Kaylee Heartman / Daily Nexus

For college students across campuses, Nov. 29 marked a special day: the release of 2023’s Spotify Wrapped, a so-called celebration of each user’s annual musical canon that the host platform described as “the real, the realer, and the realest.” 

Personally, I think the slogan would ring true only if Spotify had used an antonym of their catchphrase — perhaps “the fake, the faker, and the fakest.” While Spotify is viewed by many as a stress-free streaming service rather than a typical social media site like Instagram or TikTok, the app’s promotion of musical curation makes it just as performative and conducive to self-doubt as its image-based counterparts. Sorry to spoil the fun.

Of course, my offense to the following aspects of the app could be purely a personal problem: maybe everybody else is a media literate genius with rock-solid self-esteem and incredibly niche music taste. But strangely, no social media platform has made me feel as insecure as Spotify. I’ve found that I interact with it as I do other social media sites, doubting my value and individuality when I examine profiles. Friends’ collaborative playlists are titled with inside jokes I’m not part of, and I feel excluded. I see the profiles of people I admire, and I realize I don’t have unique-enough music taste. I add songs I only mildly enjoy to playlists otherwise filled with favorites — I don’t want to be basic. 

It’s not hard to believe that social media apps have been proven to be bad for our self-esteem. We might get jealous, say, of someone’s physique in an Instagram photo, but we’re still conscious that that image was likely posed — as a photo, it admits to being only a representation of reality. Yet we assume that the information given to us in a Spotify profile is somehow different, as if music is a true reflection of a user’s values and personality. 

It’s easy to forget that with a public account, every song or playlist created is made with the awareness that other people will be witness to it. We might look cool through our alternative picks, or appear intellectual due to our poetic playlist descriptions. We can curate the image of the world’s most avid garage-rock listener, simply by collecting titles from artists our peers haven’t heard of. 

On Spotify, it seems that few users below the age of — I don’t know, 26 — organize their playlists practically. With the exception of those who approach the app as a digitized version of the CD era — titling their collections according to album, genre or artist name — playlists range from the trend of monthly curation (“March 2023,” or the month and year comprising a listener’s selected songs) to oddly-specific, poetic concoctions. See “The Street on the Cusp of Disappearance,” or “Maybe in Another Life I’d be a Tomato Plant”— both courtesy of people I know, and arguably performative. 

If you want to call this self-expression, that’s great. But neither of these methods is conducive to locating a song in a musical library quickly, and the publicity of this self-expression pushes its intent beyond the sole enjoyment of the user that created it. While this public performance on Spotify is surely different from that of image-based apps, Spotify does act as an accomplice to these mainstays. We perfect our appearance on Instagram, then show how our priorities run deeper on Spotify. We follow the song-based video trends on TikTok, but leave their clichéd music out of our playlists. Is such flowery organization really practical, then, or just intended to evoke an air of mystique over the user that published it? Maybe I’m bitter, but I’d guess the latter: even for digital music, we document everything with an overall image in mind, hoping others will see it and think highly of us. 

There’s a decent chance that this is actually working. Spotify is easily linked to other social media platforms; people post their profile links in their Instagram bios, or include screenshots of the songs they’re listening to via the Instagram Stories feature (also, how many times have you seen this? I believe the correct answer is “too many”). Remember the posed Instagram photo from earlier? Maybe that sends the message that the user is “high-maintenance,” “basic” or one of many other descriptors we apply to online personas. Then we click the link to her Spotify account: she listens to Phoebe Bridgers and a million other indie artists. Suddenly, her authenticity is confirmed: she’s down to earth, a real person behind the mask. 

The line between Spotify and image-based social media is blurring in other ways, too. Spotify Wrapped, mentioned earlier — in which Spotify presents users with the concerning amount of data that’s been collected on them over the course of a year — has been shared in various forms across Instagram, TikTok and X (formerly Twitter), with people posting screenshots of their most-listened-to artists, or that they were in the top 99.999 percent of Swifties that year. This concept has inevitably generated a subgenre of memes on image-based platforms, and it seems that the pipeline is multi-directional. Trends on Instagram and TikTok carry over to Spotify — just search “My Roman Empire” or “Main Character Energy” and you’ll find dozens of playlists named after the relevant TikTok trends. 

Spotify wants to assert its status as social media so badly — emphasis on the social — that it pushes Wrapped as an annual phenomenon to be shared across platforms, and provides users with no option to opt out. Even if you wanted to use the app solely as a music library, the knowledge of this judgemental summary looms — others may not be privy to your music taste, but the Spotify gods are. 

In comparing Spotify to neighboring social media, creating a public playlist is the equivalent of creating a post. The app allows users to create personalized playlist covers — aka, uploading curated photos. The description option acts as a caption, yet another way to manipulate how viewers of the playlist perceive the poster. To me, this demonstrates Spotify’s determination to obliterate its own stated purpose: enjoyment of music. Navigating the unnecessary pressures of a social media platform when we’re just trying to listen takes us out of the moment of the song. How am I supposed to calmly listen to the “Teen Beach Movie” soundtrack when anyone can see my playlist and think I’m stupid? 

While I’m working on growing a backbone, consider reexamining how you use the app and other social media platforms while you’re at it. Does your public Spotify profile express more of your genuine music interests and personality, or the self you wish to be perceived as?

And if you’re still skeptical that Spotify can tear you down like any other social media, consider its AI-generated, personal “Daylists.” My latest recommendation was titled “Lonely Emotional Friday Evening” — which appeared to me while writing this article, on a Friday, an hour after crying on the phone. Do with that what you will. 

Phoebe Mitchem would gladly take a Spotify internship and promptly retract her complaints. 

A version of this article appeared on p. 12 of the January 25, 2024 of the print edition of The Daily Nexus.