Spotify has long been a platform that evolves more quickly than our personal music tastes might. It has updated its iconic year-end Wrapped promotion and added an AI DJ in the past few months alone. But this week, the streaming giant announced what its CEO, Daniel Ek, called the biggest change to the platform in a decade: a redesign to make the app that started as a place for music one that prominently features video.
At first glance, it looks like another attempt by a social app to cannibalize its competitors in the way that Instagram has mimicked Snapchat and then TikTok for its own gains. Spotify now has different feeds for discovering songs, podcasts, and audiobooks, sporting a look that’s half TikTok’s endless scroll and half Instagram stories. They show video paired with music or podcasts and also sample audio content. Some have live captions that catch the eye as they float along the screen, and audiobook previews may last as long as five minutes.
Although Spotify may look and sound more like TikTok now, it likely has different intentions. Instead of funneling an endless stream of content onto users’ phones, it’s built with the purpose of allowing them to preview new content they will want to save—or at least sit with for longer. According to Spotify’s announcement, it has data showing that listeners “become committed fans” after previewing content. Videos have previously accompanied songs and podcasts on the service, but this redesign puts them in front of users faster, along with snappy audio clips.
“An audio service needs to get people engaged with audio straight away,” says Simon Dyson, music and digital audio analyst at Omdia. “If they can get something to play audio instantly, then you’re instantly taken by it. If [Spotify] got its algorithm right, you will be engaged instantly.”
Spotify’s playlists have long been curated for music discovery, but this new move makes that more immediate; scroll through the music feed and you can hear samples of songs. Perhaps that means less skipping through shuffled playlists. A move like this may help Spotify stand out in the audio streaming industry, Dyson says. And it comes as streaming growth is changing.
The market has reached a point of saturation, and Spotify has seen its market share slowly shrink, although it remains the most popular service. Still, it added 33 million monthly active users in the last months of 2022 and saw its revenue grow 18 percent year over year, with podcasts leading its ad revenue gains.
Spotify has tried to stand out by investing hundreds of millions of dollars on podcasts, including a deal with Joe Rogan reportedly worth more than $200 million. The company expects podcasts to have a higher profit margin than music. So designing the app in a way that might direct more people to them seems an inevitable shift. But Spotify canceled several original shows in late 2022 after making ambitious investments in companies like Gimlet and Parcast.
These sampled words, which come at the peak of “Retreat! Retreat!,” an anthemic song by the instrumental post-rock band 65daysofstatic, have long been taken as a rallying cry by fans during their propulsive live gigs. The Sheffield-based quartet’s latest project takes that statement of intent to heart: it is literally unstoppable.
Well, almost. Wreckage Systems is a collection of several dozen algorithmic systems which have been playing continuously—barring the occasional crash—since March 2021. These systems— essentially chunks of music-generating code called things like “Mumble Prime” and “Harp Collateral”—generate everything from soothing ambient soundscapes to spiky drum ‘n’ bass workouts, interspersed with occasional robotically voiced “adverts.” There aren’t any tracks, as such: each system simply plays until its time is up, then passes the baton to the next.
On the project’s YouTube channel, a lo-fi screen displays minimal information about the current system above a scrolling chyron displaying enigmatic messages. Its “devblog” is full of updates that mix nerdy music-making details with droll peeks at life behind the scenes at 65Labs, the sprawling (and largely fictitious) global operation of technicians, bots and servers that keeps the machines running. The overall effect is of a retro dystopia: Spotify in the world of Blade Runner.
“We’ve built this kind of deliberate myth about it—a lot of the blog posts and so on are in character,” says band member Paul Wolinski. “But at the same time, they’re not at all consistent. Obviously, no one really believes it so it’s sort of like theatre, a performance, but it’s not a one-way thing for us. We’re encouraging everyone to go along with it.” Fans on the project’s Discord seem happy to play along, riffing on the idea of a semi-sentient machine ecosystem, fueled by episodes such as a glitch in May when multiple systems started playing simultaneously to create a “relentless 56-minute slab of algo-hyper-noise.”
Wreckage Systems isn’t 65daysofstatic’s first foray into endless music. From their origins in post-rock, their output has steadily become more electronic and experimental. Forays into danceable techno and film scoring eventually led to a commission in 2013 for the soundtrack to the universe simulator No Man’s Sky—or more accurately, an infinite array of soundtracks, since the game’s USP is its never-ending supply of procedurally generated planets to explore.
To meet that challenge, the band recorded both a conventional soundtrack album and hours of related audio snippets and cues that could be reassembled by the game engine to resonate with the player’s environment and actions. That led to the 2018 Decomposition Theory series of concerts, in which audio and visuals were partially generated on the fly each night, with unpredictable results—an approach more akin to the algo-rave and live-coding scenes than to their previous live sets—and then to replicr, 2019, an album’s worth of chilly, heavily computational snippets.
