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21 April 2017 to 27 February 2016
[Adapted from a talk I gave at the MoPop Conference 2017 in Seattle today.]  

"Speaks Truth to Power Metal
Conceptual Fantasy, Cryptic Nihilism and the Abstruse Political Neutrality of Progressive Rock and Metal
November 7, 2016"  


I am kind of anti-political by nature, and I had reluctantly gotten involved in politics a little bit over the course of last year, and on November 7 I was looking desperately forward to finally beginning another long period of mostly ignoring dull but semi-functional government.  

The songs that were most distinctively popular on Spotify in the US on November 7, 2016, versus the next day, were things like this:  

"Intro From the President"
Diplo ft. Nicky Da B "Express Yourself"
Michael Jackson "We Are Here to Change the World"
USA for Africa "We Are the World"
Ricky Reed "Express Yourself"
Manic Street Preachers "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next"
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young "Ohio"  

It was a tense, but mostly optimistic day in music. Personally, I spent most of the day listening to gothic symphonic metal, because that's what I like to do when the internet is working:  

Nightwish "Wish I Had an Angel"  

The next day was a little different. The songs that were most distinctively popular on Spotify in the US on November 8, 2016, were things like this:  

YG "FDT - Pt. 2"
Mac Miller "Donald Trump"
REM "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)"
The Rolling Stones "You Can't Always Get What You Want"
Rae Sremmurd "Up Like Trump"
Eminem "White America"  

and way down here at #61 or something we finally get a little of this:  

Toby Keith "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue"  

I grew up in Texas, where we had school prayer in my public school and music tended to sound like this:  

Amy Grant "I Have Decided"
ZZ Top "Sharp Dressed Man"
Lynyrd Skynyrd "Sweet Home Alabama"  

But my parents met folksinging in the 60s in New Haven, so inside my house it was more like this:  

Peter, Paul and Mary "Puff, the Magic Dragon"
Pete Seeger "If I Had a Hammer"
Joan Baez "Pack Up Your Sorrows"  

In order to rebel against both of these impulses simultaneously, I hit upon this:  

Nightwish "Wish I Had an Angel"  

Except that didn't exist yet, so instead it was actually more like this:  

Rush "Trees"  

Music and fantasy and Pokemon or whatever can function as methods of escape, but "escape" is sometimes an impatient way of dismissing a slower or less direct metanarrative of attempted understanding. "The trouble with the maples, and they're quite convinced they're right...". Rush was not avoiding issues, they were attempting to rise above them. This is definitively pretentious, but it's a form of pretension I instinctively respond to: not advocacy, but analysis. What is the nature of the problem? How do different people's contexts and preconceptions lead them to different conclusions given the same facts?  

Gloryhammer "Unicorn Invasion of Dundee"  

Gloryhammer are not ignoring the social conflicts and issues of Brexit-era northern Scotland, they are trying to illuminate them by putting them into an expanded context: namely: what if, in addition to the cultural invasions of globalism and technological change, there was also an actual physical invasion of the coastal town of Dundee by zombie unicorns?  

You might contend that this is technically more apolitical than metapolitical. I might find this troublesome to contradict, given how much time I spend listening to cryptic metal in languages I don't even speak, or that nobody can understand by listening to them.  

Deathspell Omega "Wings of Predation"  

A few years ago, Brian Whitman, a music scientist who was the co-founder of the startup where I was working, did a statistical study of the political tendencies of music fans by artist. Many of his discoveries were reassuringly predictable: the artists most disproportionately liked by Democratically-inclined listeners tended to be hip hop or R&B or pop stars.  

Nicki Minaj / Rihanna "Fly"
Beyoncé "Run the World (Girls)"
Katy Perry "Wide Awake"  

Most of the artists most disproportionately liked by Republicans were more like this:  

Kenny Chesney "Drink It Up"
Jason Aldean "My Kinda Party"  

Except actual political stances by musicians clearly do register, because this pop skewed Republican:  

Kelly Clarkson "I Do Not Hook Up"  

and this country skewed Democrat:  

Dixie Chicks "Lubbock or Leave It"  

The detail that excited me, though, was that at the end of the study, almost as a footnote, Brian looked at which artists were the least predictive of their fans' political affiliations, and several of the top ones were metal bands.  

Paradise Lost "Theories From Another World"
Moonspell "Alpha Noir"  

To me as a metal fan, this naturally felt like it was probably mathematical proof of the moral and intellectual superiority of metal.  

Later our startup got acquired by Spotify, and now I have even more data, so I decided to do this study again, abstracting up from the level of individual artists to the cultural level of genres.  

Replicating statistical experiments in social science is often a thankless pit of despair and frustration, and you usually end up proving not only that the first study was wrong, but that all your data is terminally flawed to begin with, and the universe is rapidly collapsing towards the point where the only music left is either Drake, or Major Lazer remixing Drake, or algorithms generating endless choruses of excruciatingly cheerful faux-reggae by virtualized white people.  

But whatever. I have the daily listening behavior of over 100 million people, and somebody quietly slipped me the US political affiliations (or not) of about 7 million of them, and I have a map of about 1500 music genres, and apparently I have an infinite supply of computers, because when I requisition more of them nobody ever says no.  

So here are the top 24 metagenres in the US, ordered by their tendency towards political neutrality. Metal is...not quite first. But if we drill down to the top 150 or so microgenres, metal is...still not first. But if we go all the way down to the 1094 genres for which we have at least 100 fans with supposedly-known political affiliations, then there, finally, #1 is in fact melodic power metal.  

Gloryhammer "Unicorn Invasion of Dundee"  

104 fans in my sample, of whom 27 are Democrats, 26 are Republicans, and 51 are unaffiliated.  

Having successfully proven my point, I began poking around in the rest of the data. And I made it into a web application, so you can poke around in it yourself.  

The most left-leaning metagenres do seem to have a certain consistency to them: funk, soul, r&b. The most right-leaning ones: christian and modern country and classic country. At the microgenre level, the patterns are even more striking. The Democratic end has new jack swing, quiet storm, pop r&b, neo soul, latin pop.The Republican end has worship music, contemporary christian music, christian rock, christian alternative rock, redneck, modern country rock, texas country.  

