Sam Kinchin-Smith explores the importance of music to E.L. James' erotic blockbuster trilogy. Why is so much of the 50 Shades books' blatantly misogynist (and materialist) project played out to, and through, music? And what does this say about the place and status of music, both popular and "classical", in contemporary culture?
"We were all writing erotica at a dollar a page."
Most editions of Anais Nin's Delta of Venus preface themselves with an extract from the third volume of her diaries, to account for its uncharacteristically inelegant tone and, more alarming, its neglect of the "feminine self" in amongst all the fucking. To cut a short story shorter, Nin's lover Henry Miller was offered a respectable salary to compose unrespectable vignettes for an ambiguous "collector" figure and, partly because of the "Dantesque punishment" of the arrangement, but mostly because they were all poor as shit and horny, Nin and her friends decided to get in on the act. The collector was fine with this state of affairs so long as one principle was adhered to: "Concentrate on sex. Leave out the poetry."
Delta of Venus is a collection of the stories Nin managed to write before her prolix got the better of her and she messed it up for the whole gang. "Dear Collector: we hate you," her rather unreasonable resignation letter began. "Sex does not thrive on monotony. Without feeling, inventions, moods, no surprises in bed. Sex must be mixed with tears, laughter, words, promises, scenes, jealousy, envy, all the spices of fear, foreign travel, new faces, novels, stories, dreams, fantasies, music, dancing, opium, wine."
E.L. James's understanding of the business of literature isn't quite as contrary as Nin's – she chooses to insult her paying audience with sentences like "the kitchen tops are smooth concrete, very utilitarian, very now," rather than direct correspondence – but it is similarly unorthodox. Case in point: halfway through the second book in the trilogy, Fifty Shades Darker, her protagonist Ana is made an editor and given her own office by a highly profitable indie publisher just one week into an internship. I suppose this is an inevitable (and frankly, understandable) product of unimaginable literary success achieved without the intervention of either editors or intellectual investment. Publishing is easy. Success is easy!
It's a pity, though, that her idiosyncratic approach didn't extend to insisting upon the inclusion of a fragment of Nin within the 50 Shades blurbs, or as an epigraph. She must have read Delta of Venus; the opium excepted, her work is a strikingly literal fulfillment of Nin's credo as outlined to the shadowy patron. Tears, laughter, jealousy and surprises at bedtime are par for the course with Christian Grey around, brandishing a psychosexual cocktail of abused past, playful present and archaically misogynist future in one hand, while pulling a "Wartenberg pinwheel" from his "butt drawer" with the other. Alternatively, there's a library full of rapey literary allusions downstairs, along with a cellar stacked with somewhat inevitable Sancerre and Chablis. And music? "My taste is eclectic, Anastasia, everything from Thomas Tallis to the Kings of Leon. It depends on my mood."
Of all Nin's surprisingly unimaginative erotic ingredients, music is most central to James's narrative. Indeed, while Tess of the d'Urbervilles, the cultural motif clever-stupidly foregrounded during the first book's opening scenes, is quickly dropped (Ana tries to pick it up again on a plane, later on in Fifty Shades of Grey – but soon falls asleep in the cushioned first class seat Grey has paid for) music accompanies, punctuates and hammers home meaning in a majority of major scenes. Ana's doubts and frustrations are played out to a soundtrack of her "favourite band" Snow Patrol "blaring in my ears." She finally understands the depths of Grey's "unbearable bittersweet melancholy" when she walks in on him playing post-coital Bach – or rather, a "transcription by Bach, but it's originally by … Alessandro Marcello" ("I'm not knowledgeable, Anastasia, I just know what I like" James later humble-brags, via Grey) – naked, on a grand piano in a dark room. Grey's suicidal ex is introduced through the "club mix, techno beats" of Britney Spears's 'Toxic', a song we discover she added to his iPod. His favourite film is The Piano. And the first book's BDSM subplot (for it is, in reality, only ever that) reaches its agonizing, transcendental climax as Grey does "unhurried and deliberate" things "in time with the music" of Tallis's 'Spem in Alium'. "Holy cow, a celestial choir," thinks Ana. "I've always wanted to fuck to it," sighs Grey, spemming vigorously.
