In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Rafael Frumkin’s novel Confidence is a consuming, hilarious, and smart novel about grifters and love, one of my favorite books of the year.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
“Ezra is a clever narrator, brought to life by Frumkin in a knowing and well-paced first-person that gives “Confidence” the propulsive thrum of a tell-all.”
In his own words, here is Rafael Frumkin’s Book Notes music playlist for his novel Confidence:
Confidence is a book about con artistry and deceit, but it’s also a love story. Or rather, a story about getting scammed in love. Ezra, the purblind teenaged grifter, meets Orson, a charismatic Adonis, at a juvenile detention camp not-so-lovingly nicknamed Last Chance Camp. Ezra falls head over heels for Orson and the two become fast friends and then lovers, pulling small cons together into their twenties. Their schemes get bigger and bigger, eventually resulting in NuLife, a Theranos-type startup that promises its consumers instant bliss. While bringing Ezra and Orson untold wealth, NuLife also puts a wedge between the two, leaving Ezra lovelorn and Orson free to be as conniving and pansexual as he wants to be. (As something of a Peter Pansexual myself, I’d like to make it clear that I don’t think we’re all conniving.)
I’ve had readers tell me that Orson is scamming Ezra by becoming his sometimes-lover, and while they’re not completely wrong, they’re not completely right, either. I think Orson does have feelings for Ezra, but he’s too hypnotized by his own bullshit to be present as a partner. Ezra loves intensely, and that scares Orson. But by the end, after all they’ve been through, Orson’s had a come-to-Jesus moment (or moments), and there’s a possibility that he’s going to give love a real shot.
My playlist for Confidence reflects the boom-and-bust instability of all-consuming limerence: when it’s good you’re unassailable, and when it’s bad you’re either in major trouble or about to be. Thanks for listening!
Bubblin’ – Anderson .Paak
I’m a huge Anderson .Paak fan. I love how he traverses hip-hop and R&B so smoothly, and how he manages to be timely without being precious. (His song “Lockdown” effectively captures the unique historical moment forged by the simultaneity of COVID and the George Floyd protests.) In “Bubblin’,” he’s talking about getting suddenly rich. “Put the bread on me, bitch,” he raps, “bitch, you bet imma bake it.” He’s got Gucci Slides, a Porsche 911, and “dead prezis in an envelope.” Like a lot of rap songs, “Bubblin’” is about dreaming of making it big and then making it big, and what I like most about .Paak’s take on that theme is his humor. There’s a joke about taking the listener’s mom to a Marriott and there’s also a joke about patience being thinner than pantyhose. When I listen to this song, I think of Orson and Ezra swimming in cash from NuLife. Like .Paak, they’ve been broke way longer than they’ve been rich, and the money makes them giddy. Unlike .Paak, however, they’re not destined to be rich for long.
Hit the Back – King Princess
What would a queer love story be without some King Princess? This song is an anthem for bottoms everywhere, and Ezra is certainly a bottom, both literally and metaphorically. In the song, King Princess simpers about being the best her lover’s ever had, asking her to “throw it down / hit the back.” I listened to this song several times while writing Confidence, and the minute I heard the lyric “I’m a star but you’re an icon,” I thought about how close Ezra comes to saying those exact words in the book. He will do anything for Orson: though I don’t get into it in the book, I’m sure his sexual fantasies involve being ordered around by his comely prince. King Princess seems to be embodying Ezra in this song, which is probably why I love it so much.
Yoü and I – Lady Gaga
I’m pretty sure I’ve been listening to Gaga since 2008 or 2009. I even identified as a Little Monster in college. There’s a lot to like about Gaga: she’s out as bi, a staunch supporter of the LGBTQIA2S+ community without feeling the need to become its spokesperson, and her fashion has always been essentially queer. (I would love to see a queen make RuPaul clutch her pearls by walking down the runway in a meat dress.) “Yoü and I”¹ is an incredible song, a power ballad about love and heartbreak and missed chances and reunions. It’s the kind of song you belt at the top of your lungs, with a chorus so passion-packed and vulnerable that it makes you want to cry and sigh with relief at the same time. And although the song it about a cishet relationship, its nods to queerness will never be lost on me: Gaga actually appears in drag as her own lover in the music video and sweeps herself off her feet. Maybe this is silly to say, but I’ve always imagined this song playing in the trailer for Confidence: The Movie (or Confidence: The TV Show That Hopefully Gets Renewed for a Second Season). I like the idea of a supercut of all the moments of passion that Ezra and Orson share, whether they be exhilarating or devastating, playing over Gaga’s big, beautiful mezzo-soprano.
¹ The title can apparently be spelled without the umlaut, but I’m a purist.
Los Ageless – St. Vincent
St. Vincent’s songs are works of art: sleek, smart, and well-defined. If music could be color-blocked, hers would be. And despite the (pretty astute) potshots Chris Fleming takes at her, I still find her aesthetic appealing. “Los Ageless” is no exception: she’s singing about what sounds like the collision of old Hollywood with new money, “the last days of the sunset superstars” witnessing “girls in cages playing their guitars” as “lost sages…burn the pages of unwritten memoirs.” But for me, what really jives with Confidence Is the chorus: “How could anybody have you? / How could anybody have you and lose you? / How could anybody have you and lose you and not lose their mind too?” I imagine Ezra feeling this way about Orson: lost and out of his mind without him, then bewildered he even had him to begin with. The lyrics’ progressive urgency mirrors Ezra’s panic at losing the person he considers to be the best thing in his life. For me, St. Vincent’s energetic, plaintive vocals in “Los Ageless” really capture that jilted feeling.
