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An ode to playlists, the perfect kind of sonic diary

Teresa's Spotify playlists.
Screenshot by Teresa Xie
Teresa's Spotify playlists.

I made my first playlist on Spotify when I was 13. It's titled March '14, it's 200 songs, and it's got everything you would expect from a very-online middle-schooler: Marina and the Diamonds (now MARINA), The xx, The 1975, Florence + The Machine, and "Let's Go" by Matt & Kim.

The next playlist, April '14, is not so different. It stands at a whopping 213 songs and still has most of Marina and the Diamonds' Electra Heart (Deluxe) album on it. But in April, it seems I was also introduced to Five Seconds of Summer, was really into Tyler the Creator and Chance the Rapper, and even discovered Nirvana (I probably saw the cover of Nevermind on Tumblr and thought it was cool).

Fast-forward to March '23, and you'll find a playlist consisting of about 10 songs, featuring the likes of Brutalismus 3000, JPEGMAFIA, Nia Archives, and a little bit of Sonic Youth. Between that (cursed) March '14 collection and my March '23 one sits more than 107 playlists: one for each month of the year.

Most of my playlists are bad (even the most recent ones), and I don't think they're necessarily even a reflection of my music taste. While most playlists tend to focus on cohesion, mine have always been more about documentation. I'll add whatever songs stick out to me that month without any thought about how it fits into a larger theme (that's how you get Radiohead and Ice Spice within a few minutes of each other).

While I never intended to make monthly playlists when I created my first in March 2014, over the years they've become sonic diaries — ways to take me back to places and people from the past through a collection of songs. When I listen to my August '21 playlist, consisting mostly of house tracks from artists like Park Hye Jin, Jayda G and TSHA, I'm reminded of a sweet summer living with my friend in Brooklyn, when all that stood in front of us was weekends exploring the city and our final year of college.

But not every playlist is reminiscent of rosy memories: November '20 only has four songs on it (most of them are by Jamila Woods), leading me to believe I must have really been going through it.

In the last couple of years, I've started adding a cover photo to each playlist, defined by a picture taken from that month. It's usually something silly: a piece of art I saw on the street, a meal I cooked, or the occasional mirror selfie. The photos serve less of an aesthetic purpose than a memory cue, much like the collection of songs itself. Often, listening to old playlists triggers more complicated emotions for me than looking at old journal entries; instead of reading stories told from my perspective at the time, I'm hearing music for what it was and always has been.

Playlisting or even being methodical about organizing interests and tastes isn't for everyone. It can definitely be a daunting task. But whether you're pulling together a collection of photos, making zines, or creating moodboards, you can relieve some of that pressure of cohesion if you see it as just a culmination of what you're thinking or feeling in the moment.

In a digital age where everything seems like it's meant to be neatly packaged and consumed, creating something without such intention shows us that most of our experiences can't replicate a specific model. And re-engaging with art that meant something in the past redefines the way we look at the present: revealing where we've been and what we came from — even if that place is "Therapy" by All Time Low or an obsession with the Arctic Monkeys! And who knows, maybe you'll realize not much has changed after all. Can someone queue "cellophane" by FKA Twigs?

What are you really into? Fill out this form or leave us a voice note at 800-329-4273, and part of your submission may be featured online or on the radio.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Teresa Xie
Teresa Xie is a reporter who specializes in media and culture writing. She recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied political science and cinema. Outside of NPR, her work can be found in Pitchfork, Vox, Teen Vogue, Bloomberg, Stereogum and other outlets.