And at the beginning of the Fifty Shades Darker, Ana forgives Grey for a vicious beating he delivers at the close of the first book, thanks mainly to a "mix tape in the guise of a high-end iPad" he buys for her. "I know what you want to hear. The music on here says it for me," the giftcard explains, grimly, and before long a (to my mind) pretty opaque narrative of Nelly Furtado and Coldplay lyrics, along with "some world music" by Nitin Sawhney, are convincing Ana she probably did in fact overreact when her new boyfriend went at her with his belt. Enigma's wonderful 'Principles of Lust' is also mentioned, an indication of James's occasional laziness when it comes to thinking up hot soundtracks. See also: "'Sex On Fire'. How appropriate." And later, in an Audi R8 Spyder with the top down, "on interstate 5 heading south, the wind sweeping over our heads," Springsteen's 'I'm On Fire', a hilariously bad choice of sexy driving music assuming Grey has downloaded Born in the U.S.A. in its entirety (and with it 'Bobby Jean' and 'I'm Goin' Down').
One suspects that, as with 'Spem in Alium''s unpleasant almost-pun, James is more interested in titles than she is in music.
The iPad episode, with its neat synthesis of songs, plotting and luxury objects, offers a convenient entry-point into discussion of one of the key functions of music in the 50 Shades books. Namely, its part in what Andrew O'Hagan identified in the LRB review as the "great deal of fun [that] can be had by noting the many comforts offered for a life of mild depravity: people in these novels don't wear underpants they wear Calvin Kleins; they don't wear sneakers they wear Converse; they don't drink wine they have Pinot Grigio; nobody wears sunglasses they wear Ray-Bans." He goes on: "the books invite [readers] to be submissive too, not to punishment, but to a 1980s-style dominance of money and power and products. (The word '?og' has more than one meaning.)"
The supporting role music plays in extending this invitation is probably already clear. Usually, more descriptive attention is paid to the technology Grey uses to play his insane, swerving tracklists than the songs themselves, be that his car's soundsystem, Ana's new tablet ("I shake my head in disapproval because of the expense, but deep down I love it") or the "small, flat device that looks like a very hip calculator" which makes the Tallis thing work without messing up the "soft-boudoir Elizabethan-torture" aesthetic of Grey's "Red Room of Pain". Similarly, one gets the impression that the context for his tortured late-night preludes – "Huge is too small a word" to describe his open-plan, "double-height" living area, with a glass wall overlooking Seattle and "paintings everywhere" – is every bit as important as the playing. "I understand why he lives here, isolated, surrounded by beautiful, precious works of art," Ana muses. "Far away from neglect, hunger and crack-whore mothers." Well quite.
O'Hagan is less good on a couple of ways in which this particular dimension is inflected within James' trilogy, which takes it into slightly different territory to the Jackie Collinses and Jilly Coopers he cites in his review – and closer, perhaps, to something like Alan Partridge's appreciation of Roger Moore-era James Bond as the apex of intellectual sophistication. Primarily, there's the almost endearing modesty of James's representation of ultimate luxury, betraying nothing so much as a lack of imagination (and the kind of one-way love affair with American affluence most British people leave behind around the time they, erm, grow out of the Twilight books – which of course inspired James to write 50 Shades of Grey). Sure, Grey has a helicopter and a jet, but what's a man of his means doing wearing the same pants and sunglasses I used to wear when I was sixteen?
Second, there's a strand of quasi-intellectualism that grounds the vulgarity in something, I think we're supposed to think, less vulgar. We're explicitly told, for example, the value of Grey's first gift to Ana, a set of first edition volumes of Tess ($14,000 – I suspect they're worth more, actually) but only after Grey has demonstrated his ability to locate creepy quotations in the classics: "Ladies know what to guard against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks," this accompanying message winks.
