still set on ten to burn this house down
There are a number of reasons I’ve questioned my dependency on Spotify over the last few years. Reasons that have to do with artist pay and its role in the erosion of the album in favor of an endless stream of singles. My concerns are conceptual; they are things I worry about but tend to keep in the back of my mind. Recently though, I was confronted with a more immediate reason to doubt the hold that their algorithm has over me:
Spotify was lying. To me. About me.
When it came time for the annual “Wrapped” lists to drop, I assumed it would be amusing but confirm listening patterns I was already aware of. I find other people’s lists more interesting than my own. I know what I’ve listened to and am more curious (read: “very nosy”) about what others put on to soundtrack their days.
I didn’t expect any surprises from my own list. But when I opened it, Spotify’s recap evicted my concerns from the space they normally occupied in a remote corner of my brain. Reading their list packed up my doubts and moved them into the churning part of my stomach that only allows for new residents when I think I’m being deceived.
Of the artists Spotify said were my top five for 2020, two felt right, one seemed reasonable, the other two felt like a stretch. Not because the artists I questioned hadn’t released phenomenal albums in 2020. They did. Not because I don’t appreciate them and think them worthy of praise. I do and they are. Not because I don’t want to tell you who they are. I will. Later. None of these reasons were the ones for which they didn’t belong in the list. They were wrong through no fault of their own.
They were wrong because they weren’t Bruce Springsteen.
I tried to avoid thinking about the wrongness for a few days, but it wouldn’t leave me alone. As a person who tends to invest too much energy into things that are trivial, I was pleased to learn that you can request listening data from Spotify at any time. A few days later they’ll send you a folder with files logging everything you listened to over the last year’s worth of days. The amount of listening done will determine the number of files sent. This means that rather than one file to navigate, I got a small handful to stitch together in search of the truth.
I took a strange pleasure in the idea that even an algorithmic monolith can’t use its digital sledgehammer to pound a person’s listening habits into a single file.
More likely though, it’s not a matter of what they can do and more a matter of what they won’t. The way the data gets broken up likely serves a purpose in Spotify’s processes and they simply couldn’t be bothered to mold it into something that overcurious people like me could more easily parse. But I still like the idea that we can all be David when we have our headphones on- bombarding Goliath, not with stones, but with our unceasing demand for more spreadsheets.
I’d come too far to be thwarted by inconvenient data. I stumbled through extracting the relevant information and combined the files into one document. I figured out how to convert milliseconds into something my brain could comprehend, merge and sort.
And all because I wanted to know that the part of me that doubted the list was right. I needed confirmation that among other things much less pleasant, 2020 had been a Springsteen year. After all the year had put me through, I needed the credit to go to the person I felt had pulled me out of it.
It turned out I was wrong-ish. But Spotify wasn’t right either.
Bruce Springsteen was my fifth most listened to artist in 2020 despite Spotify failing to reference him in their round up. The first two artists held steady between my analysis and their report. Their number three slipped off of the podium, usurped by another artist they’d failed to mention. The fourth and fifth place finishers according to Wrapped were actually numbers nine and six, respectively.
And even though I’d been wrong about where The Boss ultimately fell, I still wondered why Spotify would care to stack the deck in someone else’s favor. I don’t pretend to think I’m unique in this data manipulation and so I wondered more broadly: why did they feel they could lie, maybe even should lie, to people about the music they’d needed to light the path through a miserable year? What was there to gain with this deception?
If you asked me to make a list of actual moments of tangible joy I experienced last year, it’d be a quick exercise. It’d be a too short list for a too long year, but one of the things I would gladly point to is the first time I listened to “Ghosts”, a single released in the run up to Letter to You.
“Ghosts” is at once a bombastic anthem and an aching love song. It’s an arena-loud acknowledgement that in the face of incomprehensible loss you should still rejoice in the thing that is your aliveness, should still be grateful that once more you are coming home.
Springsteen celebrated his 71st birthday the day before the song was released. In it, he simultaneously pays tribute to the friends he has lost along the inevitable journey that is aging and talks about the enduring adolescent urge to plug in a guitar, crank the amp as far as you can and wail on a stage with the friends still around to stand beside you.
There is a moment in the back half of the song where the music drops out so that for one line it’s just the voices you hear. For one quick phrase, it’s just the shouts of Bruce and his E Street companions that come through assuring you that their mission is still clear to this day - by the end of the set we leave no one alive. In a year of bad news, I can think of few things more heartwarming than The Boss and co. still reveling in their power to command an audience.
I can tell you I listened to the song once, and then on loop, and then just that moment - over and over. I can tell you that it moved me to dance in my kitchen when I hadn’t even felt like I could open the fridge.
I can tell you that I spent many nights driving around my neighborhood shouting along with the chorus - I’m alive. I can feel the blood shiver in my bones. I’m alive. I’m alive. I’m alive. I needed that reminder: the way the song gives the darkness and the light equal weight shows that both are worth celebrating because they are vital parts of the messy experience of living.
