Tech | Music | 1 week ago

Perhaps you prefer 'Permanent Wave'?

Have you looked up your '2017 Wrapped' report on Spotify yet? It might make for interesting reading.

If the green-tinted giant is your streaming service of choice, click into Browse, then Genres & Moods, then scroll all the way down to the colourful box marked '2017 Wrapped'.

Now, hit up the banner beneath the two playlists that have been curated just for you.

(Or you can just click here.)

It's all a bit of fun, and a nice personal record of how much time you devoted to music and what artists made up your favourites over the year, should you want to let the world know how much of a secret Cliff Richard fan you are.

However, there's something really strange and possibly a little sinister at play here, and it's all do with genres.

Try and name 20 genres of music there. Go on, I'll wait.

Done? Cool. You probably had the classics like 'rap' and 'rock' and 'dance' and 'metal' and 'hip hop' and 'rave' and 'pop' and 'punk'. Maybe you went all out and threw out 'shoegaze' or 'chillwave.'

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Could you name 80 genres? 100? How about 500?

Spotify boasts over 60 million songs, which breaks down into a little under 1400 recognised genres. It's kind of like colours; there are way more of them than you think there are.

The arrival of the '2017 Wrapped' rollout this week threw out some hilarious terms, with the most head-scratching candidate being...

Yep, that's me, asking a question I've since come to regret, given the constant quote-tweeting I've been subjected to.

So yeah, this 'Stomp and Holler' business. What the bloody hell is it? A handful of the helpful suggestions that have come my way from strangers on the internet in the past 24 hours include:

  • Southern gothic-esque music
  • One Direction, specifically the song 'Act My Age'
  • The Lumineers
  • Mumford & Sons
  • Exactly what it says
  • Music you hear at Starbucks
  • Twee bullshit you hear in car commercials
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So it's a broad church, then. That, or nobody has any real idea.

Clip via The Lumineers

One person who does know is Glenn McDonald. A graduate of Harvard University, he's the man in charge of categorising what exactly a song 'is' and where it should go.

With such a highly important job, you'd expect him to sport a ridiculous title all of his own, and that's why he has the words 'Data Alchemist' above his office door.

And with a name like that, it's perhaps no surprise that he's responsible for genres like 'Permanent Wave' (Arcade Fire qualify, apparently) and 'Neo Mellow', which is actually a pretty hilariously spot-on way of describing Ed Sheeran.

The weird thing about 'Stomp and Holler' - apart from the obvious - is that it's not really a genre at all, but a specific playlist comprising of over 60 songs and thus a handy way for Spotify to lump in a bunch of like-minded acts who do indeed stomp and holler in search of "driving rhythms, intricate instrumentation, and full harmonies".

Glad that's settled, then. But let's not forget that slightly sinister aspect mentioned earlier.

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McDonald's particular brand of alchemy involves the use of a tool known as 'machine listening', which does what it says on the tin; machines listen to the music in a bid to find the perfect match for the oddly-named genre in question.

Clip via AggePagg

Speaking to the Toronto Star last year, McDonald played down the notion that this could all lead to the kind of future that Arnold Schwarzenegger tried his best to prevent in the Terminator movies.

“(People) imagine metal humanoid robots sitting in chairs with silver headphones on nodding mechanically to songs and making up their robot minds,” said McDonald. “But the process is totally different. There’s no emotion involved. The machines are not pretending to be people.

“They’re just trying to find mathematical ways of approximating the effect that humans get from music so the scores can be intelligible and reliable.”

So that's... somewhat reassuring, no?

On the flip side, Liz Pelly's epic essay on Spotify for quarterly arts magazine The Baffler makes for bleak and paranoia-inducing reading if you subscribe to the idea that streaming services bring us one step closer to an eventual doomsday scenario where machines just don't need us anymore.

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Pelly suggests that music criticism could become extinct as media continues to embrace playlist culture, arguing that Spotify's branding of the word 'discovery' removes the need for us to do it ourselves.

"[Spotify] soon plans to produce more of its own (surely branded) "storytelling" and original content... what will become of music criticism in a world without records? Will publications review discovery feeds and write profiles of playlists? What good will criticism be when all of music has coalesced into algorithmically preordained Muzak?"

It's a scary thought, especially if you consider yourself a music buff.

But hey*, we could probably use the distraction from such concerns, so kudos to the Spotify gods for getting us through the day, one nonsensical genre at a time.

I, for one, welcome our new neon-soaked algorithm overlords. For now.

*To be read in the style of The Lumineers' breakthrough smash 'Ho Hey'.

While you're here... check out The JOE Show Christmas Special with Bressie, the Dublin Gospel Choir and a surprise guest appearance from the star of the season, Jesus Christ Santa Claus!


Read more about:

Spotify, Ed Sheeran, Lists, Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers