Stack of records

Stack of records | Tomertu / Shutterstock

In 2022, I found myself hopelessly preoccupied with the summer solstice. It became a point of fixation not for any celebratory reason but as a simple signifier of time’s passing. Days slipped by like sand through an hourglass, each one slightly longer than the last, until we reached that tremendous mid-year inflection point. In the second half of 2022, I would pack up my life in London and travel 3,500 miles to New York, a move, I was slowly realizing, that had felt most exciting in the abstract, on the safer side of the solstice. 

As the days started to shorten in this plane of retreat, my excitement gave way to a distinct sort of dread at the prospect of leaping so far into the unknown. The move loomed closer, and I would lie awake at night, my head swimming with the lyrics of Porridge Radio’sEnd of Last Year”: “Don’t know if I want it / Don’t know if it’s mine / Don’t know if it’s worth it / Don’t know if it’s right.” This uncertainty that had taken root at the pit of my stomach threatened to consume me, so much so that when I heard Julia Jacklin ask, “When the time comes, will you get on that flight?,” on her song “to Perth before the border closes,” I really wasn’t sure whether I would.

To grapple with these feelings, I collected these songs and more in which I saw fragments of my experience reflected. Gradually, I pieced them together into a playlist, a seemingly innocuous act, but one in which I hoped to confront these anxieties, better understand them, and potentially dispel them. It allowed for a degree of self-determination too: I got to choose the note it would end on, something I felt would help set the tone for the months and years to come. So, when I closed the playlist with ‘Mirror’ by Grace Ives, her realization of “I think I finally got it figured out” became my own.

There are over 4 billion playlists housed on Spotify alone, the majority of which are user-generated, personally curated by individual humans with individual tastes and stories. The ease with which one can throw together a playlist should not, in my opinion, detract from the fact that such curation can be a deeply personal and creative act.

For me, a playlist comes together like an audio collage. I hate to say it, but there’s a technique to it. I store stray songs that resonate—music that speaks to me at a particular moment in time—and end up with a delicious wash of textures, tones, and timbres. The fun comes in piecing these disparate, seemingly unrelated tracks together sequentially to form a contained, cohesive whole greater than the sum of its parts, any prior dissonance resolved into a harmony that flows. I’m interested in what this practice tells us about ourselves—that personal act of creation, the archival act of storing, and the communal act of sharing. How we view ourselves, and how we want to be seen.

Russell W. Belk observes that “the ability to publish our playlists online can say a great deal more about us than opening the windows and cranking up our stereo.” These playlists we make can be thought of as digital extensions of self. There is something about ownership here, about craft, a certain degree of romanticization to be sure, putting your name against something you want to be associated with or that tells your story and shouting it from the rooftops: “HEY! THIS THING MOVED ME! IT BROUGHT ME CLOSER TO WHO I AM OR WHO I THINK I MIGHT BE! I WANT TO SHARE THAT WITH YOU! I WANT THE WORLD TO SEE ME!” 

There is great communicative power in a playlist. They can be expressions that build, enhance, or repair relationships. If and when words fail us, more often than not there’s a song that captures what you’re trying to say. This deferral is not cowardice—it can be expansive. When Faye Webster croons “I just wanna see you,” on “Better Distractions,” it means I just want to see you. And when Alabaster Deplume asks “Is it enough?” on his song with the same name, I’m asking it too. 

FKA twigs opens her 2022 LP, Caprisongs, with a confession: “Hey. I made you a mixtape. Because when I feel you, I feel me. And when I feel me, it feels good.” In this, she reveals the fundamental function of collective, shared curation: connection—with each other and with ourselves. There is something therapeutic about this act. I have often viewed certain playlists, like the one constructed around my 2022 move to New York, as vessels into which emotions and experiences can be poured and thus processed.

In so far as they are imbued with such emotion, playlists quickly become vignettes of pivotal moments. As well as helping us connect to each other at any one point in time, they also reconnect us to past versions of ourselves. We can think of this in terms of digital archiving. Amber L. Cushing identifies the different types of value attributed to a possession over time: primary (“the value for which an item was originally created”); secondary (“a value or purpose beyond that for which the item was originally intended,” associated with “an aspect of identity”); and intrinsic (“when the possession is associated with a feeling or emotion, as well as a person, event, … or place”). Cushing’s argument is that, in the age of the internet, we apply these principles to our digital possessions as much as our physical ones.

Music holds the power to trigger palpable sensory memory. It’s a phenomenon well documented by researchers, who say it can evoke intense recollections from years past, often more strongly than your other senses. Pop icon Robyn can attest to this; on her track “Because It’s in the Music,” she hears a song associated with an ex-lover and exclaims, at the top of her register, “I’m right back in that moment, and it makes me want to cry.” According to Andrew Budson, a cognitive and behavioral neurologist, music can provide an “auditory and emotional setting that allows us to retrieve … memories.” Much like a time capsule, playlists that capture a specific period in your life are particularly well suited to serve this archival function and transport you back to those moments.

As well as being preserved, archives can just as much be destroyed. Á la Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I have somberly disassembled playlists once happily associated with a person or a place in the perhaps naïve hope that this act of deconstruction would purge me of my heartbreak and my homesickness, would rid me of what had now become painful memories. It never worked out exactly like that, but I’d like to think it formed part of the process of moving on.

On top of all this, the playlist seems to have become a strange site of contradiction in today’s music consumption. Dominated by algorithms and business models, streaming services which have now become ubiquitous pump out endless playlists based purely on “vibes.” Don’t get me wrong, these playlists serve a function—sometimes you need a vibe! This onslaught, however, feels preoccupied with profit, detached from the joy intrinsic in an art form as old as time. Simultaneously, though, personal curation reintroduces a vital degree of intentionality and autonomy into music consumption. It’s heartening to think of the potential such an act holds in terms of cataloging, communication, and connection—all at our fingertips. Managing these personal musical archives intentionally, therefore, can be transformative. It can bring you closer to the people around you, make you feel at home, help reconcile tensions within yourself. It can even help you get on that flight.

This essay first appeared in the 2024 issue of BackMatter magazine.