As the streaming giant parcels up the data on our personal listening habits, two authors reflect on how taste is formed – and why our music choices are never entirely our own
Move over Mariah Carey: these days the arrival of Christmas is marked by the arrival of Spotify Wrapped. Since 2016, the streaming giant has generated end-of-year listening statistics that claim to reveal users’ most intimate music secrets. Endless discourse about most-played songs, guilty pleasures and expected genres ensues. It’s a savvy marketing scheme for a platform that otherwise makes headlines for paying musicians poorly, although it seems few of us can resist the opportunity to show off our exemplary choices. But what can this data really tell us about our music tastes?
“Humans are good at trying to find reflections of ourselves in anything,” says anthropologist Nick Seaver. The author of a new book called Computing Taste, he argues that it’s important for us to understand “how that mirror got made, and what kinds of distortion is going into that reflection … It’s not just showing you as you are. It’s shaped by all sorts of decisions that people who are not you are making.”
Bigger than boring notions of so-called “good” and “bad” taste, our music tastes can feel foundational to our very selves. A badge of belonging on the playground, the glue that holds together a friendship, the balm for a brutally bad day, the music we listen to can be a coping mechanism, a time machine, or a vision of the future. But why do we love what we love?
In Stay True, a vivid new memoir by New Yorker staff writer Hua Hsu, music taste is all encompassing. In Hsu’s 90s coming-of-age, music is the compass and the measure by which he judges those around him. He pinpoints how the right song, in the right moment, can change everything – and how fans can find divergent meanings within the same choruses. Early in the memoir, Hsu is flicking through the crates at a record shop with his father, keenly interested in the way their tastes speak to each other. “We were enthralled by the same music, but it showed us different things,” he writes. Teenage Hsu finds “liberation” in Slash’s solo on November Rain while his father hears the guitarist’s “virtuoso skill”, but their shared enthusiasm offers them a precious point of connection.
But for anthropologists, taste is less of a romance than a science. “People often think about taste as being really individual,” Seaver laughs apologetically. “But in the social sciences we say: ‘Ah, that’s not really true.’ Your tastes are part of a broader social patterning that extends beyond you.” He suggests that our typical understanding of taste is shaped by the illusion of choice, akin to going to the record shop: “Among a set of available selections, what record are you going to pick?” Seaver asks me to carry out a thought experiment. “Imagine, what would it mean to have taste in music before there was audio recording?”
It’s flattering to think of taste as a personal choice because it encourages us to believe in our own individuality. Music technologies have long capitalised on this, all while leveraging the emotional connection between a listener and a song. Forty years ago, the Walkman gave rise to the “Walkman effect” – a term for how the portable technology allowed listeners to use personally curated music as a reality-shaping soundtrack. This year, Spotify has a new tactic to persuade us of our uniqueness: based on their activities, users are given one of 16 new “Listening Personalities”, from the “Specialist” to the “Replayer” or the “Early Adopter”.
Spotify’s emphasis on individuality could be a strategy to combat accusations that streaming platform algorithms – which plot data-led paths between songs and artists to make recommendations – are corrupting influences on their listeners, encouraging homogeneity, and therefore detrimental to lesser-known musicians. “People think of them not only as being good” – as in effective, says Seaver – “but that they can be so good that it’s bad.” Bad, in this case, is the possibility of living in a sound bubble of your own creation, unable to break free.
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You can almost imagine such a sound bubble appealing to the teenage Hsu, were it not for how much he prizes discovery. After first hearing Nirvana on late night radio, he believes he had “happened upon a secret before everyone else”. His belief in himself as an explorer is crucial to his concept of choosing the “right” music, and he describes the snobbish tendencies of his college years with acute but sympathetic detail. He writes that he “defined who I was by what I rejected”, shaping himself through a puritanical approach to sound and genre that may feel familiar to many music fans.
The memoir balances the exhilaration and self-inflicted isolation that arises when you pledge allegiance to a certain genre, and how taste can be both a declaration of difference and an attempt to gain membership to a specific tribe. It also shows how taste is a moving goalpost: months after his “discovery”, Hsu is disappointed. “The day came when far too many classmates were wearing Nirvana shirts,” he writes. “How could everyone identify with the same outsider?”
