I think that “What kind of music do you like?” is such a daunting get-to-know-you because it feels like sneaky shorthand for more invasive questions with answers that would define us in a more substantial way. Genres like country and EDM and hip-hop are easily mistaken as shorthand for personality, lifestyle, and politics. “A little bit of everything!” is the most open-minded and least helpful answer.

Around Christmas, my feeds flooded with friends broadcasting their Spotify’s year-end listening summaries. If I identify with the media I consume, seeing the data feels like hearing how someone would describe me to a stranger. When it’s impossible to get an outside read on yourself, that kind of feedback can be part affirming, part surprising. It’s fun like gossip. It’s how Spotify notches into social media.

But artists I claim as my favorites didn’t top my listening times. When I’m playing Spotify, I’m usually on a computer doing something that takes focus, so I loop instrumental ambient, classical, or electronic music. This would be an accurate response to how I soundtrack my life, but it feels false to claim as what I’m really into.

Spotify data reveals what I do over what I’d say. It’s social and it’s media, but the streaming service is more of a tool, too useful to carefully curate outside of playlists. My real-time use just happens to be visible and followable (until I go Private for the nostalgia bangers). So maybe Spotify’s “Friend Activity” is the most transparent of the feeds—but again, what should really be deduced from music choice? I think taste is a hasty identifier.

This is to say, I realized that easy streaming anywhere has overdeveloped music as a mood facilitator for me. “What do I want to listen to?” has become asking “what’s the appropriate mood?”—working, relaxing, running, or rallying to go out dancing. I search for music by its tagged role as “emotional wallpaper,” whatever works usurping whatever I like.

I think this is a standard attitude now, and music’s engineers have adapted. The genre of “lean back music” has evolved as a default mood option—tunes made for vibe playlists set to shuffle, “content to be picked up and left off as needed.

Pretty much any commentary I’ve read frames this listening shift as cheapening. I get the romantic event of intentionally (and physically) putting on a whole record, and I hope there’s always a place for that. But maybe ironically, I’m rarely in the mood for my “favorite” albums: fixtures of music I champion as satisfying or well-crafted artistic achievements, blah blah blah. Beauty like that can sap a lot of energy.

David Bazan is my best example of an artist that I love that I can’t listen to. It’s a sauna. Between his punchy guitar rock as Pedro the Lion or under his own name, to the electronics of Headphones and his later solo albums, he consistently catches grooves that are so satisfying to me—but the music and lyrics combine to such cutting explorations of ordinary dread. I can’t recommend it recreationally.

Moreover, I can’t appreciate friends who spin such deliberately wrenching music casually, who decorate their homes with that wallpaper. It’s bloodletting. This is probably all an overcorrection to young years spent celebrating intoxicating sadness (as “emo” emerged at the worst possible age for me), or it’s my hypochondria around languishing, because I’ve been doing really well lately and I don’t always know how to do it again. I don’t like music recommendations that use “heartbreaking” or “somber” as triumphant adjectives, motivating to a listener. That stuff’s hardly cathartic for me anymore, or at least for now.

But I still crave the companionship of a soundtrack because it makes everything feel more worthwhile. The same way watching a ridiculous movie can be fun with friends but only feels deflating alone—I’m afraid of that sad silence.

A couple weeks into the new year, my dear friend and housemate moved across the country indefinitely. She wanted to keep herself to “neutral music” while packing. We fenced in these moods with phrases like “fun but not too happy” or “reflective but not sad.” Sometimes we indulged or miscalculated, both burned out, and payed in tenderness. Marinating there is arresting—sometimes clarifying and sometimes destructive. I just don’t want to subscribe to those states anymore.

So I’m still collecting “neutral” sounds. More and more, I’m turning to my chart-toppers—noise that’s stimulating and comforting but inflicts no strong emotion, like the ambience in a bar or at a party designed to loosen space for conversation. While alone, this music is occupying while completely unimposing, evocative but blank. For now, I’m still DJing the dead air away under the guise of self-care, working my way up to silence. “Guess I’m a coward—I just wanna feel alright.”

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