When Top 40 and showtunes trigger Spotify Wrapped shame

When Top 40 and showtunes trigger Spotify Wrapped shame

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Before Sergio Scardigno even lifts the barbells on his gym’s Smith machine, an all-too-familiar, upbeat scat and funk bass riff comes rolling through his clunky gray headphones.

It’s the starting track off Harry Styles’ sophomore album, “Harry’s House,” which drove Scardigno’s 90-minute workouts to the finish line for months after the album dropped last May. The harmonious, pop-funk earworms were butter against the heavy strain of the weights.

While eight tracks off “Harry’s House” are scattered throughout Scardigno’s 2022 Spotify Wrapped, he didn’t necessarily consider Styles his favorite musician that year, or really at all. So when he appeared as Scardigno’s second top artist, his shock magnified.

“I wouldn’t even say it’s an amazing album, but it’s so calculatingly catchy that it’s just going to sneak its way up on Wrapped — whether you like it or not,” he said. “Some albums and songs just have more replay value than others.”

And so the 25year-old YouTube music commenter braced himself for playful teasing and knee-jerk “Oh, that’s what you listened to this year?” commentary when Spotify dropped its 2023 version of Wrapped on Wednesday. This time, Drake was Scardigno’s second top artist, even though he hardly considers himself a fan.

“People expect music-oriented people to have a deep, obscure taste of underrated artists. It’s kind of like food — even food critics enjoy McDonald’s fries once in a while,” he said. “They’re good, but you don’t expect a food critic to come out, much less present it, in a yearly food roundup.”

The personalized rundown of subscribers’ most-listened songs, artists and genres of the year are packaged into colorful infographics designed to be shared on social media, opening up listeners’ musical tastes to public dissection. It’s become this generation’s version of showing off a prized record collection or sharing a clever mixtape — only the selections, formulated by an algorithm, reflect guilty pleasures and other casual listens. While this can add an element of surprise, it can also spark anxiety for those who’d prefer more control over the process.

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“Being able to have a representation of your music taste to show other people, not necessarily to brag but to share what your music means to you and what you’re listening to, depending on how you feel or what you’re going through … just gives us better insight into who people are,” said Adrian Aswani, a freshman at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

Sharing Wrapped playlists can spark in-person and online conversations and ignite friendships based on those musical connections. But for some, it’s become a modern-day Scarlet Letter, a public display of the songs and artists we might not be so proud to admit dominated our streaming habits. Others are simply perplexed by the derision they receive.

Shaniya, who uses the moniker Shanspeare on their YouTube channel, was anxious to post their Wrapped last year because its top artists were mainstream pop musicians like Taylor Swift, Halsey and Billie Eilish. But they weren’t prepared for the reaction from some followers who likened their taste to that of a “16-year-old White girl.” One even sent them a playlist to curate this year’s mix.

“The thing that actually took me by surprise was the response,” they said in a reaction video. “The thinly veiled implication that I’m basic, that I’m juvenile, that there was something inherently wrong with my listening habits. It dredged up a feeling I can’t quite describe — it’s not anger or sadness or even shame. I’m honestly just confused. I’ve never been called ‘basic’ before.”

Because Wrapped can serve as a public reflection of ourselves, some younger Spotify users work tirelessly throughout the year to tailor and track their results. Morgan Steurnagel, a 19-year-old social media consultant from North Carolina, has this down to a science.

Right as January rolls around, when Spotify begins collecting user data for Wrapped consideration, Steurnagel keeps close tabs on her music diet. She finds herself listening to playlists for 15 hours on most days, even when she’s asleep. Her favorite artist, the Neighbourhood, has been her top streaming artist since 2019. She makes sure to keep it this way through repeated listens and by tracking her streams through the site Last.Fm.

“I listen to music when I go to bed — no matter what,” she said. “I’ll know if I’m falling behind on one artist and will just put those on when I fall asleep.”

When there’s music she would rather not have appear on her Wrapped, Steurnagel drowns out those listens with other records.

A few weeks after Conan Gray’s “Superache” album came out last year, she felt drawn to the album’s grunge-pop choruses, as well as nostalgia for his previous albums, which she listened to in high school. But as Gray’s music became increasingly popular on TikTok, she swore off the album entirely, listening to other artists such as Phoebe Bridgers, Lizzy McAlpine and TV Girl instead.

For some, it’s become nearly impossible to post their Wrapped without a disclaimer, especially if other life milestones and responsibilities have factored in. Chris Harihar, 38, a marketing partner at Crenshaw Communications in New York, used to proudly post his Wrapped for his friends to see every year, and found his results to be conversation fodder at bars and social events.

He told pals about Future’s 2016 “EVOL” album and Post Malone’s 2018 “beerbongs & bentleys” when they popped up. And he valiantly defended the countless Drake songs that made their way into the mix over the years, despite teasing and laughter from friends.

But once his daughter Lila was born three years ago, his Wrapped became inundated with kid-friendly options such as Cocomelon and Kidz Bop Kids, since he “can’t really play Future around her.” He initially tried to avoid the genre by playing upbeat pop songs such as Justin Bieber’s “Yummy,” much to the horror of his nanny. The Wiggles once again took the reins. And now that his tot uses the family’s Amazon Alexa to request her own music, his yearly Wrapped has essentially become hers.

So he’s stopped posting it altogether. While he said he “doesn’t really care about Spotify anymore,” he admitted that he feels out-of-the-loop — and sometimes stays quiet when his friends bring up the annual cultural touchstone.

“It’s like you don’t even have a seat at that table anymore,” he said. “Even if I share it, it’s more so a humorous thing to show how skewed the playlist is.”

Younger listeners still revel in evaluating their annual playlists, bonding over the good, or even mocking the supposed “cringe.”

College freshman Aswani, 18, recalled he and his classmates hotly anticipating the annual lists, huddling in the hallways and swapping their phones and gawking at the results. An acquaintance became a close friend after she slid up on his Instagram Story after noticing Frank Ocean was his top artist in 2021. The conversation eventually led them to their shared interests in punk rock and classical music.

These intimate connections help ease the shame of more mortifying Spotify Wrapped picks. During covid-19 lockdown, Aswani’s Top 10 songs were opening tracks from anime shows he watched during quarantine, resulting in “Are you doing okay?” remarks from friends. The “Hamilton” soundtrack also crept its way into his playlist.

“I don’t want to say it’s embarrassing, but it is kind of embarrassing,” he said. “I definitely had to come to terms with this.”

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