Spotify Wrapped: The limitations of listening 

Spotify’s recently released end-of-the-year recaps ask whether listeners can still have original taste in music.


Max Van Hosen

Spotify Wrapped lists a listener’s top artists, albums and songs. (Illustration by Max Van Hosen)

Carina Christo, Contributing Writer

I’ve taken the Amtrak to and from Massachusetts at least 18 times. Despite the practice I have with train procedures, spotty Wi-Fi leaves me with little to do for four hours, besides admire the Connecticut waterways out the window and pore over the Spotify interface. It turns out that burying myself in release radars, personalized mixes and the archive playlists of Christmas past has unwittingly fine-tuned my grasp on our ideas of taste, individualism and the future of cultural habits. 

At its core, Spotify Wrapped makes the experience of music personal. As an end-of-year gift to Spotify listeners, the recap is the pinnacle of music made both intimate and social. Typically released in early December, Wrapped compiles a user’s top artists, genres and songs, with even more fashionable focal points added each season. It is as shareable as it is judgeable, a point made clear as its graphics make their rounds on Instagram stories, tweets and group chats. It is our generation’s clearest indication of people’s reliance on external markers of identity.

Unfortunately, it is human nature to cling to labels. Zodiac signs, college majors and personality types all tell us who we are, but maybe at some point, we become so attached that we force ourselves into these labels’ perceived expectations. 

Spotify has changed the modern music landscape by emphasizing playlists and streams over appreciating the artistry of full albums, granting listeners the ability to cherry-pick their favorite tracks from their favorite albums and create their own immersive listening experiences. In doing so, Wrapped has aggrandized the listener’s ego, turning their listening habits — mine included — into a social game by awarding particular artists weighted value and attaching inescapable personality traits to their listeners.

It’s easy and fun to make quick judgments upon viewing someone’s Wrapped. The Rolling Stones being your top artist conveys something entirely different than it being Bad Bunny. The former makes you seem like a music snob while the latter makes you appear mainstream. In the end, there’s no escaping the panopticon of social media wherein your taste is assigned different personality traits based on sweeping generalizations.

This whole phenomenon — listening habits being defined by social perception rather than actual identification with an artist’s style — reminds me of when I saw “Almost Famous,” a stage musical based on the 2000 film of the same name, on Broadway this fall. The show revolves around a young journalist who manages to hitch a ride with struggling band Stillwater and documents their struggle to sell their music because of their refusal to commercialize their personalities. 

Mainstream America’s critical consensus has the consequence of affecting both musicians’ inspirations to make music and people’s encouragements for listening to music. I was struck by the nuance and dissonance that exists between the pedestals we put our favorite music on, and how music has become a commercialization of social status. 

Wrapped is the perfect ambiguous end-of-the-year campaign that energizes people to discover new music — a faux resolution for the new year ahead. While it facilitates exploration, Wrapped has also inadvertently amplified the listener’s individualism over the artist’s.This prioritization of social perception over artistic expression permeates across all of music. It forcibly chains artists and genres to limited personalities that nullify their experimentation — and ultimately people’s willingness to listen to cutting-edge musicianship.

Contact Carina Christo at [email protected].