Spotify Throwbacks

an illustration of an audio cassette tape that is labeled "repeat, rewind"

Nostalgia is my most intense emotion. I often reflect on my past because connecting to who I used to be helps me feel more grounded in the present. At times of transition, whether moving apartments or even just starting a new semester, I get overwhelmed by starting a new chapter because, to me, it means leaving parts of myself behind. This fear of change has me grasping for the comforting familiarity of the songs I’ve loved through the years.

My music tastes change frequently, so every song I’ve loved has a specific memory attached to it. When someone wants to get to know me, I direct them toward my most current Spotify playlist. In the honeymoon stage of one relationship, I made a playlist of my favorite songs for a former boyfriend, as if I was in the 1990s making a mixtape for a crush. I knew our relationship meant something to him when he sent me a video of him in the car, blasting Skin by Dijon, one of the songs on the list.

I’ve been feeling so nostalgic because recently, I moved again. When I’m getting used to a new place, music is the one thing that makes me feel grounded. No matter how far I am from my roots, I can listen to a familiar song to feel less lost.

This is where Spotify has been my savior. Recent additions to my Spotify library have been the auto-generated “Repeat Rewind” and the “Your Top Songs (insert year)” playlists. Since I created my Spotify account in 2016, the service has been compiling my most listened-to artists and tracks, and every December neatly packages them into a bittersweet present for me to unravel while my heart travels time and swims through my chronology of emotions.

“Your Top Songs 2016” brings me back to a mentally and emotionally exhausting year. I struggled to finish my junior year of high school, moved, and started senior year as the new kid in a school three counties away. When I rediscovered “Lying to You” by Keaton Henson on a Spotify throwback playlist, I was transported back to my first of several breakups with an emotionally abusive former boyfriend, and faced all the memories I had suppressed for a few years.

This song is still a bit stressful to listen to, because of the sensations I associate with those memories: an empty stomach filled with sadness, the constant anxious ringing in my head. I used music to distract myself at that time, so now those feelings are attached to the lyrics.

When I started at the new school, I kept my earbuds in so I wouldn’t have to confront the strangers, who were curious about the new girl who joined their graduating class of 150. “These girls” by Sticky Fingers and “White gloves” by Khruangbin were new sounds that I found while trying to restart myself. The playlist takes me back to those unfamiliar hallways, but now I look back on those strange days fondly. I listened to Tame Impala and Mac DeMarco and Glass Animals on repeat. I finally made a best friend, who I bonded with over our mutual love of Bon Iver and Beach House.

“Your Top Songs 2017” revisits the year I graduated high school just as I was finding my place. I listened to Frank Ocean, Kevin Abstract, TV Girl in the library right before finals week. High school graduation came and went and I explored new genres like bedroom pop- music that teenagers make in their bedrooms on cheap computer software- and surf rock.

“Your Top Songs 2018,” is the compilation of songs I kept on repeat the year I moved into my first apartment. Apartment life, with three strangers I found on Facebook, had me feeling like an adult. During this transition into young adulthood, I found comfort through reflecting on a more carefree time by listening to old favorites: Daughter, Sufjan Stevens, Mac Miller. Miller’s death that year added to that odd feeling of growing up, as I had listened to him frequently in high school.

While listening to these old songs, I relive so many moments I thought I’d forgotten. Music used to be emotionally triggering for me. I even have a playlist titled, “songs that hurt,” but the sting has subsided over the years. I went through some dark times around 2016, mainly family illness and heartbreak, but with the throwback playlists, I can look back on these difficult periods and be grateful for my growth.

I recently rediscovered “What We Lost” by Houses thanks to the Spotify algorithm. I vaguely remember liking it my freshman year of high school, but after six years, its melancholic tone has taken on a whole new meaning. My best friend and I listen to it together. We share long car rides at night, playing these songs that once used to feel so dark, and find comfort in the time that has passed.

I recommend exploring your old music libraries. Even if you don’t use Spotify, many other apps employ such technologies as summary playlists. Give them a listen. You might relearn things about yourself as you musically time travel, and be surprised to realize how much you’ve grown.

Originally written for Media Studies’ Arts Reporting course in 2020.

Artwork by Elizabeth Oswalt.