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A Britney Spears Mystery (and 3 More Podcasts Worth Trying)

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Unread

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Photo: iHeart Radio

In late 2019, the writer and academic Chris Stedman received an email from his friend Alex. They hadn’t talked in a while. Sometimes friendships work out that way; you know how it goes. Plus, we’re told, this can happen with Alex, who is conveyed to us as fairly enigmatic, prone to falling off the grid every once in a while and undoubtedly grappling with some potent inner demons. Stedman was anxious that Alex had written to reprimand him for being a bad friend, but the content of the message turned out to be something else, perhaps the worst possible thing you could get in such a missive: the final note from a friend who had just taken his own life. “Listen, I am writing to let you know that when you receive this scheduled email, I will no longer be alive,” Alex wrote.

The email contained something else. Alex had been a Britney Spears superfan, and at the end of the email, he left a link to audio files containing conversations between him and a woman he had met on a Britney Spears fan forum — a woman who, in more than a few ways, sounds a lot like the pop icon herself and as a result had become a bit of a celebrity within the Britney fan community. They had talked about this person before, marveling at the question of her identity. And so the audio files were a good-bye present of a sort, the offering of one last adventure shared with a friend. Stricken with the loss, Stedman sets out to find this person, in hopes that she would be able to help him better understand Alex.

Unread is a peculiar little puzzle box. It’s a brief four-episode nonfiction piece built on a personal tragedy wrapped in a mystery that comes with a hell of a hook. I picked it up with slight unease: Based on the trailer alone, I went in knowing, more or less, that what I’m about to hear is the work of someone processing his grief of losing someone, albeit in a way that is tied into a potentially whimsical, Reply All–esque adventure deep into the internet. There are ways, I thought, that this could get sticky, emotionally and ethically.

But it never does, and that’s a testament to the focus and sensitivity of both Stedman and the team around him. Much of Unread rolls out in gentle fashion — Stedman’s narration is writerly, essayistic — guiding listeners through the journey and its many moving parts with an elegiac thoughtfulness. Its central mystery might be a little zany and potentially sensational, but to an extent, it feels incidental. Stedman never wavers from why he is ultimately in your ears: to tell you about his friend, the life he lived, and how he affected the people all around him.

Still, the Britney Spears of it all is undeniably captivating. The timing, obviously, kicks the fascination level up a few notches, given the reemerging attention around Spears’s conservatorship that has itself sparked further reappraisals of her true legacy as a pop icon. But Unread also digs into the deeper questions about the relationship between the self and digital spaces — how despite all the horrible shit we recognize about the internet today, it remains very much meaningful in its capacity to help people learn more about themselves, self-actualize, and build relationships with others and find a sense of community. This, Stedman tells us, was true for his friend (“Freedom, that’s what the internet gave Alex”), but it could also be true for a pop icon whose literal physical interactions with the world are vastly constrained.

In theory, of course. Seeing as how the mystery of the woman’s actual identity is kind of the hook, I’ll leave how Unread handles its resolution for you to find out.

Meanwhile…

• I’ve recommended Depresh Mode, John Moe’s spectacular mental-health-focused interview podcast, in this newsletter before, but the episode with Joel Kim Booster from earlier this month is simply outstanding and shouldn’t be missed for two reasons. Firstly, Moe connects with Booster as the actor and comedian is in the middle of working through a particularly tough depressive stretch, resulting in — to my ears, at least, speaking as a person who is periodically familiar with depression — one of the most vivid windows into what an extensive depressive episode feels like in the moment. And secondly, the Depresh Mode team kept the interview largely unedited, which, on top of providing a more raw sense of Booster’s perspective as the guest, draws attention to the actual awkwardness involved on the side of the interviewer. Moe searches for questions, stumbles occasionally, and feels his way through the state of the person on the other side of the line. It’s all very striking.

• The crew over at Filmspotting — a.k.a. one of the Ur-film podcasts and a veritable institution — is getting ready to kick off a retrospective of a few Wong Kar-wai films over the next several weeks. Which reminds me, I should get that Criterion boxed set.

• For hoops fans: I’ve been enjoying Haley O’Shaughnessy and Jordan Ligons’s Spinsters of late as we roll into the very final stretch of the NBA season. It’s been doing this interesting thing of folding in one-off audio-documentary-style episodes in between more regular conversational entries that go over the latest news in the league. One recent entry in particular that stood out to me: Zach Stafford’s “The Rare Bird That Was Rodman,” which dug into Dennis Rodman’s complicated, messy, and endlessly unpackable relationship with queerness.

And that’s a wrap for 1.5x Speed! Hope you enjoyed it. We’re back next week, but in the meantime: Send podcast recommendations, feedback, or just say hello at nicholas.quah@vulture.com.

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A Britney Spears Mystery (and 3 More Podcasts Worth Trying)