And at the hyper-microgenre level, it gets kind of ridiculous. Several of the leftmost genres are not just African-American forms, but actually African: kizomba, azonto, makossa, mbalax. After that there's a parade of Afro-Caribbean and Latin forms like kompa, zouk, cumbia, merengue, boogaloo, salsa, norteno, ranchera. Pretty much any kind of American hip hop you can think of leans Democratic, as do almost all indietronic or hipster anythings. If you're conservative and you want pop music, how about some a cappella covers?  

BYU Vocal Point "Happy"  

Or performances from TV talent shows?  

Jeffery Austin "Dancing on My Own"  

So basically, with nothing but listening data, I have replicated the same insight that more or less every other statistical examination of American politics has come to, which is that we are a nation of urban liberals who are exposed to diversity in their daily lives, and rural conservatives who are exposed to church and television.  

Collectively. But it's not entirely that simple. Thank Satan. If we sort by neutrality, which I defined as a combination of tendencies both towards fans' political non-affiliation and towards balance between Democratic and Republican fans, the patterns aren't as depressingly obvious.  

The two most neutral genres with at least 100k fans in my sample are pixie and screamo. For those of you who are older than 25, pixie is basically cheerful pop punk:  

With Confidence "Voldemort"  

and screamo is basically angry pop punk:  

Blood Youth "Buying Time"  

And then there are some other kinds of pop punk and metalcore and emo, but also teen pop and viral pop. And a little farther down we start seeing electro house and EDM. The kids are not as polarized as the grown-ups. Not yet.  

And in fact, almost anywhere you look closely, you find a range. In hip-hop, hardcore and latin and east coast and west coast hip hop all lean left, but there's also Christian hip hop way on the other end, and nerdcore and horrorcore and most forms of hip hop from other non-Latin countries are much closer to neutral in their American fans' politics.  

In country, we find that the bro-ier the country form, the more Republican it leans, but alt-country leans Democrat, and alternative Americana leans way Democrat.  

And so, for me, basically, this is how I reconcile keeping my day job working on music recommendations, instead of quitting and becoming a full-time climate or diversity activist. I observe that making enemies and then trying to convert them doesn't seem to be working super well, but exposing people to difference and diversity tends to result in them becoming less intolerant and isolationist on their own, and music is one of our most powerful vectors for exposing people to bits of different cultures. Music and food. Maybe food is even better, but the towns with no Lebanese people probably don't have a lot of Lebanese restaurants, either. But if you have the internet, you can now have all the music in the world. You are not stuck in your small town. You are not stuck in your multi-cultural megacity. Having empathy for the people you think are your enemies is never trivial, but no matter how insane they seem, they always turn out to also have awesome music.  

Passion "Remember"  

Turns out, I like Christian progressive rock.  

Levante "Le mie mille me"  

I like Mexican indie pop.  

Joker ft. Ayben "Microphone Show"  

I like Turkish hip hop.  

And yeah, sometimes I still feel kind of self-conscious when it seems like a lot of people are doing this:  

Body Count "Black Hoodie"  

and I'm still playing this:  

Nightwish "Wish I Had an Angel"  

RuPaul is doing this:  

RuPaul "American"  

And I'm listening to concept albums about the Platonic solids, or the internal bureacracies of Atlantis.  

But I've come to understand, or maybe resolve, that my own goal is not to magically turn activists into analysts, or isolationists into explorers, but just to seed and cultivate and encourage and reward curiosity. "Acceptance" and "Tolerance" are kernels of empathy, but they are also still assertions of authority and privilege. Curiosity is different. Curiosity goes beyond "I tolerate you" towards realizing that other humans are not subject to your tolerance or not. The questions about Them are questions for them to answer, not you. Music can help people understand a little better how their place in the world is just another place. How their awesome musics are just a few of the many awesome musics. How the act of singing is essentially human, and how singing allows the act of listening to be inherently life-affirming, and that maybe, therefore, music is part of how we undo political division, and thus part of how humanity survives.  

Maybe power metal has actual power.  

Ayreon "Everybody Dies"  


This thing is online at everynoise.com/genrepolitics. See if it helps you.
I've been making playlists of new songs every week. There aren't a lot of new songs right at the end of the year, and I had to make some year lists anyway, so I made a playlist of my year of new songs. It is long. It would take you a day to listen to it all. But you don't have to remember my year at all.  

New Particles, 2016-12-31 (A Year in a Day)
Dear @realDonaldTrump, I was touched by your thoughts for us here in Cambridge, where we just experienced a 10-alarm fire that left dozens of families homeless. I know how busy you are not laughing at jokes about you on television, holding divisive "victory" rallies in case your campaign and existence weren't already divisive enough, and preemptively fucking up international relations just in case you get impeached before you're inaugurated, so the fact that you took the time to dedicate almost half of a tweet to a humble local tragedy in a town where you lost the election 87% to 6% definitely does not go unnoticed.  

You asked how you could help, or probably would have if you hadn't run out of characters, and I know it can be difficult to figure out how to apply the high-level powers of the president-electicy to tangible local issues, so I thought I'd try to help by making a short list of things we need, as we recover from this tragedy, that you are uniquely and personally qualified to offer us:  

1. Less hate, less encouragement of hate, less shouting, more listening. Also about 50 units of replacement low-income housing, preferably with modern fire-safety equipment. Make some of them 3-bedroom units, too. We're a little overbalanced towards high-market-rent low-occupancy housing here, and families can so easily get priced out of their neighborhoods even without catastrophic events.  

2. A chief advisor without any ties to white supremacy. Also some basic self-awareness that we are a country of immigrants. I mean, a country literally defined and built by every form of immigration from conquest to conscription to opportunity to asylum. Some people around you who embrace this as our most unique resource and the single thing that makes us the most "great" in the world if there's any non-idiotic meaning to that idea.  

3. A head of the EPA who is not a climate-change denier, and in general an awareness that science is the basis of civilization and our only chance of not getting ourselves wiped off the surface of the planet like the dinosaurs. Also maybe some extra phone-chargers, preferably the kind that operate based on science instead of on retweets of racists.  

