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Can music playlists help us combat the quarterlife crisis?

By Emily Parker


Can curating playlists help us through the quarterlife crisis? Emily spoke to five 20-somethings about their relationships with their music streaming accounts.

Music playlists have been a bedrock of our inner emotional lives since the days of the humble mixtape. Sadly, so have the peculiar set of emotional and existential crises faced by three in every four of us in our 20s. Together we’ve created over four billion playlists on Spotify, with playlist names relating to our deepest, most intimate memories, thoughts and experiences. Curated playlists on streaming platforms have become such an established thing that brands like Aesop have started making them, entire Pinterest feeds are devoted to cover images and pop culture has infiltrated music libraries, with social accounts like Love of Huns having countless playlists made in their honour, making many artfully-curated playlists steeped in layers and layers of meta, wry cultural reference. Playlists are a new and rich realm of internet insiderdom, but does our relationship with them run a little deeper than that?


I spoke to five quarterlifers about their own playlists and what the act of curating music means to them. I discovered five things.

1. The light-hearted side of playlist curation can help us through difficult times.


If you go for a scroll through some public playlist libraries you'll find images like Alexa Demie in Euphoria giving the middle finger with both hands captioned ‘i’m a bad bitch you can’t kill me’ covering a playlist containing songs like Cocky Af from Megan Thee Stallion. You'll see, for example, a grainy photo of a zany person with coins for eyes, and a screenshot of Draco Malfoy screaming in the moment when Professor Quirrel has just announced there’s a troll in the dungeon, heart emojis coming out of his blonde head like a halo and the caption ‘bad boy vibes’. 


As with many things on the internet, the deeper you go, the more specific it gets, until you find yourself stumbling across playlists filled with Lana Del Rey named, ‘pov: you’re running through a castle to be with your forbidden lover’.


Music might be deeply personal, often melancholic and sadness-inducing, but playlist curation is undoubtedly a light, self-deprecating art that leans more into the spirit of meme culture than that of earnest blogs or confessional social media posts. It's perhaps unsurprising that this spirit has thrived in playlist-land during Covid, given the pandemic brought us a golden-age of internet comedy, proving the claims of experts such as anthropologist Kate Fox who observes in her book ‘Watching the English’ that Brits use humour as a coping mechanism.


“I’ve suffered with my mental health in the past,” Josh, 23, told me. “I don’t believe a Spotify subscription will cure me of the blues if I have them bad. But having an armoury of different upbeat songs and artists I love, feel close to and can relate to in my playlists has prevented me sinking for a second time, or sometimes even stopped me falling in the first place."



At his lowest points, Josh “used to gravitate towards playlists filled with melancholy bands and songs – Radiohead, Nick Drake, early Biffy.”



“My affinity for the subjects in the lyrics," he explained, "depression, cynicism, isolation – can make me feel that peculiar warmth that comes with sharing a sad feeling and knowing I’m not alone.” But, Josh says, “it is sometimes better for me to crack into some ‘Mambo No. 5’ and a jolly bit of Primal Scream. Playlists filled with that sort of upbeat throwback stuff doesn’t have the power to dissolve my depression by any means, but it has a better chance of lifting me a little than ‘Creep’.”


2. Curated playlists can act as validation, bringing solidity to what is sometimes a shaky sense of self.


A decade’s worth of playlists contains a decade’s worth of selves immemorial. Let’s face it, we’ve all got that playlist buried somewhere in our libraries named cryptically (in code known only to us and the one friend we went everywhere with at the time) in honour of the person we fancied on the sixth form history trip to Belgium. That same playlist is filled with songs we used to listen to on the coach while imagining ourselves through our crush's eyes. Finding someone else's playlist that evokes similarly specific memories of school days can be a bit like deja vú.



The internet has this uncanny habit of serving you exactly what you didn’t know you were searching for and becoming eerily like the best friend that knows you better than you know yourself.



The deeply personal experience we get when we curate or listen back to our own playlists is often mirrored when we stumble across another person’s playlist and discover the exact set of songs perfectly arranged to evoke a gut-wrenching sense of the person we used to inhabit so strong we can smell it. Music we once felt as ours played back through someone else's playlist feels cold and significant, like walking through a ghost. In this sense, curated playlists capture a magic about certain types of internet content that feel at once both deeply personal - like we are being given a window into someone else’s soul - and confrontingly reflective - like we are being shown a mirror and asked, “So, feel anything yet?”, or, perhaps even more confrontingly, “Remember anything yet?”



Rina says every time she makes a new playlist she feels she has the power to become a new person.



Once recognised this phenomenon can be used as a tool for identity shaping. Rina, 27, says curating her own playlists makes her feel more in control of her identity. She says: “Putting songs into a playlist makes me feel a sense of ownership over them, even though I didn’t make the tracks, they become my music. Maybe it’s a way to identify yourself as a type of person. It’s also just another way to build out your identity, like having material possessions. Not as good as having a physical record collection, but a streaming account lets you play with your identity more freely. Every time you make a new playlist you have the power to design yourself again.”


