Author Playlists

James Frankie Thomas’s playlist for his novel “Idlewild”

“Of course Idlewild has a soundtrack – it’s a novel about theater kids. I suppose it’s a universal tendency, not unique to theater kids, to imagine your life as a movie and yourself as the star. But theater kids are extra annoying about it, because their movie is a musical.”

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.

James Frankie Thomas’s Book Notes novel Idlewild is a brilliant debut that explores post-9/11 queer teen friendship.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

“[An] intoxicating debut . . . Thomas astutely captures his characters’ anxieties as the drama unfolds, and his choice to give them the benefit of hindsight allows for a nuanced and sensitive portrayal of Fay’s identity formation. It’s easy to grow obsessed with this auspicious novel.”

In his own words, here is James Frankie Thomas’s Book Notes music playlist for his novel Idlewild:

Of course Idlewild has a soundtrack – it’s a novel about theater kids. I suppose it’s a universal tendency, not unique to theater kids, to imagine your life as a movie and yourself as the star. But theater kids are extra annoying about it, because their movie is a musical.

The novel is set in the aftermath of 9/11 at Idlewild, an artsy Quaker high school in lower Manhattan. The theater kids in question, Fay and Nell, are best friends. Fay is prickly, aloof, and obsessed with gay men; Nell is shy, sensitive, and obsessed with Fay. During rehearsals for the fall play, they notice and befriend two sexually ambiguous boys. The pairs become mirrors of one another and drive each other to make choices that they’ll regret for the rest of their lives. Looking back on these events as adults in 2018, the estranged Fay and Nell retrace a fateful school year full of backstage intrigue, antiwar demonstrations, and smutty fanfic written over AIM on a dial-up connection.

Obviously, this playlist will include some real blasts from the past. But like the novel itself, it’s not just a YTK time capsule. There is, after all, more to life than high school. Or so my characters tell themselves, even as they refuse to let go of the past.

“Always Something There to Remind Me” – Burt Bacharach and Hal David, performed by Pomplamoose

This is the theme song for Idlewild’s 2018 frame narrative – specifically this cover, with Nataly Dawn’s wispy, listless vocals. Her flat affect lends an interesting ambiguity to what’s usually performed as an upbeat song. When she sings Just go back to the places where we used to go, and I’ll be there, it sounds not like an invitation but like a confession of a compulsion. (This cover also happens to be what the inside of my head sounded like before I transitioned.)

“Come On, Petunia” – The Blow

Imagine this quietly deranged song playing over a montage of Nell’s first two years of high school, which she spends friendless and crushing from afar on Fay: “Day after day I sat in the desk next to hers and studied her handwriting and crossed my Z’s the way she did. Night after night I typed ‘Fay Vasquez-Rabinowitz’ into the Yahoo search bar, finding nothing, of course, about this random fourteen-year-old girl in the year 1999. […] Did I ever talk to her? Ha.”

“Everywhere” – Michelle Branch

This jewel-bright, candy-sweet pop hit from 2001 is my mental needle drop for the 9/11 scene, when Fay is trapped at school and Nell offers her emergency shelter at her own home. “It was so beautiful outside, the sky such a pure sparkling blue, and my heart lifted guiltily as I realized that Fay was still walking beside me. She wasn’t going home by herself. She was staying with me, for real.”

Baby’s On Fire” – Brian Eno, performed by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Velvet Goldmine soundtrack

Now we peer into Fay’s head and find a fantasia of glitter and eyeliner and sinewy male bodies on their knees, simulating fellatio on each other’s electric guitars – it’s the “Baby’s On Fire” scene from the 1998 film Velvet Goldmine. As a teen, Fay sexually imprinted on it: “I happened to enter the living room just in time to catch the eighteen-second kiss between Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Ewan McGregor, and I was instantly mesmerized with something almost closer to religious awe than sexual arousal.”

“I Only Have Eyes For You” – The Flamingos

Everything changes for Fay after an encounter in a garden with Theo Severyn, a mysterious boy who sees something in her that no one else has recognized. I associate the scene with the echoing acoustics of this old song, which slows down time, quiets the jangling “Baby’s On Fire” noise in Fay’s head. I don’t know if we’re in a garden / Or on a crowded avenue / You are here, and so am I / Maybe millions of people go by / But they all disappear from view… (Including, unfortunately, Nell.)

“Fat Lip” – Sum 41

At the novel’s midpoint, Fay and Nell join forces with Theo and his friend Christopher, and the four of them take over the spring musical in a dramatic coup. For the first few months of 2003, this triumphant gang of four crashes around the school like a tornado of teen obnoxiousness – hence this song, the apotheosis of early-2000s pop-punk dirtbaggery.

“El Tango de Roxanne” – Moulin Rouge soundtrack

But the alliance is short-lived and doomed. As opening night approaches, Theo and Christopher’s motives come to look increasingly sinister, and Fay and Nell’s friendship begins to crack under the weight of jealousy, secrecy, and obsession. Naturally, I imagine the ensuing rupture set to “El Tango de Roxanne,” the climactic musical number of every early-2000s theater kid’s favorite movie.

“Busby Berkeley Dreams” – The Magnetic Fields

We return now to the 2018 frame narrative, with Fay and Nell looking back on their teen selves with longing and regret. Let’s end it with the loveliest, most melancholy track of the best album of their high school years. I should have forgotten you long ago / But you’re in every song I know

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James Frankie Thomas is a lifelong New Yorker. He attended the City College of New York and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has worked as a video store clerk, a Shakespeare tutor, and the “YA of Yore” columnist for the Paris Review; he was most recently a theater critic at Vulture. Idlewild is his first novel.

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