Rest in Playlist

Spotify's 'Stranger Things' playlist just sent me straight to Vecna hell

With a playlist as off-base as this, you can pretty much start pre-crumpling my bones right now.

It’s that time again: Spotify has delivered unto our apps the next gag playlist to drown our friends’ Instagram stories with. This time — instead of curating songs for our pets or tallying up the stress tracks we developed co-dependencies with over the pandemic — the streaming giant has tapped Netflix to give us a curated list of Stranger Things-themed songs. [Cue vintage sci-fi music]

Spotify’s stunt (which you can partake in here) makes sense, not just because Stranger Things season four is one of the biggest shows of the year, but because music — well, Kate Bush really — plays a critical role in the show’s narrative. SPOILER ALERT: This season’s Big Bad, the so-called “Vecna,” breaks the bones of trauma-ridden teens, Krueger-style, by invading their minds. The only way to escape his slimy (no, like really slimy) clutches is through a portal activated via vibing to your “favorite song.”

Yeah, so? — So, that’s where Spotify comes in, creating our individualized Vecna medevac, AKA an algorithmically-generated list of our supposedly “favorite” songs. Which is cute! There’s just one problem: My playlist would get me folded up like origami in a telepathic fiend’s shop class.

These are the first four songs of a more-than-three-hour playlist, and I have to say, I’m feeling dead already. Don’t get me wrong, I love lounging in my kiddy pool, getting tipsy while listening to Jennifer Lara’s “I Am in Love.” But, favorite song? Might as well start pre-crumpling my bones for Vecna right now.

Alex G’s “Runner” is bonkers good, but it was also released like last week, so “Runner” might as well be re-named “Goner” in this case. UGK’s “Int’l PLayers Anthem (I Choose You)” — now that’s one, for comedic reasons, I would’ve loved to see play out on-screen. Lastly, I’ve never listened to this Journey song in my entire life, and no, I’m not covering my tracks (no pun intended). As a side note: David Chase’s decision to end Sopranos with “Don’t Stop Believin’” was a good choice. Go ahead, Chase haters, @ me.

Much ado about algo — I know I’m getting fired up about pretty much nothing here; after all, this whole thing is just a cute (if a little half-assed) attempt to use Stranger Things as a launchpad for getting people to engage with Spotify’s app. And in that regard, it worked. But if I’m going to create a bigger, more tangential, point here — and believe me, I am — it’s that Spotify’s algorithm, for all its value in nudging you towards “new” music, still misses the point.

Your “favorite” song isn’t about what music you’ve been listening to lately; it isn’t even necessarily about any data that the app “sees.” Spotify, while decidedly not great for purveying facts on vaccines, has done wonders with integrating its algorithm in a practical way — for proof, look no further than its daily/weekly mixes or its tangential playlists based on similar artists.

But is my taste just a simulacrum of things I already know I like? Can a tag, a genre, and a buttload of money capture something as ephemeral or emotional as my “favorite” song? For some people, maybe the answer is yes, but for me, the answer isn’t that simple — in fact, it’s more of a one-way ticket to the Upside Down and an urgent appointment with Stranger Things’s most feared chiropractor. Goodbye bones, it’s been nice having you.