3. Sharing playlists can intensify our connections to each other.


I’ve been using Spotify for the past decade or thereabouts, and all too often I forget there’s a helpful ‘private session’ feature - an act of neglect which leads to unsolicited messages from confused friends wondering why I’ve been listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Close Every Door’ on repeat for the past 30 minutes. Humiliating as this is when it happens, it reveals a side of me I might otherwise try to hide from friends and acquaintances. In a world of curated identity where we can airbrush sides of ourselves that aren’t as ‘cool’ or aspirational, it exposes something I feel is an inner vulnerability, and that might be a good thing given vulnerability is a prerequisite to genuine connection. It also reminds me of a deep truth about music - it is a shared art and has been for as long as humans have existed.



Sharing music - both the stuff we’re proud of and the guilty pleasures - is an act of vulnerability that brings us so
much closer.



There’s something special about the shared ownership of jointly-authored playlists. Georgie, 29, entered into a new relationship during lockdown last year. She and her boyfriend set up a joint playlist they could both add to at the time. She said, “It was nice to go on in the morning and see he’d added a song. We built up a bank of really good songs that connected us and helped us through the start of our relationship in lockdown. That playlist will always remind me of that time.”


4. Curating playlists concretises experiences, life phases and events and makes them seem more real.


To me the playlists I create or stumble across are like fragments of life, held still for all of eternity (or at least until the internet goes black!) There’s so much cultural resonance held in them that transcends not only musical but personal context. Every time I hear the intro to Everytime by Britney I'm transported back to the music video that gave me chills as she almost drowned herself in the bathtub. When I hear Beautiful by Christina Aguilera I think of the sincerity of Damian in Mean Girls when he opens dramatically with an aside to Miss Norbury, “Don’t look at me”. When I hear that sad Jimmy Eat World song at the end of A Cinderella Story I remember the moment where Hilary Duff and Channing Tatum kiss in the rain at the football game. In this sense, music has shaped my life and seems to have the enduring power to hold it altogether all around me.



Libraries of music can act like rib bones held onto a spine, interlinking experience into experience and holding life in one piece around us.



Jay, 26, says that playlists “help me make sense of a period of time - at uni everyone was listening to Chase and Status and that kind of stuff, and I have a uni throwback playlist full of it, but even going back into the playlist makes me feel a bit strange and like maybe I didn’t love uni that much, or maybe I’m just so much happier now, and that's positive too.” 


Georgie, 29, says she looks back on university with angst sometimes about the passage of time, but specific combinations of songs make her feel like she still has a hold on that era. “They were freer, younger days I might miss and feel like they are slipping through my fingers. But then there are certain combinations of songs and song transitions I can go back and listen to in my playlists and it’ll make me feel warm about that time and like I haven’t totally lost it.”



Music instantly transports us and can make us feel less anxious about the passage of time and the loss of life as it used to be.



Ali, 27, compared his playlists to a “musical photo album”. He said, “Everytime I have an experience like a holiday or a festival, I’ll make a playlist and it helps me feel like I can hold onto the experience. When I dip back in to listen I’m transported back and I remember. It means you feel less stressed about the passage of time because all of your experiences and memories are in one place.”


5. Curated playlists guide us through times of change, making the uncertain present and murky future feel not only more stable, but exciting.


The quarterlife decade represents, for most people, the ultimate years of change. It’s rare to come out of your twenties with any aspect of your life looking as it did when you entered them. As humans our resistance to change is hard-wired and stems back to evolutionary biology, rooted in survival instinct. Dr Alex George discusses this with Elizabeth Day in a recent episode of her podcast ‘How to Fail’, and explains how times of change are often a catalyst for mental health struggles and can be difficult for people to navigate. 


We already know music exploration, cataloguing and ownership can have a long list of health benefits, but it feels true to me that if music can concretise memories it can also help us make sense of a changeable present and an unclear future.


Sasha, 28, says, “I’ve moved around a lot in my twenties, travelling on gap years and working in two of my company’s overseas offices. I also left my family to move to London where I now work. I’ve found running and walking the only way to make myself feel at home in a new place and find security in each new phase. Making playlists for each year, sometimes each month and definitely each place or mental health phase I’m going through, or even each new TV show I get into and love, is a huge part of that.”



For Sasha, “Without making playlists, new experiences don’t feel legitimate or official somehow, or I don’t find I’m reflecting on them as much, and I always feel more fond about my experiences on reflection rather than at the time.”



In these five ways, it would seem, playlists can help us through our 20s. I was glad to find my fellow quarterlifers use music in the ways I do - to help them navigate and make sense of life and the passage of time. How strange it is that we’ve come to use playlist curation not only as a way to document the portion of our life we’ve already lived, as a way of concretising it and allowing us to dip back in when we need that hit of nostalgia, but as a way of living in what currently feels like an ever-diminishing present, and looking towards a murky future. And I suppose the powerful thing about this is that, although it might not always feel like it, we’re all doing it together. And sometimes all it takes to remind us of that in moments of isolation is a quick scroll in a public streaming library and a pair of headphones.

Image by unknown Pinterest artist.


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