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.
“Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian),” Paul Revere & the Raiders
Trying to find a track to help kick off this chapter, I thought about using Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands,” but it doesn’t really fit, at all. And I suppose I could have chosen a track from Oglala Sioux activist Russell Means, since he passed away earlier this week, but unfortunately I don’t know his work very well. This, I grew up with. My mother apparently had a poster of Paul Revere & The Raiders on her wall growing up, and I’ve always had a soft spot for the band and this song (supposedly, the lead singer, Mark Lindsay, has Cherokee ancestry, so that makes it feel a little less like a guilty pop pleasure and more of a legitimate expression of the Native American experience, maybe?)
Of course, in the novel, Shadow and Wednesday meet up with Whiskey Jack and Apple Johnny on Lakota land, not Cherokee, but Sam Black Crow and Margie Olsen are both half Cherokee, so I think it all works out…and it’s just a crazy good song, the kind that makes me want to paint racing stripes on an aging Winnebago and drive it through the fabric of reality at top speed.
“The Lord’s Been Good to Me,” from Disney’s Johnny Appleseed
For those who haven’t seen it, I thought I’d include this snippet of Disney’s “Johnny Appleseed,” which I remember quite liking as a kid (there’s also a great song about all the stuff that you can make with apples that I can’t find a clip of online, but you can watch the whole twenty minute short on YouTube, so if you’re interested, definitely check it out!) The version of John Chapman’s life is pretty much what you’d expect from a 1948 Disney cartoon – he’s best friends with a cartoon skunk, he doesn’t have a dead wife whose passing causes him to go crazy, and at the end a folksy angel collects him to go plant apple trees in heaven.
Johnny Appleseed was part of Disney’s Melody Time, one of several features that combined animation with popular and folk music (kind of like Fantasia, without the fancy classical tunes). Our VHS copy of Melody Time also introduced me to Pecos Bill, another folk legend – speaking of which, it now seems that Johnny Appleseed was repackaged ten years ago on a DVD called Disney’s American Legends (2002). He now shares top billing with Casey Jones (based on another historical figure), John Henry (a tall tale), and his archnemesis, Paul Bunyan (started out as a folktale but was co-opted by an ad agency. Boo, hiss…)
“Dark Am I Yet Lovely,” Sinead O’Connor (ref. in Interlude, pages 328-334)
“Material Girl,” Madonna (ref. in Interlude, pages 328-334)
I’m going to do something a little different, here, and write up these two songs together, since they overlap in the Bilquis interlude in a way that seemed very purposeful, at least to me. First off, “Dark I Am Yet Lovely” is an interpretation of Song of Songs (the title comes from Chapter 1, verse 5), which Bilquis recites to herself as she stands alone on the street: the legendary Queen of Sheba whispering the words to an ancient Old Testament poem celebrating love and sex as part of the sacred. The Song of Songs (also known as The Song of Solomon, Canticles, etc) is often interpreted not just as a work about earthly love and desire, but about the relationship between God and true believers – not to get into theological territory, but that additional aspect would presumably have made the verses doubly attractive to Bilquis, who requires both spiritual belief and carnal worship.
On the other hand, we have Madonna’s “Material Girl,” which the Technical Boy parodies, turning the song into a taunt about the old god’s obsolescence: “You are an immaterial girl living in a material world,” and later, “You are an analog girl living in a digital world.” Madonna has always been something of a chameleon as a performer, and while this song (and video) helped make her into a mega-star, at least a small part of its success came from the image she projected, borrowed from a dead pop culture icon. The “story” that the “Material Girl” video tells is about a singer/actress poised on the brink of stardom, and the character she’s playing seems to be a hybrid of Madonna and Marilyn Monroe, singing her modern song over a moment of classic cinema, reenacting Marilyn’s famous rendition of “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
So, in the beginning, there was Marilyn Monroe, whose image was very much a creation of the Hollywood studio system that turned Norma Jeane Baker into a platinum-haired screen goddess. Madonna then borrowed Monroe’s image during her own rise to fame, most obviously in relation to this song…which is then poorly paraphrased by the Technical Boy as he murders Bilquis.
My point here is that it’s never really difficult to see where Gaiman’s loyalties lie between the old gods and the newcomers, but setting Bilquis and the Technical Boy up as foils in this scene really helps drive the point home in an interesting way: in one corner, we’ve got the Queen of Sheba, representing wisdom and sexuality, surviving in a world that no longer values either. She is as old as Solomon, and the words of the Song in her mouth are unmistakably authentic. She is the real deal, as a deity, even if she’s had a rough go of it in the new world. In the other corner, The Technical Boy sputters out a mangled repetition of a clever imitation of a reflected ideal; he may be powerful, but he lacks authenticity, any real connection to the sacred. He spews out data and information and empty rhetoric, but there’s something incredibly soulless about it.
