February 13, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Sandra Newman's The Country of Ice Cream Star is a bold and ambitiously told post-apocalyptic novel.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"A richly detailed dystopian epic… This suspenseful, provocative tale is The Hunger Games meets Lord of the Flies and The Walking Dead, only much, much better."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Because I'm a frighteningly obsessive person, I actually had an Ice Cream Star playlist which I listened to exclusively when I was working on the book, and which changed only slightly over the three years it took to write it. I don't/can't actually have music on while writing, but I would go for long walks and use the songs as a medium through which to think about the story. So the songs below are among the 40-odd songs on that playlist, each of which I listened to almost every day for 3 years.
For me, these songs are literally about the book, and I even imagine some of them being sung by characters in the book to each other. Then I just ignore any line in the song that doesn't fit the narrative. (Since The Country of Ice Cream Star is actually set in a post-apocalyptic world that doesn't much resemble any society in which songs are recorded and distributed, this happens a lot.) It's really a lot like using a song to brood about your break-up, except that hopefully you don't do this unremittingly for three years.
"Die Young, Stay Pretty" – Blondie
In the world of The Country of Ice Cream Star, everyone is born infected with a disease which will kill them before they are 20 years old. Therefore, this song is roughly thematic. Obviously, the Blondie song is about living fast and dying young in the sense of doing a lot of cocaine and going to clubs, not in the sense of suffering from a virus, so for me it's always taken a lot of mental finessing. But it has a mixture of fuck-you attitude and doomy self-pity that feels exactly right as a teen response to death.
"Closer" – Nine Inch Nails
I know this one's a little corny, but there are a few romance sub-plots in the book, and a teenager's concept of love often amounts to: "I want to fuck you like an animal." There is also no time and place, post-apocalyptic or otherwise, in which love is not accompanied by the feeling of wanting to fuck the love object like an animal, so this song comes with no dissonance at all.
"The Desperate Kingdom of Love" – P J Harvey
While being in love, my characters are also engaged in at least two wars (depending on what you count as a war), so it's helpful to have an air of gloom and menace even in the love songs. PJ Harvey is very generous with this sort of thing, in addition to being PJ Harvey and fantastic.
Harvey is obviously a female vocalist, but I imagine this one being sung by one of the male characters to my female protagonist, Ice Cream. Although Ice Cream is violently in love throughout the book, she's so unsentimental I can never imagine her singing/thinking a love song to anyone. Anyway, even the most gender-specific part of the song:
"At the end of this burning world
You'll stand proud
And I'll follow you
Into heaven or hell
And I'll become
As a girl…"
works for me as an expression of self-immolating masculine love.
"#1 Crush" – Garbage
Another love song sung by a woman which I imagine being sung by a man. Most people consider this song stalkery and twisted, but can you even call it love if you aren't mentally chanting "I would die for you, I would kill for you"? In a world where everyone dies at 19, anyway, it seems like a pretty low bar.
"Des Armes" – Noir Desir
Most of my book is about war, and I've discovered that it's actually surprisingly difficult to find songs about war. It's even harder to find ones that say anything but "Wow, war is mean and unfair and tragic!" When I'm in the middle of writing battle scenes, this message seems both painfully obvious and beside the point. And then I can't help being haunted by a mental image of the musicians. Any feeling of being in a war vanishes completely and is replaced by a feeling of smoking pot with a bunch of nice hippies.
As a result, I ended up listening to a lot of songs in French and Russian, which I more or less speak. Because of the "less" part, even when these songs are just saying "Wow, war is mean and unfair and tragic," it's pretty easy for me to pretend they're more nuanced by simply not understanding all of the words. "Des Armes," though, is a genuinely nuanced, lovely/sardonic song about the love of war, which trusts the listener to understand there's a dark side to war without being lectured about it by a guitarist.
"Allons, Enfants" – Volo
This is a call to arms in folk-song form. I suspect that if your French is better than mine it becomes more straightforwardly anti-war, i.e. war = mean, unfair & tragic. And definitely it loses any suggestion of literally being addressed to children.
For this reason, I have resisted fully understanding the lyrics and can give you no reliable account of them. As far as I'm concerned, this is a rallying cry to a city of children living in a non-industrial society who are heroically trying to repel an invasion by a modern, well-armed force of adults (as happens in my novel). I'm pretty sure this is not really the case. The music is wonderful regardless.
"War Is Sometimes Childish" – DDT
DDT are one of those iconic Russian perestroika-era bands that used to play illegal concerts in the Gorbachev era at the risk of being sent to prison, then had 20 years of affluence and safety, and now are back to risking prison in the Putin era. Their songs are scabrously political, although this wouldn't always be obvious to a non-Russian. Weather metaphors abound, so you often have to decode signifiers like "spring," "wind" and "southwest," before you know the regime is being attacked. This one, though, is a straightforward summation of war from the point of view of a couple of terminally fucked-up Russian veterans getting drunk in a kitchen.
"Prayer of Francois Villon" – Bulat Okudzhava
Another Russian one. Regina Spektor did a cover of this, but I can't imagine it without Okudzhava's penetratively weird voice. It's a prayer, paraphrased from Villon's poem, which asks God to give all his creatures what they need, but also manages to convey the idea that asking God for anything is a futile exercise that ends ultimately with the sun burning out over a dead Earth. Even though Villon was clearly French, there is no more Russian artifact than this.
"Les Voisins" – Les Wriggles
This is just an angry song about noisy neighbors. It has nothing to do with my novel, but everything to do with the experience of trying to write it in a New York apartment.
Sandra Newman and The Country of Ice Cream Star links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
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