4. An education secretary who realizes that public education is more or less the bedrock of any meaningful idea of "public" anything. Also a national education policy based less on standardized tests and more on fostering children's natural curiosity. Also maybe some extra funding for teaching languages in elementary school, when children's minds are the most receptive to learning and are least likely to have already fearfully and myopically concluded that "foreign" equals "bad". It's really cool that your wife speaks multiple languages. Imagine how cool it would be if college dropouts in this country could speak multiple languages.  

5. A commerce secretary whose idea of commerce isn't buying "distressed assets". Maybe some role models for how to have successful businesses that produce social good in the world, instead of shitty luxury hotels that highlight disparities in wealth and garish decorating. A national conceptual model of capitalism that is about production more than branding, and designed to reward lifting the desperate into hope at least some fraction as much as lifting the most wealthy into ludicrous decadence and isolation. Also, since you seem to think that health care is stifling business, maybe a national approach to heath care that is tied to humanity instead of employment, and maybe is based on providing health care instead of enriching health insurance. Good luck with that one. Luckily for you, your predecessors have been working on it for a couple decades, so at least you don't have to start over from scratch.  

6. Some diplomats who have the right nerdy temperament to read briefings, and/or who happen to already know more about other countries than how to wire money to their banks. I realize how time-consuming it is to actually visit other countries, due to the ocean thing and not all of them speaking English, but maybe some people who eat food from other places, or listen to their music. Incidentally, have you heard foreign music? So good. See if you can get more of that. Also foreign food. Also foreign people. So good.  

7. Moral leadership. I once saw a bunch of politicians taking turns saying idiotic and inflammatory things about a non-profit that provides reproductive and women's health services, and then this one guy jumped in and at least was willing to say aloud that the organization does good things for women's health. Be like that guy. Of course, it's totally pathetic that the richest and greatest country on the planet has to have a non-profit to help provide health services to half of the populace, so maybe work on that, too.  

8. Infrastructure. And progress, and innovation. Fire-fighting crews from 10 different towns came to Cambridge yesterday to help, and we had roads to get them here, and fire hydrants all over the place for them to run hoses to. A block from the fire is a giant pit where they're digging geothermal wells for the new school they're going to build there. If the school stays on schedule, my daughter might get to spend her last year of middle school there, instead of in a temporary facility somewhere else. So things here are pretty good. Are they that good everywhere in this country? I kind of get the impression that they aren't. Also, it was amazing seeing all that water they poured on the fire. But, at the same time, we have a neighborhood of wooden houses that burn like crazy if they catch on fire, and it's 2016 and pretty much our best idea about putting out fires in wooden buildings is pouring shit-tons of water on them until they're soggy wrecks instead of flaming wrecks, so that part isn't totally great. Also, my daughter's current school had lead in the drinking-fountain water, so that sucked. Maybe, given that it's 2016, we should be trying to get way better at all this stuff. Also at dealing with earthquakes, and diseases, and weather. I guess I feel a little vulnerable right now, so I'd love to know that our national safety priorities are lined up towards keeping us safe from actual things that happen to us all the time, rather than imaginary things like voter fraud and all Muslims being terrorists and all Mexicans being criminals and other stupid shit that isn't happening and was never happening and just makes us all look like fucking idiots when we have to explain to the rest of the world that half our country voted for a giant angry idiot baby even though there are all these real problems that affect everybody on the planet and we're supposedly the most powerful country on it.  

9. Coats. It gets cold here. Some of the people who live here came here from warmer places, so more coats are always good. Boots, too. And food. Also the opportunity to travel. Some of the people who live here have never been anywhere else. It's amazing to see a community pull together. This gets even more amazing the bigger and more inclusive and more expansive the community is. I've seen whole cities pull together in the face of adversity. Imagine if a whole country could do that. Imagine if the whole planet could do that. Imagine if it didn't even require the sudden addition of extra adversity.  

10. Perspective. I feel pretty fortunate. I live a couple blocks from where the fire happened. My house is OK, my family is OK, my cats are OK. The cats are sleeping here watching me write this. Outside I can hear helicopters coming by to get some news footage of the buildings that burned, and people starting to clear away the burned cars and the wreckage of some people's homes. When things happen, even if they don't happen to you, it helps you focus. This is part of why it's such a good idea to get up every morning. You must be experiencing this, too, having just accidentally gotten elected to a job for which you are totally unprepared and unsuited. When shocking things happen, you can either panic and start lashing out at whatever is closest to you and most defenseless, or you can accept the challenge and try to rise up. Make America Great Again, you keep saying. Who could object to Greatness? The "Again" part is kind of self-righteous and judgmental, though. If somebody comes and says they're going to make the buildings that burned in this fire Great Again, the "Again" part would make sense. We can all pretty easily agree that burned+soaked wreckage is Not Great. But even so, I'd expect them to have a plan. And if you're going to say "Again" to people whose houses haven't burned, too, but who just got way more aware of how easily they could, you're going to need both an explanation and a plan. And a story of how we got here and how we go forward that isn't based on scapegoating and distraction and cheap pandering and bilious dishonesty. And some way to win with grace instead of vindictiveness. And some way to mobilize people instead of polarizing them. And some way to get bigots to defend the rights of people they don't understand, and incompetents to defend the right of the press to expose their mistakes, and oligarchs to abdicate. And some way to fall in love with exactly what we most instinctively flee from. Like, some way for a town that voted 87%-to-6% against you to believe that you aren't just one more arbitrary disaster that suddenly happened to us one sunny afternoon, and now we have to stop all the other important projects we we're doing and put out a fucking fire and help a bunch of people who had been getting ahead in their lives start over from what isn't nothing, because we have each other and even the people you hate are always better than you realize, but what definitely feels like nothing while it's happening.  

Anyway, those are some things that would help right now.  

PS: Did I mention phone chargers? Super-helpful to have some extras. Twitter isn't so bad, but Pokémon Go eats batteries.
Literally the point of this country is to have a place where the basis of all laws and collective decisions is the simple shared belief that all people are equal. That's it, that's why we have a country.  

