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True Confessions of a Spotify Peeping Tom

on May 26, 2015, 10:15am

Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Frances Santagate Sutton confesses her habit of Spotify voyeurism, and clues us in to a hidden benefit of the streaming service.

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Several weeks ago, I went to Coachella Music and Arts Festival with my dad. I’m 23 and my dad is 51; we read the same music blogs, listen to the same new releases, and agree that TIDAL sounds like a scam. When we stick to music, we’re bros — the rest of the time, we are unmistakably father and daughter. On the first day of Coachella, while I tried in vain to flirt with the handsome guy running the Rolling Record Store, a stranger struck up a conversation with my dad, complimenting his “Brill Bruisers” T-shirt. My dad called out to me, “Joanie and Chachi, can you guys just exchange numbers and get it over with? C’mon Frannnniiiiie, let’s go!” I blushed, paid for my merch, and walked over to my dad and his new friend, Shawn, who had invited us to go drink at his campsite. Shawn was attending Coachella with his sister Taryn, so the four of us made up a funny music festival family. We drank IPAs and compared homemade schedules. We basked in the sun and the delight of finding kindred spirits.

Coachella // Photo by Philip Cosores
Photo by Philip Cosores

Music festivals are like religious pilgrimages: People of all ages come from around the world to worship the same deities as you. Although I was the youngest person in our little group by a country mile, we spoke the same language. I don’t know many people my own age who want to nerd out with me about Parquet Courts, never mind people who are older than I am, but at Coachella Camp with Shawn, Taryn, and Papa Sutton, it was a totally normal topic of conversation. There was, however, one point when I got some strange looks from my three companions. It was when the conversation turned to the subject of Spotify and I excitedly said, “Aw man, I am really into Spotify voyeurism these days…” No one else in the tent knew what I was talking about, so I explained:

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“Well, I follow a lot of people on Spotify, so I spend much of my work day spying on what music they listen to. Sometimes I listen to it too, sometimes I just make a note of it. Sometimes I imagine what kind of day they are having. Most of them don’t follow me back, so they don’t know that I’m listening to the same song or playlist as them, often at the exact same time.”

The reactions were mixed: “Frances is going to grad school for Anthropology,” my dad replied, probably to explain my weirdness. Taryn was a little bit confused because she mainly uses Spotify on her phone, which does not have the same features as the web player. Shawn was intrigued. None of them, it seemed, had considered that their playlists were stories that other people could read. This made me wonder how many other people had yet to travel down the rabbit hole that is Spotify and also how many people, like me, tend to live there.

The music streaming part of Spotify makes it convenient, but the social media component makes it brilliant. On Spotify, you can connect to the music personas of friends, strangers, and celebrities. The right sidebar of the web player gives you a live stream of songs the people you follow are listening to. I am a right sidebar peeping Tom of the highest order. I’ve “discovered” (albeit secondhand) a lot of music that I love because of the right sidebar. If I see someone cool I knew in college listening to a song I’ve never heard before, I will listen to it too (Shout out to Kelly Anderson for my new found love of Born Ruffians). The right sidebar helps me find new music, but it also helps me see what kind of week people are having.

Are my friends having a Missy Elliott or an Elliott Smith kind of week? A few weeks ago, I saw a friend of mine listening to the same Belle and Sebastian song on repeat for two days in a row. I wanted to say something to him, but what would I say? “Hey, I noticed you’re listening to ‘Piazza, New York Catcher’ a lot and I was wondering if you noticed that I’ve been listening to ‘No Children’ by the Mountain Goats a lot? Clearly we’re both going through some shit, huh?” It’s a classic peeping Tom predicament: you have to keep what you see to yourself, lest your habit be publicized and scrutinized.

spotify True Confessions of a Spotify Peeping Tom

Luckily, sometimes people are a little more forthcoming with their song choices. They’ll make a playlist and either the title or the collection of songs itself will tell you a story. When you see your friend has a “work out playlist,” you more or less know what you’re getting into. Other times, you come across a playlist called “Zebra Dildo Party Mix 1” and it throws you for a loop. (If you need to know what songs are on that playlist, I will spare you the search: It’s 32 songs and all of them are “Shut Up!” by Simple Plan.) I love playlists that are titled in an oddly specific way, like “The Sad Sack Dance Party Playlist For One.” Sometimes people make playlists and just write the date for its title. Those playlists are my favorite because they let you know what kind of mood someone was in on that day in history.

Once I was looking up Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You”, but when I saw that my search results included hundreds of different playlists, I couldn’t help but look through them for a while before returning to my original search. It turns out “Fuck You” is a very versatile phrase and the playlists ranged from sex soundtracks to break up soundtracks to anti-establishment soundtracks. It was mesmerizing. 

Let’s double back and underline the fact that Spotify lets you go through the playlists of strangers or acquaintances. Even if you don’t “follow” them or they don’t “follow” you, you may explore their music. How fucking cool and creepy is that? In the first season of The OC, Seth Cohen finds a CD in the back of Marissa’s car and discovers that they have similar taste in music. He sarcastically says, “I listen to the same music as Marissa Cooper? I think I have to kill myself.” I make discoveries like that every day on Spotify, but instead of being disillusioned like Cohen, I actually get really excited. Finding out that an acquaintance shares my love for circa-1990s Fountains of Wayne via their Spotify playlists? What a rush!

fountainsofwayne st True Confessions of a Spotify Peeping Tom

Once I was peering into the playlists of an acquaintance — a guy I knew in college. We probably spoke once or twice if at all. He had this playlist full of love songs that featured Jason Mraz’s “Even If It Kills Me” at least four times. I thought, This guy is going through some unrequited love situation. I had that thought because in the summer of 2012, I played that same song on repeat in my 1999 Honda Accord, driving all around Chicago, mourning the fact that my crush had a girlfriend who was not me. Listening to that playlist, and riding this guy’s presumed unrequited love train, made me want to reach out and talk to him, write him a letter, tell him I’ve been there, tell him the playlist was great … but I obviously couldn’t do that. I barely knew this guy and only knew about this playlist because I am a creeper. Also, what if I was completely wrong? There’s a genuine possibility that he just made a love song playlist and really liked that song. That’s where Spotify foils me; it shows but it rarely tells.  

It’s so frustrating! And fascinating! If people wanted to talk about the Utopia Parkway album or the reason they’re playing Jason Mraz songs on repeat, they would talk to you about it!

But they don’t.

So we can’t ask.

Especially if they’re strangers.

But I want to know!

…I also don’t.

I want to make up 100 reasons why someone is listening to a certain song and then pick out the one I relate to the best. Surely it can’t be as simple as, “This is a song that is neurologically appealing to me right now and every time I play it my brain releases dopamine, which feels great. But after I listen to it 1,000 times, my brain will stop getting excited, so then I’m going to find a new song to play on repeat.” I don’t accept that. It could be true, but it’s not the dramatic story I made up for you, so please don’t ruin my imagination with your actual motives.

Spotify is amazing because it gives you way too much access to other people’s music information. I can see who, what, when, sometimes where … but I can’t see why. I love listening to the songs and thinking about The Why.

Coachella // Photo by Philip Cosores
Photo by Philip Cosores

Spotify voyeurism reminds me why it’s important to go out and find your musical kindred spirits in the world — to make those pilgrimages. Being covertly enamored with a stranger because of their A+, gold medal, blue ribbon playlists is not as fulfilling as dancing like a Muppet with strangers at Jack White. Or sitting under an EZ-UP, drinking, and swapping Coachella tall tales with your new family. There is no technology or app that can replace the experience of being with the people who understand you on a level as basic as the chords to “Seven Nation Army” and as complex as the relationship between Meg and Jack White.

After Coachella, I started following Shawn and Taryn Spotify and they followed me back. Last week, I “shared” a band that I found and Shawn saw my post, listened to the band, and then played one of their songs on his radio show back in California. I’ve found that it is fun to use the social media component of Spotify for social reasons. That being said, yesterday, I saw in my right sidebar that Shawn was listening to one of my playlists. I beamed and wondered if he knew that I knew.

Frances Santagate Sutton lives in Seattle. She is a future anthropologist and full time Spotify peeping Tom. She made you a Spotify playlist to accompany this essay: Nice Normal Girl Volume 1.

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