Dancing With Myself: On Playlisting


An ambient fantasy always feels like a miracle: Out of nowhere, even just for a minute, a slice of your unconscious cuts the cord tethering you to the mundane. But it’s hard to induce daydreaming after childhood, even though our need for it, for an extrapolated narrative, doesn’t go away. Sexual desire sometimes does the trick, but those dreams get complicated. It’s simpler, and just as absorbing, to fantasize through a song.

The songs I love most are the songs that conjure the strongest fantasies, that are aesthetically decisive enough to come with a distinct ideal listening situation — and of course, this cause-and-effect also works in reverse. For example, if you listen to “We Found Love,” you’ll want, at least briefly, to be chomping molly under black lights in an ecstatic yet ultimately destructive situation; relatedly, if you have ever wanted to be chomping molly under black lights in an ecstatic yet ultimately destructive situation, odds are good that you have done so, or wanted to do so, to the tune of “We Found Love.”

It’s in this causal relationship between daydream and soundtrack where music works like psychological dialysis. A song extracts, purifies, and returns some deeply held emotion; it externalizes and makes tangible your desires. You can tell what you want by what you want to listen to (which is particularly useful if you are like me and otherwise slow to discern these desires). All you have to do is pay attention to the scene your music is making: who’s there, what time of day it is, what your body is doing, the kind of light in the room. And if a song sets a scene, a playlist sets a host of them. It walks you through a story. A playlist is a movie from your subconscious, played beginning to end.

For a couple of years, I made myself playlists on a weekly basis. I was working as an online writer for the first time, and I got in the habit of blogging songs on every shift. Often, because this is both a writing crutch and a natural reaction, I’d sketch out the song’s scenario as I saw it: a drug dealer preaching from the Book of Lamentations (Jeremih); two people on a cold night with a spangling of stars (How to Dress Well); an abstract sense that my neurons were knitting themselves together (Ricky Eat Acid); windows down and hair blowing with someone looking at you across the car (Rhye).

A playlist is a movie from your subconscious, played beginning to end.

I would compile these songs on SoundCloud for myself, bracketed into week-long units. Every weekend, I’d rearrange them into an order that made sense. I hadn’t kept a diary for years, but the playlists started to become little journals. Surveying a past week, I could tell where the story was going: whether I was feeling spiky or easy; whether the week ended at a crescendo or a cliffhanger, or if it just faded away. These playlists weren’t a faithful record of anything. My diaries had always been something adjacent to wish-fulfillment, and probably to self-help. And music, luckily, is even better in both capacities. I would tune myself up with these playlists like I was micro-dosing: I could purge little feelings, or heighten them, or balance them out.

It was a good habit to form in tandem with writing — making a playlist is, also, arranging and rearranging a series of ideas. You want something strong and tone-setting and immediate as the lede. You want songs to be linked with a logical transition, the vibe either upended, developed, or matched as you go on. You want the whole thing to have multiple entry points and different things worth revisiting. You feel out what length is right, or work within a set format. You want balance, an aesthetic or logical through-line; you can have an even progression or a well-placed surprise in there, and you want something that pulls hard at you toward the end.

I made these playlists in private until the day I left that job. And then I switched my SoundCloud to public, renamed it Tinybitchtapes, and sent out a playlist via newsletter every week. It was easy, surprisingly, to create and share these playlists while still feeling like I was making them for myself. The act still felt like a meditation, and it became increasingly helpful to me as I continued to write. It can be hard to hang on to the sense of writing that I find essential — the sense that the story originates internally and is pointed directly back at me. Making Tinybitchtapes reminded me that it was always simpler to negotiate this than I thought.

There is something obnoxious about sending your own little diary of songs to people, about writing in public, about carrying out any of the basic mechanisms of being alive. You can’t do any of those things without trying to impose your view on someone else. But if you’re careful about the whole situation, it’s wonderful to want to make someone see what you’re seeing. Writing and music are these great intermediaries; they speak to our fantasies, and they speak on our behalf. With their help, we can do what we’re here for, which is to say, “Here, come listen for a minute. Here’s the story I am making out of this. Here’s my way of telling you I want you to be in this story, too.”