Author Playlists

Sean Michaels’s Playlist for His Novel “Do You Remember Being Born?”

“Cat Power’s Chan Marshall, one of my favorite artists, makes magic with words and melodies but most of all with the angle and velocity of her voice.”

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Sean Michaels’s Do You Remember Being Born? is a timely novel that contemplates art, AI, and consciousness in inventive and evocative ways.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

“[A] timely and lovely new novel . . . So-called ‘artificial intelligence’ is a hot-button issue, with daily claims about its potential to usher in utopia or destroy human civilization itself. It’s a loud topic, but Michaels’s novel is quiet and thoughtful. Instead of a cliché ‘man versus machine’ struggle, Do You Remember Being Born? is an investigation of language and legacies both artistic and familial . . . Michaels has a poet’s eye for detail and ear for fresh phrasing . . . No matter your stance on A.I., Do You Remember Being Born? is a tender and moving character portrait full of sharp scenes and memorable observations. While the novel might have a timely premise, it’s a jumping-off point for timeless meditations on art, family, connection and the meaning of a life. These topics will always speak to us, at least until we’re replaced by the machines.”

In his own words, here is Sean Michaels’s Book Notes music playlist for his novel Do You Remember Being Born?:

If you’re here at Largeheartedboy, reading a writer (me) talk about songs (🎶), I don’t need to tell you about the virtues of this site. For 20+ years, David has been maintaining this haven to and for music and writing—shouting-out his darlings, posting countless artists’ work, pointing to essays and articles related to his interests. This is a crazy card-catalogue full of favorites, a little (big) testament to one man’s fascinations.

It’s interesting to me because I too started a blog about 20 years ago—an mp3blog called Said the Gramophone. It’s only scarcely updated now, but for years and years me and my friends checked in almost daily and waxed lyrical about the songs we loved. David’s managed to keep it up somehow—grinding away, meticulous and consistent, leaving a lasting mark on this section of online cultural history.

All of this feels relevant to my new novel (my third), a book called Do You Remember Being Born? DYRBB is the story of a fictional famous poet—Marian Ffarmer—who accepts a commission from a Big Tech company to “collaborate” on a poem with their new, cutting-edge poetry AI, Charlotte. I began working on the book back in 2019, long before Midjourney and ChatGPT. Even then, I found something deeply provocative in the new generation of Large Language Models: something beguiling and repugnant about their ability to imagine a thing without possessing any intention. Sentences that were beautiful or insightful (or empty) or strange, but all utterly ardorless.

Contrast the output of an AI with the myriad passions of David @ Largeheartedboy. How much does the caring matter? What role does conviction play?

Accordingly, I wanted to salute this blog—and unspool some of the (large)heart of my book—by talking about a few songs where caring and intention seem at the very center of the thing. 

Constantines – “Do What You Can Do”

The Guelph band Constantines were an engine that ran on pure spirit: the forcefulness of their electric guitars, the reach of Bry Webb’s poetry and voice. “Do What You Can Do” is a song without scaffolding, just pure rocket: a crescendo that’s a tribute to working as well and as hard as you can. But it isn’t just a song about making cogs, empty labor. It’s a song too about making good—all of us organists “pumping never-ending air against evil.” Can AI do that? (Will I, today?) It will be a better world if it can.

Life Without Buildings — “The Leanover”

During the writing of DYRBB, this song became one of the talismans I returned and returned to. Not just because of the Glasgow band’s reassuring strum, its weird, ticking pulse, or even the elastic, magnetic clamor of Sue Tompkins spoke-sung vocals—but also Tompkins’ overall approach to lyrics, the Mark E Smith- (or John Ashbery-)like array of non sequiturs. Somehow the lines in “The Leanover” each feel like random overheard nothings and also like phrases one could have tattooed upon one’s arm—perfect and powerful and meaningless and insistent. The more I thought about the fatal flaw of A.I. thought, the random associations of it, the more I returned to “The Leanover” and its own magic deployment of that randomness: non-sense somehow transforming into a spell.

Cat Power – “Manhattan”

Cat Power’s Chan Marshall, one of my favorite artists, makes magic with words and melodies but most of all with the angle and velocity of her voice. She has a way of making it sound like things mean—mean deeply—no matter how cryptic those things sound. She could sing me the phone-book, as the old cliché goes, and fool me into hearing it as poetry, profoundly felt. “Manhattan” twinkles with a late-afternoon sunlight-on-steel, an energy that she imagines as New York but that I can easily displace to Marian and Charlotte’s California, where silicon’s nursing secrets under a wide blue sky.

DJ Koze – “Pick Up”

This is a different kind of challenge: DJ Koze’s sequined house music, stitched around samples of Gladys Knight. Easy to enjoy as a silvery glass of water; at once cool and hot; both sustenance and relief. But consider for a moment whether a track like this could get dreamed up by AI. Couldn’t a machine be made to create a thump at the correct bpm; to select the sample and do the stitching? What gives “Pick Up” power, what gives it grace? There’s something powerful and almost unnameable to the trust that swims within it: the sense of an intellect steering its undercurrents, a spirit guiding the drift. This is what nuns must feel, I wonder, lying on their backs in the garden. This is what it is to believe in God.

Thank you to David and Largeheartedboy for carrying on, outlasting.

And thank you to all of you out there who read and listen.

I hope you’ll consider my book.

Also at Largehearted Boy:

Sean Michaels’ playist for his novel “Us Conductors”

For book & music links, themed playlists, a wrap-up of Largehearted Boy feature posts, and more, check out Largehearted Boy’s weekly newsletter.

Sean Michaels is a novelist, short story writer and critic. He is the founder of pioneering music blog Said the Gramophone. His debut novel, Us Conductors, received the Scotiabank Giller Prize. His second novel, The Wagers, appeared in 2019.

If you appreciate the work that goes into Largehearted Boy, please consider supporting the site to keep it strong.