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The Sinister Grift of Spotify’s “2020 Wrapped”

A circle of people holding out their phones open to the same Spotify 2020 Wrapped screen showing Taylor Swift as their top artist
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by gpointstudio/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Spotify.

You’re not going to believe this, but I know someone who is in the top 1 percent of all Taylor Swift fans. Spotify told her that, of the millions of people who listen to Swift on the service, my friend listens to her more than just about all—

Oh. You also know someone, or are someone, who listens to that much Taylor Swift? In fact, you saw about a dozen other people who hold this distinction while making your social media rounds in the past few days? Huh. Either you’re the unknowing nexus of the Swiftie universe—in which case, congratulations—or this isn’t as rarefied an achievement as I thought it was.

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It’s Spotify Wrapped season, when the streaming service presents its users with summaries of their listening habits from throughout the year: their favorite songs, artists, genres, how all of it looks in aggregate, and—for the people who qualified by whatever mysterious, notably undisclosed metric the service is using—whether they were among the top percentage of listeners for any one artist. Not for the first time, Spotify bet that its users, flattered by being designated top fans, would share their statuses on social media, spreading the gospel of not just Spotify in general but specifically the virtue of spending thousands of hours on Spotify.

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It’s unequivocally worked. I know because I, hater supreme, had the impulse to share mine everywhere too. (I compromised and ended up posting it as a Twitter “fleet,” lying to myself that maybe that made it ironic—and, more accurately, that at least a few less people would see it.) It sure felt like everyone else shared theirs, with reservations or no, and wouldn’t you know it, tons of them just so happened to be elite-level fans. Seeing all the results started to feel like that thing where some huge proportion of people think their baby is in the 99th percentile for head size. They can’t all be!

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Maybe they can, though, sort of. What does a number like top 1 percent even mean? It’s canny of Spotify to tell users they’re in the top 1 or 2 or 5 percent of listeners, because that sounds a lot cooler than “the top 3,000,000 listeners” (or some other astronomical figure) on a service that has 320 million users. Who knows how Spotify does the math, but it can be real and still be pretty meaningless. The more people’s results you wade through, the less impressive yours look: Witness the Arianator on Reddit whose top 0.005 percent status is making the 2 percenters feel like bad stans. As for whether the artists themselves might be impressed if you happened to meet one of them and flashed some kind of “top 1 percent” hand signal, I’m thinking no. Spotify is notorious for its low royalty rates, and even major artists like Swift and Grande sometimes have contentious relationships with the streamer.

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Let’s be clear about what’s really going on here. Spotify gives us these stats to make us feel special—we’re more dedicated fans than almost everyone, and there’s numerical proof! I’m a certified grump, but they just end up reminding me how unspecial I am, and how I am but one of millions who give money and/or data to the same corporate behemoth streaming service, which is itself subtly shaping my taste via algorithms anyway. To conceal this, Spotify placates us by telling us that we’re superior in some way because of it. Then we plug our shareable-by-design “wrapped” year directly into other gargantuan platforms that are also using those very posts to collect their own data to sell advertisers.

I don’t mean to be arguing that music is too pure a joy to be quantified, when it hits you, you feel no pain, blah blah. But when Spotify confers top-listener bragging rights for, if not Swift, then Phoebe Bridgers, Megan Thee Stallion, or insert the name of another fave people in my or your demographic tend to worship, it’s really just congratulating you for giving it so much data to harvest. You have to admire the grift.

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