myTunes 2:0

I’d planned to write about music this week; I’m still going to, but I’ve changed the direction a little because of a comment Andrew made about Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead after my last post. His comment got me thinking about taste, specifically, whether there’s a correlation between your writing style and your taste in music. I guess intrinsic to this idea are the notions of good and bad taste, both being highly subjective and even changing within the zeitgeist over time.

‘I have no ear for music, a shortcoming I deplore bitterly,’ growled Nabokov in a Playboy Interview in 1964. On Desert Island Discs, Martin Amis selected Handel, Tchaikovsky, Jimi Hendrix and James Brown as some of the musicians he couldn’t live without. Meanwhile, Salman Rushdie went with a selection including The Rolling Stones, Ravi Shankar and the singer known as The Memphis Flash. Some of John Updike’s favourite musicians included Mozart, Beethoven and Doris Day.

While bumming around on the net before I wrote this, ‘Mozart’ and ‘Beethoven’ were how many (largely unknown) writers answered the question about musical heroes and inspiration, at least on the website that I stumbled onto. After repeatedly seeing their names mentioned (along with a sprinkling of musicians who are deemed esoteric with cachet) I started to become suspicious as some of the answers seemed to be, well, rather self-conscious. Now, I’m sure that most of those writers interviewed have more refined musical taste than me, but I also began to feel that something else was at work here.

When we share our personal tastes in public, it can feel like we’re opening ourselves up to being judged as namechecking certain people or things might give us cultural capital whereas referencing others could be detrimental. I guess that explains why we sometimes yield to the pressure of playing it safe, or cool, or obscure, depending on our needs or the situation. And we’ve all done it at some point; well, I know I have. This almost certainly applies to writers, too, as Joyce and Proust are often referenced as ‘favourites’, sometimes only because people think they have to.

I bought my first LP in 1980 and since then my tastes have gone through many changes, incorporating: New Romantic (New Wave to American readers), old school hip hop, pop, rock, soul, reggae, house, and that’s just naming a few. These days, being a thoroughly middle-aged grump, I find myself listening to the music of my early and late teens, which is far from uncommon and explored in fascinating detail by Daniel J. Levitin in his excellent book, This is your Brain on Music.

So what does listening to this, this, and this say about my writing (other than I yearn, desperately, to be young again)? Do I write fiction that pops with fast-paced synths, pinging drum rolls and a flourish of the avant-garde–all dilated pupils with cheekbones sharp enough to burst a balloon on? Well, I’d like to think so, but in reality, sadly not.

But there is, I’m sure, a connection between what we like and how we write, even if it’s very subtle; in fact, to separate your taste from your style is impossible because at some point, however distant, the two things must converge. But music is just one area that defines our taste; after all, some people might not even listen to it.

Our taste in fiction might shape our desire to write a certain type of book, like Orwell had the desire to write a book like Brave New World with 1984. Or perhaps it’s a scene from a favourite movie that you just can’t let go of, or the childhood memory of riding on your bike. Or maybe it’s one of the thousands of experiences you have stored that, now deemed useful or important after being filtered by your sense of taste, might form the impulse to write a sentence, which then grows into a scene that, one day, might end up as a book.

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  1. Andrew Oberg
    Posted February 8, 2013 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    An interesting and thoughtful post, Paul. And it’s good to read your admission of the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia’s projects as being far superior to all other types of music past, present, and future. ;)

    By the way, have you seen the new(ish) Sean Penn film ‘This Must Be the Place’? Penn’s character takes its inspiration from Robert Smith, and overall I’d say it’s a wonderful work.

  2. Paul j Rogers
    Posted February 9, 2013 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Why thank you, sir. It’s impossible to figure out the relationship between inspiration, taste and writing style; but they all come from within, interconnected on some level, yet different for all of us.

    Don’t forget to read This Is Your Brain On Music (if you haven’t already): Levitin moves effortlessly between Sgt. Pepper’s and synaptic wiring, often in the same sentence. It’s become a standard textbook at many top universities, in the humanities and the sciences.

  3. Paul j Rogers
    Posted February 9, 2013 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Forgot to answer your question: I don’t watch motion pictures on magic lanterns anymore, so, no, haven’t seen the Sean Penn flick. (Good actor, though, as was his brother.)

    This, I accept, along with listening to (early) Simple Minds, (very early) Duran Duran and The Cure, is yet more evidence of middle-aged decay.

    However, in the scheme of things and all things considered, balls.

  4. Paul j Rogers
    Posted February 9, 2013 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    One last thing: isn’t Jerry Garcia a type of ice cream?

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