On Sunday, November 5, at least 26 people died and 20 more were wounded in a mass shooting at a rural church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. If this feels both routine and painful, it is: On average, there’s been one mass shooting every day in the U.S. this year. But Sunday’s attack comes at a time when the debate over gun control has been at the top of mind for many Americans, about one month after the most deadly mass shooting in recent U.S. history.
Sunday’s attack also collided with another red-hot debate: what to do about about spread of fake news during nation-wide events. In the hours that followed the Sutherland Springs shooting, Google, YouTube, and Twitter faced criticism for highlighting coverage from unverified right-wing news sites and other misinformation about gunman. The role that technology, particularly supposedly neutral platforms like Facebook and Google, plays in national crises like these is something that the public, lawmakers, and tech companies themselves are still parsing out. Strangely, after Sunday, Spotify felt compelled to offer its own commentary on the Texas shooting in the form of a playlist.
I’m not exactly sure when Spotify started to create these playlists, which honor the victims of mass shootings, but one of the first ones that I noticed was after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Initially, the playlist didn’t stand out to me as weird, but it caught my attention because of the lack of Latino artists represented on the playlist. Prominent queer performers like Arca and Sam Smith were included, but the inclusion of Katy Perry, Macklemore, and Madonna felt off, and potentially whitewashing the identities of the Pulse victims. (Most were Hispanic.)
Then, in October, after a shooting in Las Vegas at a country music festival left over 50 people dead, Spotify changed the description of prominent country playlists to reflect that the shooting took place. The passive copy (“Music unites us all”) and fact it was copy-and-pasted across multiple playlists looked extremely tacky. These playlists weren’t made to honor the lives lost in Las Vegas, but they were now re-contextualized around this particular tragedy.
After the Las Vegas shooting, it seemed like maybe these playlists were a part of Spotify’s mission: not just providing access to music, but also attempting to contextualize world events through it.
Following a terror attack in New York City that left eight dead on October 31, a playlist titled “NYC Strong” was featured on Spotify’s homepage. It didn’t feature songs about death; it was a collection of anthems about the city. According to ChartMetric, a music streaming analytics site, the playlist has been around since 2013, suggesting that it was just given a new title, description, and cover art after the attack in October. The crassness of this playlist was harder to ignore.
Then, of course, when I opened the Spotify desktop app this Monday, after the Sutherland shooting, there was a playlist titled “Texas Music Now” (screenshot above). The description said:
We are heartbroken about the victims of the tragic Texas church shooting. Our thoughts go out to their families and communities.
The routine nature of these playlists, at this point, is part of what makes them so strange. It’s horrifying enough that Americans accept mass shootings as part of everyday life, but now, major media companies that don’t do news or often interface without real world events are also offering a shoulder for support without any real reason. It is hard to give Spotify the benefit of the doubt here; the company created a #MeToo version of its Feminist Friday playlist a couple of weeks ago. Meanwhile, on its RapCaviar Instagram account, it’s promoting a meme-inspired phone case. These are beginning to feel like empty capitalist gestures, knee-jerk reactions to react to and participate in nation-wide conversations, with little real thought behind them.
I reached out to Spotify for comment and to get a sense of why this is now a recurring feature, but haven’t heard anything back. While other digital platforms must contend with amplifying misinformation over facts, Spotify is bringing one of the worst aspects of our culture into a music service for seemingly little reason other than to promote its own playlists. No one asked Spotify to help us grieve shootings, so maybe it could just stop.