The concept of genre is faltering, and Spotify is here to pick up the slack

Genre as a means of categorizing different kinds of music may seem to be a pretty straightforward concept, but its history is more nuanced than you might think. 

Without going into great detail, it is worth noting that many genres have historically been racialized, sometimes leading to puzzling results, such as the categorization of music by Black artists as “hip hop” or “urban,” regardless of how they fail to fit into the category. An example is Tyler the Creator’s album “Igor,” which received the award for Best Rap Album despite Tyler’s own belief that it fell more closely within the parameters of pop. 

I recently learned from a New Yorker article that this tendency to identify all Black artists as fitting within a small selection of common genres is the lingering effect of certain racist beliefs held by record company marketing executives regarding for whom music should be marketed. The dominant thought was that, like most other spheres of American life throughout history,  music should be segregated. Black artists produced Black music for exclusively Black listeners, and white musicians produced white music for white people — or so they thought. 

It should go without saying that this segregationist view of music is morally untenable, but I must underscore just how tragic such a mentality is. Music — something that has great potential to be deeply personally enriching and to facilitate wholesome human connection — has for too long lived within the confines of preconceived notions of who should listen to what, as well as who should create for whom. 

Of course, race was not the sole basis on which the concept of musical genres was founded. Still, this background provides strong reason to reconsider our acceptance of prescriptive notions of what constitutes as one genre versus another. More broadly, it seems that strict classifications tend to be rooted in harmful, reductive ideas that oversimplify the complexities and nuances of the human experience. 

Although there are social benefits associated with identifying oneself with a certain musical culture or grouping, it still stands that there is good reason to make efforts to consciously depart from the feeling of being restricted by genre in our own consumption patterns. I have been a Spotify user for a few years now, the aforementioned information that has recently come to my attention only strengthens my appreciation for the platform. 

For those who are not familiar, Spotify is a streaming platform that offers free access to a vast number of  musical artists, as well as podcasts. Although the free version has frequent advertisements, for $5 a month students can purchase Spotify premium, which not only removes all advertisements but also allows for a number of other privileges, such as unlimited skips and free downloads of all the music you could possibly want. 

To me, what sets Spotify apart from other streaming services, and makes it relevant to the above discussion of genre, is their playlists. Every week, Spotify curates a unique playlist tailored to your listening history, called Discover Weekly. These playlists also introduce you to  various artists Spotify believes you may be pleased to discover based on the data it collects about your preferences. 

Spotify employees also also personally curate a number of playlists that are centered not around common musical themes, but around a “vibe,” or a sort of expected emotional reaction the playlists intend to elicit from listeners.

I happen to be a firm believer in the value of listening to albums in their original, intended form of consumption: from top to bottom, in order. The merit of this approach is something I could easily drone on about, but for my present purposes, I will just note that despite its virtues, the practice often gets me stuck in deep ruts, during which I simply replay the album indefinitely, usually resulting in me feeling as though I need a long, long break before I can stomach the record again. 

Spotify and those blessed playlists lift me out of those damned ruts, gently coaxing me out of the shell of familiarity and into the realm of unknown sounds, the creative labors of individuals and groups formerly unknown to me, whose minds I relish for having produced artistic entertainment that can be the soundtrack of my daily obligations. 

Spotify knows me — algorithmically, sure — but intimately nonetheless. Spotify does not judge me when I revisit the often embarrassing, nostalgic sounds of years past; Spotify offers me the security of a private listening session, and even suggests that maybe it is a good time to give Kesha’s debut studio album “Animal” another  listen.  

Spotify knows when I listen to Frank Ocean’s “Blonde” on repeat, but does not think less of me for it. Spotify sees me at both my highs and lows. Spotify is there for me when I need high-tempo classical to study to, when I am basking in the afternoon sunshine and in search of calm, warm beats to accompany the sun’s own embracing rays, when I am with friends and faltering under the pressure of DJing for a mixed group, when I need to angry cry — or just regular cry, actually — and when I find myself in any of the other many, many different sets of human circumstances in which I find myself desirous of some tunes.  I just know that Spotify would tuck me in at night, with a forehead kiss and everything, if it could.

Spotify knows me so well, I could send it grocery shopping for me without a list and be confidently assured it would not disappoint me with its selections. Spotify knows me so well, it is better equipped to answer my security questions when I am locked out of an account than I am. Spotify knows me so well, it would not need to so much as ask about my relationship with my mother to complete an in-depth psychoanalysis of me.   

Spotify knows me so well, it offers me egress from the reductive, restrictive bounds of genre, into a freer world.