ALL PEOPLE. All genders, all colors, all points of origin, all beliefs about unprovable things. Literally nothing could be less American than trying to assign different rights to different people.  

Muslims are exactly as welcome here as Christians and atheists. Christians are exactly as welcome here as Muslims and Buddhists. Atheists are exactly as welcome here as Wiccans and Jews. ALL PEOPLE ARE EQUAL. You may believe any edicts of any gods, as long as your god accepts that all people are equal. If you want to worship a god that believes some people are better than others, you can do it silently and undetectably inside your own head, or you can find another country that is based on some other idea. In this one, all people are equal.  

So of course black lives matter. Of course immigrant lives matter. Of course indigenous lives matter. Of course all lives matter. Of course you can't kill or hurt or rape or abuse or cheat or discriminate against people because of some way in which they happen to be different than you. THIS IS AMERICA. ALL PEOPLE ARE EQUAL.  

Of course homosexuals can marry. Of course we do not discriminate against trans people or people in wheelchairs or people who think cilantro tastes like soap. Of course everyone should have health care and education. Of course women can vote. Of course people are entitled to justice and fair laws. Of course those of us that find fortune will help those of us who suffer. Of course we do not accept slavery or hereditary castes or monarchy or theocracy or oligarchy or hate crimes, because this is AMERICA. Literally the point of having an America is that this is the place where ALL PEOPLE ARE EQUAL.  

And, less glamorously, this is thus also the place where we have agreed to take on all the messy and difficult problems that happen when you have a country based on that deliberately and awesomely oversimplified premise.  

What is the proper way to run federal and local governments in a country where all people are equal? There's not one simple obvious answer.  

How, exactly, do we provide health care to everybody? There's not one simple obvious answer that follows smoothly and inarguably from the idea that all people are equal.  

How does a symbolic-currency economy work? How does limited corporate liability work? Do we do things to make sure food and bridges and dentists are safe? Who pays for scientific research? How do we interact with other countries that are based on other ideas? How do we deal with people who violate this basic principle, like murderers or racists? How do we deal with people who violate some secondary or tertiary principle we have added or derived? Do criminals become temporarily less equal, and how so and for how long? How do we treat animals? How do we treat plants? How do we treat the atmosphere, or asteroids, or Pokémon that don't even evolve? Are taxes the right way to balance individual potential and the collective good? If so, how, specifically? We don't get a functioning country for free, we have to work for it.  

How do we resolve conceptual conflicts between earnest beliefs that abide by this common assumption but require additional decisions? For example, when does a new person become a person, is it conception or birth or some other point? We must find a way to agree on an answer. We must adopt some new shared assumption that we agree will govern our collective decisions, even if it goes against some people's personal beliefs. This can be profoundly painful, in the most literal sense of "profound", but it's the price for the privilege of holding personal beliefs in a shared society.  

And, for that matter, where is the line between rights and privileges? IS there a line? If we believe that all people are equal, what is the function of our physical border? Obviously people from other places are also people, and thus have equal rights once they are here. THAT'S THE WHOLE POINT. Do they have equal rights to come here? They are people, so they must. The moral urges for free trade and open borders and welcoming refugees and helping the vulnerable and needy are obvious results of the very idea that defines us. Of course we welcome you. Can we even have a notion of citizenship, with additional responsibilities and privileges, that is still based on the core truth that all people are equal? Maybe. Probably, in some form. But every complication we add must be connected rock-solidly to the bedrock of the idea that all people are equal.  

And when in doubt, simplify. ALL PEOPLE ARE EQUAL. States' rights? Maybe, yeah, I guess, but given that we all believe that all people are equal, maybe states' rights is kind of actually not really a thing, at least not for anything that matters. Different approaches to decriminalizing marijuana or regulating goat farming or funding charter schools? Sure, if states or towns are ways to experiment with tactical alternatives, then OK. But all people are equal, so anything that would make a person feel less equal when stepping over a state or city line is clearly and inherently and obviously un-American. No, you can't have slavery in Alabama. No, you can't treat Muslims differently in Texas. No, you can't keep homosexuals from marrying in North Carolina. No, you can't abolish abortions or head-scarves or reggaeton in one state because you can gerrymander the voting districts. ALL PEOPLE ARE EQUAL. That's the condition of being one of these united states.  

If you want a racist/sexist/genderist/theocratic/"traditional"/Satanic/artisanal/whatever republic, and of course you are entitled to want anything you want, best of luck to you in your travels. It's a big planet, maybe you'll find an empty bit for your new country, and maybe you'll run it better than we've run this one. Or, there's Mars! But here in the United States of America, all people are equal. That's how we do it. It's not always easy or straightforward, but it's not complicated to understand, and it's not optional or negotiable, and it applies to everything, and it applies to everyone, and it applies to all the people you love and all the people you hate, and all the people you don't understand yet, and you, and me. Yes. All of us. It's that crazy. It's exactly that crazy. This is the country that is exactly that crazy and amazing and brave and human and inept and persistent. That is literally exactly precisely the point.
*or the elders, or the girls, or the boys  

I added two more optional sort-orders to the list view of Every Noise at Once today.  

Youth sorts the genres by the average self-reported ages of each genre's artists' listeners. Thus the genres at the top are the ones listened to most uniformly by younger listeners, and the ones at the bottom are the ones mostly only old people like. (If you hover over the rank numbers on the left, you can see the actual average ages.)  

The youngest genre by this measure is Pixie, which is a hyper-poppy strain of pop-punk/-emo/-screamo, but "hyper-poppy pop-punk/-emo/-screamo" is ungainly, so I made up a name for it. I think it's a pretty good name, and I encourage you to work it into everyday conversation as if of course everybody calls it that.  

The oldest-listener genre, and one of only 2 genres whose average listener-age is older than I am, is Indorock, a bizarre 1950s repatriation of Dutch Indonesian colonialism back to the Netherlands after Indonesian independence. Probably this was the Pixie of its time and place, but that time was a really long time ago, and that fact that you can listen to it on a streaming music service in 2016 at all is fairly astonishing.  

