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Why Is This Happening: Content for Humans About the Content of Humans

This hunch — that maybe genes and genres share more than some etymological roots — resulted in a number of strange and illuminating projects, mostly for demonstration purposes, including one that created playlists of songs that are unusually popular in a given country relative to the rest of the world, called “The Sounds of Places.” There is no sign of this in the Spotify and Ancestry collaboration, either. (Although, to be fair, as part of the promotion, Ancestry does ask users to “Connect to Spotify to explore the diversity in your listening history and discover music from around the world.” This will give you a list of your five most-listened genres, drawn from the massive list generated by the Echo Nest, with entries as broad as “hip-hop” and as narrow as “compositional ambient” and “indie Quebecois.” Ancestry and Spotify call this your “Musical DNA.” It is not, however, connected in any way to the playlist allegedly created from your actual, material DNA.)

This is all to say, contrary to “What is the sound of you?” messaging, Spotify does not engage with your genetic material in any sort of comprehensive way, but instead depends solely on a top-five list of countries or regions gleaned from your results. Users’ playlists, it turns out, are simple combinations of a set of playlists created to represent each of the regions that can show up in an Ancestry DNA test. They do not draw from previous data projects like “The Sounds of Places.” They appear to have been made by hand. They do not factor in a given Spotify user’s profile. Nor do they build on a user’s listening history. They are mixtapes, shuffled to order.

Spotify and Ancestry, in other words, have not located the hidden headphone jacks in our bodies or brain. (The sci-fi consensus places them somewhere along the spine, in case you were wondering.) Understood as mix-and-match human-curated compilations of popular music and genres, then, “The Unique Sound of Your Ancestry” provides a free and easily accessible way to experience the limits of DNA testing in the pursuit of self-knowledge.

“They could have done something cool,” said Gigi Johnson, Mr. Taylor’s colleague, and the head of the UCLA Center for Music Innovation, and not just by leaning on research into music and genre. “Advertisers get extremely granular data about the people they’re advertising to,” she said. Ostensibly, Spotify could have mined a ton of data and created a unique collaboration based on Spotify-linked social accounts, including Facebook. After all, like any big internet platform, Spotify is part surveillance operation, and part whatever it says it is.

Instead, in their reduced form, the playlists tell a tidy if obvious story about just how globalized music has become, how quickly it evolves and borrows and moves, and how destructive this is to various forms of essentialism that might be applied to it. Tell the DNA machine that you have “French” genes, and it may return music by an artist from the 9th arrondissement, who sings about being in love and being young, and also about his Ivorian roots, in his native French. Not bad! If only half on purpose.

The darker, more cynical view is to see this as a classic American heritage tourism experience: going to a country for the first time and noticing how different the McDonald’s menus are, but also how it is mostly the same as those in the United States, and finding this all very interesting, but not thinking too much about why.


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