“The Lithium Shuffle,” Or: Fun With Music Playlists

Music plays a large role in shaping the words I write.

In my current WIP, music plays an integral part in how the story is told. Rather than the story being told in Part/Chapter format, I’m incorporating that so very ubiquitous relic from the 1990s to help tell the story: the mix tape.

There was an art form to the mix tape. You didn’t just throw 15-20 songs onto a 90-minute cassette (or did you?) and simply write “MIX TAPE!” on the label. You chose the songs carefully, those songs revealing a veiled clue about yourself, or something you wanted to convey to the person you were making the mix tape for. My mix tapes were short autobiographical essays – something I covered in the essay “My Life as a Mix Tape, Parts 1 and 2,” in my book, Out Where the Buses Don’t Run: Seven Years of Rants, Raves, Dirty Jokes, and Bad Ideas From a Small But Loud Corner of the Blogosphere. – that were constants in my mid-twenties. The bulk of the music on those mix tapes were what was burning underground in the alternative music scene, some of which became hits, others destined for obscurity.

My WIP takes place right around 1995-96, which would have been during my mid-twenties. So why the mid-nineties? For starters, there seems to be a trend towards writers obsessing over New York City’s past, and I’m one of them. As I’m writing this book, I’m reliving streets I used to roam, conversations I’ve had at bars and clubs, the women I loved, and the music I listened to. The mid-nineties was when the Internet first became a household word. When Friends and The X-Files were what we were watching on TV. This was a particularly difficult time for me, as I was feeling rudderless, the first onset of what would be depression coming down upon me. Music was the salve, what I could most identify with, especially when you consider the music at the time was very feeling-centric. Singer-songwriters who were confessional, stark in their approach. Kurt Cobain, yes, but also Jeff Buckley. Elliott Smith, too. They’re all dead. I don’t know why I’m bringing them up.

Music from the Nineties has something of a mixed reputation these days. The Nineties gave us Radiohead (praise Allah), Nine Inch Nails, Beck, Massive Attack, Pavement, the Chemical Brothers, the Wu-Tang Clan, The Notorious B.I.G., Portishead, Mariah Carey, just to name a few. It also gave us some of the worst one-hit wonders ever. The “Macarena,” anyone? How about “Tubthumping?” “Mambo No. 5?” 

There was also Hootie and the Blowfish. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

Boy bands also ruled the roost. Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees, and N*SYNC, although the latter can be forgive for giving us Justin Timberlake. The Nineties also gave us Britney Spears. Actually, I’m not going to dump on Britney. I admit to liking a few songs of hers. “Toxic?” Three-and-a-half minutes of pure perfect pop. FACT.

But there was a lot of shitty music. If grunge – Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden – did smash hair metal into thousands of aerosol-stained pieces, it also begat its slew of hideous copycats. Stone Temple Pilots. Creed. Filter. Limp Bizkit. Oh, Jesus, I just threw up in my mouth typing their name…

We also saw a greater influx of women in the music industry, through both the singer-songwriter – Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, Alanis Morrisette, Fiona Apple, just to name a few. The spiritual daughters of Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and Carole King recreated the confessional tomes of Blue and Tapestry for the Nineties, paving way for future female singer-songwriters.

And there were the Women Who Rocked. The Riot Grrls, lead by Sleater-Kinney, Babes in Toyland, and L7, proved you didn’t need a dick to rock hard, just the attitude and killer riffs. Across the pond, PJ Harvey’s minimalist garage punk, Bjork’s mad-hatter beats and otherworldly banshee wail, and Garbage’s Shirley Manson’s darkly comic lyrics and no-bullshit demeanor left me breathless. Then there was Hole, led by America’s Sweetheart, the delightful train wreck known as Courtney Love. Live Through This was a festering, oozing wound of past traumas, unresolved anger, unaired grievances, dark psycho-sexual politics, and black comedy, and it’s still as emotionally gut-wrenching a listen today as it was when it came out the week after Kurt Cobain romanced a shotgun.

“The Lithium Shuffle” is the playlist I’ve put together to put in the frame of mind as I’m writing this novel. As I listen to this playlist, and write this novel, the idea of the novel as a mix tape began to come to mind. Instead of a book separated into “parts,” it’s “Side One,” and “Side Two.” Each chapter is a “track,” the novel an entire mix tape that tells the story of a suicidal woman embarking on a road trip across 1990’s America with a fictional character.

I thought I’d share with you a few songs (well, some of my favorites) on the “Lithium Shuffle” playlist, a playlist that’s growing daily.. Some of these songs make up the titles of the “tracks” on the novel. Enjoy!