Music plays a part in both detoxifying processes, as will become immediately apparent if one considers a nice fiction-becoming-real response to the meeting of music and money in James's work, namely EMI Classics' shamelessly scooped up "curation" of recordings lying dormant in their backlist – into 50 Shades of Grey: The Classical Album, released last month. Placed next to one another, James's and Grey's eccentric selections are shown up for what they actually are: a particularly unimaginative Classic FM DJ's drivetime playlist. The Lakmé 'Flower Duet' is quickly followed by Pachabel's 'Canon' before – you guessed it – Rachmaninov's 'Piano Concerto #2' kicks in, along with Fauré's 'Requiem'. Delibes is a delightful surprise for Ana, which made me realise that one advantage of audaciously setting a novel in the States (James has never been to Seattle) is that your characters probably won't have had the 'Flower Duet' ruined for them by the British Airways adverts. (And also may not have seen Brief Encounter, for that matter.)
Clearly, James's popular music references are similarly short-sighted, which is disappointing considering that the Twilight films have surprisingly decent soundtracks, and one can therefore assume the likes of Thom York, Grizzly Bear, Lykke Li, St Vincent and UNKLE are all on her radar. Thing is, you quickly get the impression such a limited palate is enough. The admittedly brilliant 'Toxic' is described, for example, as "the perfect song … Britney's at her most sultry." O'Hagan's suspects "the book has taken the world's mums by storm because there's no mess on the carpet and there are hot showers afterwards," and I'm tempted to agree: the fantasy here is bourgeois contentment, rather than the extremes James thinks she's writing about. That a list of fragments of music including numbers one, three, fifteen and twenty-five of Classic FM's 2012 "Hall of Fame" of the UK's "best-loved classical pieces" is presented as a mysterious and intoxicating display of erudition, is just one misjudgement among many that might be understood in terms of this disconnect.
EMI Classics, perhaps realising that a novelty re-release of the LPO playing Vaughan Williams's 'Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis' isn't all that much of a novelty (although actually, including this on Grey's iPad is one of James's better jokes) came up with a quite brilliant ruse: frame James's selections as a diverse but linear revisionist rewriting of 500 years of music history along transgressively erotic lines. "There has always been a dark side of Classical music," the liner-notes begin, promisingly, before steamrollering the nuances of Tudor culture by implying that Tallis (a lifelong Catholic) resisted a "Catholic Church" ban on "sensual" music (in fact it was the Lutherans who were most suspicious of elaborate composition) by ensnaring "audiences" in the "alluring web" of works like 'Spem in Alium'. (It's unfortunate that EMI Classics didn't realise that the text of 'Spem in Alium' is adapted from the Book of Judith, one of the Old Testament's more florid narratives, melodramatically rendered by the likes of Caravaggio. That subtext might have been an easier sell.)
It gets better. Pachelbel's 'Canon' has "pulsing rhythms and dark hued harmonies" which, apparently, hint "that there was something going on underneath," a description that made me reflect, briefly, on whether this piece, so singularly ruined by repetition, constitutes the Baroque equivalent of pornographic muzak, with its cyclical patterns of slap bass and saxophones diluted irredeemably by their context. Disappointingly, the books don't explore this possibility: "the gentle strains of Pachelbel's Canon fills the space" between Ana and Grey's manservant, the "avuncular" Taylor, during the peaceful foreplay of a car journey to Grey's palace – and don't reappear. I suppose it probably reflects well on the EMI Classics people that they didn't read the books, or at least didn't read them closely enough to accurately represent each track's specific role in James's narrative.
At least they get La Traviata sort of right. In the "torrid anguish" of Verdi's opera, "music made love into something larger than life, something for the world to see." This is, when you think about it, a bewildering assertion, but it does hint at the scale of Verdi's broad brushstrokes which Grey (or rather, James) uses to once again beat down Ana's cultural autonomy – residing, as we're frequently reminded, in literature. Dumas is dealt with even quicker then Hardy:
"La Traviata? I've heard of that. I can't think where. What does it mean?"
Christian glances at me and smirks.
"Well, literally, 'the woman led astray.' It's based on Alexander Dumas's book, La Dame aux Camélias."
"Ah. I've read it."
"I thought you might've."
