As a side project to our American Gods Reread, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at all the various songs quoted and referenced throughout the novel. Every epic adventure deserves an epic soundtrack, after all, and Neil Gaiman knows a thing or two about great music, so: whenever a song pops up in the text, I’ll be here to discuss each track in the context of the novel and theorize wildly about the connections between song and story.
For the most part, I’m planning to stick with songs that actually appear in the book, but as we progress with the reread I’ll be keeping an ear out for tunes that fit too well to be ignored, and I’m hoping you’ll help me out with suggestions in the comments: if there’s a song or artist that needs to be added to the list, let me know! By the end of the novel, we’ll hopefully have created a divinely inspired mega-mix worthy of Wednesday himself, featuring everything from rock and roll and the blues to show tunes and karaoke standards….
As with the reread, all page numbers mentioned correspond to American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition (Author’s Preferred Text) and there are spoilers below the fold. Please feel free to pump up the volume.
Not referenced in the novel, of course, but I can’t resist:
“Sweet Home Chicago,” performed by The Blues Brothers
Full disclosure: I have never been to Chicago, but I’m willing to entertain any claims people would like to make about its relative awesomeness on the strength of this song alone (and because everything about The Blues Brothers is magic). And think about it: two con men, one recently released from prison, tooling around Illinois on a mission from god? The first ten pages of this chapter might as well be The Blues Brothers with bank robbery in place of musical numbers and Czernobog instead of Cab Calloway.
Okay, maybe not.
Boléro, Maurice Ravel, (Page 107)
There’s a lot of classical music in Chapter 5, beginning with Boléro (as produced by a player piano at The House on the Rock). I found this video to be utterly charming (adorable Danish musicians! What’s not to love?), but obviously this melody pops up everywhere, from classic Star Trek to the current season of Doctor Who to Allegro Non Troppo (which, of course, parodies Disney’s Fantasia, discussed in last week’s post. Synchronicity!) There’s also a wonderful Radiolab piece, “Unraveling Boléro,” that I’d highly recommend if you’re in interested in Ravel (or in great stories about obsession and creativity).
I actually don’t have any complex theories about how this particular piece of music relates to American Gods, but I do find it interesting that all of these classical pieces (along with a lone Beatles song—more on that in a moment) are instantly recognizable thanks to American popular culture, familiar to an audience that might know nothing about classical composers like Ravel or Saint-Saëns or Strauss.
The songs live on partially due to their own power as brilliant musical compositions, but also because they have been used and adapted into new forms, much like the Old Gods themselves. There’s something fitting, then, in the procession of player pianos and mechanical orchestras and the mammoth carousel churning out these masterpieces as the gods shamble from room to room in the House on the Rock (itself a deceptively powerful, even sacred place, in spite of appearances).
Danse macabre, Camille Saint-Saëns, (Pages 109-110)
Based on an old French superstition, Danse macabre was originally paired with a poem relating the antics of Death, appearing at midnight on Halloween night to summon forth the dead from their graves, bidding them to dance as he fiddles until dawn. Gaiman worked this legend into The Graveyard Book, hence this excellent rendition by banjo god Béla Fleck, recorded for the audiobook. Personally, I can never hear it without thinking about the “Hush” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (with Jonathan Creek a close second).
“Octopus’s Garden,” The Beatles, (Page 111)
The only non-classical piece referenced in this chapter, “Octopus’s Garden” is also the second Beatles song mentioned in the novel (following “The Fool on the Hill” in Chapter 2). The Beatles also come up in Samantha Black Crow’s litany of beliefs later in the book (Chapter 13): “I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles and Elvis and Mister Ed.”
I’d argue that The Beatles and the other figures mentioned have become mythic figures in their own right—objects of worship and devotion in American popular culture (excluding Mister Ed. Unless there’s some kind of talking horse cult that no one’s telling me about). Elvis certainly pops up a couple of times in the novel (at least by name), but The Beatles are the only non-Americans on the list, and I wonder if Gaiman is playing on his own background as a British expat by repeatedly pointing to their hallowed place in the pop culture pantheon?
Of course, you can’t go wrong with The Beatles; I’m just happy I was able to find a video that properly captures the hysterical, orgiastic worship of fans at the height of Beatlemania…otherwise, I probably would have gone with the Muppet version.
The Blue Danube, Johann Strauss II, (Page 115)
One of the most famous pieces of music in the world, made even more famous by its use in Kubrick’s 2001; a perfect waltz to accompany a ride on the World’s Largest Carousel.
This might be a good point to note that in addition to providing the soundtrack to this iconic slice of SF cinema, The Blue Danube is also the name of British film released in 1932. In fact, every piece of classical music referenced in these two chapters inspired the title of at least one film:
• Bolero (1934), starring George Raft and Carole Lombard (I’m choosing to ignore the Bo Derek film of the same name from 1984).
• Danse Macabre (1922), a short, silent film inspired by Saint-Saëns’ tone poem.
• The Emperor Waltz (1948), a musical starring Bing Crosby and Joan Fontaine.
This goes back to my previous point about the way certain pieces of music become part of the fabric of popular culture; in the last century, film has been a means of simultaneously enshrining and paying homage to songs as well as stories, characters, and stars (even the Beatles made movies, of course, along with Elvis and Marilyn).
In a way, the House on the Rock feels like a junkier version of the Shadow Gallery in V for Vendetta—whereas the Shadow Gallery is V’s repository for pieces of the once-vibrant culture that has been suppressed by a fascist dictatorship, The House on the Rock is a haphazard mishmash of objects that have no real value in and of themselves, but because they reflect certain cultural preoccupations. If the Smithsonian is the Nation’s Attic, The House on the Rock offers a surreal trip through America’s cluttered collective unconscious, where Santa Claus, The Beatles, Burma Shave ads, angels, and ghosts hang together with no rhyme or reason, bearing witness to several centuries’ worth of superstition, hope, and irrational belief.
The Emperor Waltz, Johann Strauss II, (Page 125)
Written to commemorate a toast of friendship between Austrian emperor Franz Josef and Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Emperor Waltz starts off in the style of a military march, then proceeds smoothly into a series of upbeat waltzes. The piece as a whole celebrates friendship and political accord between world leaders, making it an interesting (or possibly ironic) choice as Wednesday’s gathering of the gods breaks up and he moves forward with his plans to win them over, one by one…with the larger aim of declaring war on the New Gods. He certainly acts the part of the politician as he “greases some palms, kisses some babies,” in Mr. Nancy’s words, but his goal is a temporary alliance in the service of eventual chaos and slaughter, so it’s possible to read this reference as kind of a warped musical joke, on Gaiman’s part….
Bonus Track: “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” Blue Öyster Cult
Since there are no other songs mentioned in Chapter 6, I’ll leave you with this classic rock tribute to love and death and awesome guitar solos, in honor of the goddess Kali and my favorite stone-cold killing machine, Laura Moon: here’s to complicated, formidable female characters who deserve the very best that BÖC has to offer! Plus it’s officially October now, and if “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” doesn’t put you in the mood for Halloween, then you need to go eat fistfuls of candy corn out of a pumpkin-shaped bucket and reevaluate your life….
Bridget McGovern is the non-fiction editor of Tor.com. She wonders what Camille Saint-Saëns would have thought about “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” (aka: the other great song about crazy supernatural fiddling…)