Can U Tell Me? Short Stories as Pop Songs

June 18, 2015 | 11 books mentioned 11 min read

Early summer 2007, I spent all my non-working hours sitting next to the warm, greasy swimming pool of my apartment complex listening to Hanson’s “MMMBop” on repeat through a crummy pair of earbuds. I was, admittedly, feeling a bit lost at this point in my life, so there was something comforting in recognizing and fulfilling my part in such a straightforward symbiotic relationship: my job was to listen to “MMMBop,” and the job of “MMMBop” was to make me want to keep listening. As long as I kept hitting repeat, something in the world was working exactly how it was supposed to.

Around this same time, I was getting serious about writing fiction, and one day a question occurred to me: Is there a literary equivalent of pop music? Is it even possible to reproduce that catchiness, that playfulness, that danceability with the written word?

I certainly want it to be possible, so I’ve been kicking the question around ever since. It’s a tough one to answer, though. One big challenge lies in defining pop music, a genre that encompasses everything from “We Belong Together” to “The Twist” to “Shake It Off.”

Most broadly, pop music is music that’s popular. Based on that definition, the answer to my question is obvious: The literary equivalent of pop music is literature that’s popular. Pull up The New York Times bestseller list, see what’s at the top, and there you go — nice and easy. But to paraphrase the great Tina Turner, we’re not going to do this nice and easy. We’re going to do this nice and rough — to understand how pop music works, we’re going to look at an explanation of how popular movies work according to Roberto Bolaño’s “The Return,” a short story which itself might be the literary equivalent of a pop song.

coverAt the beginning of Bolaño’s story, the unnamed narrator dies — “death caught up with me in a Paris disco at four in the morning” — and then, as a ghost, follows his corpse around to observe its postmortem fate. In describing the experience of dying, the narrator invokes the 1990 Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze movie Ghost. When he saw the movie in theatres, the narrator dismissed it as kitsch, especially the scene where Patrick Swayze’s character dies and “his soul comes out of his body and stares at it in astonishment. Well, apart from the special effects, I thought it was idiotic. A typical Hollywood cop-out, inane and unbelievable.” However, much to the narrator’s chagrin, on dying he finds himself, a disembodied soul, staring down at his own corpse: “I was stunned. First, because I had died, which always comes as a surprise, except, I guess, in some cases of suicide, and then because I was unwillingly acting out one of the worst scenes of Ghost.” The movie’s depiction of dying may be completely inane, but it also turns out to be true.

Though initially dismayed that such a meaningful moment in his own life so closely resembles the death scene from Ghost, the narrator’s opinion of the movie improves after some consideration. Though he prided himself in life on being a man of refined taste, he concedes after his death that “there is sometimes more to American naiveté than meets the eye; it can hide something that we Europeans can’t or don’t want to understand.” The narrator discovers that in Ghost, the truth about death is hiding in plain sight, obscured not by layers of symbolism or ambiguity, but by its own kitschiness. Because it resembles so many other lazy Hollywood depictions of death, it might seem meaningless, but banality and truth are not mutually exclusive, an idea that’s key to understanding pop songs.

Take the lyrics of “MMMBop,” which manage to be completely bland, and at the same time, deeply preoccupied with some heavy existential ideas. About a third of the way through the song, the brothers put forth the following proposition: “Plant a seed, plant a flower, plant a rose / You can plant any one of those / Keep planting to find out which one grows / It’s a secret no one knows.” That last line signals a preoccupation with the unknowability of the future that only increases as the song continues, reaching an apex with the final insistent refrain: “Can u tell me? oh / No you can’t ‘cause you don’t know / Can you tell me? / You say you can but you don’t know / Say you can but you don’t know.” Amid all the ba duba dops, then, Hanson is wrestling with a relentlessly ambiguous universe and a completely unknowable future. These are big ideas — truly — and I’m not cherry-picking lines, either. Take a look at the full lyrics of the song, and the existential preoccupations become even more apparent. Ghost-like, Hanson’s song obscures its insights by stating them so unremarkably. The larger insights are also obscured by the fact that the lyrics are nearly unintelligible as sung, and while that may be completely appropriate to their larger thematic interest in the incoherent, it does mean that they lose their frightened edge for listeners and fail to create contrast with the song’s sunny melodies.