Screaming Trees – Nearly Lost You

Pulp – Common People

PJ Harvey – Dress

Morphine – Cure for Pain

Sugar – Helpless

Garbage – Milk

Folk Implosion – Natural One

Nada Surf – Imaginary Friends

Yo La Tengo – Big Day Coming

Joan Osborne – Right Hand Man 

Sleater-Kinney – Dig Me Out


14 thoughts on ““The Lithium Shuffle,” Or: Fun With Music Playlists

  1. I swear we are from different planets. In the early 90s I was finishing graduate school, finally falling in love and getting married. . . And totally discovering folk and Celtic music. I don’t recognize a single one of those tracks you list!

    • I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing is unique. I could swear I’ve seen or read this concept somewhere else. I’m merely putting my own stamp on it.

      As I said to Rebecca above, here are some songs for you to discover. A couple of decades late, but better late than never.

  2. Gus, I wasn’t in my mid-twenties in the 90s (that was high school!) and I didn’t watch “Friends” or “The X-Files” then (“Star Trek” and “Quantum Leap” were more my speed, but I’m caught up now). That said, I can totally relate to the musical threads you’re spinning here. I tend to remember movies rather than music, but you stirred something nostalgic and “essentially 90s” with this post! Also, I’ve never thought about writing in tandem with a mix tape before–it’s an intriguing idea.

    It is posts like this that got me following your blog in the first place! I hope to see more of insightful posts like this, and less about your hatred of Dan Brown (love him or hate him, he is a bestselling author–he and others like him are doing something right, and we should learn from that!). My point is, it’s nice to hear you talk about something you like. It makes me want to read again.


    • The idea of weaving the entire story as a mix tape just came organically, as I kept listening to the music from this time. I was reminded of the hundreds of mix tapes I’d made, either for myself or for others, and I thought the concept of the mix tape could act as a symbolic metaphor throughout the story.

      Glad to have you along as a blog followers. And, hey, I only dumped on Dan Brown once, so it’s not like I’ve got these reservoirs of hate for DB!

  3. Hootie! (But, uh, yeah, we won’t talk about that.)

    Some great stuff here, Gus. Love Morphine, Garbage, and Joan (Relish was a phenomenal album). Always enjoy your music posts.

    And yes, there was a total art to the mixed tape. (Makes me want to watch Cusack in High Fidelity again.) Kids these days have it so easy with their Spotify playlists. Back in my day, well, uh, like Hootie we won’t talk about that. . .

    • I’m pretty anal-retentive about keeping the mix tape thing going. I try to incorporate the same thing in the iTunes playlists I create. Every song is carefully chosen. Yeah, I know, obsessive, obsessive. There’s so much about “High Fidelity” (the book and the film) that completely resonates with me.

  4. I was in middle school when Kurt Cobain died and still remember the moment I heard the news. I guess not quite the same league as “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” but still . . .

    Anyway, not sure how “Music of the 90s” will eventually rate in the musical pantheon, but there’s lots of good stuff (and you’ve got a lot of it here. I’d add the Breeders, Oasis–maybe, I still love Wonderwall–Smashing Pumpkins and a bunch of others, but I guess I should go off and make my own playlist, huh?) and I remember it all fondly.

    And lets not forget, every generation suffers its own Hootie and the Blowfish.

    • I was, in all places, a Johnston & Murphy shoe store, in Manhattan, shopping for a pair of Oxfords, when I heard Kurt Cobain had died. There was a TV overhead, and an older man, probably some executive for some soulless Fortune 100 corporation, loudly complained that the news was for real news, and not for, as he called Cobain, “this useless rock and roll guy.” I really wanted to tell this guy off. Part of me still wishes I should have.

  5. Loving your commitment to the mix-tape and 90s indie music – Blur, Pulp, Suede and some ambient dance stuff like The Orb. That’s the soundtrack to uni and post-uni right there. The launch of the PlayStation, mobile phones weren’t just for drug dealers – good times.

    • I was a sucker for Brit-Pop. Still am. Just yesterday I chuckled when I spotted Juliette Lewis’ Instagram feed, and she was holding up a copy of Elastica’s debut album and raving about it. I played that record to death, and got to see them perform, too. I love that someone else thinks of them fondly as well.

      Ah, the Orb. Along with Orbital, Underworld, Massive Attack, Spiritualized, just to name a few, they made up the soundtrack to many a weekend I spent chasing an elusive euphoria via a little white pill. I still dig the music but I don’t miss those mornings.

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