Can Spotify and AncestryDNA Really Tell You About Yourself Through a Playlist?

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Two weeks ago, AncestryDNA and the popular music-streaming service Spotify unveiled a service that promised to use your very own genetic material to build a personalized playlist. Such a playlist, their website stated, would be totally unique. The sonic essence of your very own cultural inheritance. “If you could listen to your DNA, what would it sound like?” they asked.

Online critics immediately roasted the companies for both the puffed-up gesture toward bleeding-edge genealogical experience — strap yourself into yourself and enjoy the ride! — and the dubious promise of tech-enabled self-discovery. Like so many companies that collect biometric data to personalize their services, Spotify and AncestryDNA’s playlist generator felt both intrusive and gimmicky — the kind of low-level troubling we’ve come to associate with an increasingly invasive consumer culture.

But there was also something particularly creepy about the pitch, something unsettling in its explicit claim that a DNA swab could contain meaningful information about who we are. In The Atlantic, Sarah Zhang pushed back against this idea, writing that “marketing campaigns for genetic-ancestry tests … tap into the idea that DNA is deterministic, that genetic differences are meaningful. They trade in the prestige of genomic science, making DNA out to be far more important in our cultural identities than it is, in order to sell more stuff.”

Genetic services like AncestryDNA and 23AndMe deserve our skepticism for a handful of familiar reasons. Their validity is questionable. They’re popular with hate groups. And while they market themselves on helping individuals uncover or reconstruct their family history, they are also building massive databases of very lucrative genetic information which they can and do sell to various corporations, from advertisers to pharmaceutical companies to biotech firms. As of this year, over 15 million people have taken tests administered by these two companies.

This particular application of genetic data seems frankly hokey. The promise of the AncestryDNA partnership is that in exchange for data about your genetic origins, Spotify will tell you something meaningful about those origins. But what actually happens is rather banal. You link your account, select the top-five ethnic regions from your AncestryDNA results, and Spotify spits out a “personalized” playlist based on the regions selected.

What you are given is list of songs from the regions you selected whose inclusion appears to be pretty arbitrary. If Ancestry told Spotify I was from “Ireland and Scotland” my list might include Gregorian chants, but it might just as easily include a song by Thin Lizzy or Clannad. Needless to say this is very different stuff with different relationships to Irish history and culture. Stringing the songs together might show us something about musical variety in a given region, and a list like that might send you down some interesting rabbit holes on your own, but it doesn’t describe a relationship so much as peg a mix of things to a single, predetermined data point.

Despite being a shallow, though, the project is legitimately troubling. Not because of what it does, necessarily, but because of what it purports to do. Which is tell us “our story” as the services insist. But a story isn’t a genetic sequence. It doesn’t doesn’t arrive as a kernel and unfold along some predetermined path. Like Zhang said, people aren’t wrong to believe that music carries important information about where we came from and who we are. But music is a cultural product, not a genetic one. It’s created in particular places at particular times by particular groups of people. To the extent it can tell us something about a culture, it tells us something about those particulars. These playlists give us something else: an atemporal set of songs removed from any context, united not by a particular culture but by genetics.

The concept of a genetic soundtrack might appear futuristic — certainly Spotify and Ancestry want it to — but the truth is that it’s an old idea with a complicated and unsettling history. In the United States, the conflation of musical and biological development emerged alongside early pseudoscientific theories of folklore, and it left an enduring mark on how we think about “folk music.” In Segregating Sound, Karl Hagstrom Miller describes these history as the backdrop against which American academics, artists, and businessmen compartmentalized southern music according to race during the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

Miller argues that this practice of musical segregation ran counter to the reality on the ground. “Southern musicians performed a staggering variety of music in the early twentieth century,” he writes, “Black and white artists played blues, ballads, ragtime, and string band music, as well as the plethora of styles popular throughout the nation: sentimental ballads, minstrel songs … Broadway hits” etc., etc. Over that century’s first few decades, however, this once-fluid body of southern styles was reduced to two distinct categories, “race records” and “hillbilly,” terms which didn’t indicate musical genre but the race of the artists.

The reasons for breaking southern music along the color line were both commercial and philosophical reflections of South’s racial caste system. Some states had laws that forbade labels from advertising black hillbilly groups on the same lists as white groups in order to strictly delineate between white and black music. One white duo, Lee and Austin Allen, sued Columbia for $250,000 in damages after the label advertised one of their records with a caricature of two black men.

But underwriting the commercial rationale for segregating the music was a whole complex of essentialist and racist attitudes about folk music and where it came from. Born out of a number of debates central to the foundation of folklore as a distinct academic discipline in America, a shaky consensus emerged that a people’s essence was located in a distant past, before it was corrupted by outside influence, and so occurred in its most distinct form. Many folklorists, anthropologists, and philologists of the time believed that this theory of culture was also a theory of race, and that differences in cultural development corresponded to biological differences among ethnic groups. This race science, believed to be cutting edge at the time, lent Jim Crow laws academic legitimacy and naturalized the music industry’s color line.

Miller argues against these old but enduring ideas, but he doesn’t insist that musical styles like country and the blues aren’t distinctive, or that they don’t emerge from particular cultures and ethnic groups. Instead, he makes the case that what is meaningful about these genres is not simply where they began, but how and why they developed in the way that they did.

In the century since the record men went into the South in search of unfamiliar sounds and untapped musical markets, American music in all its permutations continued to promise us something important about our national character. The methods we use to get at that knowledge, and the assumptions those methods carry, will always shape whatever answers we find, but there are ways to avoid reproducing the essentialism I’ve described above. Doing so means thinking about music as something embedded within a culture, something influenced by customs and history and neighboring traditions, something embraced by or in tension with commercialism and the pop industry.

That list of cultural factors could go on and on and spread in any number of directions, but the one thing that would unite all of them is their absence from the calculus of Spotify and AncestryDNA. In place of endless fruitful considerations, they offer a very simple form of identification.

When the record scouts went South, they also started to venture abroad around the same time, to port cities like Havana and Cairo and Jakarta, but everywhere they went their goal was the same: find new music to sell and new people to sell it to. Today, big data offers the possibility that each of us, the endlessly plumbable individual, is an uncharted realm, ready to be indexed and appraised so that companies can sell us back to ourselves.

These playlists are a stunt, but they’re also an interesting bit of sleight of hand. Spotify wants our data and it wants to feed that data into its predictive engines so that it might give us what we don’t yet know we want. In this it is like any other company competing for our attention. But in order to get this this data from individual users it offers a mocked-up high-tech experience of collectivity. It’s an old trick and a bad swap.

What Do Spotify and AncestryDNA’s Playlists Really Tell Us?