A better and more recent example of a pop song grappling with big ideas that we “can’t or don’t want to understand” is Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe.” Where “MMMBop” focuses on unknowability, “Call Me Maybe” explores the frighteningly compulsive nature of infatuation. Again, there’s an occasional triteness to the lyrics, especially in the verses, that belies its weighty preoccupations. A line like “I trade my soul for a kiss” may be hackneyed enough to blow by unnoticed, but it’s still describing a willingness to make a Faustian bargain. Adding to the singer’s angst is her self-awareness that the infatuation in question is just that — an unexpected (“I wasn’t looking for this”), unshakeable (“but now you’re in my way”) obsession with a near stranger (“Hey I just met you”). The singer finds herself in thrall to forces beyond her control, but what delights and disturbs me most about “Call Me Maybe” is the way it replicates that same compulsion in its listeners, just as Ghost’s depiction of dying is mirrored in the narrator’s own death.

In a 2013 interview with Mashable, Taylor Hanson (of Hanson) lays out his criteria for a great pop song: “Does it get in your head? Do you sing it over and over? Do you wanna sing it?” That last question gets at one of the more unsettling qualities of a catchy pop song, that sometimes, even if we don’t want to, we might find ourselves not only replaying a song again and again in our minds, but actually singing it out loud and maybe even dancing. It’s such a commonplace occurrence that it’s easy to think nothing of it, but really there’s a kind of possession taking place, a mysterious outside force commandeering our minds and compelling us to use our bodies (to sing or to dance) in ways that are not always voluntary. A catchy song is not unlike that creepy fungus that hijacks the brains of ants and compels them to climb higher and higher and higher so the fungus can sprout from the ant’s head and spread its spores.

And that compulsion brings us back to “The Return,” where the narrator’s dismay arises in large part from the fact that he’s “unwillingly acting out one of the worst scenes of Ghost” (my italics). He’s become an active participant in a piece of art which he disapproves of, and it’s happening against his will. At this point, though, the effects of pop music diverge from the dynamic in Bolaño’s story. In “The Return,” there’s no indication that the narrator’s death resembles that scene in Ghost because he saw the movie; there’s no causality there. Instead, the movie is accurately (and probably accidentally) describing a phenomenon that the movie itself has no direct effect on.

In contrast, a song like “Call Me Maybe” not only describes the frighteningly compulsive experience of infatuation (just as Ghost depicts the experience of death), it also generates a new compulsion in its listeners, a compulsion to sing along and dance along and, at the height of the song’s popularity a few years ago, to produce lip-sync tribute videos. This last phenomenon is pop music possession at its most explicit. If you haven’t seen any of these videos, here’s how they work: A group of people, sometimes famous, sometimes not, films themselves lip-syncing to Jepson’s song, and then they post their video on YouTube. These videos are then viewed (tens of millions of times, in some cases) by people who, in turn, create lip-sync videos of their own, and so it goes, on and on and on.

Unlike the narrator of “The Return,” these lip-syncers go out of their way to channel a piece of popular art through their own bodies; there’s a palpable eagerness there to be a conduit for the song. This is where Taylor Hanson’s third criteria is illuminating — plenty of pop songs might get stuck in your head, but a great pop song is one you want to get stuck in your head. It’s a form of voluntary possession in which the makers of these tribute videos capture — and create — a very public form of ecstatic experience, of being swept by something big and incomprehensible.

