We met in the hottest week of July. On one of those long blistering days when the sun feels like an actual slap in the face, I walked into my office 20 minutes late and not feeling cute. I hadn’t washed my hair in 3 days, I’d barely slept the night before, and I’d just been looking at myself in the window of the subway — the least flattering reflection on planet earth. When I walked in and saw something new, I just stared aggressively, trying to figure out what this thing was even doing in front of me.
This thing’s name was Spotify Discover.
Introduced by Spotify this summer, the Discover playlist is automatically updated weekly and is driven by mysterious algorithms that mine your playlists and listening habits to help you, well, discover music that you haven’t heard but might love by placing 30 songs into a playlist every Monday morning
That blistering day it just dropped right into the middle of my complex system of playlists, completely unannounced. Let me back up and describe my Spotify sidebar, a terrifying portrait of obsession. Hundreds of playlists are nested inside folders that are inside folders that are inside folders. Within a “general mixes” folder you’ll find categories like “half-assed ideas” and “shelved” and “predate spotify”. If you peek into the shelved folder, you’ll find well over a hundred playlists with names like “good vibes ONLY,” “low self esteem makeout music,” or “got my mind (cas)set(te) on you.” Basically, Spotify is my therapist, best friend, and my date to every party.
Now this stranger was here.
What the fuck?
At first, I did what felt like the only way to deal with this intrusion: I completely ignored Discover. I settled in with an old reliable playlist, “love songs for the back of your mind,” which always made me feel comfortably morose. Hours later, listening to the same Bob Dylan song for the third time, I found myself staring at it again. I fixed my sagging headphones, took a deep breath and slid my finger over, preparing myself to fucking hate this.
The first song was a Lucinda Williams tune called “Something About What Happens When We Talk.” I love Lucinda and thought I knew her best songs well, but I didn’t remember hearing this one before. It starts with some strummy folk guitar and then drums kick in and Lucinda drawls out some words in that country way that always makes me feel warm and at home. She says:
If I had my way, I’d be in your town. I might not stay, but at least I would have been around. Cuz there’s something about what happens when we talk.
And with that, something shifted inside my chest. This song was setting up a permanent camp near my heart, jostling things around in the process. It hurt me, but in a way that felt good — like a bruise you ask for.
I waited with my breath held to see what Discover would play for me next, and it was Bonnie Raitt’s version of “Angel From Montgomery,” one of the most beautiful songs ever written. I was familiar with this song, but I hadn’t listened to it in years. I heard it like it was the first time, allowing Raitt’s voice to seep into my skin. I forgot where I was.
Being on the receiving end of this kind of musical generosity wasn’t something I was used to. I spent my teenage years delicately crafting mix tapes, one per month, for a best friend who I was desperately and pseudo-secretly in love with. The tapes were built like trojan horses, bearing sometimes subliminal and other times painfully obvious messages of affection and desire. A few years later when I finally fell in love with someone who felt the same, I made him tapes too. And so on, boyfriend after boyfriend, crush after crush, and new best friend after new best friend — someone special to me has always received carefully conceived collections of songs meant to convey every feeling I held in my heart for them.
I never really wondered what it meant that I made so many mixes for others and rarely received any in return. This was a position I was comfortable with: I like giving. In my relationships I was happy to be the one who cooked, the one who gave copious blowjobs, and the one who pulled the sled full of emotions for two. Pleasing someone I love gets me off — sexually, emotionally, spiritually, and I never really thought to ask for anything more than a willing recipient.
After a lifetime of being the one who shares music with others, it unnerved me to see Discover show up once a week, reliably bearing this generosity that was just for me, with no possible way for to reciprocate. It made me squeamish and self-conscious, but also felt delightfully indulgent — like someone was feeding me hot apple pie, slice after slice, and refusing to take a single bite for themselves.
