April 13, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Lindsey Palmer's novel If We Lived Here is an engaging story of love and New York City apartment hunting.
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
My novel, If We Lived Here, concerns itself with love, friendship, and the particular horrors of a New York City apartment hunt. As 30-something couple Emma and Nick take their first plunge into cohabitation, they slowly stumble towards what it means to grow up, build a life together, and create a home that's right for them—meanwhile battling disasters that test everything they know about their relationship.
"New York City" by Cub
This song has to be one of the most optimistic and bright-eyed odes to New York, which perfectly matches the opening mood of my book when Emma and Nick are launching their apartment hunt, giddy to create a joint home. The melody is poppy and sweet and a bit naive, and it makes you want to dance in gratitude for everything that's wonderful about the city and about being in love: "Everyone's your friend in New York City, and everything looks beautiful when you're young and pretty. The streets are paved with diamonds and there's just so much to see, but the best thing about New York City is you and me." It's kind of like Taylor Swift's recent love letter to New York, minus the eye-roll reflex.
"Genie in a Bottle" by Christina Aguilera
Female friendship plays a big role in my novel, particularly Emma's bond with her lifelong friend, Annie. On the eve of her wedding, Annie unearths an video of the two girls getting ready for their high school prom, circa 1999, i.e. the year when "Genie in a Bottle" was an inescapable mega-hit. The girls reminisce about how, against the backdrop of the song's sultry sounds, Annie snuck off to lose her virginity in her prom date's mom's minivan, while Emma was on the dance-floor being accosted by her date's slobbery tongue. Ironically (and despite Aguilera's questionable writhing in the video), the chorus is a call for female empowerment, an insistence that the girl's own pleasure be considered "if you wanna be with" her. Emma feels a little queasy remembering this cringe-worthy moment from her youth, evoked so vividly because of its link to this music.
"Fuck You" by Cee Lo Green
This song serves as another bond between Emma and Annie. When they're both young and broke in New York, it's a release for them to belt out the bitter but still lighthearted rant set to such upbeat music. But flash-forward to the present, when Annie has leapfrogged via marriage to the one-percent (her husband is a wealthy financier) and Emma is still struggling financially, and the song takes on a new significance. As the band plays it at Annie's six-figure wedding, Emma, feeling very much like "an Atari" while her friend has become "an X-box," delights in the fact that the chorus makes it socially acceptable to yell out expletives at a fancy party. Money changes things, even between friends of 25 years.
"Rich Girls" by The Virgins
Speaking of money, Emma's job as a college prep tutor at 1, 2, 3… Ivies! brings her into contact with the progeny of the wealthiest Upper East Side set. This bubblegum pop single captures Emma's attitude towards her clients—part sardonic and part amused: "Hey, rich girls! Well, can you tell me why you're so stuck up and act so down?" The Emma-at-work scenes satirize both this elite slice of New York and the booming industry that college prep has become. Although at a certain point in the novel Emma has a kind of epiphany and understands that she has a lot more than SAT strategies to offer her clients, and the chorus captures this realization well: "I'll tell you everything I know, any little thing I know."
"Once in a Lifetime" by The Talking Heads
No song better captures those scary, staggering "Whoa, is this my life?" moments we've all experienced. Nick and Emma are quickly disillusioned from their initial home-hunting optimism when they get passed over for their dream apartment and then their search devolves into increasingly distressing situations. Nick begins questioning not just the idea of cohabitation but the relationship itself—he stops, looks around in a bit of a panic and, as Byrne croons, asks himself, "Well... how did I get here?" Then he makes a bunch of stupid decisions, digging himself into a deeper and deeper hole. And yet, there is hope, which the song captures, too; the speaker's existential freakouts are interspersed with a chorus that seems to celebrate the very life that's being questioned: "Letting the days go by, Let the water hold me down… Once in a lifetime, Water flowing underground."
"Depreston" by Courtney Barnett
This somber home-hunting ballad laments the stark reality of the kind of house the singer can actually afford: "This place seems depressing… It's going pretty cheap you say. Well, it's a deceased estate. Aren't the pressed metal ceilings great?" Still, she tries to rationalize having to "look out further" as she sings, "We don't have to be around all these coffee shops. Now we've got that percolator, never made a latte greater. I'm saving twenty three dollars a week." This sounds like every service magazine article ever written about saving money, only without the perky exclamation points; Barnett sounds sad or maybe just detached. This song characterizes Emma and Nick's ongoing apartment hunt, as again and again they face the dreary limits of their budget, and as the end-of-the-month deadline looms when their current leases are up.
