A quick note on Music, Alienation, and Curveball

I like to listen to music when I’m writing. A lot of people do–there are people who find music or any other kind of noise distracting, but if I’m listening to the right music at the right time I find my ability to write increases a thousandfold, and “thousandfold” is a pretty good factor of increase. So for my writing projects I like to come up with playlists that reflect not necessarily the mood of the story, but the mood I want to be in when I’m writing the story. So my writing playlists are usually some combination of “songs that I like” and “songs that I like that are also sort of thematically appropriate.”

I have posted the playlist I used when I wrote Pay Me, Bug!, and the playlist I use when I write The Points Between. I have yet, however, to post a playlist for Curveball. It’s still a work in progress.

But I do want to talk about one song. It’s a very important song that I play every time I sit down to write about CB. If you know me, you’d be surprised by the song. It’s not what you’d expect.

I’m an aging punk rocker. Not as aged as some–in fact, I’m significantly younger than a few of my heroes–but my first collection of music consisted of a large collection of cassette tapes.1 So when I started writing Curveball, I thought “at last! A chance to make a music mix full of all my favorite punk bands!”

Except it didn’t work out that way. One day at work I followed a link to a youtube video that showed a bunch of Marines in Afghanistan play-acting to a pop song I’d never heard before. The video was kind of funny, because it was Marines (kudos to playing against type!) but some of the effect was lost on me because I had never, ever heard the song before. Which is funny, because apparently it was a huge top 40 hit.

“Call Me, Maybe,” by Carly Rae Jepsen. If you’ve never heard of it, well, at least I’m not alone in the world.

Hearing this song on this YouTube video was a very interesting experience. I knew it was intended to be a pop culture reference, because it was a YouTube video of a bunch of Marines dancing and lip synching to it–you don’t go through all that trouble re-enacting a song if it’s not already popular in some way. But I don’t listen to the radio any more. I have a very large music collection on my hard drive, and my phone, purchased through iTunes once upon a time, and Amazon.mp3 now. I haven’t been listening to anything new for a very long time.

So when I heard this song, I realized that:

  • This was modern top 40 pop
  • It was something that was in no way intended for me in any way, shape or form

That was an interesting experience.

I haven’t been interested in Top 40 pop in a long time, of course, but there was a day when even though I wasn’t interested in it, I was solidly in the demographic it was being produced for. It was intended, once upon a time, for my age bracket. But it isn’t now–I’m 41 years old. I don’t think record companies even bother marketing to Generation X any more.2

So when I heard this song, I found myself fascinated by it. It was a song that existed completely apart from my own existence. It is a song that has a predefined notion of audience, and that definition renders me “irrelevant.” I guess I could sum up the entire reaction by calling it gently alienating.

After hearing that song I thought to myself “this is exactly how CB feels.”

For those of you who don’t read Curveball,3 CB was around when punks showed up in the US in the late 70s… and after that he became a super villain, then became the sidekick to the US’s most famous super hero ever, and now in 2011 is trying to figure out why his old partner got murdered. He’s in his mid-50s, but for some reason he hasn’t aged… but his friends have. His ex girlfriend has. Many of his old allies and enemies have. He feels, most of the time, alienated and set apart from a world he used to be familiar with. It’s not something that has really shown up a whole lot in the story (the aging has, but not the cultural aspects or implications of it) but it’s always in my mind when I write him. And hearing that song sort of captured the entire thing for me.

So Ms. Jepsen earned a sale. Probably not in the way she intended, but I mean no disrespect by it. There’s nothing wrong with the song. It’s not usually what I prefer to listen to, but that has nothing to do with ability, just taste.4 It does do something that musicians generally want: it provokes a genuine, thoughtful reaction in me. And based on that reaction, it’s the first song I play when I start working on a new issue.

And that is the story of how a 70s-punk-turned-former-anarchist-villain-turned-Patriotic-sidekick-superhero is heavily influenced by a top 40’s pop song.


  1. If you don’t know what a cassette tape is, consider my point proven.
  2. Generation X was a band long before it was a generation label. Billy Idol was in it. This was before he got famous. Of course, at this point there are adults living in the US who are legally able to vote and drink who are probably saying “who is Billy Idol?” In related news I THINK I JUST BROKE A HIP.
  3. Shame on you! Well, except for the part where your free time is your business and nobody has any business telling you what to read and enjoy. But other than that, shame! Shame!
  4. It does strike me as kind of a sad song, which I don’t think is the intent. But I think we can chalk that one up to me being out of touch.

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