Femininity sorts the genres by what percentage of each genre's self-identified male/female listeners self-identify as female. Spotify sign-up forms only offer three gender options at the moment ("female", "male" and just leaving it blank), so the current data is artificially binary, and thus the genres at the top are the ones with the highest ratio of female listeners to male, and the ones at the bottom are the most dominantly male-not-female.  

The most feminine genre by this measure is Teen Pop, which is rather stereotype-reinforcing, but the second one is the fanfic-pop genre Wrock, which I'm pretty sure you didn't expect, because statistically you probably didn't know that there's Wizard Rock to begin with, let alone that they call it "Wrock" for short, never mind that the Hermiones have more tolerance for it than the Harrys.  

The least-feminine genres at the bottom of the list are a roiling quagmire of auralized testosterone, the last 15 all explicitly involving death or brutality or brutal death or deathly brutality or grinding. I'm thinking I should really rename Djent to "Brutal Deathdjent Grind" just so it fits in better.  

As if the binary thing wasn't embarrassing enough, this data reveals that, at the moment, 72 genres skew more female than male, and 1363 skew more male than female. Only 9 genres have more than 60% female listeners, while 188 have more than 60% male listeners. Spotify's gender-self-identified listenership is about 53% male to start with, and small absolute differences can produce dramatic tipping effects, but that still doesn't seem to me like even vaguely a strong enough bias to account for this by itself.  

My first guilt theory, honestly, since it's mostly me that determines the genres in the genre-space, was that I over-model male-centric genre-areas, and thus the map presents a vastly unbalanced view of gender-balanced listening. To my superficial relief, at least, the basic gender disparity exists at the underlying artist level. Artists with more male listeners than female outnumber the reverse by about 4 to 1, and artists with more than 60% male listeners outnumber artists with more than 60% female listeners by almost 8 to 1. At the 90% threshold it's more than 40 to 1. Female listeners definitely gravitate towards a smaller set of core artists, and thus too a smaller set of genres.  

But do they "gravitate", as the result of innocent natural forces? Or are they pushed by some invisible forces generated by the ways in which music is made and distributed and presented? I don't know, and I feel like maybe somebody should try to find out, and I have a simultaneously sinking and inspiring feeling that maybe nobody is in a materially better position to find out than me.  

[A little further refinement from later: younger male listeners (<30) and older female listeners (30+) have mostly consistent shares of listening across the popularity spectrum. The big differences are between younger female listeners, who make up 40% of the audience for the most popular artists but only 20% for less popular artists, and older male listeners, who represent 13% for the most popular artists but 30% for less popular ones.]  

[PS2: A very cursory examination of the usage of Discover Weekly, Spotify's personalized weekly music-discovery playlist, seems consistent with all of the above: it represents a notably larger share of overall Spotify listening for older male listeners than for younger female ones. But, emphasizing the always-important point that individuals are not averages, among people who listen to their Discover Weekly lists actively, the age and gender differences essentially disappear. So maybe it's the idea of "discovery" itself whose appeal varies.]  

[PS3: The global disparity varies in magnitude across regions, but is present almost everywhere. The one major exception is Sweden, where the most popular artists do not skew towards either gender en masse. The effect is also fairly weak in the Netherlands, and tails off relatively quickly in Spain. But it is observable pretty much everywhere else, reaching an extreme in the Philippines, where the top 100 artists average 49% young female listeners but only 8% older male listeners.]
[This is the script from a talk I delivered at the EMP Pop Conference today. It was written to be read aloud at an intentionally headlong pace, with somewhat-carefully timed blasts of interstitial music. I've included playable clip-links for the songs here, but the clips are usually from the middles of the songs, and I was playing the beginnings of them in the talk, so it's different. The whole playlist is here, although playing it as a standalone thing would make no sense at all.]  


I used to take software jobs to be able to buy records, but buying records is now a way to hear all the world's music like collecting cars is a way to see more of the solar system.  

So now I work at Spotify as a zookeeper for playlist-making robots. Recommendation robots have existed for a while now, but people have mostly used them for shopping. Go find me things I might want to buy. "You bought a snorkel, maybe you'd like to buy these other snorkels?"  

But what streaming music makes possible, which online music stores did not, is actual programmed music experiences. Instead of trying to sell you more snorkels, these robots can take you out to swim around with the funny-looking fish.  

And as robots begin to craft your actual listening experience, it is reasonable, and maybe even morally imperative, to ask if a playlist robot can have an authorial voice, and, if so, what it is?  

The answer is: No. Robots have no taste, no agenda, no soul, no self. Moreover, there is no robot. I talk about robots because it's funny and gives you something you can picture, but that's not how anything really happens.  

How everything really happens is this: people listen to songs. Different people listen to different songs, and we count which ones, and then try to use computers to do math to find patterns in these numbers. That's what my job actually involves. I go to work, I sit down at my desk (except I actually stand at my fancy Spotify standing desk, because I heard that sitting will kill you and if you die you miss a lot of new releases), and I type computer programs that count the actions of human listeners and do math and produce lists of songs.  

So when anybody talks about a fight between machines and humans in music recommendation, you should know that those people do not know what the fuck they are talking about. Music recommendations are machines "versus" humans in the same way that omelets are spatulas "versus" eggs.  

So the good news is that you can stop worrying that robots are trying to poison your listening. But the bad news is that you can start worrying about food safety and whether the people operating your spatulas have the faintest idea what food is supposed to taste like.  

Because data makes some amazing things possible, but it also makes terrible, incoherent, counter-productive things possible. And I'm going to tell you about some of them.  

Counting is the most basic kind of math, and yet even just counting things usefully, in music streaming, is harder than you probably think. For example, this is the most streamed track by the most streamed artist on Spotify:  

Various Artists "Kelly Clarkson on Annie Lennox"  

Do you recognize the band? They are called "Various Artists", and that is their song "Kelly Clarkson on Annie Lennox", from their album Women in Music - 2015 Stories.  