When the Covid-19 pandemic arrived, 65daysofstatic, like most bands, found themselves unable to record or tour in person. Unlike most, they were already equipped with algorithms for making new 65daysofstatic music—some of them earmarked for a project to “broadcast” the results to the world. So while releasing compilations of unreleased tracks under a Patreon-supported subscription project, A Year of Wreckage, they also started working on what would become Wreckage Systems.
This week, Beyoncé released her seventh studio album, Renaissance. Soon—if the hidden messages in the album’s various promotional images are correct—the end days foretold in Revelation will come.
Or, at least, that’s what some folks believe. Social media has told us for years that Beyoncé is a member of the Illuminati. Now, the internet is adding an addendum: These days, Beyoncé is not necessarily trying to run the world—she’s just trying to tell us it’s ending.
It started with the horse imagery. The cover of Renaissance is a striking shot of a mostly nude, be-heeled Beyoncé on top of a silver horse. The cover of this month’s BritishVogue is a striking shot of Beyoncé riding a red one. Newsweek explains the rest: “In July 2020, Beyoncé sat atop a white horse in the Black Is King movie and in August 2022 she posed with a black horse for Harper’s Bazaar.” It’s a simple enough equation: Beyoncé. Horses. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—one riding a white horse, one a red one, one a black one, and one a pale one. Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death. When they show up, it means our earthly world is over.
At least one TikToker explained that Beyoncé was tipping her hand re: the impending literal actualization of the Bible’s Book of Revelation (a third of the world dying immediately and all that) because “they [vaguely defined “they,” presumably Illuminati-adjacent] have to tell you what’s next on the agenda.” If you want to dig deeper, you can lose yourself in a 42-minute YouTube video promising that “Beyoncé OPENS Demonic PORTALS in JULY.” (There’s only a few days left in the month; she better hurry up.)
The writer Titi Shodiya, who’s analyzed Beyoncé’s career on the podcast Dissect, says the Beyoncé Apocalypse era is a natural continuation of the Beyoncé Illuminati era. “She’s so good at what she does, she has so much influence and power, everything she does is so exquisite,” Shodiya says. “Most people don’t understand how a person can get it right every time. In order to compensate for our own insecurities, we have to project. We say ‘It’s impossible. There has to be some kind of magic associated with it, or the Illuminati.’ But really, it’s because she works really hard, she’s really serious about her craft, she takes her time, and she surrounds herself with people that she trusts that are also very talented.”
Beyoncé is too good. She’s not fallible. She’s not really one of us. Sprinkle in the horses and the well-worn history of theorizing around the superstar, and it’s actually not that much of a leap to “Beyoncé is proselytizing the end of days.” Just to be clear with something this important, I ask the on-hand Beyoncé expert bluntly: So is Beyoncé telling us that the apocalypse is coming? “Nah, I don’t think so,” Shodiya laughs. But “I’m open to other interpretations.”
It started by accident. At the suggestion of a friend, I sent my 15-year-old the Belle and Sebastian song “If You’re Feeling Sinister.”
“Cool song,” she texted back. “I like it.” It was only five words, but it was the most she’d intentionally communicated to me in months.
Over the previous few years, my once vivacious daughter had turned sullen, anger and resentment coiled around her. Several factors seemed to contribute to this. Covid-19 certainly played a big part in her darkening, depriving her of her middle school graduation, her prom, and the busy social life that had fed her extroverted personality. But her friends had also suffered losses, and I didn’t know any who had holed up in their rooms and stopped speaking to their parents. Somehow, I had become the enemy, and nothing seemed to bridge the growing chasm between us.
For years, we had been a team. A single mom, I had leaned on her, and she on me, more than was usual in a mother-daughter relationship. But all that had changed.
“I’m trying to understand you,” I told her one day, careful not to make eye contact.
“I just don’t want you to know me anymore,” she responded. “I don’t even know myself!”
She was right, of course. How could I know her if she didn’t know herself? It had become clear to me that our unusual closeness was actually part of the problem. She needed to break away from me, but how could she do that while I was trying to prop her up? We needed a new way of connecting.
A few hours after her text, during which I could hear the Belle and Sebastian song playing on a loop, she emerged from her room and sat down to lunch with her sister and me for the first time in weeks. I tried to engage her, asking a few tentative questions: How was her science project going, where was her best friend going to camp this summer? It was soon clear that I’d flubbed it. She stormed back to her room and slammed the door behind her.
As a psychologist, I traffic in words—I felt out of my depth communicating through music. So, I called my friend Shannon Lorraine, a former musician in the Seattle band Witholders.
“Try this,” she said, “‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,’ by Neutral Milk Hotel. But don’t get too excited when she expresses interest. Play it cool.”
I sent my daughter the song and repressed my urge to follow up with a text. This time, she came out of her room for a couple of hours. I called Shannon and told her, “I feel like you’re a snake charmer. Tell me what to do next.”