[I feel like I should probably clarify that in spite of my reading of how it’s used in the text, I really like “Material Girl” as a song – loved it as a little kid, love it now. And for what it’s worth, something tells me that the Technical Boy would have been less a fan of Madonna’s original and more into, say, the crazy (possible seizure-inducing?) Nintendo-style version, or maybe KMFDM’s industrial cover…and if even that’s not dark enough for a toad-smoking weirdo about town, there’s always the deathgrind version by a band called Exhumed. Madonna fans, listen at your own risk.]
“Old Friends,” written by Stephen Sondheim (Page 339)
Gaiman begins Chapter 13 by quoting a stanza from one of the signature songs from Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. The quote, you’ll notice, doesn’t appear in this particular rendition of the song (I couldn’t find that particular stanza in any of the videos I watched, which is understandable since the song itself is reprised at two different points in the first act). This performance is not from Merrily – it’s actually the finale of the musical review Putting It Together, but who cares about the details? I’m not ever going to turn down the chance to watch Carol Burnett and Captain Jack Harkness sing Sondheim together, period. So great.
In any case, the premise of Merrily We Roll Along revolves around a jaded Hollywood producer at the height of his career, who has sacrificed all of his ideals, genuine friendships and personal relationships on the road to success. The story moves backward in time over two decades or so, reconstructing the history between Frank (the producer) and his old friends and partners over the years, finally stopping at the very beginning of his career, when all the characters are young, full of hope and idealism and good intentions, completely unaware of the coming betrayals and disappointments that we’ve just seen play out over time.
So, while “Old Friends” might seem like a positive, upbeat song, in context, it’s actually rather sad, as the old friends in question do their best to console one another and pretend that things are fine, even as their relationships falter and implode. Only Stephen Sondheim could blend so much seemingly sunny optimism into what’s essentially the swan song of a failing friendship.
At this point in American Gods, Shadow has just seen Laura and is still shaken by their conversation and being told that he’s “not really alive,” which can’t be easy to hear. He then has another odd, dark conversation with a remarkably depressed Wednesday over the phone, before running smack into a bemused Sam Black Crow. The minute he averts that potential crisis and gets Sam to trust him, he walks into a bar and Audrey Burton starts screaming her face off. His buddy Chad Mulligan is forced to take him into custody (awkward), where he watches a live feed of Wednesday being ambushed and executed. It’s a traumatic series of events, building up and getting worse and worse as the chapter moves forward, and it’s full of characters who could be defined as “old friends” of either Shadow or “Mike Ainsel.”
Luckily for Shadow, Ibis, Bast, Nancy and Czernobog are willing to rescue him, but the damage has been done, and the series of devastated relationships Shadow leaves behind him at the chapter’s end make the Sondheim quote at the beginning even more perfect, in terms of both messy friendships and lives being at stake.
“Where Everybody Knows Your Name,” Gary Portnoy
The mention of the show in the novel, as Shadow sits in the Lakeside jail, got me thinking about whether the new gods are developing a better sense of humor over the course of the novel. I mean, if you remember nothing else about Cheers, you probably remember George Wendt’s character walking in every episode, at which point, everyone in the bar yelling “Norm!” in greeting. It’s classic TV history, at this point, a catch phrase up there with “Bang, zoom, to the moon, Alice!” or “Lucy, you got some ‘splainin’ to do!”
But in Shadow’s case, a few hours earlier, he walks into his local pub and one person starts screaming because she recognizes him (and not in a good way). For Shadow, staying safe in Lakeside was only possible as long as could depend on the complete opposite of what Cheers and its theme song promises – all he wanted was to go where nobody knows his (real) name.
Once everybody does know his name, things take a decisive and brutal turn for the worst. So maybe the new gods have a dark sense of humor after all, given their chosen method of approach this time around?
“Cabaret,” Liza Minnelli (from Cabaret)
I know that this song isn’t really quoted in the novel—I don’t think a bumper sticker reading “life is a Cabernet” counts, if we’re being technical—but since the chapter kicks off with Sondheim, I felt like ending with a little Fosse. Besides, both Merrily We Roll Along and Cabaret were the work of producer Harold Prince, so it all (sort of) connects!
If “Old Friends” is a cheerful pack of well-intentioned lies that the characters tell themselves and one another, desperately wishing they were still true, then “Cabaret” is, in the context of the musical, a desperate attempt to hold things together in the midst of a breakdown. Sally Bowles’ manic theatricality and blitheness masks the fragile, lost soul that the song is determined to reject. I’ve seen and heard versions of the song when the character actually breaks down in the middle of the song, then comes back strong for the end of the number, and I suppose you could interpret it as a triumphant moment, in which Sally conquers her fear and doubt in order to celebrate her life as a free spirit.
But I tend to side with the interpretation of Sally as a character who is only able to function on the stage; even in her life, she’s always performing as a way of running from reality, and while Shadow and Sally Bowles don’t have much in common, in different ways, they’re both avoiding life, or at least failing to be active participants in reality. But at least for Shadow, that will all change soon enough….
We’re covering three chapters again next week (14, 15 and 16), so I’m sure there will be more songs to add to the mix (and probably fewer show tunes, I’m betting…). In the meantime, let me know what you think, and please chime in with any suggestions!