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May 1, 2020

Melanie Abrams' Playlist for Her Novel "Meadowlark"

Meadowlark Class by Christina Dalcher

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.

Melanie Abrams' riveting novel Meadowlark is as beautifully written as it is unforgettable.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Abrams gorgeously depicts the spellbinding world of closed communities, in which being noticed as special means everything. From the starkly beautiful desert landscapes that mirror the children's thirst for attention to the brightly colored lines and shapes that Simone and Quinn see linking them to those they love, Abrams deftly conjures a highly charged emotional terrain. A compelling, taut portrait of love and broken promises. "

In her own words, here is Melanie Abrams' Book Notes music playlist for her novel Meadowlark:

“At Twelve”: A Playlist for Meadowlark

I’ve always been interested in writing about children, and particularly how childhood trauma affects us as adults. A good deal of Meadowlark is spent in backstory, exploring the childhoods of two of my main characters: Simrin, who grew up in a strict spiritual community, and Bethany, a child star who hit it big on Angel Eyes, a TV show in the late eighties and early nineties. The present of the novel also includes Juniper, a girl growing up at Meadowlark, a commune run by her father, Arjun, and mother, Bethany, that allows children to discover their more unusual “gifts.”

When the novel starts, Juniper is almost twelve, and just starting to be aware of pop culture. At twelve, Bethany was at height of her career, a big player in popular culture, and Simrin was just being allowed to attend public school, still caught between the sheltered world of a religious compound and the complicated world of middle school. Here’s what I imagine each of them would listen to at these defining moments.


“Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles

This would have a been a song Simrin’s known for as long as she can remember, something her mother sang to her from the time she was born until they moved to Ananda, a commune where secular music wasn’t encouraged. It’s a song she’d find looping through her head as Arjun and her begin to rely on each other more and more. They are their own refuge, so much so that they’ve created a word for that feeling – “swimmy”: “ what it felt like to cuddle in on each other, smell his unwashed hair, rub his bitten cuticles—like swimming in and out of each other’s warm selves.” If swimmy had a soundtrack, this would be it - the acoustic guitars their sheltered space, George Harrison’s flatpicking their lullaby. The repetition of “sun, sun, sun, here it comes” a mantra – all theirs.

“Guys and Dolls” from the musical Guys and Dolls

“They had listened to little music at Ananda… there were satsang CDs and, inexplicably, a weird collection of '40s and '50s musicals on tape in one of the common rooms. Jaishri and Simrin were the only ones interested in those, and sometimes they would lie, head to head, listening and trying to work out the stories.” I see Simrin listening to the whole soundtrack, but particularly this song, trying to figure out all the old timey slang – a “broad”? A “sport”? A“Joe”?

“Runaway Train” by Soul Asylum

At twelve, Simrin would still have three years before she escaped Ananda, but I can imagine her seeing this video, not at Ananda where there was no television, but at a classmate’s house where she has gone to do a group project. The video shows the band in all their long-haired grungy glory interspersed with scenes of fictional children running away and pictures of actual missing children. Simrin feels the spark of something in her chest, the acoustic whine of the guitars making her wonder, for the first time, whether she could one day get out, and yet still well aware that “there had only been one runaway since Ananda had formed, a legendary boy named Aadi who sneaked away one night and was rumored to have been found dead the next morning. No one spoke directly about it, but the story passed between the kids was that he had either been hit by a train, killed while hitchhiking, or been the recipient of so much focused prayer that he had simply imploded.”

“Number One Blind” by Veruca Salt

I think Arjun would have found this song for Simrin - heard it blaring from someone’s speakers as he walked home from middle school - and tried to explain the metaphor: “Levolor, which of us is blind? Levolor, left me in the dark. Levolor, I can't see a thing but you. Is it morning?” But Simrin, a year younger, would have instead latched on to assertive pout of the girls’ voices and then fixated on the guitars smashing in in the last third of the song. Because Simrin has synesthesia, a neurological condition that allows the brain to process information using several senses at once, “she has seen the pastels of certain voices and the deep hues of unexpected booms for as long as she can remember.” She would have envisioned the aggressive guitar solos like explosions of colored powder, each chord a blast of fluorescent pink and blue and yellow.


“The Sign” by Ace of Base

What twelve-year-old girl wasn’t listening to Ace of Base in 1994? “The Sign” was the number one hit of the year. The beat is insistent, and the vanilla reggae sound makes a perfect dance track for bored girls waiting around to be called to set. With all the kids on the set of Angel Eyes, there had to be impromptu choreographed routines. I can see Bethany and her on set friend Davina making up dances and insisting the crew watch them perform – giggling and clumsy but experimenting with the first flutters of sexuality.

