing to gloss over).
Furthermore, we’re talking about futuristic societies that don’t have access to every crumb of information about the First Victorians. Centuries and multiple disasters lie between the First Victorians and the New. So they get things “wrong.” They extrapolate. They make up their own rules that “feel” right. And so on.
Hence, I wanted to include mentions of things that have survived, whether or not these things directly influenced the resurgence of Victorianism – books (Dracula is mentioned), movies (Moulin Rouge) and definitely music. But I also knew that music might change, might inspire new forms (it’s been 200 years, after all). I decided to use Gangstagrass to talk about this, rather than any contemporary steampunk bands, because Gangstagrass really speaks to the soul of my Punks. It’s a blend of old and new – and yet, two styles of music that speak largely about the same issues and ideals. It feels earthy, raw, and yet also incredibly complex and polished – and best of all, timeless, like a musical form that could travel. A couple of string instruments, some amazing lyrical ability, and I can imagine far-flung pockets of Victorianeseque Neo-Luddites entertaining themselves with something like Gangstagrass in the middle of the desert, in the heart of mechanical cities. Around campfires and at pre-exile rallies. I can definitely see the descendant genres of Gangstagrass being used at rallies meant to raise awareness about workers’ rights and the evil of the rising aristocracy – the beat would galvanize the crowd, scandalize passing ladies. It’d be perfect.
The book doesn’t specify how far from the original source desert rag has wandered – I do like to imagine innovative steampunk instruments being crafted for it. I’d prefer to leave its actual sound up to the imaginations of any musically inclined readers. If there’s ever a movie, though, I totally want Gangstagrass as it exists to be included. That’s why I chose to quote lyrics from the first album rather than come up with any of my own (also? I suck at writing lyrics and poetry) – they were so evocative, so utterly perfect. I mean, rapping about the Titanic? Be still, my heart. I also didn’t want to put words in the mouth of a descendant genre, because I love the source material so much.
(NOTE/Trigger warning for my younger, more sensitive, and politically/socially aware readers. If you want to experience more of the awesomeness, please be aware that Gangstagrass includes explicit lyrics, as well as some use of the N-word (‘I’m Gonna Put You Down’ and ‘Nobody Gonna Miss Me’) – it is a style of music that incorporates real gangster rap. Any of the songs from Justified should be fine. From what I can tell, Amazon and CDBaby only sell the explicit versions. iTunes has clean copies.)
- “Little One” by Bing Crosby
I was raised pretty solidly on music from the 40s through the 60s (I still regard it as “my music,” even though I’m in my twenties!), and thus Bram Griswold, my zombie hero, likes old crooners and classic country boys. He grew up loving Matthis, Crosby, and Martin. Why? I think it’s because to a farm boy, they sounded sophisticated. I think that fundamentally he also prefers gentle, lulling music, as opposed to something like desert rag or what’s survived/evolved of rock or metal or what have you. He’s a kick-ass guy, but he’s not violent or cruel. I don’t think he’s ever enjoyed hurting anyone, even evil zombies – he does what he has to do, but he doesn’t delight in it. So I don’t see Bram as a headbanger – I see Bram whistling an Everly Brothers tune. (In fact, my “Bram thinking of Nora song” is ‘Let it Be Me.’)
So when Nora was to be awoken by Bram singing, it made sense for it to be something slower, deeper, older. And the lyrics work so well. “I’m not a bad guy – I just have a thing for human flesh. But I take care of that. So give me a chance.”
Because I was determined not to have a paranormal hero that the heroine immediately fell for, I had to find ways to sell Bram in spite of his rotting body and status as an undead cannibal. I definitely think his musical tastes helped. At least he wasn’t sitting on the other side of the door humming ‘Head Like a Hole.’
- Music in general.
I’ve been asked if I compile playlists, and if so, what’s on them? My answer to that is always, “How long do you have?” I have a playlist for every book in the series (that I’d like to write, at least), “storage” playlists for songs that might make the cut, an enormous zombie playlist, and my “working repeat” list where I stick the soundtracks I like to compile my notes to. (Most often the Inception soundtrack, oddly enough, even though I’m not a fan of that movie.) I listen to everything from gospel and honky-tonk to rap to death metal to classical to Korean pop music – not bad for someone who went to college and was almost violently appalled by the fact that no one else knew who Gene Pitney was. (Pitney’s still my favorite artist of all time.)
For the characters I work with, especially, music tends to be really important. I tend to associate music with surviving zombies – I think because my mind subconsciously taps into the world’s long tradition of jazz funerals, dancing plague skeletons, and fiddling while Rome burns. I think something in the human soul instinctively seeks to fill the silence and fight the darkness by singing, just as we so often laugh at what terrifies us. So my zombies tend to be musical, laughing creatures, as long as they’re mentally healthy enough to accept what’s happened to them and get on with what time they have left.
I won’t give away the entirety of my playlists, but I will post a few more videos below. These are the current contenders for my “ultimate Dearly series theme song,” and you can see how different they are. But I think they all speak to destruction and hope, and ultimately – letting go.
So, there’s my big old music post. I should do more in this vein, especially with Dearly, Beloved on the way – that one includes a little Paul Roland, some actual Victorian (almost Edwardian) lyrics, and a few I had to make up myself (iee…I’m awful). Also, Pitney got cut from book two, so we’re going to have to see if we can work him back in there – because he’s amazing. In fact, let’s end this post with Pitney.