7 Novels That Celebrate Pop Music
Elvin James Mensah, author of "Small Joys," recommends stories unfolding to the melody of pop songs
I used to have a lot of misconceptions about what made for compelling literature. Of course, a novel peppered with references to critically acclaimed texts and high-brow films and classical music—or just things generally held in high regard—are commonplace. But as someone who enjoyed pop music, not as guilty pleasures but as something worthy of artistic merit, of analysis, I used to wonder if certain works would hold the same critical weight if, say, the Spice Girls were referenced in a totally unironic way.
Pop music has shaped my life to such a significant degree that I often preface stories about my childhood with: “I swear I’m not joking,” before proceeding to tell someone that I measure the timeline of my life in Mariah Carey albums—2005 isn’t simply 2005, it’s the year she released her tenth studio album The Emancipation of Mimi and literally changed my life—to bewildered faces of course. Before I think about my own life in, let’s say, 2007, I think about Britney Spears’ tribulations and the release of her album Blackout.
Pop is notoriously nebulous in definition. But the definition I’m going with here is music is a hybrid of pop and R&B. My debut novel, Small Joys, set in 2005, is filled with references to ‘90s and early 2000s pop songs. In earlier drafts, it was void of any such references; I felt a little embarrassed centering a protagonists interests on something that so often eluded respect. For whatever reason, I felt as if my novel and its characters wouldn’t be taken seriously, if it leant too much into this obsession of mine, that it lacked a certain intellectuality. So, to see pop music taken seriously in fiction, to have it celebrated and not mocked, always sets my heart alight.
These seven novels unashamedly celebrate the joys of contemporary pop music. Quite a few of them also inspired me in my own writing, and creating a world scored with music that felt authentically me.
Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades
Set in Queens, this novel is a striking story told in a chorus of voices, following a group of young women of colour as they navigate life. Brown Girls is an ode to so many things—to girlhood, to Black and Brownness, to joy—and threading all of this is a love for pop and R&B music: Spice Girls, Destiny’s Child, Aaliyah, and yes, Mariah Carey. We have characters who routinely sing “Heartbreaker” at the top of their lungs. It beautifully captures the nostalgia that many millennials feel when reflecting on the era of pop, where every hit seemed to be produced by Timbaland or Darkchild. It’s truly joyous.
Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez
I read this novel in the early stages of writing Small Joys. At the time, I was still struggling to find my voice and was desperate to see what kind of fiction other Black male writers were producing. Rainbow Milk came along at just the right time. The novel is a bold meditation on religion, class and sexuality, following a young Black gay man, Jesse, as he makes a new life for himself in London. I was utterly entranced by how deeply contemporary pop and R&B music was infused into the story—from cocaine being done off Mary J. Blige’s My Life album, to a Sugababes single being bought in the hopes that it might be number one on the charts.
Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson
Open Water is a gentle and complex debut, mapping the relationship between two young Black British artists, navigating love and race in Britain. Whilst no one would consider Frank Ocean or Kendrick Lamar guilty pleasures—or even pop by any stretch—it’s always a delight seeing contemporary musicians referenced and have it be a source of joy for the protagonist.
Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Daisy Jones and the Six is a novel charting the stratospheric rise and fall of a 70’s band and their tumultuous relationships with each other. In another life, I was a music-blogger. Things like anticipating the publication of music charts in the UK and US was always a highlight of my week, as well as knowing how much an album had sold in a particular week. So when I read this and saw things like chart positions and albums sales and this band’s drive to be commercially successful truly satisfied the music industry/chart geek in me.
Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan
Mayflies is one of those clutch and hold to your heart novels for me. It’s a coming-of-age story about a group of guys from Ayrshire, Scotland growing up in the ‘80s. Here, we focus on the friendship between James and Tully, which is built on the foundations of films and music. I love a novel with a sensitive male friendship at its centre, and the way the characters joyously go back and forth on their opinions on certain films and artists, reminded me a lot of my own relationships.
The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes by Elissa R. Sloan
This novel speaks, quite deeply, to the pop music nerd in me. Like the tv show Girls5Eva that came after it, it captures 2000s pop culture so perfectly. Here, we’re following the rise and subsequent implosion of a fictional girl group, Gloss, who are directly inspired by the Spice Girls. As someone who used to make up their own popstars and pop-groups, this was boatloads of fun to read.
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
Perhaps this book shouldn’t be on this list because from the Beatles to Neil Young to Pink Floyd, our protagonist, heartbroken record store owner Rob, references music that is often widely critically acclaimed (aside from a stray mention of Madonna’s “Holiday” I suppose). But how could I not include a novel with music so rooted to its heart, and probably holds some sort of record for how many song references one single book has.