For the past few days, I’ve been going through the list of the songs I listened to most on Spotify this year. Not the songs I think I’ve listened to most, but the ones I actually have. Spotify does that for (or rather, to) you.
Among the many uncomfortable things the algorithim has done to us, this one may be the most jarring. It shows you the difference between the person you think you are, and the person you actually are.
In my mind, I am a cultivated appreciator of current music. All my favourites make the top 10 lists of discerning publications. I know how to pronounce Waxahatchee. I am Dylan, Deftones, Joni Mitchell and all points in between. There’s even some classical thrown in there because I fancy the thought of puttering around the house in a bathrobe looking for my next book whilst being transported by Brahms. Like Hannibal Lecter.
In actuality, I am an ONR person. What’s ONR? Great question. I didn’t know either, but it’s apparently a band or something. Maybe it’s just one singer, or a DJ, or a German dog that’s learned how to do sound mixing.
In any case, Spotify informs me that I have listened to Jericho by ONR more than all but one song this year. That would be hundreds and hundreds of listens.
I must’ve stumbled on it while scrolling through a suggested playlist, added it to a permanent playlist and then returned to it again and again via an instinctive sense of where it lay on that constantly expanding scroll of music. One of the effects of eliminating records and DVDs – physical objects that must be catalogued, located and handled – is that I can no longer keep track of new song titles, or most new artist names.
Were you to say ONR to me now, I’d still have no idea. But when you start humming the song, I cannot resist the urge to nod my pumpkin head in time to the beat. I know this song. I love this song. And this song is so cheeseball it ought to come with a warning – “Do Not Enjoy if You Are Over 30.”
I am trying to imagine showing up at a dinner party in 2023 or whenever we get back to such things and saying, “Hey guys, I’ve got something you’re gonna love. Just give it a minute, it’s … okay, okay, this is it. Stand up, put your hands in the air and scream it with me: ‘LET’S GO DOWN, DOWN TO JERICHO TOWN, AND PUT OUR FEET IN THE RIVER’ Right? Right? It’s great, right? Guys?’
The intended effect of Spotify’s Your Top Songs of 2020: A fun way to relive the year through sound.
The actual effect of Spotify’s Your Top Songs of 2020: My imaginary musical me is repulsed by the actual musical me.
(Ed. note: If you are reading this ONR, whoever or whatever you are, it’s all a sham. I love you for real. Keep doing what you do. Your biggest fan, C-Dog.)
Back in the day, I had a desk alongside one of this country’s great music critics, John Sakamoto.
John did this alternative top 10 chart of his own devising that he called The Anti-Hit List. When I knew him it was his side hustle, which was remarkable given its consistent brilliance. He’d fill the list with tracks that took real effort to find, even once he’d told you about them. Obscure DJ culture stuff or remixes that had never been officially released. John was the algorithim before it decided to go digital.
John also had that aura of detached cool you associate with Montaigne-level aesthetes; men and women who are so hooked into the main source that dealing with the rest of us peasants pains them slightly.
We had a lot of nice talks about music. Actually, looking back on it now, it was mostly me blathering and John staring at me like he was checking off a mental grocery list. But I suppose he got how insufficient I felt around him, and yet how unable I was to stop explaining that insufficiency.
One day, I said something about a song I thought of as a guilty pleasure.
“There are no guilty pleasures …” John said – he was looking at his monitor instead of me as he said it, but slowly raised a finger to emphasize the point. “… only pleasures.”
It was a rare declarative statement from him. It hit me like a brick. It was, in some odd way and largely based on the authority of the source, the most freeing thing anyone had ever said to me.
Most of us would like to be the person who listens to John Cale, who enjoyed Berlin Alexanderplatz and who saw Synecdoche, New York in theatres. I assume such people exist, and that they can even be fun at parties.
But most of us are not that person. Most of us are suburban moms, or whatever we think of when we think of the words suburban and mom. I listen to Taylor Swift and enjoy Law & Order and saw Love Actually in the theatres. I feel some shame for this, but far less than I used to.
I can still remember the gaping chasm between how cool I felt wearing a Dead Kennedys tour shirt and how much I hated listening to the Dead Kennedys. That’s not a musical act. It’s bottles being dumped into a garbage truck at 6 in the morning right outside your hotel room.
The algorithim – any algorithim – hasn’t done much good in the world. Its guidance will eventually reduce a great horde of us to mechanical compliance. But it does have one benefit – occasionally showing us the difference between the supposed pleasures that give us none, and those that produce actual joy.
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