But OK, that's obviously not what we meant. We just need to exclude short commentary tracks, and then this is the most streamed music track by the most streamed artist on Spotify:  

Various Artists "El Preso"  

Except that's "Various Artists" again. The most streamed music track by an actual artist on Spotify is:  

Rihanna "Work"  

OK, so that's starting to make some sense. Pretty much all exercises in programmatic music discovery begin with this: can you "discover" Rihanna?  

Spotify just launched in Indonesia, and I happen to know that Indonesian music is awesome, because there are people there and they make music, so let's find out what the most popular Indonesian song is.  

Justin Bieber "Love Yourself"  

I kind of wanted to know what the most popular Indonesian song is, not just the song that is most popular in Indonesia. But if I restrict my query to artists whose country of origin is Indonesia, I get this:  

Isyana Sarasvati "Kau Adalah"  

Which seems like it might be the Indonesian Lisa Loeb. It's by Isyana Sarasvati, and I looked her up, and she is Indonesian! She's 23, and her Wikipedia page discusses the scholarship she got from the government of Singapore to study music at an academy there, and lists her solo recitals.  

It turns out that our data about where artists are from is decent where we have it, but a lot of times we just don't. 34 of the top 100 songs in Indonesia are by artists for whom we don't have locations.  

But remember math? Math is cool. In addition to counting listeners in Indonesia, we can compare the listening in Indonesia to the listening in the rest of the world, and find the songs are that most distinctively popular in Indonesia. That gets us to this:  

TheOvertunes "Cinta Adalah"  

That is The Overtunes, who turn out to be a band of three Indonesian brothers who became famous when one of them won X Factor Indonesia in 2013.  

But that's still not really what I wanted. It's like being curious about Indonesian food and buying a bag of Indonesian supermarket-brand potato chips.  

I kind of wanted to hear some, I dunno, Indonesian Indie music. I assume they have some, because they have people, and they have X Factor, and that's bound piss some people off enough to start their own bands.  

So if we switch from just counting to doing a bit more data analysis -- actually, quite a lot of data analysis -- we can discover that yes, there is an indie scene in Indonesia, and we can computationally model which bands are more or less a part of it, and without ever stepping foot in Indonesia, we can produce an algorithmic introduction to The Sound of Indonesian Indie, and it begins with this:  

Sheila on 7 "Dan..."  

That is Shelia on 7 doing "Dan...", and I looked them up, too. Rolling Stone Indonesia said that their debut album was one of the 150 Greatest Indonesian Albums of All Time, and they are the first band to sell more than 1m copies of each of their first 3 albums in Indonesia alone.  

Of course, they're also on Sony Music Indonesia, and I assume that at least some of those millions of people who bought their first 3 albums, before Spotify launched in Indonesia and destroyed the album-sales market, are still alive and still remember them. One of the hard parts about running a global music service from your headquarters in Stockholm and your music-intelligence outpost in Boston, is that you need to be able to find Indonesian music that people who already know about Indonesian music don't already know about.  

But once you've modeled the locally-unsurprising canonical core of Indonesian Indie music, you can use that to find people who spend unusually large blocks of their listening time listening to canonical Indonesian Indie music (most of whom are in Indonesia, but they don't have to be; some of them might be off at a music academy in Singapore, where Spotify has been available since 2013), and then you can calculate what music is most distinctively popular among serious Indonesian Indie fans, even if you have no data to tell you where it comes from. And that gets us things like this:  

Sisitipsi "Alkohol"  

That is "Alkohol" by Sistipsi. A Google search for that song finds only 8400 results, which appear to all be in Indonesian. Their band home page is a wordpress.com site, and they had 263 global Spotify listeners last month.  

PILOTZ "Memang Aku"  

PILOTZ, with a Z. Also from Indonesia! 117 listeners.  

Hellcrust "Janji Api"  

Hellcrust. 44 listeners last month. I looked them up, and yes, they're from Jakarta.  

199x "Goodest Riddance"  

199x. 14 monthly listeners! Also, maybe actually from Malaysia, not Indonesia, but in music recommending it's almost as impressive if you can be a little bit wrong as it is if you can be right, because usually when you're wrong you'll get Polish folk-techno or metalcore with Harry Potter fanfic lyrics.  

So that's what a lot of my days are like. Pose a question, write some code, find some songs, and then try to figure out whether those songs are even vaguely answering the question or not.  

And if the question is about Indonesia, that method kind of works.  

But we also have 100 million listeners on Spotify, and we would like to be able to produce personalized listening experiences for each of them. Actually, we'd like to be able to produce multiple listening experiences for each of them. And we can't hire all of our listeners to work for us full-time curating their own individual personal music experiences, because apparently the business model doesn't work? So it's computers or nothing.  

People, it turns out, are somewhat harder than countries.  

For starters, here is the track I have played the most on Spotify:  

Jewel "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star"  

As humans, we might guess that it is not quite accurate to say that that is my favorite song, and we might have a very specific theory about why that is. As humans, we might guess that the number of times I have played the song after that has a different meaning:  

CHVRCHES "Leave a Trace"  

In the latter case, I love CHVRCHES so much. But in the former case, I love my daughter even more than I love CHVRCHES, and some nights she really needs to hear Jewel sing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" at bedtime.  

And if we are still in the early days of algorithmically programmed listening experiences, at all, then we're in what I hope we will look back on as the early- to mid- prehistory of algorithmic personalized listening experiences. I can't tell you exactly how they work, because we're still trying to make them work. But I can tell you 7 things I've learned that I think are principles to guide us towards a future in which dumbfoundingly amazing music you could never find on your own just flows out of the invisible sea of information directly into your ears. When you want it to, I don't mean you can't shut it off.  

