I hate The Smiths.
No, that’s not really accurate. I like The Smiths just fine as a band, and I think their music is appealing for a variety of reasons to a variety of audiences. What I do hate is how they’ve become shorthand in contemporary YA fiction for a specific kind of character/theme: manic pixie dream girls and the misunderstood boys who want them.
There are some stories for which a particular genre of music makes sense: in If I Stay, Mia’s parents are punk rock enthusiasts, and raise their kids on the bands they love. The kids in The Perks of Being a Wallflower are growing up in the 1990s with bands like Nirvana and The Smashing Pumpkins, so it isn’t surprising when Charlie references their songs. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is peppered with songs from The Beatles, Green Day, Aretha Franklin, and even The Sound of Music because its protagonists are just as eclectic and unpredictable.
But as I’ve read more and more contemporary YA, I find myself unconvinced by the constant, consistent refrain of the same ’80s/early ’90s music of the indie rock persuasion. I’ll admit that as a kid, I too grew up with cassette tapes and records by artists that were introduced to me by my parents instead of the radio. Some of those songs have remained my favourites, and led me to other singers and bands over the years. That didn’t mean I was immune to pop music on the radio, or any of the other countless genres out there. Music shifts and changes so often, and mine isn’t the first generation to both be influenced by acts from the past and be interested in looking for as-yet-undiscovered talent.
Knowing that has made me ask: Where are the teens who are unapologetic about the music they love, and the books that don’t use specific bands as the barometer for whether or not we should appreciate a specific character? Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing bad about liking The Smiths, or bands similar to them. But like many other literary motifs, they don’t and can’t be representative of all teens’ musical tastes. So when a teen character rattles off The Smiths as one of their favourite bands, and it doesn’t actually add to their characterization in any way, I get frustrated.
I know that sometimes authors add their own personal tastes to a story–it’s inevitable, because it’s a story that they’re telling, with their experiences and preferences at easy reach. But sometimes the character can very easily become a mouthpiece for the author’s tastes instead of their own. If Velvet Underground is a character’s favourite band, what does that choice say about that particular character? Does it say anything at all, and if not, why not? Why make a point of including that choice at all? If music is as important to that teen character as it is to me and many other readers, then there needs to be more care taken in choosing the music that reflects them.
So I would ask writers to consider: what about One Direction? Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Beyoncé–where are the teen characters who unabashedly love top 40 radio? Looking at Twitter alone would prove that these kids exist, but YA fiction doesn’t seem to find them as interesting as the kids who listen to obscure or outdated bands. I question why characters who do listen to “mainstream” pop music are still coded as the “cool” kids, the ones many YA protagonists don’t identify with or are bullied by, and I question why it’s still easy for writers and readers to accept that.
For that matter, where’s hip-hop/rap/R&B among teens’ musical tastes? And how about the kids, drama club membership or not, who sing along to musicals on their way to school or work? If my 20-something friends and I argue about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s relevance and are starry-eyed over In the Heights and Hamilton, surely there are aspiring thespians out there who try to sing along to all the parts in “One Day More” on lazy afternoons. I’d love to see more kids in YA besides David Levithan’s Tiny Cooper being open about their appreciation for musical theatre.
Where are the POC/immigrant kids who have grown up with another culture’s music, who are interested in exploring more of it? Korean and Japanese pop music have already made noticeable inroads among North American teens, and many Filipino kids know or at least can recognize the songs that their parents and relatives cheer for during karaoke sessions. Are there YA characters out there who are learning about their or other cultures through an introduction to pop music? Tell us about those kids shyly talking about how much they love boy bands, not expecting any classmates to understand and being pleasantly surprised.
At the end of the day, the band names mentioned in throwaway lines might not matter so much to a casual YA reader, and that’s okay. But it might also just make a difference for a few teens who have never seen themselves or the things they like represented positively in their favourite books. It might make them feel better about liking the songs they do, about admiring the singers they do, and inspire them to keep exploring more genres.
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