October 22, 2020
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Chris Stedman's book IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives is a profound and necessary exploration of our identities online and how we interact with each other.
Alexander Chee wrote of the book:
"Chris Stedman's newest book is a strangely prescient and timely guide to being more real digitally as we enter an era where we will need to be. His idea of digital life as drag has entirely reoriented my sense of self-presentation there, even as this brilliant book does more than that. By turns playful and wise, he makes us legible to ourselves and each other in new ways."
In his words, here is Chris Stedman's Book Notes music playlist for his book IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives:
For as long as I can remember, I've been an album person. Which means creating a playlist is a lot harder for me than it should be. The thing is, while a great song is a great song, a great album is something special. When sequenced well, an album tells a larger story. Which is also what I like about books, and why I write them. I write shorter pieces, too, but a book can take you on a journey in ways an essay usually can't, I think. But maybe a good playlist can, too.
The playlist below is largely made up of songs taken from albums I listened to a lot while working on IRL, which attempts to take readers on my search for a better understanding of what it means to be “real” in the digital age. I hope this playlist is a useful companion for anyone who decides to join me on that journey.
Joan as Police Woman - “Real Life”
IRL is short for “in real life”—a phrase often used in contrast to life online, which we’ve been led to believe is “fake,” or at least less real than offline life. But are these distinctions really so clear? That’s the central question of my book, and I came back to this song (which shares its name with the brilliant album from which it’s taken) a lot during the years I worked on it. Joan is one of my favorite musicians, and someone I’ve ended up connecting with online, too. So many of her songs speak to the complexities of being human, but this one set the tone for the book in a lot of ways. What is “real life”? What does it feel like? To me, it feels like this song.
The 1975 - “Sincerity is Scary”
Another album I listened to a lot while writing IRL was The 1975’s A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships. The title is almost a little too on-the-nose thematically, I know, but it really was a great writing soundtrack. This is one of my favorite songs on the album, and it feels like the right pick for this playlist both because I tried to be sincere in the book in ways that scared me, and also because sincerity can feel extra frightening in an age of rampant internet irony. But I think irony can be a gateway back into sincerity depending on what you do with it, which is something I touch on in the book. It has been for me, anyway, and this beautifully sincere song by a band known for its irony feels like proof of that.
Cardi B - “Thru Your Phone”
One thing I explore in IRL is my sense that sometimes the internet can give us more information about a person than is actually useful. I’ve never gone through someone else’s phone, but I have googled new friends or love interests, or been googled myself, and it's not always a great idea. Honesty is important, but so are privacy and autonomy. The internet complicates all these central pieces of what it means to be human and to be in relationship with others, and in the book I try to sift through those complications. Also, the album this song is from, and a number of Cardi’s standalone signals, kept me going on a lot of long writing days.
Marianne Faithfull - “Misunderstanding”
The album this song is taken from, Negative Capability, soundtracked a lot of my writing, and it’s not coincidental that I actually get into the concept of negative capability and what it means at the very end of the book. I don’t want to give too much away, but arriving at a sense of negative capability was central to finishing IRL. As for this song specifically, misunderstanding abounds online, so it felt like a fitting choice for this list.
The Ballet - “Meaningless”
This book is about the search for meaning online, a space often cast as devoid of meaning. That’s a false assessment, I think, as we increasingly turn to the internet to make sense of our lives and connect with others. If it seems meaningless, it may be in part because we have a narrow view of what makes life meaningful and need to expand on it. This song does a wonderful job of satirizing the conventions we often use to assess whether or not our lives have meaning, and in sending them up it invites us to take a more critical approach to what makes for a meaningful life. It’s from the album I Blame Society (such a good title), and The Ballet’s most recent one (Matchy Matchy) also touches on a number of themes relevant to the book. Not only that, but I actually cite the scholarship of one of The Ballet’s members in IRL. He was kind enough to send me some of his writing while I was working on the book, and I’m very grateful. (I would also like to be as talented in one area as he is in several.)
Kevin Abstract - “Tattoo”
Though it was a very different book initially, I started working on IRL back in 2016. That year, my life as I knew it was upended when my long-term relationship and job came to an end in close succession. With my life in tumult, I started getting tattoos regularly again for the first time in many years. Tattoos can help us mark a place and time, but this marking can be as restricting as it is empowering. The strange semi-permanence of the internet often functions like this, too, which I explore in one of IRL’s chapters. Also, the album this song is taken from, American Boyfriend, defined 2016 for me and got me through it. And I’m wearing the hoodie I got at Abstract’s American Boyfriend tour in like half the photos I post online.
