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.
“The Way You Look Tonight,” performed by Fred Astaire (Page 487)
Mr. Nancy sings two songs after sweet-talking the barman into breaking out the karaoke machine; the kitschy Tom Jones signature tune “What’s New Pussycat” (written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David) and “The Way You Look Tonight,” first performed by Fred Astaire in the 1936 Astaire/Rogers classic Swing Time. Not to give short shrift to “What’s New Pussycat?”—I’m sure watching Nancy belting out the lyrics and charming the crowd would be a joy to behold (and given Anansi’s earlier story about teasing Tiger, the song selection could be a winking reference to the god’s favorite adversary), but it’s his “moving, tuneful” rendition of the Jerome Kern classic that gets the audience cheering and clapping.
Both of Nancy’s picks are feel-good, happy songs, but while “What’s New Pussycat?” is silly and flirty and effervescent, I’d argue that there’s something more substantial and meaningful to “The Way You Look Tonight,” a song that turns a simple compliment into a meditation on the power of a happy memory to sustain us in darker, lonelier times….
Swing Time is a musical comedy in which Astaire and Rogers play temporarily star-crossed lovers, and the scene above demonstrates both the light comedic tone of the film and the more serious romantic overtones: Ginger Rogers, annoyed and upset in the beginning of the scene, is utterly captivated and transformed by Astaire’s heartfelt love song. “The Way You Look Tonight” won the 1936 Oscar for Best Original Song and became an instant classic—at the height of the Great Depression, both the song and the movie in which it appeared gave people an opportunity to escape from harsh reality into a world of romance and glamor, to transport themselves to a happier place. The fact that Mr. Nancy chooses this song to help get his mojo flowing again—a song that’s all about making other people feel good—just ratchets up his already considerable appeal, in my book.
“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” The Animals (Page 488)
As much as I’m torn between Nina Simone’s original version of the song and The Animals’ cover, I can’t quite picture Shadow imitating Simone’s jazzier phrasing; belting out his own take on Eric Burdon’s raspy, blues-inflected rock and roll seems more believable.
In any case, as I mentioned over in the reread post, allowing himself to be pushed up onstage and to perform seems like another step forward for Shadow, now that he’s finally learned how to be alive and started coming into his own. So it’s fitting that the karaoke track he chooses to sing is basically a song about being alive: occasionally getting angry, being joyful, feeling worried and regretful sometimes, but trying to be a good person. It’s about dealing with the ups and downs of life, and reacting to the different emotions involved—not being stoic, keeping your head down, and staying quiet, as Shadow did for so long. For Shadow, it’s a song of triumph, of no longer being “a big, solid, man-shaped hole in the world,” and embracing the business of living.
“Closer To Fine,” Indigo Girls
Samantha Black Crow’s fondness for the Indigo Girls is made clear from her closing time routine at the coffee shop, as she puts on a CD and catches herself singing and dancing along to the music. Since there’s no mention of a specific song or album, I’m going to “Closer to Fine,” probably the duo’s best-known song (certainly the one I’m most familiar with, from growing up in 90s). Given the lyrics about not taking life too seriously and not tying yourself down to one set of answers, dogma, or belief, I think Sam would find it appropriate. And maybe even dance-worthy.
“American Tune,” Paul Simon
Now that we’re down to the final pages of American Gods, I feel as if I’d be remiss not to include these final two songs, both of which seem to reflect so much of the overall tone of the novel, at least for me. Paul Simon’s “American Tune” provides an echo of Shadow’s mood following the climactic events of the final chapters—tired, confused, having been through so much, but ultimately all right, as he takes a break from his homeland (telling himself that there’s nothing to go back for, but knowing at the same time that it’s not true).
Even the singer’s “And I dreamed I was dying” and vision of the Statue of Liberty resonate with the events of the book, although the tone of Simon’s song is more searching and somber than the final scene of the novel. Despite the notes of sadness and uncertainty, I think the sense of carrying on, in spite of trauma and loss, speaks not only to Shadow’s experience but to American experience in general, in many ways. “American Tune” is based on a hymn by J.S. Bach, and it still feels like a hymn in some sense, conveying the feeling that even though we lose our way, a sense of hope remains.
“Beyond Belief,” Elvis Costello & the Attractions
As I mentioned back in my very first installment of this Mix Tape series, Neil Gaiman named his protagonist “Shadow” after an Elvis Costello song. I was so delighted when I came upon that fact, not just because I’m a huge Elvis Costello fan (though I am), but because ever since my first reading of American Gods, I’ve had “Beyond Belief” in mind as the perfect theme song for the book. (I went with the odd map visual above because it’s the only video I could find which features the album version of the song, but you can check out a fabulous 1983 live performance here).
Without being too on-the-nose, Costello’s idiosyncratic lyrics give a sense of intrigue and secrets, conflict, maybe even a femme fatale in the mix, and the line “But I know there’s not a hope in Hades” offers a convenient mythological link. Plus, I can never hear the lyric “You’ll never be alone in the bone orchard” without thinking of Shadow’s dream about the “Bone Orchard,” a phrase Low Key/Loki was fond of using. And of course, the idea of being “beyond belief” neatly encapsulates the events of the novel for me—everything that happens is beyond belief, and yet the trick with both gods, myths, culture heroes and good fiction is that they make us believe in spite of ourselves.
So this is my choice for the official theme song of American Gods, bookending our epic soundtrack neatly between Elvis Costello tracks, with a lot of strange and wonderful music in between. Of course, it’s a totally subjective choice—if you have a different song in mind, let’s hear it! I’ll be back in two weeks with some sort of all-encompassing Mega Mix covering the novel as a whole, so if you have any song suggestions for earlier chapters or general bonus tracks, just let me know….