But that doesn't mean she's going to say anything more about it. The fact of Ana's having read a book with a French title is enough; it is an accomplishment – in the eighteenth century sense of the word. Talking and knowing about art, though, is something Christian does, or rather something only Christian (and the other alpha males in the books – Ana's psychopathic boss, Jack Hyde, for example) is given space to do. Especially when it counters (with a "smirk") something Ana has read. If Ana had ideas, it would no doubt spoil the sexy power dynamic. James equips her, instead, with a "smart mouth", which brings a combination of provocative colour and never-more-than-token resistance to proceedings.
The shunting out of Ana's specialist subject, literature (and with it her intellectual integrity) in favour of Grey's, represents music's most unpleasant purpose in James's text. That one culmination of this process is Ana placing herself "completely at the mercy" of a blur of Grey and Tallis ("the music stops. And so does he") before a "fall … free fall" into exhausted, brainless pillow-talk should already be obvious. Even more problematic is the fact Grey – or rather his hegemonic masculinity – inhabits music itself to such an extent that, by the beginning of the second book, even in his absence, it paralyses Ana: "And the music … so much music – I cannot bear to hear any more music. I am careful to avoid it at all costs. Even the jingles in commercials make me shudder."
Which all begs the question, why is so much of the 50 Shades books' blatantly misogynist (and materialist) project played out to, and through, music? And what does this say about the place and status of music, both popular and "classical", in contemporary culture.
It's questions like this which make reflecting seriously on 50 Shades of Grey a worthwhile activity: these three books have sold faster than any other novel in the history of novels. They have caused paper shortages in the US. Lumber mills in Canada have been forced to rehire laid-off workers. More people have read, and wanted to read, E.L. James's prose, over a shorter period of time, than any equivalent narrative. All of which makes its depiction of a number of things significant. It would, indeed, be imprudent not to assume that it captures, reflects and makes sense of – and will to some extent now influence – a genuinely popular yearning, a cultural consensus, in a manner that perhaps no other book does. Just as the ridiculously widespread appetite for the romanticisation of public schools in Harry Potter revealed striking truths about an audience that, a few years later, was also willing to elect a cabal of Old Etonians into government, so the implications of the central role played by music in the 50 Shades phenomenon should not be underestimated. Or to put it another way: the presence of Snow Patrol in 50 Shades of Grey probably merits more urgent analysis than the presence of Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 in The Corrections. More's the pity.
Some potential conclusions of this necessary analysis, and the pop-cultural diagnosis that might be drawn out from them, are already clear. It's not an exaggeration to say that possibly since Steve Jobs birthed the iPod, and certainly since the iPhone followed, the musical medium has become every bit as important as the message. By encouraging this trend to penetrate musical spaces that the more pathetic among us might have thought were still a little bit sacred – the lover's mixtape, say, or the music we sometimes play when we have sex – all James is doing is stretching a truism into the territory of comfortingly plausible bourgeois fantasy. As is her wont. Similarly, the Classic FMification of instrumental and choral music in the UK (I'm suspicious of the word "classical" at the best of times, but here, no fucking way: the Hall of Fame also finds a place for the Lord of the Rings soundtrack and Gareth Malone's Military Wives within its top 50) is, along with the bracketing together of all non-Western (or in the case of Sawhney, non-Western-sounding) "world music" into a nonsensically homogenous "genre", a fact of modern life. In other words, James both highlights and points to dismally possible futures for the techno-materialistic philistinism that makes sense of so much of the contemporary musical landscape.
Other conclusions require a little speculation – hardly a legitimate form of analytical hypothesis, it's true, but neither are these remotely stable texts. And so I'm tempted, for instance, to account for James's troubling success assigning music a central role in facilitating Grey's abuse, by suggesting that this may well be a product of the fact much of the Classical Album isn't really music at all: it's musical extracts. Like the National Front attempting to co-opt Vaughan Williams's status as collector, arranger and figurehead for English "National Music" as somehow proving the truthful and beauteous purity of their vicious dogma – only remotely possible if one wilfully closes one's ears to, say, the explicit teutophilia in various of his compositions from the 1930s and 40s (a dangerous time to be paying tribute to the Vaughan-Williams' German heroes: Brahms, Bach and Wagner) – James, Grey and EMI Classics are willing to wrench into isolation a fragment of Fauré's 'Requiem' in the hope of making it sound sexist and sexy.