The Fugees - “The Mask”
The Score was one of my favorite albums in childhood (though I had to swap the case to rid it of its Parental Advisory sticker, lest it be confiscated like one of my Garbage albums had been), and it’s one I return to regularly. At various points throughout IRL, I reflect on the different kinds of masks people wear, online and off. I listened to this song and album a lot while working on it.
Róisín Murphy - “Narcissus”
We’re officially in the bops section of this playlist. The album (Róisín Machine) this is from was only released recently, but the song itself has been out for more than a year, and it soundtracked my final stretch of writing the book. Criticisms of social media are rife with claims of narcissism. But while researching IRL, I read work that invited me to reconsider the supposed “narcissism” of social media. So often, things like “narcissism” (not in the clinical sense, obviously, which is different) and “authenticity” get dismissed instead of investigated. Rather than rolling our eyes at the ways people try to feel “more real” or attempt to love themselves more, what if we asked what’s going on behind those digital behaviors? That’s what IRL attempts to do. Plus this song is just so great.
Rina Sawayama - “XS”
In addition to being another absolute scorcher, this song is all about the problems of excess. Near the end of IRL, I dig into the challenges inherent to trying to order our lives and make meaning on platforms guided by profit. Under capitalism, the companies that run the tools we now use to connect with one another and make sense of our lives will never prioritize the things that make us feel more human if those things don’t also make the companies more money. Right now, our platforms move us in the direction of whatever keeps us posting about status and stuff. “XS” (taken from SAWAYAMA, another amazing album) really captures that feeling.
Plasma Cutter - “This Song is an SCP”
I write in IRL about a friend I met online, Steve, who invited me to come see him DJ at the closing party of a furry convention, and what I learned from meeting him and other members of the furry community about how we all play with identity. Before getting to know Steve and raging to his setlist at a furry dance party, I had assumed that adopting a furry identity was about hiding, but I learned that the opposite is typically true. Likewise, the ways we express ourselves online in anonymity are often about expressing various aspects of ourselves, not about hiding. Also, Steve makes music under the name “Plasma Cutter” that hits me right in the teenage nostalgia sweet spot, like this song (from Summer Vacation).
The Hotelier - “Your Deep Rest”
A week after I submitted IRL to my publisher, one of my best friends died by suicide. I listened to The Hotelier’s Home, Like NoPlace Is There, and this song in particular, obsessively in the months that followed, including while I edited it. So much of that friendship happened in digital space, and our relationship is a testament to the kinds of connections we can sustain online. I see him all over the book now. This song’s for Alex.
A.A. Bondy - “In The Wonder”
The internet can be an expansive place, a space where we can reimagine ourselves and discover who we are. One full of possibility and wonder. This song (off Enderness, an album I listened to constantly while working on the book) evokes a similar feeling of awe in me.
Sufjan Stevens - “Justice Delivers Its Death”
Yes, this is a Christmas song. And yes, it’s October. But 2020 has been tough, so I’m thinking I’ll start my holiday music season a little early this year. More to the point of this playlist: I write about this song in IRL, and about a fellow Stevens fan I met on Twitter named Zain. For years, Zain and I followed one another, but I knew little about him beyond our shared love of Stevens. While working on IRL, I reached out and asked if we could chat. I was stunned by what I learned—about him, and about the projecting I sometimes do onto others’ digital blank spaces. This song poses a question about how we measure something’s worth, and after talking to Zain, I found myself asking how much worth I really assign to strangers online.
Bill Callahan - “What Comes After Certainty”
IRL builds to an exploration of uncertainty, and how we sometimes use the internet to try to avoid it. We’re wired to run from uncertainty, and online we can attempt to optimize our way out of it. But as this beautiful song off one of my favorite albums (Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest) by one of my favorite artists drives home, embracing uncertainty opens all kinds of other doors into who we are. “What comes after certainty,” Callahan asks, before answering his own question: “A world of mystery.” At its best, the internet can help us learn to live with uncertainty and all the mystery we encounter once we learn to embrace it. Above all else, that’s what I learned during the years I spent exploring the digital search for realness. I hope my book can help others find opportunities to embrace uncertainty in their own digital lives, too.
Chris Stedman is a Minneapolis-based writer, speaker, and community organizer. He is the author of "IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives" and "Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious." Chris has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, and PBS, and has written for publications including The Guardian, The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, Pitchfork, VICE, USA Today, The Huffington Post, The Rumpus, The LA Review of Books, and The Washington Post. He currently writes THREAD, a newsletter exploring the threads connecting online and offline life.