She continued recommending songs, and gradually the cloud around us dissipated a little. But words were still hard to come by.
Eventually, Shannon ran out of recommendations. For a time, I let Spotify take over and it offered up songs from bands I’d never heard of: The Postal Service, Françoise Hardy, Beirut. But if I wanted a relationship with my daughter, I realized I couldn’t rely on an algorithm, so I began making my own suggestions: Stevie Wonder, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, The Cure, and a favorite from my childhood—Malvina Reynolds. These were little snippets of my past, of me, that I hoped might connect us in ways words seemingly couldn’t.
Nostalgia, they say, comes in waves, each one crashing as a new generation learns how their parents lived. In the 1990s, the narrator of Radiohead’s song “The Bends” proclaimed, albeit sardonically, “I wish it was the ’60s.” By the aughts, pop culture was awash in a yearning for the ’80s—an epoch that saw, perhaps, its final crescendo with the debut of Stranger Things in 2016. Now, in 2022, it seems as though many people—or at least the ones who make movies and TV—are longing for those days when Radiohead themselves first dominated the airwaves.
This churn, the phenomenon of people resuscitating the culture of the past every few years, is at best described as a nostalgia cycle. Problem is, there’s no real metric for the frequency with which these revolutions happen. The aughts, thanks to shows like Mad Men, also had an air of ’60s sentimentality, for example. Adam Gopnik, writing for The New Yorker, called this the “Golden 40-Year Rule,” but sometimes culture whips around much more quickly than that. All it takes is some kids on TikTok breathing new life into Twilight to bring the 2000s back. Or, in the case of Showtime’s mystery/horror/coming-of-age drama Yellowjackets, a deeply wistful appreciation of those flannel-clad days before social media and smartphones took over teens’ lives.
Let’s be clear: Yellowjackets is not a hazy, rose-colored view of youth. It’s about a New Jersey high school girls’ soccer team that gets stranded in the Canadian wilderness following a plane crash on their way to a national championship in 1996. Some of them—the show is purposefully vague on how many—make it back to civilization. But there are hints, many of them, that Very Bad Things happened out in those woods, up to and including some sick ritualistic Lord of the Flies shenanigans and maybe-probably cannibalism. Like Lost, it time-jumps—cutting between the girls’ childhoods and the present day, sprinkling Reddit-thread-worthy unsolved mysteries everywhere. But unlike Lost, its appeal feels rooted in a desire to return to those halcyon days before the internet—while also serving as a reminder that they weren’t so halcyon at all.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when, but at some point in the last few weeks, Yellowjackets went from a low-key phenomenon to a cultural force. Case in point: There’s now a BuzzFeed quiz designed to tell you which member of the soccer team you are. A lot of the show’s popularity can be attributed to stellar reviews, excellent word-of-mouth, and the fact that viewers had extra time during the holiday season to catch up—plus Omicron has kept many home and watching.
But there’s something else, something even more base about its appeal: It’s a mystery full of the kinds of symbolism, clues, and Easter eggs that the internet loves to devour and hypothesize about. There are Reddit threads (lots), news articles, and more Twitter chatter than you can shake an Antler Queen at, and in this deep-winter Covid-19 surge moment, it’s hard not to go down an online rabbit hole trying to decode it all. Last night’s Season 1 finale only gave fans more cannibal catastrophe content to chew on.
This is all somewhat ironic because one of the things that’s appealing about Yellowjackets is that it’s so lo-fi. American teens in 1996 barely had AOL, and none of them had smartphones. They listened to Snow’s “Informer” because that’s what was on the radio and watched While You Were Sleeping on VHS because there was no Netflix. This isn’t to say that everyone who watches Yellowjackets wants to go back to a more primitive, pre-internet time, but there is something appealing about living in that world—for Gen Xers and millennials who grew up in it and for younger generations curious about its contours.
It’s also a story that almost has to take place in a previous decade. If the Yellowjackets were a big-deal high school girls’ soccer team now, they’d all probably be quasi-famous TikTokers or microinfluencers. Their disappearance would be the subject of hours of online sleuthing, much like the show itself is. The reason the survivors of the crash (that the audience knows of thus far)—Shauna (Melanie Lynskey), Taissa (Tawny Cypress), Misty (Christina Ricci), and Natalie (Juliette Lewis)—were able to keep a somewhat low profile after their return to civilization is likely due to the fact that it happened before the era of Don’t F**k With Cats-style Facebook watchdogs, before Serial turned everyone into a wannabe detective. Not only does half the show take place in a wilderness with little to no technology, its modern segments feature heroines who largely eschew it, with the possible exception of Misty, who is now herself a true-crime junky. (Having Lewis, Ricci, and Lynskey—three ’90s indie-movie staples who built their careers just before the era of celebrity blog culture and managed to survive its wrath—play its adult leads remains the show’s best in-joke.)