Wild Cards: The Soundtrack

by Carrie Vaughn

Really, I shouldn’t be the one writing about music in the Wild Cards universe. The consortium features a number of actual, performing musicians – Stephen Leigh on guitar, Caroline Spector on bass. I took piano lessons for eight years as a kid and own an accordion which I keep meaning to play except I’m worried it would upset my dog. A lot of Wild Cards authors and stories have been inspired by music and musicians. We have Joker Plague and the Jokertown Boys, C.C. Ryder and Buddy Holley. (Confession:  a lot of the alternate history in Wild Cards is outright wish fulfillment on the part of the authors. What if Fidel Castro played pro baseball? What if Buddy Holly had lived? What’s the good of writing fiction if you can’t make the world the way you want it to be?)

So yeah, I don’t have the musical chops of a lot of my colleagues, and I don’t have particularly musical characters or stories. But I listen to music a lot. I love the advent of digital music and players that can plug straight into my car’s stereo. Now I go on roadtrips and put my entire musical library on shuffle which leads to the Renaissance lute songs of Thomas Campion butting up against the Dead Kennedys, and it’s ever so much fun. Used to be I could only bring a handful of cassettes on a roadtrip and once I finished with those I’d have to hunt for radio stations and hope for the best. Now? It’s an on-demand world, baby. I love it.

I listen to music when I write. Sometimes I work out entire playlists for novels, and some of my stories have their own songs that I played over and over again while writing them. Music helps distract my hindbrain—the part that worries about whether I left the stove on or ought to maybe weed the yard before I sit down to work. Music can inspire me. When I’m writing a historical story I’ll often try to find some suitable music to set the mood. I can’t write about World War II without listening to swing. 

So. What do I listen to when I write Wild Cards? A little bit of everything. 

What I said about historical stuff? That was one of the fun things about writing “Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan,” which I totally on purpose set at legendary NYC punk club CBGB in the early 1980’s, just so I could listen to all that great music. I probably spent too much time figuring out what actual bands would have played there during Jennifer’s visit (answer: Sonic Youth!) and what they might look like in the Wild Cards world. (Is the lead singer an ace? A joker? Is that her hair or a wig? Does it matter?) It’s serendipitous and appropriate that the real CBGB was located on the Bowery, right on the edge of Jokertown in the Wild Cards world. I decided this would be one of the places where all kinds of people—nat, ace, and joker—could gather in the true spirit of punk. However, despite all this punk cred in the story, the song I imagine playing as Jennifer strides off into the sunrise at the end? Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” of course.

In 2005 or thereabouts, I went to Bubonicon, Albuquerque’s SF convention, and had lunch with George and Melinda. They’d just landed the deal with Tor for a new Wild Cards trilogy and gave me the pitch for the Committee triad, along with what kinds of characters they were looking for. Then they set me loose for the seven-hour drive back home to Boulder. 

I stuck a tape in the tape deck (see above, for what roadtrips were like in my 94′ Geo Prizm):  a Beatles mix. “I Am the Walrus” came up, while my head was filled with Wild Cards and new characters and ideas scrolling in my brain at high speed. That song became kind of an anthem for me. An opening credits theme for all the ideas that eventually went into my character pitches, brainstorming sessions, and stories for Inside StraightBusted Flush, and so on. And yes, I imagined Jube standing on a street corner with his cart, nodding approvingly.

The thing about coming up with some kind of general playlist for Wild Cards:  it would be a lot like writing the books. Every author would have a different playlist, filled with different styles of music by different musicians, and if you mashed them all together—oh my gosh, it would be amazing. So much better than anything I could come up with on my own. In fact, I’m not sure why I haven’t gone around asking the other consortium authors to name a song they associate with Wild Cards to make up a brand new playlist. There’s a project.

I’ve seen lots of discussions of dream casting for the potential TV shows and what plots from the books might be part of the story. But I want to know what the soundtrack is going to be like.

True confession time:  I’ve had a soundtrack playing in my head for Wild Cards for thirty years. Some of it’s music that was on the radio when I started reading the books, whatever hit me just the right way, whatever earworm buried itself in my brain as I was reading and daydreaming and maybe even writing my own snippets of fanfiction. (No, I’m not going to dig out my teenage Wild Cards fanfic. No no no.) Naked Eyes’ cover of “Always Something There to Remind Me” which I thought was just begging to be part of an opening credits montage. Roy Orbison’s “She’s a Mystery” which is so eerie and lyrical and conflicted. Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” which for me had just that little bit of hope that I think Wild Cards always needs, like maybe for the closing credits. As you can tell, this is a very 1989 playlist, but that’s about when I started reading the series. It stuck.

This may not make sense to anyone but me—music is personal, which is one of the reasons I love it. It can convey so much when just words or just pictures alone maybe don’t. It can capture a mood, set a tone, add texture, jack up emotions. Wild Cards has all the real-world music since 1946 to draw on, plus whatever we can imagine. The possibilities are endless.

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