After deciding my novel, Earworm, would be a tale told by a love song, I set about conceiving the voice of my narrator. I wanted something urgent, funny and non-human. The language needed to be rhythmical and awash with musical allusion and imagery. The vocabulary should reference sounds and musical jargon. My narrator would indulge in the kind of ad-libs pop singers use, such as “ah yeah” or “that’s all right.” Some ideas foundered. At one point I replaced all integers with collective nouns for groups of musicians: for example, five fingers became “a quintet of fingers.” It bombed.
Although released in the late nineties, my song, Empty Fairground, was old-school pop. In more morally stringent decades, popular music was sexually charged yet communicated in code, especially when targeted at teenagers. Nina Simone’s husky imprecations make it evident that I Want a Little Sugar in my Bowl has nothing to do with food additives. And what is that thrill that can be found on Blueberry Hill? For this reason, I elected that my narrator would never refer directly to the act of passionate congress between individuals. Instead, it would deploy euphemisms gleaned from popular tunes. It would only refer directly to human intimacy when reporting dialogue. I thought this conceit would be amusing and set about trawling songs for suitable content. The more ridiculous or convoluted the better. I believed there would be many instances and I’d be able to pluck them from memory at will, but in fact they proved difficult to harvest.
I had two favourites, both nonsense words. One was from the infectious Spice Girl’s hit Wannabe (it begins with a Z). The other was lifted from Under the Mango Tree, a song penned by Monty Norman for the debut Bond film, Dr No. This fabricated term begins with B. I used these two expressions extensively throughout Earworm. As you can tell, I am not at liberty to disclose these words. A blog constitutes publishing and I am not allowed to publish them without permission.
During the last draft of the novel warnings came from my editor, the forensic and perceptive Kate O’Donnell, concerning permission for use of song lyrics, but I blithely continued, cavorting in a fool’s paradise, believing this to be mere formality. I had more pressing priorities. Then, days before the final manuscript was to be delivered, I accepted it was up to me to investigate copyright. I plunged into the internet. There was an abundance of sites devoted to inserting song lyrics into novels and their advice was depressingly uniform.
For a start, finding the copyright owner is difficult. Then, once contacted, they have no obligation to reply in a timely manner. They may take months or a year or may never respond at all. They then have every right to refuse permission or charge a hefty fee. Every website concurred that, for sanity’s sake, using song lyrics in fiction should be avoided. This confounded me. I knew it was permissible to utilise short quotes from prose or poetry and I only wanted to appropriate a single word from each tune. Why were songwriters so protective? Was it a reaction to the sampling scandals of the eighties perhaps? I was on a collision course with my deadline and was growing desperate.
There was one loophole. While unable to quote lyrics, I was free to reference song titles. I had already commandeered a few – The Sweet’s Wig Wam Bam, Daddy Dewdrop’s Chick-a-boom and the Starland Vocal Band’s Afternoon Delight (ah yeah!). I set about gathering more – The Hucklebuck, Shake Rattle and Roll, Gettin’ Jiggy wit it. I trawled through the manuscript, locating each use of lyrics as an allusion to physical communion and replacing them with titles. In many cases the substitution was tricky: if I had related wordplay or sentence rhythm to the lyric then I needed to rewrite or devise a new pun. The process was time-consuming, but fun. There was an element of frustration because the deadline was looming like a portent and there were other elements of the novel I felt needed tweaking or nursing. In short, I was having letting-go issues.
I may have a schoolboy sense of humour, sniggering under my breath at sexual innuendo, but I still believe the conceit works. The substitutions were successful. I’d managed to turn the situation from completely hucklebucked to jiggy wit it.
Colin Varney’s short stories have appeared in Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Island and Southerly. He has written articles for The Lifted Brow and satire for Adelaide Review and Tasmanian Times. His children’s book, Jellylegs, is widely used to promote protective behaviours. He completed a Master’s in creative writing at the University of Tasmania, mentored by Danielle Wood. Earworm is his first novel.