Because there is something big and incomprehensible about songs like “MMMBop” and “Call Me Maybe.” I just checked and, three years after its release, the official music video for “Call Me Maybe” has over half a billion views on YouTube. Granted, it’s a plenty catchy song that holds up on repeat listens, but who can fully account for that degree of widespread enthusiasm? There’s something majestic and frightening in the scope of its popularity which for me pushes “Call Me Maybe” into the territory of the sublime. To borrow 18th-century essayist Joseph Addison’s description of the Alps, Jepson’s song, and others like it, “fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror.” That seemingly irreconcilable tension — agreeability and horror — is essential to great pop music.

coverThis is why, for instance, Michael Jackson’s Thriller is the greatest pop album of all time. Jackson and producer Quincy Jones astutely foreground that tension between agreeability and horror throughout, creating music and lyrics (and music videos) that are catchy and danceable, and at the same time, preoccupied with discomfort. In “Billie Jean,” the tension arises from a baby’s disputed paternity. In “Beat It,” it’s knife fights. In “Thriller,” it’s werewolves. And start to finish, the album is compulsively listenable. Even the train wreck of “The Girl is Mine” (the doggone girl is mine — what?) is hard to turn away from.

So, to return to our initial question — if these are great pop songs, then what are their literary equivalents? (I’m going to exclude poetry at the outset as being too close to music to be an equivalent.) We’ve already looked at some key concerns and characteristics of pop music — compulsion and tension, agreeability and horror, banality and truth. I’d also add that pop songs are short, usually under five minutes, so their literary equivalent needs to be short as well. For that reason I’m excluding novels. Short stories, though, can be read in one sitting.

And of course, great pop songs have great hooks, so their literary equivalent needs to be both attention-grabbing and memorable. For a perfect case in point, here are the first lines of “The Return:” “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that there is life (of a kind) after this life. The bad news is that Jean-Claude Villeneuve is a necrophiliac.” It’s a memorable opening — and premise — that in lesser hands might produce a story that coasts on shock value. Instead, Bolaño develops a complex and surprising relationship between the narrator’s ghost and (fictional) French fashion designer Jean-Claude Villeneuve.

Like “MMMBop” and “Call Me Maybe,” “The Return” capitalizes on a tension between the agreeable and the horrible. While certain elements of the story — death, necrophilia — might inspire unease or distaste in readers, other elements — the story’s humor, its compassion — make the story not just palatable, but pleasant. It’s a fun read that also grapples with overwhelming concepts like death, compulsion, sex, and loneliness.

For all its pop-musicality, though, “The Return” is not an especially well-known story, at least not yet. And while we have rejected popularity as the sole defining characteristic of pop music, it is an important element. For that reason, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” serves as a useful case study. Like “The Return,” it’s a story with a horrifying core — the random and ritualistic selection of a small-town resident for stoning — made agreeable by its engaging narrative elements — a stunning concision, a compelling sense of mystery. The story has also achieved the ubiquity of a “Hey Ya!” or an “Imagine.” Everyone reads this story in junior high, and with the possible exception of “The Most Dangerous Game,” no other 20th-century short story has insinuated itself so completely into the pop culture lexicon.

“The Lottery” also shares with “The Return” a counterfactual, high-concept premise that resists easy allegorizing. This play with realism correlates to another widespread characteristic of pop songs, the nonsense lyric. The chorus of “MMMBop” is fun to sing along with and it also means nothing, at least in a conventional sense. What’s more, you’re not going to find a lot of people puzzling over what mmmbop ba duba dop actually signifies, because signification isn’t the point.

No story exemplifies this dynamic better than Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” in which a winged old man shows up outside the house of a poor couple where he’s caged and examined until, at the end of the story, he flies away. The story’s characters, as well as its readers, find themselves asking questions that listeners of “MMMBop” don’t bother with — what does this nonsensical figure mean? But the story’s refusal to yield any clues as to the old man’s provenance or nature makes a strong case that we should read the story the same way we listen to the chorus of “MMMBop.” It matters less what the old man means, and more how his enigmatic presence fits within and affects the rest of the narrative.

Of course, some readers will persist in being frustrated by “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” just as many listeners are enraged by pop songs like “MMMBop” or “Call Me Maybe.” I think that’s true, actually, of all three stories I’ve mentioned, that they’re just as likely to inspire consternation as admiration.

Part of the reason for that is their ability to get under a reader’s skin. You may hate “The Lottery,” but if you’ve read it, you’re likely to remember it for a very long time. Similarly, people who hate “MMMBop” don’t hate it because it’s forgettable, they hate it because they can’t get it out of their head. Even that hatred, though, is a remarkable artistic feat. Love and hate are, after all, both forms of devotion, and the ability to inspire that devotion is, the more I think about it, the most essential characteristic of a truly great pop song.

When, in 2007, I fell in love with “MMMBop,” I felt an irresistible urge to share the song with others, to ask them to listen and to consider if maybe, like me, they’d dismissed it too readily when it first came out 10 years earlier. We’ve already discussed how that compulsion to share is a strange, overwhelming force, and it’s a compulsion I feel again now. As I’ve thought through the possible criteria for determining the literary equivalent of a pop song, I’ve thought of so many stories that fit the bill, stories that have gotten under my skin, stories that I have to share. Unable to resist that urge, I’ve put together a Thriller-sized playlist of nine pop-musical short stories:

covercovercover1. “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson (from The Lottery and Other Stories)

2. “The Return,” by Roberto Bolaño (from The Return)

3. “Good Country People,” by Flannery O’Connor (from A Good Man is Hard to Find)

The names alone of the two main characters (Manley Pointer and Hulga) are worth the price of admission, and the story just gets better from there. Its jokey setup — a woman with a PhD in philosophy sets out to corrupt a naïve-seeming bible salesman — serves as a funny vehicle for a troubling exploration of condescension and pain.

cover4. “UFO in Kushiro,” by Haruki Murakami (from After the Quake)

After the Kobe earthquake of 1995, Komura’s wife leaves him, explaining in a note, “you are good and kind and handsome, but living with you is like living with a chunk of air.” What follows has the feel of a verse/chorus/bridge song structure as seemingly disparate narrative elements — the accusing note, a package whose contents are unknown to Komura, an extended conversation with the sister of a colleague — trade back and forth until they all come together, more-or-less, at the end of the story.

cover5. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (from Collected Stories)

6. “The Cats in the Prison Recreation Hall,” by Lydia Davis (from The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis)

A prison recreation hall is infested with cats and then the warden gets rid of them — that’s basically the whole story. But the simple premise yields an engaging pop-song-short two-page narrative about power, cruelty, and the passing of time.

cover 7. “End of the Line,” by Aimee Bender (from Willful Creatures)

“The man went to a pet store to buy a little man to keep him company.”

Another killer hook, this time for a story that takes a whimsical premise and follows it to dark places. By the end, the reader is left with the troubling question of whether the big man subjects the little man to a series of cruel humiliations because he can’t see his pet’s humanity or because he can.

cover8. “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” by Steven Millhauser (from We Others: New and Selected Stories)

Nineteenth-century Austrian magician Eisenheim stages increasingly audacious illusions that captivate the public and trouble government officials. It’s not just the descriptions of the magic tricks that captivate, though. The narrative itself contains flourishes and reveals that, rather than feel cheap or contrived, organically grow out of the story’s interests in spectacle.

cover9. Dormitory, by Yoko Ogawa (from The Diving Pool)

Tiny mysteries accumulate in this story, creating a tone both haunting and precise. The narrative’s indelible physical details — a stained ceiling, omnipresent bees, rigorous five-item to-do lists — ground the reader in a distinctly tangible world, which makes the dread-filled, disorienting effect of the story’s conclusion all the more affecting.

Image Credit: Flickr/modomatic.

is a doctoral candidate in the University of Southern California's creative writing and literature program. His short fiction has appeared in The Best American Non-Required Reading, Subtropics, Cream City Review, Weird Fiction Review, Gargoyle, and elsewhere. His novella, Sandy Downs, won the 2013 Quarterly West novella contest. His first novel, City of Brick and Shadow, was published by Tyrus Books in December. Read more at timwirkusfiction.com.

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