The honorific of shittiest month typically goes to April, but anyone unsuckered by autumnal propaganda will admit that it belongs to those morose, lifeless weeks straddling late November and early December. This time, just before the year dies for good, is stained by several cruel developments. For one, it brings the birthdays of anyone whose forebears did it on Valentine’s Day, a haunting reminder of both parental libido and death. Then comes Thanksgiving, that once-benign excuse to have dinner which has in recent years become half-heartedly politicized via Instagram infographics and widespread uncle defamation. In the meantime: the weather gets grayer, leaves become gutter sludge, and Christmas carols crowd out every radio station, even the jazz ones. But arguably the biggest seasonal insult arrives in the first week of December with the unavoidable advent of Spotify Wrapped.
It is almost impossible to imagine now, but Spotify Wrapped — the annual campaign that packages millions of listeners’ streaming data into tweetable personalized graphics about their music preferences — is just five years young. It launched, in what some might call a coincidence, at the dawn of the Trump era in December of 2016, and has since become one of the most successful social media marketing stunts since the ice bucket challenge. The appeal is not hard to understand. People think their tastes and habits make them endlessly interesting. Spotify knows as much, beginning this year’s animated slideshow with: “If 2021 was a movie, you were the main character.” Thanks to their copywriting division, we now know what song will be playing when my coworker George does things like “defeat the ancient vengeful spirit.” (It is “WTF Do I Know” by Miley Cyrus.)
Now that is fun, and I am happy to know it. There’s a subtle populism to the Spotify Wrapped grift; only a buffoon would deny that. In an era of mass surveillance, it gives people access to some of their collected data in the form of fun, colorful graphic carousels. But much like other corporate-funded mass movements, it is also inherently exclusionary. In this case, the excluded class consists of those silent sufferers of Apple Music or, worse, platforms like Tidal or Deezer. Today, there is a rage running through those of us in the unwrapped world — a group that has endured years of screenshots detailing the 23,000 minutes their friends spent listening to Throbbing Gristle or Olivia Newton-John. Some of this can be chalked up to jealousy. Though it’s common for tech companies to rip off each others’ features wholesale, there is no neat equivalent on any other platform. A desperate few make bootleg round-ups from Apple Music’s “Replay” page. Others may download knockoff apps like “Song Stats,” “SongsInfo,” or “Song Infos.” Suffice to say, these look like shit.
But beneath the envy is a pervasive bewilderment. If there is one question that unites the unwrapped, it is: What is going ON? When did everyone switch to Spotify? Did we miss some touring bus with a giant sign that said “Switch to Spotify and I’ll pay your ass $300?” There was a time not too long ago when the mp3-playing population kept all the files they ripped off Pirate Bay or SoulSeek in iTunes. When Spotify came out in the U.S. in 2011, there was no option to merge libraries! Plus it was ugly, and A$AP Rocky wasn’t on there. No De La Soul either. Did none of that bother anyone else? Did everyone agree in secret to let Posdnuos, Trugoy and Maseo evaporate into cyberspace? Did everyone just ditch their old stuff? How do you remember what you liked? Did everyone master the memory palace technique? Have we given up on Joanna Newsom aside from her feature on “The Muppet Show Theme” as Hobo Joe?
Whatever — clearly I’ve made a fatal error. If I had access to Spotify Wrapped, I’d be able to punish myself by doxxing my top albums and inviting commentary on my piecemeal listening selection. Instead, all I know is that since 2016, the most played song in my library has been “Drugs” by Lil Aaron. And that’s humiliation enough.