I'm obsessed with listening to strangers' old Spotify playlists

But I found out the hard way you don't want to learn too much about who's making them.

Man in headphones listen to music on record player

On Spotify old playlists never die. Believe me, I’ve tried to bury a few of my own. But a couple of years back I discovered that deleting a playlist really just removes it from the deleter’s view. The title, the tracklist, the description all remain — for whomever was already following the playlist, or whomever might find it via search.

When I found the back catalog of every “deleted” playlist I’d made since 2013 — every workout playlist, every breakup playlist, every sex playlist — shivers ran down my spine. Who else had seen them? I have never been a “private” listener or believed in making my playlists secret, but this made me feel a little unhinged. It was as if strangers could read my diary.

Of course, I realized that if they could see mine, I could see theirs. So I started typing in whatever came to mind in the search bar. I made some great finds, although I have no way of knowing whether they’d been “deleted” or not. My search for “Sandra Bullock” for example, led me to a 2015 playlist inspired by the actress’s role in Practical Magic, featuring tracks like Faith Hill’s “This Kiss,” which is in the movie itself, but also “Hand in My Pocket” by Alanis Morrisette and “Why Can’t I?” by Liz Phair. The playlist feels like songs my mom and I would listen to in the car when I was a kid. It’s deeply comforting, but also, it slaps.

As I got further and further down the rabbit hole, it all began to feel like found art. Like I had stumbled across a mix CD some guy made for some girl that she gave away to some thrift store where I, in turn, picked it up. I could spin a whole story around the songs. I could imagine a whole life for a person who, when they were upset in 2016, followed a Tyler the Creator track with a Sufjan Stevens song. Everything could be its own beautiful little story.

When I found the playlist “listen to this when we aren’t on good terms,” I knew I’d struck gold. It’s by someone apparently named Danny. The cover image is a screenshot of two texts from the same sender: “i love you forever baby” and “i promise the world to you.” The mix is deeply, deeply bad. It has zero flow from song to song — like, it goes from Brockhampton into Adele. Danny had no interest in following the rules of mixes, as taught to me by various iterations of High Fidelity: start with a banger, then take it up a notch, etc.

The description at the top of the playlist did nothing to clear things up. It simply affirmed that this was for Danny’s girlfriend, and that they were maybe in a fight? And that these songs should help her feel better. There was “Self Control” by Frank Ocean, “A Song About Being Sad” by Rex Orange Country, and “When We Were Young” by Adele. I couldn’t figure out why these songs were on a playlist together or how any were supposed to make the girlfriend feel more confident in their relationship.

Still, I loved it. I loved knowing someone was willing to be so completely vulnerable in order to win someone else back. I loved imagining Danny picking out the songs, hoping to communicate something from the heart. That Danny thought this might make her happy made me happy. Also, I learned who Jorja Smith was, and I’d been wondering about that.

“listen to this when we aren’t on good terms” was like a couple whisper-fighting next to me at a cafe; I couldn’t stop listening. I wanted to know who made it. I wanted to talk to both of them. I wanted to ask Danny: Why those songs? Why in that order? And I wanted to hear what had been going on between the two of them that led to the manic creation of this and five other playlists over the course of 24 hours?

When I found the girlfriend’s Instagram (less than 20 minutes after deciding to try to talk to both parties), it became clear that she is, generously, about 15 years old. I’m guessing (praying, even) that Danny is about the same age. I should have known, when someone’s being so plainly vulnerable online, they’re probably a teenager.

The playlist was like a couple whisper-fighting next to me at a cafe; I couldn’t stop listening.

The regret was instant. I looked at her baby face, and everything clicked into place. Not that the couple were no longer interesting — but I no longer had any interest in trying to talk to them. God, can you imagine how lame and creepy they would think I was, contacting them? And they’d be right.

I liked it better when everything was my own projection. I missed when I envisioned this playlist being made by someone in their thirties for the wife he met in high school. I missed when they still lived in their hometown. When they got into a lot of little fights but were addicted to each other's bullshit. When he had made all those playlists at his office job that he took to provide for their family but ultimately never cared about. In my mind, when he came home that day, she had listened, understood him, and let him rest his head on her shoulder.

I preferred this narrative, which spoke to me, which made it art to me. But I’ve learned my lesson. I won’t go searching for answers again. My truth is better.