The Soundtrack for NYC in Your Twenties
Stephanie Danler, Author of Sweetbitter, Makes a Literary Mixtape of Dive Bars, Dingy Apartments & Dinner Services
Remember the music that made you an adult? And the city that served as your backdrop? And all the songs that spoke uniquely to you, and the experiences that felt singular and unrepeatable? I remember being twenty-two and moving to New York City. I wrote a novel about it.
I knew nothing about music back then, and I know nothing now. I latch onto Top 40 songs like your average pop junkie. Any decent musical taste I have was bestowed on me by one of the musicians I’ve been in love with, or by one of my esoteric, vinyl-collecting friends. I have always been happy to be educated.
Sweetbitter is a sonic novel — the traffic and murmurs of New York City, the clanging of the kitchen, the cacophony of voices during dinner service, and the ambient jukebox of every dive bar in the city — these are the true soundtrack of the novel. But there is also a lot of music. Tess, the fictional narrator of the novel, inherited my age when I moved to New York City, my old apartment on Roebling Street in Williamsburg, and some of the songs that shaped me in 2006. Beyond that she is a sincere, naive, confused twenty-two-year old, and will always be so much cooler than me.
1. “All My Friends” — LCD Soundsystem
— “It was our song when we were heading out into the night — the manic, dizzy piano introduction stretching us. The song was all promise — that this night would be different, or different enough.” Pg. 281
When I got to the city it felt like I was the last one on the LCD train, but I was there with my usual enthusiasm (fwiw the actual last ones were the ones that joined in 2010 with “This is Happening”). Their music haunts the whole novel, that blend of dance and pop and disco, with James Murphy’s speaking/singing, and sarcastic yet sentimental lyrics. In 2006 and 2007 they were still somewhat an NYC band, a discovery that you made when you came to the city. My fandom never wavered. Many years later I worked a wine store in Williamsburg, Uva, and James Murphy used to come in to shop and I would be blasting Sounds of Silver. Awkward.
2. “Maps” — The Yeah Yeah Yeahs
— “I woke in the mornings inwardly hysterical at the possibility of seeing him. I took great pleasure in subduing it. I practiced composure. He was teaching me a previously unknown patience. It was about him, but it was also not him. I longed for satiation but was terrified of it. I wanted to live in this queasy moment of fantasy for as long as possible.” Pg. 149
Is there a live performer as compelling as Karen O? I don’t know if you can convince me. I often say that Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse is the single greatest meditation on desire, and I think that Maps is the single greatest song about desire. About living in the bubble of longing that barely even requires the beloved’s presence. There are barely any lyrics, just Karen engaged in the act of watching the Beloved from an impossible distance, and being in pain, but not trying to close the distance. Instead we linger in it.
3. “Ceremony” — New Order
— “Who’s Joy Divison?” Pg. 256
If Tess and her love interest Jake ever got married, they would walk down the aisle to “Ceremony.” But Tess is a girl who doesn’t know that New Order was Joy Division’s successor, or who Ian Curtis is, or about his tragic suicide, or anything about British New Wave — that is one of many reasons that she and Jake are not meant to be. I think every hot guy I idolized in my twenties was obsessed with Joy Division. I haven’t figured out what that means yet.
4. “Heartbeats” — The Knife
— See Park Bar, on pg. 178
“One night to be confused
One night to speed up truth
We had a promise made
Four hands and then away
Both under influence
We had divine sense
To know what to say
Mind is a razorblade”
Is this not the song about being young and buoyant? Benchmark electro-pop music by a pair of masked, reclusive siblings — Deep Cuts in 2006 was their breakout, but still such an overtly strange and sexual album. “Heartbeats” was everywhere thanks to the José González cover, but in NYC the synthed-up original version was blasting in the all the bars like an anthem.
5. “Abbey Road” — The Beatles
— See Park Bar on pg. 67
This is a true story: I didn’t listen to anything but the Beatles until I was twelve. As a child I could identify each of their individual voices, knew which lyrics — down to the line — John Lennon had written. I listened to my mom’s records on repeat, gathered trivia about them obsessively. I do not know much about music, but I know everything about The Beatles. I know that Polythene Pam into Bathroom Window into Golden Slumbers into Carry that Weight is miraculous. So when Tess is in Park Bar, and someone puts on Abbey Road — the entire album, which I love when bars or restaurants do — and she’s blown out on cocaine, it’s the perfect vehicle for the only hint of a flashback about her past, in which a very young Tess leaves a birthday party invitation for God to take to John Lennon.
6. “Sweet Thing” — Van Morrison
— “I put on Astral Weeks and when “Sweet Thing” came on he said, This one deserves a dance. We danced, him bare chested in stretched-out underwear, me in his shirt with no pants on, moving in circles on the carpets under the gauze of cigarette smoke. That was the morning I committed the first sin of love, which was to confuse beauty and a good soundtrack with knowledge.” Pg. 332
Van Morrison is too easy right? Until you are in the process of losing yourself, falling in love in some dingy apartment, and you realize that every song, particularly “Sweet Thing,” was written for you.
7. “Blue in Green” — Miles Davis
— “She dropped a record-player needle into place, and jazz startled the room into the present tense.” Pg. 138
Kind of Blue, a glass of fino sherry, a fire escape, a sunset over the Hudson. I never understood jazz until I lived in a city.
8. “With Every Heartbeat” — Robyn
— “Sasha was a tough nut to crack. He loved watermelon-flavored Smirnoff, Jake, cocaine, and pop music. Those subjects provided just enough overlap between us for me to occasionally warrant his attention.” Pg. 112
Robyn doesn’t get enough credit for making intelligent, danceable pop music, paving the way for Lady Gaga and Sia. She has been consistently making great music since the ’90s and is still relevant. Her dance moves, her hair, her weird shoes. This woman gives zero fucks about the pop music media circus. This is a song you forgot about but love, it’s a keeper.
9. “Fake Plastic Trees” — Radiohead
— “I realized that Fake Plastic Trees was playing over the speakers. I hadn’t listened to it in years and when I had, on repeat, in the bathtub, I hadn’t really understood what it meant to be worn out. I couldn’t shrug the song off. So I sighed and said to Georgie, with my face in my hands, “Misery. Will you just turn it up?” — pg. 329
There was my life before a boy gave me The Bends, and my life after. I often wonder, How do you protect the fierceness of angst, without falling into cliché? How do you make something universal out of your private pains? Radiohead does it. This album coincided with learning to drive, learning to write, learning to read poems, and learning to stare out the window and not run away from sadness. When I re-read some novels I feel like I couldn’t have possibly understood them the first time, they were so meant for this moment in my life. When Tess hears “Fake Plastic Trees” at the end of the novel it feels like a coda for everything she’s gained and lost. She had to have those experiences to understand the song better.
About the Author
Stephanie Danler is the author of Sweetbitter (Knopf 2016). She’s based in Brooklyn, New York and holds an MFA in creative writing from the New School.