The weird thing about being a music writer is that music writing, as a practice, shouldn’t exist. Even when the music in question has words, anyone who’s ever looked up the lyrics to a favorite song can attest to the disconnect between what they read and what they hear, the invisible but monumental gap between “I just know that something good is going to Happen” as a phrase and the way Kate Bush sings it, hopefully, with a wavering wonder, on her song “Cloudbusting.”
And yet myself and countless other people stake our livelihoods on translating music out of its original form and into the written dimension, unfolding songs like reverse sonic origami as we pan and scry for both obvious and hidden meanings. There’s a universe in every song: melody and harmony, vocal and instrumental craft, production choices and genre styles, an artist’s own history and the histories of their chosen sounds and languages. All art is a reflection of culture, but in our modern culture, maybe the most potent and omnipresent art form is music. It blasts out of passing car stereos and soundtracks movies and TV shows and scores workplaces and public spaces and blares out of speakers and streams out of headphones and earbuds. With the exception of the hearing-impaired, just about everyone engages with music, and out of the listening population, almost no one is immune to the power of the right song at the right place at the right time.
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My debut novel BEATING HEART BABY begins with the assumption that a song can change your life. Seventeen-year-old Santiago Arboleda arrives in Los Angeles haunted by “Exit Music,” the song that his former internet best friend shared with him and which he accidentally leaked three years ago. He’s spent those three years adrift and unmoored until he falls in with a rambunctious and welcoming crew in his new high school’s marching band. Even within the prestigious Sunshowers, Santi’s section leader Suwa Moon is exceptional, a multi-instrumental talent with indie rock star aspirations. And after a tense start, Santi and Suwa connect as friends and then more over anime, fraught family histories, and of course, music, which exerts a force akin to destiny on both boys as they reckon with their pasts and face the uncertain future.
There are many instances in BEATING HEART BABY where I write about songs, ones that are real but many that are not. Describing the latter kind is when I feel the limits of language. I make up lyrics and insinuate instrumental parts, yet those impressions only go so far. But there’s a trick to writing around and about music: you write music through its performance, creating a sensory experience that supplements the sound itself without overshadowing it.
As a kid, I wasn’t allowed to go to shows. So it was some kind of divine irony that I got my start in music journalism as a live music reporter and oftentimes would be in the photo pit sandwiched between the sea of fans and the cliff of the stage. I bore witness to the absolute electricity that flows between crowds and performers, the way it arcs and crackles and makes even the most trite songs come alive. In many ways, hearing the performance of a song is the true litmus test for how it *works*, and there’s a reason why a robust live bootleg recording industry has always existed alongside formal vinyl/CD/streaming releases.
Within BEATING HEART BABY, performances serve as checkpoints for the characters’ internal worlds and showcases for my version/vision of music writing. The roar of an audience cheering for you; the ozonic tang in the air as you prepare to (p)lay your heart on a stage. As a reporter, I lean into these experiences for their immersive quality. As a music fan, I lose myself in them. And as a fiction writer, I use them as emotional and practical scaffolding, tethering my story to these scenes of transmission to hopefully beam something unique to me/my story to you/the reader.
The number one thing I missed about “normal life” when the pandemic began was the unfettered ability to lose myself at a show. I still miss it now but I’d rather wear a mask than let the live music circuit shut down, again. Because despite the growing market for virtual and/or closed set concerts, live tour is still the only way that most artists make money. And as good as video can be for communicating a performance, there really isn’t anything like being there in that church of fellow pilgrims, leaving your body and voice and spirit at the altar of your chosen higher power.
If you too feel that calling, then BEATING HEART BABY confirms your best and worst suspicions. Your worst: that the bright lights of a stage can burn you until there’s nothing left of yourself. Your best: that those same lights can illuminate the parts of yourself you only ever dreamed of showing anyone else. One could say that there’s an analogy here with the process of publishing a book. To that I can only respond, here I stand, under the lights; will you read/listen/sing along?
Meet the author
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Lio Min has listened to, played and performed, and written about music for the most of their life. Their debut novel Beating Heart Baby is about boys, bands, and Los Angeles. They’ve profiled and interviewed acts including Japanese Breakfast, Rina Sawayama, MUNA, Caroline Polachek, Christine and the Queens, Raveena, Tei Shi, Speedy Ortiz, and Mitski. They’re on TwitterInstagram, Tumblr, and Last.fm.
About Beating Heart Baby
Lio Min’s Beating Heart Baby is an “achingly romantic”Publishers Weeklystarred review) love letter to internet friendships, anime, and indie rock
When artistic and sensitive Santi arrives at his new high school, everyone in the wildly talented marching band welcomes him with open arms. Everyone except for the prickly, proud musical prodigy Suwa, who doesn’t think Santi has what it takes to be in the band.
But Santi and Suwa share painful pasts, and when they open up to each other, a tentative friendship begins. And soon, that friendship turns into something more. . . .
Will their fresh start rip at the seas as Suwa seeks out a solo spotlight, and both boys come to terms with what they’ll take, and what they’ll have to let go, to realize their dreams?
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: 07/26/2022
Age Range: 14 – 18 Years
Filed under: Guest Post