A friend of mine recently shared Stereogum’s Nate Rogers’ very interesting article, Why Is The Obscure B-Side “Harness Your Hopes” Pavement’s Top Song on Spotify? It’s complicated.
I was very surprised to read about the most played Pavement song. I was actually not familiar with the song. I found this particularly interesting as I do consider myself a Pavement fan.
As a bit of context, I have purchased 135 Pavement songs. I have bought all of their studio albums and the majority of their EPs. I have purchased every Malkmus solo studio album. I have every Silver Jews album. I have The Real Feel from the Spiral Stairs. I have seen Pavement (or members in Pavement) perform countless times starting in the early the 90s.
So, like I said, more than a casual fan. Yet, I don’t own or ever recall hearing Harness Your Hopes, the most played Pavement song on Spotify. This was truly puzzling.
The article references similar analysis performed by Damon Kurkowski about the song “Strange”, a surprise most played song from his band Galaxie 500. Damon described his song “Strange” as a touch faster, louder, with a more regular backbeat and a more predictable song structure than most Galaxie 500 songs. There is no extended instrumental section, no unusually slow tempo or quiet dynamics present in other Galaxie 500 songs.
These data points peaked my interest enough to look up other artists that I knew well, artists that were big enough to have high play counts on Spotify and yet also favorites of mine. And Pavement and Galaxie 500 are not alone in this abnormality.
Damien Jurado’s most played song on Spotify – Ohio (Filous remix). A song I not only do not own, but with no disrespect to the legendary Jurado and the sound engineer Filious I didn’t even like. I will spare you the long version of the critique, but the remix robs the song of the sadness, the tempo and composition leave me confused instead of lingering in the emotion and feelings that Damien can summon like few others. That said, this version probably plays better at parties.
Anyway, I digress. The point is the number one played Jurado song on Spotify by a factor of 6 is a remix that doesn’t even sound like Jurado.
As you now might expect, every single artist’s top song that I looked at didn’t align with what I would consider a fanatics favorite song (at least this fanatic’s).
Damon and Nate site the introduction of defaulting Spotfiy’s “Auto Play” feature in 2017 as a driving factor to this anomaly. The “Auto Play” feature uses Spotify’s algorithms to select similar sounding songs.
This feature seems to have the (probably) unintended consequence of neutering the range of art, bringing everything to the middle. Ultimately, this leaves listeners with less interesting music. I really liked Damon’s comment that ” ‘Play Galaxie 500’ may really come to mean, ‘Play the song by Galaxie 500 that most resembles songs by others.'”
I also share the opinion that the music streaming services are slowly killing the album by focusing on singular tracks at the expense of the album. The combination of lessening the significance of the album and raising the importance of single tracks that sound similar to the broader population of music should be concerning to any music fan.
I for one want to celebrate the range, diversity, and originality from music. I don’t want the arts to gravitate to the mean. I applaud the courageous artists willing to push the boundaries with their art. I applaud even if at first listen or viewing I don’t get it. It is in these moments that I am given the opportunity to grow and expand my thinking.
I want to hold on to hope that our artists will be able to continue to be bold and create the new. As the title of the article suggests that streamers are certainly making it more difficult. We could soon be stuck in the middle, a middle where Hold On Hope is the most played Guided By Voices song.