Wrapping the Unwrappable

This is not an anti-Spotify post, or even an anti-“Spotify Wrapped 2022” post. I just want to challenge the notion that Spotify can—or should—know anything about my music listening habits, practices, and whims.

Spotify’s streaming service is (or can be) great for independent musicians; without any intervention from a music label or publicist, their music might get played around the world, even millions of times per year. (Although I prefer human recommendations over algorithms, I see how the latter can work in musicians’ and listeners’ favor.)

However, one problem with Spotify’s “Wrapped 2022” (individualized year-end stats for both musicians and listeners) is that the stats can be wildly off for those who don’t rely primarily on Spotify for their listening or streaming. I listen through Bandcamp, CDs, records, downloaded albums, and live concerts; I use Spotify only when I have to or when I want to listen to someone else’s recommendation. Spotify highlighted as “love at first listen” Earl Kim’s “Where Grief Slumbers: Listen to it Rain,” which I do love, but which I listened to over and over primarily for the “Setting Poetry to Music” seminar (granted, afterwards too). It also named a NYC band that I listened to several times but probably would not return to. It got a few things right as well, but in a tacky way that I won’t repeat here.

Also, the emphasis on numbers can distort things. Many people play Spotify as background music; they aren’t necessarily listening closely. A musician without impressive Spotify stats might have attentive, discerning listeners. (So might a musician with high stats—but still, Spotify gives more weight to the numbers than to anything else. The quality of listening is out of the picture.)

Also, the music I love most isn’t always the music I listen to most. There are songs and albums that stay in my head, to the point where I play them in my mind. There are albums I haven’t listened to in a long time that are among my favorites. I don’t put on music in the background, or work while listening, so my total listening time may seem relatively short. And then there are some silly songs that for some reason become addictive for a short while. I play them over and over, then set them aside forever. (This happens rarely now, but it can happen.)

The bigger problem is that I don’t even want Spotify to “talk about me.” I don’t want it to try to figure out, even haplessly, what music I love most. I write a lot about music on this blog, but that’s my choice, and I put it in my words. I also need privacy with music. There’s something glorious about putting on a CD and not telling anyone.

Sharing music has become both a public duty and a habit (good, bad, or both). Musicians want their music to be shared, because then it will reach more listeners. Listeners enjoy sharing favorite music (out of sheer enthusiasm or a desire to bring it to others, express thoughts about it, or show something of themselves). None of this presents a problem until it takes over completely. The time taken alone with music (without anyone else’s judgment, without any pressure to react instantly) has a soulful, even sacred element: the willingness to be in full encounter with it, the willingess to hold back from wrapping it up or being wrapped up by it.

Spotify pretends to do something it can’t. No matter how important streaming is, no matter how much the stats can matter, music is unwrappable. We convert it momentarily into virtually and physically wrappable things—playlists, stream counts, photos, CDs, reviews—again and again, and will continue to do so and should, but all of this is a level down from the music and the unadorned listening to it.

Some will say that I am taking Spotify’s pretenses too seriously, that they are meant only in fun. No, I think they are serious. The people in charge of Spotify want massive reach and influence. They want the stats to loom large. They have some laudable aims too (bringing people together, promoting creativity, etc.), but these are hard to separate from the commercial goal of dominating the streaming market.

There are probably many besides me who feel that despite its great convenience and ubiquity, something about Spotify is amiss: that its very assumptions (the more streams you get, the better you are, and the more times you play a song/album, the more you love it) not only fall short of the truth, but do their own subtle damage. This was true of record labels when they and radio were the main conveyors of recorded music, but in those days, once you bought an album, you were left alone with it. No one wrapped up your year for you. Recommendations, too, took a different form. For me, they usually happened when a friend and I would listen to records together. Or at the record store, if I had the courage to ask one of those exalted record store workers for advice.

To come to music plainly, without explanation or excuse, and to listen without pressure to do or say anything afterward: this gives life and truth to all the rest. Share away, share all you want, I say to myself, but never give up the freedom to listen just for listening, without anyone knowing, and without your stats hurling themselves at you through stars and bubbles, proclaiming who you are.

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  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

  • Always Different

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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