“We’ve Got it Going On” by The Backstreet Boys

On Bethany’s birthday, “photographers were invited to take pictures of her getting a cart full of “teen” presents – Wet n Wild lipsticks, a pink Discman, signed posters of the Backstreet Boys.” In 1995, she would have been one of the first tweens to hear the Backstreet Boys’ debut single. And, I’m sure, crushed hard on Nick Carter.

“Sour Times” by Portishead

I imagine Bethany, star of her own show, nonchalantly trying to befriend an older girl who’s on set for the day. Maybe Bethany casually flips through the girl’s CD wallet and sees the album insert - Beth Gibbons looking like a prom queen in a horror movie. If she got up the guts to ask to listen, she would be fascinated by the moody trip hop melodies. And then the lyrics: “Who am I, what and why? 'Cause all I have left is my memories of yesterday. Oh these sour times.” Every tween has their musical moment of feeling seen, and this might be Bethany’s – trying to figure out why she feels so invisible when the whole world is watching her.

“Last Dance with Mary Jane” by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers

Having grown up on set and with a hard-partying young mom, Bethany experienced “a revolving door of people coming to the house to deliver a nonsensical amount of takeout, and forgotten keys, and ‘papers’” – i.e.: drugs. I’m sure her mom, a ’70s beauty from Ohio with “a profusion of blonde feathered hair and those same blue eyes as Bethany’s” would have loved Petty’s heartland rock. Add the song’s not very cryptic allusion to weed, and this would have been a favorite of her mother’s. Picture mother and daughter, usually at odds but in the moment completely in sync, singing this in the car on the way home from set. Bethany’s mom (cringingly) entertained by her daughter belting out “Last dance with Mary Jane, one more time to kill the pain.”


“Peace Like a River” by Elizabeth Mitchell

This is an African American spiritual covered by Elizabeth Mitchell, an artist the grownups at Meadowlark would surely be enamored with because of Mitchell’s sweetly earnest style. Juniper would have grown up with the idea of peace as fundamental to growth and been taught how to count “peace begins with me” on her fingers as a way to calm down. But at twelve, Juniper is caught between being a little kid and being old enough to think this meditation is “stupid, just grown-ups making kids pretend everything was okay.”

“Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish

“Every time she goes to town she finds something else she’s never seen. It’s mostly stuff she couldn’t care less about: coffee pods at Target, t-shirts that say “Sassy and I know it!” at Krepp’s, but every now and then there’s something she really, really wants: a make-your-own-lip-balm kit, or the Furlicious lounging bean bag chair, or a purple bra with a tiny gold heart at the center.” Juniper is straddling two worlds, the commune and the world she sees when she goes to town. I can imagine her being dragged along to grocery shop, and being taken totally off guard by “Bad Guy,” the complete opposite of the “kid” songs she’s been taught her whole life, wondering what it means to be a “like it really rough guy, just can't get enough guy.”

“A Better Son/Daughter” by Rilo Kiley

Living with more than sixty people would expose Juniper to a lot of music, and so she probably finds this one by accident. I see her bored, winding her way through the different commune houses, trying to find something to do and finally collapsing on someone else’s family bed. She would hear it on some radio streaming service, and at first be drawn in by the sunny melody, but as she listened, the dark lyrics would worm their way inside her: “But you'll fight and you'll make it through. You'll fake it if you have to, and you'll show up for work with a smile. You'll be better, and you'll be smarter and more grown up and a better daughter or son and a real good friend.” This feeling of wanting to be a better daughter, wanting it enough to fake it is one she’s familiar with. When she can’t be the “lark” her father wants her to be “She had felt the shame blossom in her chest and flower up into her throat until, despite telling herself she would not cry, her chin had shaken and the tears had fallen, and her father had pulled her into him and rocked her side to side, telling her it was fine, she had other talents, she would find her magic. But she had felt the stiffness in his arms, the too-high pitch of his voice, and she had known that she was pathetic.”

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana

Juniper’s father, Arjun, has to be a Nirvana fan, maybe a little late to Cobain’s party, but a dedicated devotee once he arrived. I see him locking himself in his closet of an office and streaming Nevermind, not the kind of album he would have played for his “larks”, the Meadowlark “children who have been awakened.” But Juniper would have internalized it anyway, not really understanding or liking Cobain’s frantic “With the lights out, it's less dangerous. Here we are now, entertain us. I feel stupid and contagious. Here we are now, entertain us,” but I can hear it playing over one of the last scenes of the novel when Juniper is part frantic, part devastatingly in control.

Melanie Abrams is the author of the novels Playing and Meadowlark. She is an editor and photographer and currently teaches writing at the University of California, Berkeley. She lives in Oakland, California, with her husband, writer Vikram Chandra, and their daughters.

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