Around this time last year, we found ourselves spending more time with screens than ever before. We played tons of video games and watched lots of TikTok, all while baking bread, pickling vegetables, and planting gardens. We plugged into trends like cottagecore that gave us a look, feel, and fantasy with which to keep our hands and minds busy. Then, as the weeks became months, we settled into a generically chic version of cozy that appeased our senses. The whole time, chillhop and lo-fi playlist streamed in the background, the Lo-Fi girl and Study Beats racoon both happy prisoners on our screens.
The lofi/chillhop playlists of the early pandemic supplied pleasant background noise fit for our general state of being. They were pragmatically bland and easily memed. But, things have changed. Now, after months of curating and tinkering, the internet is flooded with hyper-specific playlists so particular and niche, they appear only to make sense to their creators and yet, these super-individual playlists have weirdly universal appeal. There’s “cute songs to help you cope with stress & anxiety,” which can hold you as you cry in a pastel bubble of “it’s going to be okay” energy. And then, a playlist like “you’re in a toxic relationship, but it’s a playlist” can help name feelings or experiences you’ve been struggling to articulate. Playlists like these respond to the contemporary listener’s demand for around-the-clock music and mood-curation. They amplify every feeling, turning the most fleeting of thoughts into a shower of vibes.
Take, for example, what happened after Prince Harry and Megan Markle’s interview with Oprah, which coincided with the 99-year-old Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh’s latest stint in the hospital. The interview rekindled rage against the British monarchy, which then resuscitated memes that used an old picture of the Duke. Inspired by a tweet that said SOPHIE’s “Ponyboy” would certainly end the fragile Duke’s life, Chloe Wilkerson, a 22-year old student from Darby, England, decided to make a playlist that was a response to the viral meme’s premise, taking it one step further: If “Ponyboy” could kill the Duke, what would an entire list of similarly intense and stimulating songs sound like? The result was a collection of hard-hitting hyperpop bops paired with Prince Philip’s ghastly hospital departure photos and the original title: “songs that would kill prince philip on the spot.” Wilkerson shared it to Facebook’s Oddly Specific Playlist group, and their playlist soon appeared on viral Tweets and TikToks; it currently has nearly 50,000 followers on Spotify. Since its creation, the playlist has been forced by Spotify to soften its tone, though, and the title has had to be tweaked. At one point it was named “songs that would make old royal man go sleepy-bye bye,” but Wilkerson tells me, chuckling, this title only lasted 10 minutes.
A handful of name-changes later, the playlist currently known as “mixtape for my bestie prince philip :)” stands as a prime example of the appeal of music in hyper-specific chunks. “I think with music,” Wilkerson explains, “it’s just very easy to come up with situations where a specific feeling comes to you.” Some of their other popular playlists include “music nonbinary people normally listen to” and “adhd stimulation.” They explain: “I’m always making playlists with people, I have a community playlist that people can add and that’s a good way to discover music and communicate with people.”
In the Oddly Specific Playlists Facebook group, over 20,000 members gather to share and workshop their creations. The hyper-specific playlist caters to a particular, often peculiar circumstance or musical need, gathering songs that fit in with a chosen theme, premise, or even memory. For the creators of such playlists, the hunt for songs and images is neverending, their minds are constantly saving songs for later, collecting artifacts to craft playlists so precise that they become boundless.
Olivia Lee’s YouTube channel is famous for its mind-readingly accurate playlists like, “you’re studying in a haunted library with ghosts ( a dark academia playlist )” and “you had a dream about your comfort character, only to wake up ( a playlist ).”
Lee starts with a single song — usually, the kind heard in ballet studios or movie scores — or she starts with a picture or image she finds on Pinterest and sometimes, she has a story in mind already. With the help of Spotify’s recommendations feature, she collects about 40 minutes worth of songs, finds just the right image and then she crowns them with a run-on title detailing an elaborate scenario: “I think that the titles are a little bit like a prompt, so people in the comments can write stories based on them.” Her comment section is full of people responding to her enemies-to-lover prompts and she notes that people come for the music but stay for the stories.
Lee feels like her prompt-titles are the key to her channel’s success. As listeners Pinned her playlists to their aesthetic boards and they became building blocks for anyone looking to turn their life into a dark academia dreamland. When asked if she pursues a “dark academia” aesthetic in her own life, Lee explains that her life looks nothing like the worlds her playlists imagine, “It’s what I aspire to be. That’s what I want to have as an aesthetic.”
But Lee’s channel is far from singular. Across the internet, people are mining internet archives for building blocks to construct their own worlds, collecting songs to soundtrack their fantasies as they go. They’re imagining a world before the pandemic through similar aesthetics. They’re dreaming of worlds where a single song written by a pioneering trans artist can kill a member of one of the world’s oldest and most oppressive institutions. And yes, they have big post-COVID plans where a playlist like “slowed down songs id like to get my organs rearranged to” will come in handy. The hyper-specific playlist is taking over the way we listen to music because, as long-standing systems and ways of living fall apart, we’ve realized there’s never been a better time to invest our energy into creating new worlds of our own, perfect soundtracks and all.