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The Technologies of Taste: Unwrapping Spotify's ‘Wrap...

Maverick Life

MUSIC OP-ED

The Technologies of Taste: Unwrapping Spotify’s ‘Wrapped’

Spotify 2021 Wrapped. Image: Supplied

Spotify’s ‘Wrapped’ does raise one vaguely anxiety-provoking philosophical conundrum: what time was more squandered: the many many minutes listening over and over to tunes I adored, or the time spent on the few hundred songs I heard once and know I would never choose to hear again?

It’s generational, no doubt. 

My daughter – regarding me with undisguised pity – calls it fun and says she and her friends share, swap and compare their info and have a laugh.  

But it’s generational and I find myself concerned, confused, bewildered and bemused by – and also suspicious of – the Spotify year-end “Wrapped”. Also uneasy, mugged, mocked, marked and monitored. 

I tell my daughter that when I was her age (“when I was your age” second only to “in my day” as the saddest, most treacherous phrases in all generational discourse) and someone was outside my room monitoring, taking obsessive note of, enumerating and listing every single item of music I listened to over an entire year and then duly served me with the report – gathered assembled, analysed, reduced to cold, raw data and laying out in final and fearsome detail how I had spent 900 or 9,000 or 99,000 minutes in the preceding year… I’d get a restraining order. 

But it’s an algorithm (a term that, of course, derives from arithmetics but is often misspelled, cruelly so in this context, as “algorhythm”) so that’s okay. It’s a mere scrap of ingenious and – caution: generational viewpoint! – sinister technology with a design purpose, and because it just needs to be collated, it is deemed to be important or helpful to me that I know every piece of music I paid some or even no attention to in the past year. I may as well know them in order from those most listened to all the way down to those heard once (and generally do not welcome being reminded of). 

To be fair it does raise one vaguely anxiety-provoking philosophical conundrum: what time was more squandered: the many, many minutes listening over and over to tunes I adored, or the time spent on the few hundred songs I heard once and know I would never choose to hear again? 

I listened – the technology informs me – to Key West by Bob Dylan umpteen times, a few dozen at least just to hear him deliver the line, “I do what I think is right, what I think is best”, and I listened to umpteen songs that don’t merit naming once or maybe twice. In the end, Spotify Wrapped makes all that time depressingly quantifiable.

And just like that – unsolicited and all – it vomits up all that data with trimmings: the genres I favoured, dabbled in, or was unaware were even genres (I’m a fan of “spooky”, apparently) or the artists I listened most to, or was in the tiny (elite? tribal? moronic?) minority of listening the most to – i.e. in the 0,5% of enthusiasts globally for a particular artist. Spotify tells you – if you need the knowledge – where you sit in the madly mediocre mass mainstream or in the loopy, lonely, lunatic fringe of isolated marginal taste.

Speaking for myself, I was doing just fine on my own listening to what I loved and was loving and seeking out unknown pleasures grabbing, repeating, discarding, holding on to or forsaking at leisure. My leisure. 

Of “2021 Wrapped” I will divulge only that my “most-played” song of the year was one that was released on my own label, Gal U2 Rude by General Levy – an irrepressible, infectious dancehall firecracker of a tune. 

Olivia Rodrigo performs onstage during the 2021 American Music Awards at Microsoft Theater on November 21, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for MRC)
Lana Del Rey attends the Variety 2021 Music Hitmakers Brunch Presented By Peacock and GIRLS5EVA at City Market Social House on December 04, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images)

Mostly what burns me about Spotify Wrapped is that while the algorithmic intrusion and analysis can break down my yearlong listening into the tiniest, most detailed, fractional and exhaustive morsels of info, the DSP (like Apple Music and the other major streaming services) is not able, or more correctly chooses not, to pay the vast majority of the creators of the music that has nourished me in the 12 months. 

And Spotify – which satisfies so many (all?) of my musical appetites, desires and fantasies – grows creepier and cultier by the day… 

The music business is alive and thriving. But, as never before, its blessed creators are being crushed in the stampede of greed and profit. Maybe next year will be better.  

So, applying the non-Spotify, species-specific technologies of hearing and taste, I’m unwrapping the greatest pop songs of 2021. 

Gustaf:Design”

Wet Leg: “Chaise Longue”

Lana Del Rey: “White Dress”

Dave (feat WizKid): “System”

Olivia Rodrigo: “Drivers License”

John Murry: “Oscar Wilde Came Here to make Fun of You”

Willow: “Marceline”

Bess Atwell: “Co-Op”

Glaive: “Fuck This Town”

Jorja Smith: “Burn”

Arooj Aftab: Last Night

Illuminati Hotties: Threatening Each Other Re: Capitalism” 

DM/ML  

Jay Savage is the former Managing Director of Sony and EMI Music Publishing (South Africa). He is a consultant, commentator, participant and agitator for change in the music business.

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