East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Me, Steve Perry, Fritz Leiber and why I won’t write about kids on bikes in the 80s

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This is a weird post (maybe the title could have forewarned you) and it is a part of something larger I’ve been trying to put into words these last few months. It has to do with marketing, platforms and brands, and writing for a living – indeed, it is the sort of post I usually write once or twice a month for my Patrons, under the header of Nuts & Bolts.
But I’m doing it open because… well, because.

We were discussing nostalgia and exploitation, yesterday, with some friends that have been binge-watching the third season of Stranger Things. The series has been called exploitative and manipulative by some. It ticks all the right boxes, and it settles in a general trend that builds commercial success on the nostalgia for the ’80s by people that are too young to actually remember them.

And as we were talking, a song started playing in my mind…

This song:

Journey’s Don’t stop believin’ came out in 1981, made it to the charts, and would go on to be the most downloaded 20th century song on iTunes.

I never was a Journey fan in the ’80s, but when I listen to the song today, it brings back memories. It was on the radio back then, it was everywhere for weeks, months. It played much after it came out. It reminds me of people I knew, the girl I liked back then (I still like her today) things we said and did.
“It feels like the soundtrack of our lives”, to quote another song, this one by The Divine Comedy.

I have no problem listening to this song and actually enjoying it (I like the structure, Steve Perry’s vocals, even the bit about “paying any price to roll the dice just one more time”), and I enjoy the memories.
And I have no problem with Youtube or Spotify slipping this song in my playlists, or iTunes or Amazon selling me the digital download, the remastered CD, the vinyl reissue of Journey’s Escape, the works.

What I have a B I G problem with is somebody taking this song, and the memories I attach to it, and repackage them in order to sell them back to me in processed, sanitized and remastered form, leveraging not my nostalgia but my memories and emotions to make a buck.
This I find immoral.
It reminds me of Fritz Leiber’s The Girl with the hungry eyes – a story about a vampire that feeds on memories and emotions digesting and transforming them into advertisement.

This is the reason why I feel a sense of unease when I see some colleagues of mine cynically plan to ride the market by churning out stories about kids on BMX bikes riding around in a perpetual summer while hunting ghosts or chasing aliens or what.
I know that it is a rich market, I know a story like that would sell – but ticking the right boxes to develop a marketable product that “looks authentic” and grabs the right market segment is not… Right? Ethical?

But I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to signal any virtue.
Writing by simply ticking the right boxes to fit the current trend is not sustainable – and it is therefore a strategy that in the long term does not pay, and damages the market.
Sure, it does pay in the short term, but our lives are not short-term affairs – so our careers should not be neither.
We need to put something more, when we write, than the right ingredients to satisfy the current market cravings, if we want our stories to last, and readers get back to us.
This, at leas, is what I believe, and the reason why I tend to distance myself from these bandwagons.
Because I couldn’t ride them anyway
Because it makes me feel uneasy, and because I believe that in the long run this is a suicide – a downward spiral that causes us to squeeze a certain idea, concept or genre to the last drop, churning out by-the-book stories, until we exhaust the market, and then move on to raid the new one, leaving behind only scorched earth and ruins.
It means condemning ourselves to never grow, never put ourselves to the test. It tires and alienates the readers, seconding their (and our) worse habits.

So no, that idea about a series loosely based on the Bill & Ted franchise, about two ’80s girls traveling through parallel universes?
No, we won’t make anything of that, sorry.

But we might try with a jazz cover…

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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