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Why Spotify wants to vibe check your 2021

It’s that time of the year again—yes, the end of it—when we are supposed to look back at the past 12 months and act like it all made sense. The media produce rankings. Time announces its person of the year. Texas Monthly designates its Bum Steer. And tech companies deliver retrospectives derived from harvested user data to tell each of us more about, well, ourselves.

Since 2015, Spotify has refined its own recap of users’ behavior, Spotify Wrapped, into a viral phenomenon, leading to huge increases in revenue. Last year’s launch appears to have boosted its Q4 app downloads by 21%. The Swedish streaming service has won praise for the irresistible elegance of Wrapped’s graphic design but has also caught flack for having produced what others term (shockingly!) a marketing ploy meant to garner more users across social media platforms. 

Spotify Wrapped is popular for some obvious reasons. All its features and data points can be shared by users across most platforms, including TikTok which was added to its roster this year. It has also gained in practical value thanks to new functionalities like the “Discover” option, expanding how users interact with their favorite content to find out about similar artists. Even the name Wrapped serves as a prime target for triggers we encounter in conversations and our everyday life at this time of year: wrapping gifts, wrapping up the end of the year… 

But what makes Spotify Wrapped a prominent element in December social media feeds is its exploitation of musical taste as a social identifier. Spotify Wrapped goes beyond a simple ranking of most-listened-to songs and immerses the consumer in an interactive story about who they are.

Music as a social badge and currency

Remember that feeling you had as a teenager (or still have) when leaving a concert with your favorite band’s t-shirt? The name and logo emblazoned on the front and the list of tour dates on the back were proof that you weren’t just someone purporting to listen to the band—you attended their show. 

When we tell people what kind of music we listen to, we are revealing more than just our preference between variations of rhythms, harmonies, or melodies. Music is enmeshed in identity and serves as a sign of taste, culture, and whether one is in or outside of another’s social group. Oxford University research has shown that the extent to which we share musical taste with others can be a direct determinant of how favorably we view them, and that the intensity of that favorability is linked to our levels of self-esteem. Music is a social badge.

Spotify understands that we all still have a little bit of that teenager inside of us. It deploys its own unique data to enable users to prove which songs they listened to the most, what genres dominate their listening, and how many times they jammed to one tune or another. Aside from the shareability of the roundup itself, the experience is gamified with the integration of other users. Midway through the presentation of the how Spotify defines your listening habits, it gives you a “two truths and a lie” quiz on which song out of a list of three was not one of your most played. Next, it asks if you want to play the same quiz with a friend, a nice prod to share the experience. The “Blend” feature also lets you compare your tastes with your friends, capitalizing on our drive to connect with others through music.

Let us vibe-check your music with our audio aura

Structured like an Instagram story, the Wrapped animation breaks down 2021 into our top genres, our top songs, the percentile of listeners we are in for our favorite artist, and top moods, or, as Spotify has dubbed it, auras. According to its gen-Z-oriented narration, “even your music gets a vibe-check” in 2021.

The audio aura feature offers a glimpse into your aural spectrum – a sort of colored mood map – composed of two main moods derived from your listening habits, like wistful, bold, euphoric, kindness, or yearning. Spotify went so far as to seek the help of an “aura reader” by the name of Mystic Michaela to develop the feature. (Check out this Distractify article for more.) 

The Wrapped experience above all attempts to offer a convincing story about the listener’s year. One new feature arranges a soundtrack for it entitled “2021: The Movie.” The presentation itself also employs a 2nd-person narration, imposing personality of your listening habits. 

And here is where things get a bit awkward. Every user’s presentation includes the following phrases:

  • The platitudinal, “In 2021, you did what you had to do,” or 
  • The cultural relevancy card, “While everyone was trying to figure out what NFTs were, you had one song on repeat…” 
  • And the oddly flattering but meaningless, “You always understood the assignment”

Add those to the “vibe-check” mentioned above and you get derision from users in the NY Times. But the real shortcoming is its use of the same template of language in what it pretends to be such a tailored experience. Nevertheless, Spotify is betting this deeper overall personalization will enhance the storytelling, and thus the virality of Wrapped. 

As P. David Marshall puts it in a recent Vox article, Spotify’s approach is all about enabling us to develop our “duel strategic personas.” The increased gamification, the expansion of how we can interact with our listening habits, all give us the sense of a more concrete musical identity and make us more comfortable expressing that identity as a brand, enlisting us as the most sincere influencers Spotify could hope for. 

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