“Sad girl starter pack”
“My life is a movie”
No, these are not phrases spouted out by a ChatGPT- bot attempting to come up with vague internet-esque phrases to assimilate with the youth, but they may as well be.
These expressions, which essentially mean nothing without the context of social media, have now permeated the popular streaming service Spotify. It’s a genius marketing scheme—and it’s ruining the way that we listen to music.
According to my Spotify Wrapped (a feature where users get to view a compilation of their listening data for the year), I listened to 150 genres on the app. We must interrogate the reasoning for Spotify to create and promote these aesthetically-based genres.
Every Monday, Spotify users can look forward to their “Discover Weekly,” a playlist of new songs to check out that the algorithm puts together based off of your recent listening. Every Friday, Spotify users are updated with their “Release Radar,” a playlist of songs each week of new releases from artists that you listen to or follow. There are countless “daily mix” playlists created each day based around the decades, moods, artists or general listening. Take your pick! If it’s an algorithm approved choice.
Just as many have analyzed with other social media apps, while it may seem that the app and its amenities are the product, in actuality you are the product that is being sold. What are you feeling like listening to today? Here are all of the awesome songs that you have listened to in the past year and here are all the awesome songs you may like this week based off of everything we track you listening to. The artist you ask? You are the artist. Create your online music profile and become another falsified version of a marketable online self.
There is an illusion of choice that depends on our assumption that we are the ones making the decisions to craft, curate and listen. Yet the Spotify algorithm is constantly choosing the music that you should listen to and the music that will keep you on this app.
Before I feign any more superiority, I must admit that I am an avid and active Spotify user. I have spent countless hours streaming and creating playlists on this service. I only came to recognize how Spotify may be hindering my appreciation of music in a moment of panic over the overwhelming amount of options of music offered up to me. In an effort to consume media more thoughtfully, one of my New Year’s resolutions was to listen to more albums.
Recently, I’ve been listening to Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” heralded by many critics as a musical and lyrical masterpiece for the rawness of emotion that Joni masterfully weaves throughout each song, from top to bottom. This is an album dedicated to the nuanced and complex feeling of heartbreak, and can be listened to as an emotional diary of the ups and downs and ins and outs of what it is to be in a state of “blue.”
Listeners are invited to travel through the inconsistent motions of sadness, rather than curating an aesthetic of sadness. It isn’t linear or straightforward, especially heard with the intro track “All I Want,” where Mitchell sets the tone saying that her state of blue is defined by the fact that she cannot decide what she wants: “I am on a lonely road and/ I am traveling, traveling, traveling, traveling/Looking for something, what can it be?”
Joni’s album dedicated to feelings of sadness will consistently surprise you. Just when you think you’ve settled into the sweeping melancholy of the song “Blue,” she immediately pivots to the more optimistic “California,” as she addresses the hopeful feeling of going home. We go from a song that is dedicated to the foggy feeling of depression and the way it can color every moment blue, to a song dedicated to a place she loves and the longings of hope that one will finally be accepted and whole, wondering if home will “take me as I am.”
There is a reason this album is titled “Blue” rather than “sad vibes” or “depression music.” Yes, Mitchell’s album explores the feelings of sadness or depression in heartbreak, but she also highlights the lighter shades of “blue” that may color one’s world.
In what has been lauded as one of the greatest love songs of all time, dedicated to songwriter James Taylor, “A Case of You,” Joni’s voice rings out in metaphor as she compares their love to a case of wine: “Oh you’re in my blood like holy wine / it tastes so bitter and so sweet / I could drink a case of you / and I would still be on my feet.” She provides the emotional landscape for sadness when it doesn’t quite make sense, when one ought to be happy because they have found love, yet there is still a loneliness that lingers.
Although these songs stand out on their own, there is something about listening to them all together in the intended order that gives a fuller emotional picture of what Joni may have been attempting to convey. Not only that, but one is forced to sit, focus and listen in moments where we may be uncomfortable.
The Spotify algorithm has eliminated the process of listening to an album because it simply isn’t marketable. After listening to “Blue” one doesn’t necessarily desire to then consume mass amounts of other music. Perhaps you want to relisten, or to simply sit in silence and process the emotional motions you have witnessed and experienced yourself.
In all of the search to listen to music that perfectly fits whatever mood one desires to invoke, aren’t we actually sacrificing the contemplative and rich emotional experience that can come with listening to an album? Algorithms and user-centered streaming services may try to convince you otherwise, but try listening to an album you’ve never heard all the way through.
Don’t skip the song if it doesn’t quite align with your mood. Just listen. Allow yourself to be caught within the motions of the album and follow its journey despite the uncomfortability of it. Then listen to it all over again. Fight the algorithm and fake genres of music like “chill feel good movie vibes.”
Written By: Emma Peters