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Earlier this week, New Yorker writer Amanda Petrusich wrote a piece on her favorite albums of 2021. The selections were elegant and thoughtful, but it was the presentation of them that was striking. In the past year, Petrusich noted, she’d come to appreciate “separating the idea of listening from the purposeful consumption of so-called music … I found myself pulled toward albums that were elemental, tender, free—music that felt genuinely of the world and not like a meditated reflection of it.” My sense is she’s not the only one.
This notion comes largely from the fact that this week also featured the launch of 2021’s Spotify Wrapped. The annual release of the tool, which allows Spotify users to get analytics about their most-played music, has become something of an internet holy day or, as one tweeter put it, “both a gay person’s Christmas and Twitter’s Met Gala.” A way of telling on oneself, posting screenshots of your Spotify Wrapped, then, has become a way to call out both musical obsessions and overall #moods. (Have you listened to a lot of Taylor Swift? You’re not alone.)
Like in previous years, Spotify’s release of data included lists of the most streamed artists globally; and like previous years, the data for 2021 featured a lot of Bad Bunny and Drake. Unlike previous years, or at least years previous to 2020, the results also provided a sometimes haunting, sometimes hilarious glimpse into the collective psyche.
On the hilarious side, we have tweets like this, which pointed to a Spotify Wrapped comment that referred to someone’s excessive sea chantey listening sessions as “disappointing.” On the haunting side, there are even more tweets pointing out just how much depressing music people played in the past year. Sure, maybe people were—apparently—listening to a lot of Justin Beiber and Doja Cat, but they were also listening to scores of maudlin emo and other such moody offerings. “You can hide your emotional state from your friends, therapist, even yourself,” author Emery Lord wrote. “But you cannot hide from Spotify.” Musician Dodie tweeted, “Spotify Wrapped [you] guys are gay/sad.” Another user laid it out more plainly: “I love Spotify Wrapped because how else would I remember just how depressed I was from January to October.”
For others (e.g., a handful of people in my group chat and work Slack), Wrapped was merely a reflection of how deep certain niche interests—show tunes, Tenacious D, something curiously identified as “Midwest emo”—ran in 2021. In many ways, as Petrusich pointed out in her piece, music consumption has changed in the past two years. People are listening more but discovering less. It became easy to stick with what was familiar, or, in the words of Depeche Mode, to just enjoy the silence. Listeners didn't take a long dive into sea chanteys in 2021 because there weren't any new pop, rock, or hip-hop songs to consume—they did it because it was comforting, a moment of harmony from fellow travelers who were also once set adrift.
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