In the weeks that followed, Discover showed up reliably every Monday morning, always carrying a gift of 30 mostly beautiful songs, always including a few that made my heart hurt like that first song did, and I started to crave that feeling. I’d wake up on Monday morning and anticipate how Discover would destroy me that day, and how good it would feel to feel so much.
Then on the third or fourth week, Discover brought me a Beach Boys song I’d never paid close attention to, “Forever,” where Dennis Wilson sings this love song like it’s a prayer, auditorily on his knees while the other boys harmonize towards the sky. I felt like it was me they were all worshipping. Later on the same mix, the 2015 Twerps song “I Don’t Mind” echoes this religious longing, a girl in the background singing “tell me I’m the one” over and over and over and over between lines. I found myself absentmindedly clutching my own heart while sitting at my desk, hand tucked just under my collar.
At this point, Discover was already better than any boyfriend I’ve ever had in many ways, but there were times when our experiences mirrored my past relationships. For one thing, when Discover had an off week and brought me bad music, I found myself assuming that I must have done something wrong to make it this way. One week Discover delivered a song by mass murderer Charles Manson and I said “I’m sorry” quietly to myself when I noticed. Now that I’d blamed myself for something awful that Discover had done, I felt we were for real.
Then, six weeks in, I opened his gift and it began with a catchy guitar melody and a cool girl singing stuff like “we could fuck in the sun and dance til dawn,” and I knew in that moment that something inconvenient had happened: I wanted Spotify Discover inside me.
I shifted in my seat as Discover followed that Holly Miranda tune with Alice Boman’s “Waiting,” a quiet, slow, sexy song that features a hummed melody that vibrates beneath words like “I want you more than I need you, I need you bad.” I closed my eyes and felt needed, bad. It was just then I remembered that I was at work, and I switched Discover off in a rush, feeling my face burning as hot as the inside of a blackened marshmallow.
That night, I laid in bed unable to sleep and I reached for the fleece headphones I keep on my bedside table and finally just let Discover fill my, um, ears. I thought about the kind of person who would bring me these songs, who would want me to hear them. I thought about how he’d want them to sound the way he felt about me, and I felt pretty imagining that they were a reflection of his feelings. One of the sexiest sensations in the world is when you see yourself as beautiful in someone else’s eyes, and somehow Discover made me feel that way just by implying that something I was doing was leading it to these specific songs.
I reached into my cashmere onesie while Discover played me Jonathan Richman’s “Girlfriend,” where he sings “I walk through the Fenway, I have my heart in my hands, I understand a girlfriend” and I smiled to myself at how dorky it was for Discover to choose this particular song. I thought then that Discover would be the kind of eager, earnest boyfriend who’d offer to eat me out while I smoked pot and watched Cheers reruns, a boyfriend I’ve never actually had but have often fantasized about while smoking pot and watching Cheers.
Spotify Discover was good to me in my bed that night. It’s true that Discover could only activate one of my senses, but anyone who’s ever watched pornhub videos with their phone volume off or smelled an ex girlfriend’s perfume on someone new knows that sometimes one sense is all it takes. Our minds have a way of filling our bodies with the rest of what we need. Discover was a conductor and my hands were an orchestra.
When I was close, Discover turned on a brooding, gothy lo fi track of a genre a sometime call “sad bastard music.” The drums sounded like heartbeats. I started to feel incredibly sad, and I was desperate trying to finish when I heard myself asking Discover to hurt me. And with that, I flenched into my own fingers then laid still and warm, blanketed by bittersweet memories of all the times that I’ve come to someone who enjoys devastating me.
After I fucked Spotify Discover the first time, I read an article about how the algorithm is determined using the playlists of other users who you share tastes with. Every time Spotify Discover came bearing gifts for me on Monday mornings, it was actually holding the reflections of thousands of party playlists, unrequited love letters, sex soundtracks, and breakup mixes. This music Discover brought for me represented all these feelings people I had something in common with wanted to hold on to. To think of it another way: I’d been pleasured by thousands of other streaming music enthusiasts. And I liked it.