Why The Shirelles Still Matter, or It’s All About Voice

February 3, 2011

Over the past few months, I’ve been obsessively working on a YA novel in my spare time. I’ve also started obsessively reading YA literary agents’ blogs and tweets, and noticed a surprising consistency on pop culture: Don’t use it, as it will make you seem ooooooooooold, because by the time you get to print somewhere in 2015, the Biebz will no longer be famous, or Lady Gaga will seem soooo 2009. And I get that.

But what if you use pop culture to fill out a setting, or to create a sense of time and place?

Unfortunately, the consensus still seems to be, “It’ll make you sound oooooooooooooooold.”

Here’s where I, a pop music scholar in my day job, disagree. And where I finally get to the story that gives us the title for today’s blog post.

I started teaching pop music history in the spring of 2008, shortly before I finished my PhD. In the first few classes, I felt like I was struggling to connect with the students, especially the few girls (9 of 31 students). They sat quietly and respectfully in class, but none of them said anything. I started to blame my teaching, and maybe the fact that the music was really oooooold. Hell, most of it was from over 20 years before I was born. How could students born in 1990 relate to it?

And then came the Girl Group class. Or, rather, the day before the Girl Group class. I was, at the time, also teaching a music history intro at another university on alternating days. I often put on music from non-classical artists before class, and that day, before my 8:30 class, I chose the Shirelles. What happened next surprised me, mostly because it was very loud for 8:25.

“Oh my god! I love this song.”

“Yeah, it was in Dirty Dancing!”

“I love that movie!”

“I have the soundtrack!”

So, here we have a movie from 1987 about the early 1960s, and the girls are going CRAZY about both. It gave me an idea about how I could approach the Girl Group class.

When I went in to class the next day, I took a cue from Dirty Dancing and Susan Douglas’s essay “Why the Shirelles Mattered.” Instead of giving a history of girl groups, or the Brill Building, I started by asking them to imagine themselves as girls in 1958, when some of the first “Girl Group” songs started to chart. What could they do after school? Where were they allowed to go? What kind of jobs could they hold? What kind of dates would they go on? What weren’t they allowed to do? What were the differences between “bad” girls and “good” girls?

And then, after we listened to the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” I asked the students what the song is about.

“It’s a one-night stand,” a girl answered. She’d never spoken before in class.

“Will he love her tomorrow?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

“How do you know, from the music or lyrics?” I asked.

“It’s not in the lyrics,” another girl answered. “You just know.”

“How do you know?” I asked again. I wasn’t letting them off the hook.

“Because of her voice,” yet another girl said. “She’s sad.”

And so we had a discussion about voice and performance and sexuality, and from there we moved on to how other Girl Groups negotiated these treacherous shoals in the early 1960s. It became an enormously successful class and a moment of clarity for me about the importance of getting the class to relate to the music in a genuine way. The Shirelles resonated with the girls because, well, what teen girl doesn’t at some point or another fear that the person she just made out with (or went “all the way” with, as the song seems to imply) won’t love her tomorrow?

So, what does teaching a pop music class have to do with writing YA fiction with pop culture? In short, it’s all about voice. Writing a YA novel is about getting teens to relate to your characters and plots in a genuine way, just as I try to get students to relate to teen girls of the pre-women’s rights, pre-pill, pre-Title IX era. Pop culture can absolutely be a genuine part of your writing, as long as it fits the voice of your characters, their plot, and their times.

Most problems with writers sounding ooooooooold when they use pop culture arise from issues of voice.  Their characters won’t seem filled out and real because they used pop culture as shorthand to create reference points that the readers won’t get because they weren’t even born yet. Or they don’t sound authentic because the pop culture isn’t an integral part of the characters’ lives, and so a toss-away reference to Soundgarden just seems stupid and out of place and very, very dated. But I’m guessing that writers who treat pop culture this way probably have other problems with voice, too, like saying someone was “going with” a boy instead of dating or hooking up or whatever.

All of these are huge pitfalls, and it’s easy to blame pop culture. But pop culture isn’t the cause of bad writing. When it’s used well, it can help to open up a whole new world, like Roddy Doyle’s almost-YA The Commitments or Judy Blume’s overlooked classic MG novel, Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself. Without the references that date these books, neither would create a fully realized world.

I get a lot out of the agent blogs and Twittering I read, and I appreciate them all. But as a pop music scholar and aspiring YA writer, please do me a favor. Stop blaming pop culture and start pointing out the real culprit: lazy, sloppy writing.

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4 Responses to “Why The Shirelles Still Matter, or It’s All About Voice”

  1. km said

    Good point about sloppy writing being more of a problem than pop culture references. Without something in the background some books can feel like they’re taking place in a one-tone world.

    I like how the Shirelles connected you to your students. It sounds difficult to engage students.

  2. Pierce said

    I think one of the better uses of existing pop music in an almost-YA novel was Steven King’s Christine. Of course, the confluence of rock-n-roll and cars is a pretty deep vein to dig into.
    For imaginary music, I can’t think of any YA examples except J.K. Rowling’s nearly invisible references tothe Weird Sisters in the Potter books; I think she did well to conform to her M.O. of making the wizarding world mostly parallel without trying to actually describe the band or the music beyond some spare description the one time it’s at Hogwarts. Sadly, the moviemakers couldn’t learn from this.

    • badcoverversion said

      Awwww, but I love Jarvis Cocker! And Steve Mackey! And that Jonny Greenwood is pretty awesome. And so is Phil Selway.

      (Rather pathetic of me, but I know the Britpop luminaries that made cameos as the Weird Sisters.)

      • Pierce said

        Actually, musicianship and songwriting aside (though Do the Hippogriff has got to be one of the most grating songs ever), the artistic choices about the presentation of The Weird Sisters in Goblet of Fire highlight where pop music references often go wrong.
        Throughout the Harry Potter books and movies, the wizarding world is presented as not only barely joined to the muggle world, but as both highly eccentric and anachronistic. Sure, the Sisters are popular with wizarding kids, but so are owls and toads, quills and wands. There just doesn’t seem to be enough cultural interchange to support having music that slots right into the (muggle) time period.
        It’s also entirely too easy to think that the movie makers were just trying to capture the attention of today’s kids, for turning into profit.

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