"Lily: Song for Edith Wharton and Lily Bart" by Suzzy Roche & Lucy Wainwright Roche
In this folksy tribute to the protagonist of Edith Wharton's 1905 New York society novel, The House of Mirth, the mother-daughter pair harmonizes, "Long ago now was written a Lily, for us to expound upon, willy-nilly. We can speculate, ruminate, and argue." The song takes itself quite seriously, despite silly phrases like "willy-nilly." Similarly, Emma is quite serious about her own obsession with Lily Bart; in her most self-pitying, solipsistic moments, Emma casts herself as the famous heroine, a striving, youngish-but-no-longer-young New York woman struggling to make her way in a dog-eat-dog world. Emma's identification with Lily speaks to her anxieties and fears about how to be a successful grownup, and is an insight into the fact that, despite the passage of a whole century, being an ambitious 30-year-old woman in New York is still a very complicated business.
"Same Mistakes," by The Echo Friendly
This song pairs moody, meditative music with male-and-female vocals (Shannon Esper and Jake Rabinach). The singers are hard on themselves as they ruminate about the state of their lives, especially compared to their more mature friends: "I make the same mistakes, feels like I never learn… I never did grow up, feels like I never will. My friends are all adults, I'm still a teenage girl." And yet, they're also critical of those mature pals: "My friends are all a drag. They think I'm such a flake. They want to go to bed. I want to stay up late." These lyrics show insight even as they're contradictory, which is a pretty good representation of Nick and Emma's feelings. They see friends and siblings marching ahead to the next life stages—marriage, kids, home ownership—and they're envious even as they're not sure they're ready for or even want those things. They're part-interested and part-dismissive, a little curious and a little condescending. "Same Mistakes" conveys the couple's jumble of confusion and clarity as they anticipate moving in together.
"Downtown Train" by Tom Waits
What a gem of a song, this anthem to the romance and the potential of even the smallest New York moments. Waits describes a gorgeous city night: "Outside another yellow moon punched a hole in nighttime. Yes, I climb through the window and down the street, shining like a new dime." When Nick and Emma finally do find a home, it's like they've discovered a new New York, and fallen back in love with each other and with their surroundings. As Waits soulfully sings, "The downtown trains are full with all those Brooklyn girls," I think of the subway jam-packed with so many people and so much possibility, too. Though New York subways are often the worst—reeking of urine and forcing you into physical contact with fifty flavors of grossness—this song is about the magic that can happen in places like the subway where we're crowded together with so much New York humanity. Once in a while we're reminded that this magic really exists.
"Hurricane" by Bob Dylan
Without providing major spoilers, I'll say that Hurricane Sandy plays a prominent role in my novel, and one scene finds Emma and Nick on the last train out of Flood Zone 1 before the subways are set to shut down in anticipation of the storm. Unlike normally on the subway, when all the passengers are doing their own things, headed to countless disparate destinations, in this instance everyone on the train is on the same evacuation mission. Some guy with a boombox turns on "Hurricane," and—amazing for the subway—no one shoots him dirty looks, tells him to turn the damn thing off, or even rolls their eyes; several people actually sing along. This is a moment of real New York togetherness, before the striking of the most destructive natural disaster in the city's history.
"A Heart in New York" by Simon & Garfunkel
Towards the end of the novel, after Nick and Emma have suffered destruction and heartbreak on several scales, there's a bittersweet return to their city and their home. This mood is captured in the lyrics of this majestic paean to the city: "New York, like a scene from all those movies, but you're real enough to me, for there's a heart, a heart that lives in New York." Simon and Garfunkel toast New York's endurance and resilience, its ability to beat on despite everything: "I write my song to that city heartbeat… Here's to you, New York." The song has a note of melancholy, an awareness of New York's shadow side, and yet it's in awe of our great city.
"Ikea" by Jonathan Coulton
Last but not least, this adorkable jingle dedicated to the eponymous furniture store. The novel's final scene takes place in Brooklyn's Ikea, and—fun fact!—Coulton actually performed this song at the grand opening of that store. Coulton pokes fun at the types of apartment-dwellers who shop at Ikea: "They sell things for apartments smaller than mine. As if there were apartments smaller than mine." He continues: "I was a doubter just like you, till I saw the American dream come true." The irony, of course, is that Ikea is Swedish—Coulton jokes about the products' foreign-sounding names, e.g. "INGO" and "KARL"—but still there's nothing more American than outfitting one's apartment with the store's affordable furnishings. It's a tired joke that relationships can't survive a trip to Ikea (30 Rock dedicated a whole episode to this), but Nick and Emma actually find solace in the store's quirky environs. Strolling through iteration after iteration of simulated home speaks to the couple of endless possibilities for their own home and relationship and future together, even as they realize that the purchase of a MALM or BIRKELAND bed likely won't make all their dreams come true. I'll sign off with this tidbit of Coulton genius: "I'm sorry I said Ikea sucks. I just bought a table for 60 bucks."
Lindsey Palmer and If We Lived Here links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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