When I was at the National Book Festival, Angie Thomas mentioned how much hip-hop music inspired her writing. It got me thinking. Are there any musicians that have inspired my writing? The answer is a big resounding “YES!”
The musicians that have an inspired me the most are amazing storytellers. I remember sitting in my parents’ car in middle school as we drove through the countryside in the dark. The radio suddenly started playing Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” It was almost as if I downloaded a story. I had an image of a girl and a boy stuck in a small town, miserable and dying to get out. The next day, I sat down and wrote that story. I don’t think I would have been able to do that if Bruce Springsteen didn’t so powerfully tell a story of a young man begging to break free of his mediocre life.
I think it is so, so important to get inspiration and study the artistry of other disciplines. I think one of the most important things a writer can do is listen to a TON of music. Since I have learned the most from analyzing and enjoying the storytelling abilities of gifted musicians, I have compiled a (not comprehensive) list of my favorite storytelling musicians (besides my beloved Bruce Springsteen).
As a child, my dad played The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars on repeat. It drove my mom nuts, but I loved it. Except for “Five Years.” That song scared me because it was about the end of the world. But you know what? That has become a standard for me when I am writing science fiction/horror stories. If I can scare people so much that they avoid my work, I have achieved an amazing goal. Now I seek out that song as a great example of scary storytelling.
One of my friends in graduate school famously described Tom Waits as “a mixture of a drunk Cookie Monster and a lovesick pirate.” I think his description is pretty accurate. He also said that nobody did better storytelling in music than Tom Waits, and I also have to agree. My dad once complained about Tom Waits’s version of “Downtown Train” because he had this clear image of a pathetic, ragged man. This is exactly why the song is so brilliant. He paints ridiculously vivid characters. Besides, I am pretty sure “they stay at the carnival, but they will never win you back” is one of the best lines in music.
I had a coworker who told me that the Cure wrote pure poetry, and I completely agree. Beyond writing gorgeous imagery, they also are killer storytellers. One of my favorite songs is “Cut Here.” It powerfully tells the story of a man’s guilt over his friend’s suicide. It blows my mind how much is conveyed in just a few lines.
Okay, he is not my favorite person in the world, but, damn, the man is the KING of confessional rap/poetry. In “Runaway” (warning: it is explicit), there is Robert Browning level of storytelling (yes, I am comfortable with and stand by this statement) from the perspective of a really scummy guy. I feel like everyone can listen to the song and think: “yeah, I know someone like that.” Which is amazing storytelling. Bonus: there is a hilarious scene from The Night Before centered on this song (I was literally falling out my seat laughing when I saw it).
There you have it. These are some musicians that inspire me when I am stuck or that I analyze when I want to work on craft. How about you? What musicians have inspired you? Tell me in the comments below.