I can tell you these things and more. I can’t tell you why Spotify didn’t want us to have that conversation.
Did they think all the hours I’d logged with Springsteen had been done ironically? Is there something in my listening history that makes their algorithm believe that I might’ve been listening to him in jest? An account preference that incorrectly implies that I am someone who winks at the sincerity not someone who revels in it?
Did listening to “Tougher Than the Rest” on loop, for hours, more than once somehow tip the scales and make them think I couldn’t actually be serious? Had I somehow obscured the fact that I am a person who needed to move my limbs clumsily to “Dancing in the Dark”, ache alongside “Human Touch” and shout with “Born to Run” in order to get through the day?
Or - did they just think that I’d be more likely to share their summary on social media if they left Springsteen off and made me seem cooler than I am by pushing the ultra-talented, but also ultra-It-Girl Phoebe Bridgers higher up the list?
I listened to Phoebe for hours (12 hours, 56 minutes and 40 seconds if you want to get technical about it) but I wore Bruce on my sleeve. Though his hour count is only a few hours higher than that of Bridgers’ (4 hours, 27 minutes and 24 seconds, because of course I’m counting…) the amount of hours I spent thinking about Springsteen last year puts an ocean between the two.
Because, for me, to think about Springsteen is to think about honesty. To think about earnestness. To think about what it is you’re really trying to say. To think about the truest words you can use to say it.
To think about Springsteen is to think about how to pay tribute to the small moments that feel monumental and how to talk about the monumental moments that make you feel small. To think about how to tell the story in the way that hits home every time. To think about where home is and why.
I don’t listen to Springsteen because I want to score cool points in a game I never signed up to play. I listen to Springsteen because his lyrics sung with his voice backed by his band are a call to be earnest in a way that few others can pull off.
I listen to Springsteen to be reminded that it’s important to be willing to say the things you mean. To say them loudly. To say them often. To say them with your friends and to them.
I listen to Springsteen and know that true meaning doesn’t come from Spotify, whether they’re counting right or not. It doesn’t come just from hours logged. Meaning comes not from the sum of the seconds spent, but the weight held up by those accumulated moments.
I listen to Springsteen because today I am still alive and that is worth shouting.
Note: I’m currently participating in the On Deck Writer Fellowship. This is strange honor that (among other things) means that a lot of very talented and generous people are helping me wrangle meaning into the words I share here.
I’m immensely grateful for the feedback I received that made everything you just read far better than it was without. If you noticed any errors - grammatical, sensical or otherwise - know that someone probably suggested I fix it and I stubbornly refused because I’m trying to be better but am still sometimes a bit of an idiot.
If for some reason you preferred my half-baked ideas and typo-laden missives, we can still hangout on instagram.
For curious folks, the artists that appeared in my Top 5 that didn’t happen to be Bruce Springsteen were:
On both lists:
Waxahatchee - Of course. Katie Crutchfield’s early 2020 release of Saint Cloud was a game changer. In a year where I only sent out six newsletters, Waxahatchee was the central focus of not one, but two.
Alexis Ffrench - Last year I had to do a lot of unpleasant things at work and as soon as I realized that was going to be the case, I picked an album at random that I would listen to exclusively when I had to do the truly shitty parts of my job. I did this because my brain attaches memories to music and I didn’t want any of the music I loved to be attached to the things I hated doing. Ffrench’s Dreamland is an exquisite work of classical piano that, in spite of how great it is, I hope I never listen to again.
Wilco - In his book Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), Jeff Tweedy writes of his early songwriting that he “had a bone-crushing earnestness, a weaponized sincerity,” which is to say that I love Wilco for a lot of the same reasons I love Bruce Springsteen.
On Spotify’s version:
Phoebe Bridgers - I touched on this above but it’s worth repeating. Punisher is a phenomenal album by an immensely talented artist who should be praised for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is making the lines “I hate your mom. I hate it when she opens her mouth. It’s amazing to me how much you can say when you don’t know what you’re talking about” work beautifully in a song.
Fleet Foxes - I have so much to say about Shore. That’s coming.
The other guy they left off:
Max Richter - Richter was my top artist in 2018 because his eight hour opus Sleep is the only thing that can reliably put my insomnia to bed. I think, perhaps, Spotify was trying to save me the public embarrassment of having to admit that this was another year where I did a very terrible job sleeping. I’m less concerned about admitting that. He rightfully belongs in third place for 2020 - I would gladly give the man his bronze medal for the hours of respite his music gave me.
really the end notes:
Last fall, Rolling Stone magazine updated their list of the “Top 500 Albums of All Time.” I’ve embarked on listening my way through it - as of today, I’ve made it through the first 60. I’m posting those on this site but sparing your inbox as it’s looking like they’ll be long and strange and sporadic.
That said, I would be curious to hear your take on what makes for a great album. If you’re curious to hear my take on Rolling Stones’ you can check the first three installments out here:
Now and always - listen to Ted Hawkins.