Finding power in the limitless playlist

by Mary Kate McGrath / Beacon Correspondent • December 1, 2016

It’s difficult for me to pick a song these days. In periods of transition, I always find myself in a musical identity crisis, more lost in the internet’s infinite playlist than usual. In about three weeks, I’m going to graduate, a change for which I thought I was prepared. But in the past month, I have been craving all kinds of music, yet have been unsatisfied by every genre or artist. No matter how many times I flip through my iTunes library, put on a radio station, or scour new release playlists, nothing sticks. This is how I know the calm is an illusion; I’m freaking out, and creating the soundtrack for a massive unknown is too much responsibility.

In the digital age, the amount of available music is often overwhelming. Streaming platforms put the entire music industry in your hands with every genre and artist imaginable, but this opportunity is meaningless without an entryway. Before MP3 files and the digitization of music, the discovery was physical. You would search through a music store or pick a song on a jukebox. People who remember this era are often disillusioned by new technology—they feel the personal connection of sharing music isn’t possible without the tangible transaction of a cassette mixtape or a burned CD.

While the thought that went into these acts is worth mourning, I don’t believe the connection has disappeared. It has simply shifted—now personalization comes from how music is catalogued and organized. Playlists are the new mixtapes, and making the medium social only expands their potential. Social media lets listeners curate their music collections, and people put the same time and precision into this process as any vinyl collector might. If anything, independent sharing platforms like Bandcamp only make the interaction between listener and artist more immediate and intimate.

The resistance to new technology is, in part, because of anxiety about a more globalized music industry. While the financial strain these advancements put on artists is worthy of critique, dwelling on its effect on consumption is less productive. It is better to embrace this global shift, welcome the opportunity to listen to artists from around the world, and understand the variety of perspectives moving into the industry consciousness. This provides the same potential for connection, and it can still be filtered out from the chaos of streaming platforms.

Music that promotes understanding is more valuable than ever in the wake of the presidential election. It’s a misconception that the best art is reactive, and the promise that art will respond to turbulent political times is an empty consolation prize. The idea that political oppression produces great work is misguided; socially conscious music thrived over the last eight years and the shift in culture is no coincidence. I would never argue that 2016 was a good year, but the mainstream music industry made notable steps toward diversity and representation. Don’t forget that this is the year of Beyonce’s Lemonade, Mitski’s Puberty 2, Rihanna’s Anti, David Bowie’s Blackstar, and Frank Ocean’s Blonde. These albums pushed music forward when skeptics claimed it had nowhere left to go. In the coming years, preserving this progress will be a priority.

Music writing helps synthesize the work and guide conversations, and that is why I love it. The range of personal and political topics I was able to cover over the past year and a half of writing this column surprised me. I explored the economics of local music, researched the history of film scores, mourned David Bowie, and confessed my love for pop music way too many times. By doing so, I learned music is at the intersection of gender, race, sexuality, and other art forms, and that there is an endless well of commentary to be found. I hope in the face of new challenges, whether it’s years of political and societal uncertainty or industry-changing technology, music will still be a predecessor to progress. This stays true as long as music is kept a living, breathing force, even in the digital corners of the internet in playlists shared between friends.

Speaking of which, here is a goodbye playlist of songs. It was a tough year, but these are are the perfect optimistic tracks to get you to the end of 2016 and to celebrate small musical victories.

 

Beyoncé – All Night  

Mothers – It Hurts Until It Doesn’t

Sad13 – Hype

Mitski – Best American Girl

Solange – Cranes In The Sky

Angel Olsen – Give It Up

Noname – Sunny Duet

Rihanna – Higher

Lucy Dacus – Map On The Wall

Jenny Hval – Female Vampire

Chance the Rapper – Blessings