Whether or not they are successful (the former, yes; the latter, no) is beside the point. Grabbing a chunk of a choral setting of the Catholic mass of the dead, potentially inspired by the death of Fauré's parents, in order to frame it as amorous background music, quite simply strips all meaning out of the subtleties of Fauré's composition. It becomes little more than an empty vessel to be "interpreted" however one sees fit. In short, none of this recurring unpleasantness is Fauré's fault, or indeed Verdi's or Rachmaninov's – and it's certainly not Chopin's, that guy was in love with proto-feminist George Sand for goodness' sake. No, it's James's; or rather, it's the fault of a cultural moment in which it's become increasingly acceptable to extract an Adagio or a Prelude from a concerto or an opera, and engage with it like it's a stand-alone three-minute pop song. I reckon James managing to force poor old Bach to participate in a love story modelled on Tess Durbeyfield and her rapey cousin is a the logical end-point of this ubiquitous tendency.
Oh, and be assured, Classic FM is again partly to blame here. Decontextualising music is very much in the station's commercial interests: it makes it possible, for example, to stick a movement from Mozart's frolicking 'Piano Concerto No. 21' on a CD entitled The Ultimate Piano Chillout Album.
One particular conclusion remains elusive, though. It's the answer to a very simple question that I don't want my Englishness to stop me asking: what does 50 Shades of Grey tell us about sexy music? Or rather, what does James's prose reveal about the real, visceral relationship between sex and music? Implicitly reveal, that is: what can be understood via her repeated failure to work out a connection that is in any way legitimate? What, for example, does a catastrophic commingling of a little BDSM horseplay and a Thomas Tallis motet tell us about what a legitimate connection might actually look like, sound like?
Certain that there was an answer, but unable to find one in the books themselves, I turned to what Susan Sontag identifies in The Pornographic Imagination as three of the great works of pornographic art: Delta, Georges Bataille's Story of the Eye and Pauline Réage's Story of O. But alas, scenes balanced precariously on an intersection between music and sexuality in these genuinely erotic books are few and far between. There are dancers in Nin, I found, and wherever there are dancers there is also "rhythmic motion". And in Elena, towards the end of Delta, pianos languidly "pour out music," like Elena's own "honey". It's not long, though, before the same instruments revert back to "bourgeois staleness".
Bataille was more promising: "A gramophone rescued us from our predicament. Simone, dancing a frenzied Charleston by herself, showed everyone her legs up to her cunt." But while this sequence admittedly catalyses Story of the Eye's legendary teenage orgy, it's Simone's dancing that does the hard work, not the musical accompaniment. Simone is not a character who needs music in order to dance, if you know what I'm saying. As for Story of O, mostly it ignores music altogether. There is a "music room", certainly, but that name, and the presence of a "record player and radio, with shelves of records" is a gothic joke: "the walls are lined with cork. Don't worry, no one can hear the slighted thing that goes on in here. Now lie down."
I was left with a single clue, a quotation from Roland Barthes's famous essay on Bataille, The Metaphor of the Eye. "The world becomes blurred," Barthes explains, carefully. "Properties are no longer separate; spilling, sobbing, urinating, ejaculating form a wavy meaning, and the whole of Story of the Eye signifies in the manner of a vibration that always gives the same sound." And this, surely, is closer to the reality of a legitimate connection than Nin's piano, Simone's gramophone, James's lamely prescriptive soundtracks. It's not a question of specific songs or scenarios; music here can only mean texture, a peculiar vibration that blurs the meaning of the world around until it becomes the context for a sexual encounter. This, presumably, is part of the reason why certain combinations of tracks convince strangers in clubs to fuck each other, and the only reason why a girl I met a couple of times thought the Bad Seeds' cover of 'Sleeping Annaleah' was the most erotic thing she'd ever heard. It is, I think, something essential we all of us only halfway understand.
And as 50 Shades reveals all too starkly, that means it's also something it's difficult, verging on impossible, to write about. Even Barthes himself struggled: "a vibration that always gives the same sound," he began, but that was as far as he got. "But what sound?"