(With a hat tip to Frequency Rotation, Planet of Sound is a new weekly speculative-fiction music feature.)
I can trace the inspiration for Planet of Sound, a new SFF music column on Tor.com, to one song, so why begin anywhere but at the beginning?
Pixies, the band, are indie-rock legends, cited as an influence by everyone from Nirvana on down, with a critical reputation about as solid in their field as, say, Isaac Asimov’s in the genre. However, frontman Frank Black had a bizarre attraction to the most hokey science fiction ideas—the kind more likely to appear in the National Enquirer than Analog. And somehow, what he does with them elevates both the music and the stories to something transcendently weird.
Bossanova wore its science-fiction influences more openly than its predecessors—just check out that cover. Come on Pilgrim, Surfer Rosa and Doolittle skirted these topics, filled with Black’s twisted interpretations of biblical and mythological themes, as well as various skewed metaphysical musings on death, love, and the afterlife. The general tone was conspiracy-crank eccentric, the affect of a man who couldn’t help but see the unsettling and uncanny in everyday life and shared history. He didn’t identify with other people. He did identify with “Caribou.”
However, on Bossanova, Black literalized his obsessions with the unearthly and alien. And with “The Happening,” he switched it up a little; he showed us something not strange and scary, but unifying and inspiring, in the extraterrestrials. “The Happening” is about a UFO landing in Las Vegas. When the narrator hears the news coming across the radio band he swings his car around to check it out, and everyone else on the road does the same. How could they miss this?
“I’m almost there to Vegas where they’re puttin’ on a show / They’ve come so far, I’ve lived this long, at least I must just go and say hello.”
Even though it’s more narrative than many examples of sci-fi in music, the construction of this song would never work as a prose story. There’s no in-depth exploration and explanation. There’s no coming to terms with what the knowledge of extraterrestrial life means for humankind. There’s just the happening, and our brave and stupid exuberance at a chance to see something wonderful. It helps that the music is the perfect combination of creepy and excited, too, like someone screaming along with the X-Files theme song.
But the non-functionality of the song as prose is entirely appropriate. Science fiction or fantasy music doesn’t have to do the same thing as science fiction or fantasy stories. Genre readers might enjoy genre songs, but generally not for the same exact reasons; it has to do with pleasurable associations with the content, maybe, or a shared sensibility. But music can do things prose, and even poetry, can’t. One doesn’t tend to re-read a favored story or poem a dozen times in a row, day after day, for example. But when a song, ahem, strikes a chord, it gets lodged in the brainstem deep. (Great stories will stick with us, too, of course. But do you hear them in your head in quite the same way?)
Anyway, the song inspired the feature by being the first illustration I considered of what happens when science fiction and music mix, but also, I think, in its attitude: aliens are coming, so let’s go watch! I love speculative fiction. It really is that fun, and if it ever stops being so, I’ll probably stop writing about it.
Obviously, not all SF books are “fun” in the sense of being light or fluffy or inconsequential—often, they are very far from those things—but I do have a sort of warm, fuzzy affection for the genre as a whole that the song mirrors in a way. Even after Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Star Wars, SF still has an underdog’s air about it. As a fan, I hold it close to my heart. And even when the prudent course would be to stay away, stay far away indoors, there seems to be value in admitting: you’d be curious. “The Happening” captures the wide-eyed wonder—more than that, the joy in the wonder—that ought to be familiar to any SF fan.
It might not be realistic, but I like to hold the hope that, if the aliens did come, I’d be one of the ones who said hi, too. That’s better than greeting them with guns blazing, right?
(There’s an atmospheric, but un-embeddable, fan-made video for the song here.)
Joshua Starr works for DAW Books, wrote for College Music Journal, and is a fan of speculative fiction in all media. ALL MEDIA.