1. No music listener is ever only one thing.  

I mean, you can't assume they are. I have a coworker named Matt who basically only listens to skate-punk music, ever, and we test all personalization things on him first, because you can tell immediately if it's wrong. Right: Warzone "Rebels Til We Die". Wrong: The Damned "Wounded Wolf - Original Mix". But other than him, almost everybody turns out to have some non-obvious combination of tastes. I listen to beepy electronica (Red Cell "Vial of Dreams") and gentle soothing Dark Funeral "Where Shadows Forever Reign" and Kangding Ray "Ardent", and sentimental Southern European arena pop (Gianluca Corrao "Amanti d'estate"), and if you just average that all together it turns out you mostly end up with mopey indie music that I don't like at all: Wyvern Lingo "Beast at the Door"  

2. All information is partial.  

We know what you play on Spotify, but we don't know what you listen to on the radio in the car, or what your spouse plays in your house while you're making dinner, or what you loved as a kid or even what you played incessantly on Rdio before it went bankrupt. For example, this is one of my favorite new albums this year: Magnum "Sacred Blood 'Divine' Lies". I adore Magnum, but I hadn't played them on Spotify at all. But my robot knew they were similar to other things it knew I liked. Sometimes music "discovery" is not about discovering things that you don't know, it's about the computer inferring aspects of your taste that you had previously hidden from it.  

3. Variety is good.  

It is in the interest of listeners and Spotify and music makers if people listen to more and more varied music. If all anybody wanted to hear was this once a day -- Adele "Hello" -- there would be no music business and no streaming and no joy or sunlight. Part of my job is to crack open the shell of the sky. Terabrite "Hello". If you are excited to hear what happens next, you will be more likely to pay us $10, and we will pay the artists more for the music you play, and they will make more of it instead of getting terrible day-jobs working for inbound marketing companies, and the world will be a better place.  

4. People like discovering new music.  

They may hate the song you want them to love. They may have a limited tolerance for doing work to discover music, or for trial-and-erroring through lots of music they don't like in order to find it, but neither of those things mean that they wouldn't be thrilled by the right new song if somebody could find it for them. One of you will come up after this to ask me what this song is: Sweden "Stocholm". One of you, probably a different person, will wonder about this: Draper/Prides "Break Over You". I have like a million of those. I mean actually like an actual million of those.  

5. Bernie Sanders is right.  

It is in the interest of the world of music creators if the streaming music business exerts a bit of democratic-socialist pressure against income inequality. The incremental human value of another person listening to "Shake It Off" again is arguably positive, but it's probably also considerably smaller than the value of that person listening to a new song by a new songwriter who doesn't already have enough money to live out the rest of their life inside a Manhattan loft whose walls are covered with thumbdrives full of bitcoins and #1-fan selfies. Anthem Lights "Shake It Off". Taylor, if you're listening, I'm going to keep playing shitty covers of your songs until you put the real ones back on Spotify. That's how it works.  

6. If you're going to try to play people what they actually like, you have to be prepared for whatever that is.  

DJ Loppetiss "Janteloven 2016"  

That's "Russelåter", which is a crazy Norwegian thing where high school kids finish their exams way before the end of the senior year, so in the spring they get together in little gangs, give themselves goofy gang names, purchase actual tour buses from the previous year's gangs, have them repainted with their gang logo, commission terrible crap-EDM gang theme songs from Norwegian producers for whom this is the most profitable local music market, and then spend weeks driving around the suburbs of Oslo in these buses, drinking and never changing their clothes and blasting their appalling theme songs. I did not make this up.  

7. Recommendation incurs responsibility.  

If people are going to give up minutes of their finite lives to listen to something they would otherwise never have been burdened with, it better have the potential, however vague or elusive, to change their life. You can't, however tantalizing the prospect might seem, just play something because you want to. (Aedliga "Futility Has Its Limits") Like I said, you definitely can't do that. If you do that, the robots win.  

Thank you.
Thanks to a couple people's puzzled questions, I just realized that I wrote a pretty great bug a couple days ago in my code that makes the main genre map for Every Noise at Once. It needs to play one example song for each genre, so when my other code that makes a whole playlist for each genre runs, it copies the lead-off song from each playlist into another file for use by the main map. The genre playlists have logic that tries very hard to put songs in order by how well they represent the genre, so the first track is hopefully the one with the best combination of cultural and acoustic relevance. As you go down the list, you get further from the center.  

The line that saved a genre track for use by the main map was inside the loop of code that picked all the genre-playlist tracks. It correctly saved just a single track, so that was good. But it did so every time the playlist code picked any track, not just the first time. So it saved the best track, and then it saved the second-best track over the best track, and it kept doing that until it had saved the worst track on the playlist as the "best" example! And then it smugly stopped.  

It is an oblique and kind of impressive testimony to how well the whole process works that most of the worst examples were basically still plausible. And the bug prompted me to look more closely at the cutoff criteria, and tweak things so that sufficiently dubious tracks towards the end of the genre playlists aren't included at all.  

But as perverse results of small-seeming errors go, that was pretty impressive.
Along with adding a few more genres to Every Noise at Once, I've also just added two more levels of listening depth. So most genres now have three Spotify playlists instead of just one:  

The Sound of...: This is the existing one, which is an attempt at a data-generated algorithmic faintly-canonical introduction to that music. If you don't know the genre that well, this is where to start.  

The Pulse of...: This one uses our core data about the genre to find the listeners who know it best, and then uses the distinctive listening patterns of those listeners to find the genre's current heavy-rotation. This can be a mix of new and old, well-known and obscure, core and fringe. The math is merely organizing the collective will of the fans. For genres you already know well, this one might be more intriguing.  

The Edge of...: This one uses the same approach as The Pulse, but attempts to restrict the results to new and mostly unknown music that the genre's fans have discovered. This is the dangerous frontier, where your safety cannot be guaranteed. Explore with curiosity, and don't be afraid to keep a hand near the Next button.  

There are links to all of these at the top of each genre page. They're also linked in the description of each The Sound Of list.  


(There are a few genres that don't have enough new-and-unknown music to produce a meaningful The Edge, and a few that don't have enough listeners to even get a Pulse. But fewer than you might think. It's a big world, and even things you've never heard of usually turn out to be somebody's whole scene.)
For convoluted logistical reasons, the maps on Every Noise at Once haven't been updated in a while. The associated The Sound Of playlists have kept updating every week, but the genre list itself, the artist/genre assignments, and some of the other bits of map infrastructure have been involved in a slow belated technical migration as a result of the acquisition of the Echo Nest by Spotify two years ago.  

