When an Instagram video of Taylor Swift sitting at the end of her bed in jeans asked me to “check out” Folklore, I waited until it got dark. Only after another day of remote work, filled with homecooked dinner, did I build a campfire and allow myself to press play. We listened through in silence, gazing up at the gap in the trees.
I can remember exactly when I first heard each album drop this seasick summer: I listened to Little Simz’s Drop 6 watching the rain outside my window at 4am; Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now was on a three hour drive to the ocean; during Lady Gaga’s Chromatica I stared at fish through the slits of a dock; and of course, I squealed to my current flatmate the moment Ariana Grande’s Positions flashed up on Spotify.
Online hysteria surrounding Folklore was nothing short of extreme. It was streamed 80.6 million times in the first day, making Swift the fasting selling artist in 2020 and the fastest selling female artist of all time. Twittersphere even compared Folklore to King Lear, which Shakespeare wrote during an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague.
Lockdown has heightened our collective experience of album drops. In a time of physical separation, bonding over a shared auditory experience is a privilege we haven’t taken for granted. The buffet style of Spotify and its competitors have given individuals the ability to build up larger music libraries than traditional pay-as-you go records or CDs would ever allow – I’m sure we’ve all heard parents or grandparents talking about saving up to buy that hot record. If you can only acquire a limited amount of music, you’re going to choose what everyone else is listening to.
The growing trend of anti-mainstream music snobbery has been met with a renewed gratefulness for anyone who is creating right now. Obscurify is a plug-in that strips data from Spotify to calculate the percentage of how basic or obscure your music taste is in comparison to the general population. This summer my score was the lowest it had ever been, but somehow I didn’t mind. All it meant was that I had listened to the music my real-life, and social media, friends were listening to at the moment, allowing me to participate in a global movement.
We’ve had to put in an unusual amount of work to find what to listen to this summer. Gone are moments of random exposure such as Top 40 pop radio blasted at you in high street stores, Drum and Bass Father on a night out, or whatever is oozing out of the person’s earphones next to you on the bus. However, more work does not necessarily mean we have had more choice. Scrolling through TikTok is probably the place where we have been the most exposed to the greatest variety of music, but we are at the mercy of an algorithm.
The result is the Spotify playlist Viral Hits, a franken-mesh of high grossing big names and alt-bedroom-pop one-hit wonders shot to the top thanks to a certain 15 second section of their song. Perhaps the extreme popularity of this summer’s big album drops along with Tiktok hits indicates decision fatigue more than anything else. In a pandemic, maybe we can be excused for liking what everyone else likes.