More Than Music Taste: #SpotifyWrapped Appeals To Our Obsession with Individualism

Source: Junkee

Some complain about personal #SpotifyWrapped2020 lists taking over social media feeds, and even professional sites like LinkedIn. After all, why share? Nobody cares! Others, however, are lauding Spotify for a clever campaign idea that has offered the company free advertising. Even if for a brief moment, ordinary users turn into loyal brand influencers. But what exactly does Spotify’s Wrapped activate in us, both culturally and socially? After all, many people love the tool and place such great—and, perhaps, to some extent, blind—trust in having their personal data gathered, analyzed, and publicly curated.

It might be too obvious to state that our culture values self-reflection, especially so as the year draws to a close. We see every new year as a chance at a new beginning. And, let’s not sugarcoat it: 2020 was a year like no other. It has even “sounded differently.” According to Spotify, early in the pandemic there was an increase in “nostalgia-themed playlists and work-from-home-themed playlists,” and even more listeners turned to wellness podcasts, such as Unlocking Us with Brené Brown and Get Sleepy: Sleep meditation and stories.

After a long, grievous year of historic pandemic, economic collapse, and racial unrest, it only makes sense that we might want to take a moment to breathe — and to “get a deep dive into [our] most memorable (…) moments of the year.” Which is precisely what the Spotify Wrapped tool helps users do. But might there be more to #SpotifyWrapped than simply the annual ritual of pausing to reflect and reminisce on the year that was?

In post-industrial neo-liberal cultures, the self, not the group, is a source of meaning. The act of pressing “share” itself might be cathartic and, even, psychotherapeutic for many. To craft a public-facing persona, to be seen as a distinct individual within the public sphere is the ultimate marker of personal worth. Individualism, which emphasizes the individual’s role in establishing personal autonomy and independence, is wildly prevalent in Euro-American culture. We value individuality, not collectivism, which in Western cultures is often synonymous with negative concepts like groupthink.

Music is just another way to capture our personal interests, to communicate who we are, how we see and move through the world, and what we care about. But having individual preferences in music, art, or food, is, of course, not divorced from the dominant culture. In a sense, our preferences are not that unique at all. As we grow up, we learn very quickly what is “cool” and “hip.” Eventually, what we like or dislike translates into how easily we can access a sense of social belonging, something that all of us deeply need and desire. Indeed, in our culture having good taste that is recognized and respected by others gives us a sense of sophistication, a notion that is closely tied to the history of class relations. More specifically, normative ideas about what it means to be of ‘high society’— to appear cultured and well-versed in expressive arts—might no longer map on neatly onto contemporary popular culture but they certainly have a residual effect on how we register the social implications of consuming popular culture.

Be unique, we hear. Are you an extrovert or an introvert? Be different. Be your own person. Find your passion. But also don’t be too different. Make sure you show that your personality is a precise match for what your potential employer might be looking for. Our cultural obsession with personality is undeniable, and the psycho-social messaging we receive about individualism as a measure of personal worth is so pervasive and engulfing that the line between our consumption and self-conception becomes decidedly blurred.

In the U.S., the first personality test was developed during the First World War to evaluate neuroticism in soldiers experiencing shell shock. Eventually, personality tests moved towards a more holistic, multi-dimensional approach that we see in both clinical and pop psychology. “The 1931 Bernreuter Personality Inventory, for example,” Lila Thulin explains, “evaluates a range of personality traits: neurotic tendency, self-sufficiency, introversion or extroversion and dominance or submission.” This is when “industrial psychology and the still-prevalent use of personality tests in the workplace also took off.” Now it’s a two-billion-dollar industry.

Might we, then, think of the Wrapped tool as something akin to a personality test for our digital era that is defined by user streaming, data analytics, and, yet still, the desire to be something more than simply a nameless user? Spotify’s tool might then help us distinguish ourselves against millions of others, whose data, too, is mined and analyzed, and make sense of our own individuality in a culture, where the information flow never stops.

Is it a mere coincidence, for instance, that, in discussing their #SpotifyWrapped results, many Twitter users choose to engage with their results precisely through the lens of psychoanalysis? I won’t reproduce each tweet here but a quick Twitter search shows hundreds of tweets that joke about showing the annual Spotify streaming results to a therapist or realizing that one is desperately in need of psychotherapy. Some of the language used to describe individual #SpotifyWrapped trends emphasizes mental health issues and seems to signify an unspoken or, rather, an implicit acknowledgment of how what we consume, affectively and sonically, not only defines us but captures the depressive moods that characterize social life under late capitalism. For many of these users, Wrapped, then, represents a microcosm of the individual psyche.

Ultimately, Spotify’s Wrapped captures a story; our story — a digital capsule of the sonic and affective realm to which we retreat when no one else is listening. We turn to music in troubled times, of course: for comfort, inspiration, solace, and, often, distraction. Sure, it might be a little embarrassing to reveal just how much we’ve listened to Taylor Swift on repeat. Some of our streaming habits might even make us look quirky or plain weird. Yet, consider how announcing that the list is way too embarrassing to share on social media is also a way of mapping the self onto the dominant culture, a way of asserting one’s individuality, even if in an implicitly self-deprecating or vulnerable manner. This, too, is a way to announce, I am different, which is, in our culture, another way to say that I matter.

Before deciding to press “share,” we might ask: does this list accurately show who I am and how I want to be seen? Does it reflect the kind of story I want to tell others about myself? Spotify’s Wrapped is a coveted rehearsal of self-presentation. More than revealing music taste, it’s about asking: who am I, how do I fit in, and do I belong?

Cultural critic, theorist, abolitionist. Ph.D. candidate at Duke University in Black studies & feminist theory.

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