But this is all done now, or close enough, and the map is updated and updating again!  

Presumably nobody was really waiting impatiently to find out how many pixels left or right aggrotech should have shifted during this time. Encouragingly, ripping out all the data for the map and replacing it with new data didn't radically change everything. By which I mean, of course, that it initially wrought abject chaos, but after a day or two of frowning at code I wrote a long time ago I got the entropy basically re-contained. Mostly the products of this migration are straightforwardly good, and just magically make everything better. But sometimes the magic fails, and it takes a little human attention to allow the betterness to assert itself properly, so if you notice anything strange, let me know.  

More notably, reactivating the whole system makes it possible to add and remove genres again. A few marginal genres basically got absorbed by the data-fueled expansion of more prominent or interesting things, but mostly the deeper data made it possible to model known things I hadn't been able to include before, and to give names to obscure and/or emerging clusters that our old instruments weren't powerful enough to clearly discern. The net effect takes us to 1435 genres as of today, and these are the new ones:  

african gospel
alt-indie rock
anthem emo
anthem worship
bass trap
chamber choir
chamber psych
channel pop
christian relaxative
cornetas y tambores
czech hip hop
deep australian indie
deep big room
deep cumbia sonidera
deep danish pop
deep german pop rock
deep groove house
deep indie r&b
deep latin hip hop
deep melodic euro house
deep new americana
deep pop edm
deep pop r&b
deep southern trap
deep swedish indie pop
deep taiwanese pop
deep underground hip hop
electro bailando
finnish dance pop
french indietronica
german street punk
groove room
hungarian hip hop
indie anthem-folk
indie garage rock
indie poptimism
indie psych-rock
indie rockism
kids dance party
kwaito house
lift kit
norwegian indie
pop flamenco
pop reggaeton
slow game
spanish noise pop
spanish rock
swedish eurodance
swedish idol pop
teen pop
vapor pop
vapor soul
vapor twitch
west coast trap  

Some of these, to be clear, although not necessarily the ones you think, I made up. That is, they are names I made up for music and listening modes that I did not make up. Whether this makes them "really" genres is an existential question we can debate while we listen.
For a long time, I wrote a verbose, discursive weekly music-review column called The War Against Silence. For most of a decade, my listening life, if not my whole life, was organized around this, and thus procedurally dedicated to filtering through as much new music as I could physically buy and play in order to find a record or two each week to which I could attach some kind of story about what it's like to believe that music is the thing that humans do best.  

In my farewell column I said, among other things, that "Organizing my reactions to new music is no longer the central motif of my narrative of identity."  

I trust that I meant that when I wrote it, so apparently there was at least a moment in my life when it was true. Or, rather, it's still true, but there must have been a moment in my life when it seemed significant. I got married around then, and our daughter is now 8. So of course there's now more to it. I'm pretty sure my "narrative of identity", if I still have such a pompous-sounding thing, is not organized enough to have a central motif.  

But I've only gradually realized how much this is more than just entropy. My attention is, if anything, exponentially more focused on music discovery than ever before. This process used to be logistically constrained by the low bandwidth of pre-internet research and pre-streaming shopping, and the slow pace of album-sized listening, and the constant arbitrary discipline of annotating individual albums with over-explicated life-checkpoints. Now there's Spotify. And since I work there, too, I not only have the Spotify you see, but also a hundred strange extensions and elaborations and experiments that haven't evolved into public features yet. We all have an ocean of sort-of all the world's music to swim in, now, but I also have erratic prototypes of god-robots that can, sometimes, make the currents reflow to bring every yearning message-bottle straight to my private personal beach.  

And partly as a result, but also partly as cause, over the last few years I've more or less inverted my musical attachment-model. I do still listen to whole albums sometimes, and sometimes fall in love intensely with individual artists. But I used to draw the boundary of "my" musical life there, and "exploration" was a pre-listening thing I did on the other side of that line. Only the music I wrote about was really mine; I accepted no responsibility for the rest of it.  

That now seems to me like useless, inexplicable, atavistic and basically intolerable isolationism. I accept responsibility for nothing and everything. There's no line. Exploration is listening, not a way of preparing for listening. I can now spend a happy afternoon immersed in auto-collated Norwegian Hip Hop, and at the end I can't necessarily tell you a single name. But I'm not trying to become a Norwegian Hip Hop specialist, I'm trying to listen. It's all listening. More listening is better. More variety is better. More languages, more instruments, more surprise. More everything. I spend whole days awash in noises I haven't even made up names for yet. Stopping to write a 3000-word essay about every single record seems literally counter-productive and emotionally excruciating, a sacrifice of so much other possible listening that you might as well be summoning death.  

And yet, I still believe that thing about the unexamined life, and hearing without taking some kind of note isn't quite listening. You can't make tools for music discovery without thinking about the process. Without self-awareness and referentiality, you don't have discovery, you have wandering.  

New music still has a market periodicity, too, and my life has obvious weekly cycles, so I've found myself over the last year making weekly playlists of some of the things I come across. And instead of elaborate essays in which the music is used as an excuse for introspection, I've been annotating each track with the shortest possible explanation I can come up with for what I thought it was when I thought it was worth remembering.  

I originally started posting these annotated lists on a discussion board, just as part of an ongoing conversation. But as the conversation underwent its natural dissipation, I keep making the lists, and they settled into a format. And I finally got around to making an actual home for them, because I found myself wanting a better way to keep track. So although I've been making them for almost exactly a year, this is also kind of the beginning.  

Here, then, I introduce to you:  

New Particles  

It's a weekly annotated-playlist series. Some weeks there's a lot of music, some weeks there's less. In theory some weeks there could be nothing, but that doesn't seem to happen in practice. The annotations are brief and not guaranteed to make sense. The music is not likely to seem coherent to anybody but me, and the odds seem good that, no matter what your tastes, I will regularly include some kind of thing you can't stand.  

Why you should care what music seems interesting to me, or why, I don't exactly know. Some people cared about my old column, but this is kind of the formal opposite of that. Maybe this is only for me.  

But I tried to not do it, and failed. So now it exists.  

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