As markers of insider/outsider tastes, genre works differently today. Over email, Hsu reflects that unlike in the 90s, “there’s no longer a clear monoculture to resist”. Now that a wider range of music is easier to find, today’s listeners often celebrate breadth of taste rather than specificity: Spotify’s end of year data even includes stats on how many distinct genres a user has listened to. Eclecticism is a virtue, with younger music styles like hyperpop and K-pop building on the curatorial impulse of sampling in hip-hop and creating self-referential, genre-agnostic sounds. But without a defined sense of mainstream sound to defy, Hsu points instead to “monolithic platforms” as the powers that be.
Seaver’s work shows how software engineers, scouring data for patterns, can spot listeners congregating around sounds, and title these groups accordingly. In 2018, Spotify “data alchemist” Glenn McDonald described this as a surprisingly holistic practice: “Maybe they’re not exactly genres yet,” he said, “But I can name them and see if they turn into a thing.” (The much debated “Escape Room”, for instance, is an “in-jokey” genre coined by McDonald to encompass sounds as disparate as the lush alt-pop of Perfume Genius and Tierra Whack’s surrealist hip-hop). When listeners are surprised to hear of their affiliation to an unknown genre, Seaver describes this as an opportunity for them to “learn something new about [their] taste”, but it is also indicative of these shifting centres of power.
Artists and music journalists have been coining genres for decades, based on sounds shared between artists. This new era for genre is derived from listener data and labelled by engineers who, Seaver says, never expected to become authorities on the matter. This speaks to the contradiction at the heart of Computing Tastes: it’s both easier and harder to pinpoint a person’s music taste than you might expect. It all depends on what you think taste is. Spotify can tell us how many times we loop a favourite song, make reasonable assumptions about the genres that speak to us, and deduce from GPS data what we might want to hear in the gym as opposed to the office. But Seaver stresses that a key anthropological question remains unwrapped: why do people love the songs that they do?
Hsu’s memoir holds some answers. Stay True shows music to be a constant companion, capturing with moving clarity how our feelings towards a certain song can ebb and flow over a lifetime. At college, Hsu is in the car with his friends, singing along to the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows. In their throaty approximations of the Wilsons’ harmonies, he experiences a sudden sea change. “I finally felt in my body how music worked,” he writes. “A chorus of nonbelievers, channelling God.” In those two minutes and 55 seconds, he breaks free from his siloed concept of taste and discovers the song anew, finding in its harmonies an embodiment of togetherness. Later in the book, after the shocking death of his best friend, he reaches for the words to describe exactly how the song has changed again. It feels unsettling, he writes, because “I heard all the previous times I had heard it”.
Music lives with us. More than most other art forms, it’s omnipresent. And although streaming services might surreptitiously curate our listening experiences, Spotify can’t account for the songs that get stuck in our heads. There is no calculation that can perfectly explain the knotted feeling of a once-loved song that holds too many memories, nor the sensation of surprising yourself when a new sound takes a hold of your heart. Hsu puts it best when he conceives of sharing songs as a gift-giving, writing: “The right person persuades you to try it, and you feel as though you’ve made two discoveries. One is that this thing isn’t so bad. The other is a new confidant.”
Stay True is a beautiful tribute to how we use music to see ourselves, and to let other people understand us. But it doesn’t shy from the larger mechanics at work, either. Of Nirvana, Hsu reflects that, at the time, he didn’t realise “alternative” was just another marketing tool – but this doesn’t cancel out the band’s transformative impact on him, or undo the remarkable exchange of letters those songs inspired between himself and his father in Taiwan.
Strangely enough, Hsu’s memoir comes to a similar conclusion as Seaver’s algorithmic explorations. Taste is always changing, from how it works to how it feels. And tiny, personal shifts can shape taste on a far broader scale. “Idiosyncrasies can create new spaces of meaning or appreciation,” Hsu tells me. “Culture progresses through people refusing accepted meanings.” The same can be said for the messy combination of human habits, biases and assumptions which feed streaming platform algorithms. Spotify can show us a version of ourselves, but never the whole story. While music trends will come and go, and new listening technologies rise and fall, it’s life that will always colour sound.
Computing Taste: Algorithms and the Makers of Music Recommendation by Nick Seaver is published by University of Chicago Press ($20); Stay True: A Memoir by Hua Hsu is published by Doubleday ($26).