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The Try-Hard Truth About Spotify’s “Woke” Playlists

The commodification of digital music is accelerating—and the path forward is … a boozy brunch playlist?

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For a company whose entire livelihood is staked on the cultural ascension of playlists, Spotify is surprisingly bad at making them. Though perhaps “bad” isn’t exactly the right word—“overeager” would be a more charitable option, and “shameless” a more cynical one. Whatever the motivation, Spotify’s playlist strategy regularly produces gems like this:

And this:

And, I’m not kidding you, this:

Spotify now has an in-house playlist for every mood (Down in the Dumps, Happy Hits, Rage Quit), every life scenario (Coping With Loss, Bedroom Jams, Boozy Brunch), and every lived truth (Black Boy Joy; Feminist Friday; Black, Queer, and Proud). Though the algorithm-driven Discover Weekly and the industry-influencing RapCaviar get all the attention, the vast majority of Spotify’s lists are built to appeal to these diverse, hyperspecific, and sometimes surprisingly large niches (After-Ski Classics has 203,000 followers).

Contextualized playlists are not a new idea. The streaming service Songza, launched in 2007, offered music for working out, beach reading, and summer barbecues long before it was acquired by Google in 2014. Apple Music also has playlists called Relationship Goals, Pure Yoga, and Party Starters. You can type “sad songs” into Pandora and be fed an endless stream of tear-jerkers.

But Spotify goes a step further than its competitors in attempting to soundtrack not just general human experiences but the specific cultural zeitgeist. Its playlist descriptions are littered with Twitter catchphrases like “reclaiming my time” (for a Black History Month collection) and “Yas, queens” (for a playlist simply called “Fierce”). A playlist called “NYC Strong” was assembled in response to the October terrorist attack in Manhattan. A collection of lists called “Be the Change” urges listeners to “shake up the status quo to these revolutionary sounds.”

There’s something a little rapacious about the whole endeavor, though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why it makes me cringe. The motivation for Spotify is easy to understand. The company has a precarious business model trapped between two hard truths: Digital music is both valueless (it can be stolen easily and without consequence on the internet) and too expensive (Spotify spends about 70 cents of every dollar earned to license tracks). Trying to sell people music is a losing proposition, so the only solution is to sell them an experience. And that experience can’t be dependent on any single artist.

Hence, an entire category of Black History Month playlists that include “Mambo Classics,” “This is: Langston Hughes,” and “’90s Baby Makers.” The goal is not so much curation as it is inundation. How could you want for anything—like say, Tidal exclusives 4:44 and Lemonade—when every sonic variation of the topic of the moment is at your fingertips?

Spotify has determined that currency is especially key to making this strategy work. Among the app’s playlist categories is a section called Pop Culture, which features playlists pegged to social media’s trending topics. Each week brings a refreshed version of “Feminist Friday,” a regularly updated list of songs performed by women (right now the list is doing double duty for Black History Month with a collection curated by Mary J. Blige). Sometimes the Feminist Friday songs might actually be feminist and sometimes they might not, but they will always be new.

This constant desire for newness is a curious change in music consumption habits—even at the peak of the music industry in 1999, the average fan spent only $64 per year on recorded music, the cost of about four CDs. Being a music fan used to be about growing a library of music slowly and sharing it with others—even in the iPod era, when music was in effect free and storage space essentially limitless, people still curated their own specific libraries. Now, with the song selection left to the streaming giants, we seemingly can’t go more than a week without a new roster of tracks to consume, and most likely discard.

I much prefer Apple Music’s approach, which focuses more on using playlists as an educational tool. It’s not as boring as it sounds—visit Stevie Wonder’s artist page and you can browse through playlists of his greatest hits, his deep cuts, his influences, his protégés, and the modern sample flips of his music. Spotify, by comparison, has one three-hour assortment of Stevie Wonder songs. Since at least half of music listening on Spotify occurs in playlists, there’s a good chance users are coming across him in passing on playlists like NYC Strong, Black History Salute, or the occasional Discover Weekly inclusion. Instead of being the musical genius who made five back-to-back classic albums in the 1970s, he’s a famous name whose five most popular songs can be swapped out as modular parts in any given playlist. It’s the banality of radio infecting all the other ways we consume music.

Spotify’s current strategy is clearly working, or the company wouldn’t be racking up both new users and goofily named playlists at a torrid clip. And artists desperate for every cent they can wring from streaming aren’t likely to worry about selling out to a corporately branded playlist. But surely if the company insists on being “progressive,” it can do more than co-opt woke aesthetics to maximize streams. A better model would be Spotify’s own “I’m with the banned” project, which paired emerging artists from countries targeted by President Donald Trump’s travel ban with big U.S. names like Pusha T and Desiigner, then filmed mini-documentaries about their experiences recording new music. As of this writing, though, “I’m with the banned” has 27,811 followers. Move on & Don’t Look Back, a playlist about getting over your ex that’s part of this week’s spread of Pop Culture content, has 459,000 followers. Who really wants to listen to someone else’s soundtrack when you can be the star of your own?