Queen – Perfume Genius
This is my favorite song of Perfume Genius’s, which is saying a lot, because he’s been producing banger after banger since his debut album in 2010. When this song is featured in TV shows or films about cishet characters – as it was in Mr. Robot – I have to laugh: it’s so clearly a song about being a majestic (and somewhat the worse for wear) aging gay. The vocals are ethereal, and the steady bass guitar and snare drums coupled with what sounds like a highly melodic theremin(?) call to mind a last walk down the runway in a magnificent feather boa, a drag queen’s swansong. I chose this lyrically minimalist song for obvious reasons: Ezra is the kind of twink who’d become a cheeky queen in his dotage, and Orson is already something of a queen, being rich and flamboyant, and having appointed himself a royal in the futurist Kingdom of the Startups.
Make Me Feel – Janelle Monáe
Janelle Monáe needs no introduction: she’s great, and everyone can agree that she’s great. When she came out as bi, the internet lit up, and rightfully so – queer Janelle Monae is a kind of balm for the soul, a reassurance that no matter how bad things can sometimes feel, everything will be okay. Better than okay: everything will be great, just like Janelle Monáe. “Make Me Feel” is Monáe’s bi anthem – the music video literally features pink, purple, and blue “bisexual lighting” and Monáe volleying between her two crushes of different genders. When it comes to fitting with Confidence, “Make Me Feel” is a no-brainer. “You know I love it, so please don’t stop it / You’ve got me right here in your jean pocket” and “Mess me up, yeah, but no one does it better” both directly apply to Ezra in the grips of love. And then there’s the chorus: “That’s just the way you make me feel / So real, so good, so fuckin’ real.” For me, this song is about how spangly and special Orson’s attentions can make you feel, the sky-high peaks before the devastating valleys.
The Less I Know the Better – Tame Impala
When I first learned that Tame Impala is the brainchild of one person, not a traditional band composed of many instrumentalists, I was blown away. Kevin Parker’s surreal, birdlike vocals and his psychedelic backbeats accompanied me through much of my early twenties and well into my thirties. “The Less I Know the Better” is about a dude’s lover being stolen from him by a surly third party: “Someone said they left together / I went out the door to get her / She was holding hands with Trevor / Not the greatest feeling ever.” Like many of the songs on this playlist, these lyrics could easily be sung by Ezra. In this case, he’d be describing the love triangle in the latter half of the book, when Orson takes up with a movie star and Ezra can barely control his jealousy. The title of this song is extremely fitting for Ezra’s predicament: the less he knows about Orson’s relationships with other people, the better.
Figures – Jessie Reyez
There’s nothing quite like Jessie Reyez’s vocals: gorgeously rangy and squeaky and canorous. “Figures” is one of her defining songs, possibly because it’s as angry as it is heartbroken and lost. “I gave you ride or die and you gave me games,” Jessie sings, “I know I’m crying ‘cause you just won’t change.” We’ve all been where she is, furious that someone we love won’t love us back despite being given every chance to do so. Thwarted love is painful – if anyone knows this, it’s Ezra – and “Figures” is a testament to how that pain can undo us, exposing the tenderest parts of us to the very worst of the elements. You can hear Jessie’s anger in the fierceness with which she hits the high notes; you can also see it in the music video, when she smashes a guitar seconds into the song. I don’t think Ezra quite allows himself to feel the anger he’s very deserving of feeling, but he does simmer, and I could see him smashing a guitar in the privacy of his million-dollar condo.
Real Love Baby – Father John Misty
This song is a departure from Father John Misty’s folksy irony, and it’s such a pleasure both to listen to and sing. (Whenever this song comes up on a playlist in the car, my partner and I belt it out together, sometimes holding hands.) It’s such a light, airy, celebratory, funny song about the inevitability of love: “I’m a flower, you’re my bee / It’s much older than you and me.” What a beautiful idea, that people can’t help but fall in love with each other, that love will just come find you because it has to, because it follows the same laws of nature that attract bees to flowers. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that Orson is serenaded by a song called “Real Love” in Confidence, but the songster isn’t Ezra. It’s not until the very end of the book that I imagine “Real Love Baby” coming in, when Orson and Ezra are reunited after a stint apart. If you want me to get really specific, I imagine this song playing over the credits of the film adaptation, leaving the audience with the impression I hinted at in my introduction to this playlist, that Orson may finally be ready to embrace Ezra’s love.
Rafael Frumkin is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Medill School of Journalism. His first novel, The Comedown, was published by Henry Holt in 2018 to critical acclaim. His Collection, Bugsy & Other Stories, is forthcoming. He lives with his partner, two cats, and one dog in Carbondale, Illinois, where he is an assistant professor of creative writing at Southern Illinois University.