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Playlists as...Stories!

Which of your playlists means the most to you? Which of your friends’ playlists mean the most to you? Do any playlists curated by strangers ever mean anything to you? In my last MusiPlug piece, I shared my absolute favorite playlist of all time – one I have been working on for years. The True Use of the Word does not come right out and tell you a story, or feed you an emotional directive, or set the mood for any particular scenario I can imagine... and yet, the throughline, the singular qualification for inclusion on the playlist, actually generates a robust narrative story. An admittedly esoteric narrative, but nonetheless one worth exploring, learning, & sharing. Each “fuck” is a moment in a songwriter’s life, a moment in a performer’s life, and a moment in a listener’s life. There is a tangible poetry to collecting these moments and reflecting on their relationships to each other. The True Use of the Word is a playlist which, I assert, adds artistic value to its component pieces.

One of the lesser sins of our abusive music-streaming platforms is the misdirection of attention and resources away from such playlists, unintentionally or otherwise. Algorithms drive the pushing of playlists which are increasingly oriented to moods, settings, or whole genres. The noblest commentary I have encountered whilst sailing the computational seas of capitalized music is the distinguishing nature of release dates: new tracks go in the “new in X genre” playlist, old popular tracks go in the “hits in the X genre” playlist, and everyone (large corporations...) is satisfied (...attempt to profit).

While I certainly do not take direct issue with the concept of a playlist designed to enhance, suppress, enable, or disable any particular emotions (I make plenty of those myself, and adore playlists which function as personal memory archives, e.g. Con’s Summer Drives), I do worry that a certain creative interpersonal element of playlist-making is being lost as we turn away from more narratively designed playlists. Mood playlists never seem to resolve an emotional state in the same way a storytelling playlist can by walking you through gardens & minefields of visions & memories. The former traps the listener in a continuous spiral of one emotion, each track reinforcing the emotion’s weight – an undoubtedly valuable tool for validation and processing in the right contexts. If, for example, you’re feeling overwhelming joy, you may want to hold on to the experience for as long as you can. The latter, however, has the same potential to validate and assist in feeling & processing complex emotions, while also potentially offering an escape valve, a communal reflecting board, or interpersonal solidarity which goes beyond vague validation to bond curator and audience in shared experiences.

The disparity in quantity between algorithm-friendly playlists and evidently personal curations is so severe that offering up a meaningful comparative example is difficult. Spotify may be the most egregious offender, constantly plugging its own public playlists, encouraging any would-be playlist artisans to focus on optimizing reach over telling a story. The titles for creative collections of less than obviously related tracks are not easily searchable. Perhaps consider Spotify’s Sad Songs next to the playlist you made for yourself after your first breakup or funeral or experience of depression. Maybe you just made the same playlist of sad songs, or maybe you or a friend made a playlist populated not just with sad songs, but also with songs of comfort, uplifting songs, songs which recall moments of teary-eyed giggling, and titled something like “silk sheet nest”. One of these has more power than the other. Budding playlist-forgers out there need not frantically run the full gamut of human emotion to create a narrative effect, of course. I tend to think what makes a powerful narrative playlist is the curator’s ability to reason a storied progression into or out of each track’s inclusion. No two tracks are entirely unrelated; no track is added without careful consideration. While I by no means believe this an easy task, I do tend to think we all know a master craftsman in the playlist world... and if you do, you know their art is systematically underrated. One of my closest friends – whom I affectionately call “Pops” on account of his powerfully paternal demeanor – has amassed a beautiful collection of playlists made for his friends using a simple, but incredibly work-intensive formula: in receipt of a few songs of personal significance, Pops will construct a world which captures a piece of your very essence by populating the space around your chosen few with his own selections at an approximately nine-to-one ratio. Here is the playlist Pops made for me, based on tracks by Vanna, Traitors, and Turnover, and in which my frequent cooldowns from fits of rage are somehow described with near-perfect accuracy.

Even after sharing such a shining example of a playlist with a well-designed narrative, I suspect at least a few of your eyebrows remain raised. Believe me, my own brows are furling and unfurling in a ferocious sin-graph style as I type. I am not sure to what extent I agree with my own assessment of the algorithm’s less personalized playlists. I certainly listen to them, I certainly put together similar lists of songs... I think I might just want to know there are others out there who believe in the unique creative value of playlists. That a folder full of stories in playlist form exists somewhere.

To do my part, I’d like to share with this Musiplug family of high-minded music lovers another prized playlist of mine: the Collection. The concept of the Collection could not be any more simple. To qualify for inclusion, a track must only be a title track on a self-titled album, e.g.“The Collection” by The Collection off of the album The Collection. (For reference, I also keep track of songs that really should have made it into the Collection, but fell just short of entry in Not Part of [the] Collection.) I ask you, O listeners: what could have prompted each band/artist to place the entire nominal identity of their respective projects on these singular tracks, if that was even the intention at all? Do these songs best represent their creators? What is the value of a name, and what value is communicated in these contextual repetitions? What if anything do we learn about each project’s history through these tracks? Put together, I believe my Collection tells an otherwise inexpressible story of semantic sentimentality.

I hope to inspire someone out there to start their own collection, perhaps to take the idea further and build a physical collection... just one new unique, story-driven playlist is all this piece hopes to inspire to claim its success. If you happen to be the one to create it, or if you have a few laying around already, please send them my way! I am eager to listen, to say the least. I wish you well on your quest, Comrade!

Oh, and before I leave you to create and explore, I implore you to help me think of a better term for the subject of this little writeup. “Playlist.” Ugh. I’ve grown sick of it. How about “songstring”? Track-trunk? Longnoise? Kindly DM your suggestions to @musiplugg or @piercedpoetsparty.

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