BY Eli Zeger in Opinion | 28 AUG 20

Alt Rock by Algorithm

How Spotify and YouTube gave rise to an indie pop ‘internet muzak’

BY Eli Zeger in Opinion | 28 AUG 20

If you’ve ever searched for a band on YouTube that could broadly be classified as ‘alternative’, chances are the platform’s algorithms later recommended that you listen to names like Boy Pablo, Clairo and Rex Orange County. Their most-played tracks each have over 30 million views and, while they’ve since earned comparable numbers across other platforms, their initial boom was due to YouTube foisting them onto users ad nauseam.

Such indie pop acts, who are in their late teens and early 20s, and appeal to that same age demographic, represent the outcome of a mentality that originated on Spotify and has since infiltrated every other major streaming platform. Because Spotify’s algorithms have consistently rewarded bands with a down-tempo sound, many recording artists have quieted down and simplified their styles, so their tracks fit more seamlessly into playlists, and hence get more plays. YouTube’s algorithms honour those who best embody ‘chill vibez’ with more frequent appearances in the video sidebar and on the homepage. Its ‘playlists’ are endless and their orders are randomly arranged: if I click on Loving Is Easy (2017) by Rex Orange County, Everytime (2017) by Boy Pablo or Pretty Girl (2018) by Clairo might auto-play next, but I’ll hear both eventually.

Rex Orange County
Rex Orange County, 2020. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Despite the presence of lyrics, this type of indie pop boils down to internet muzak: mild, unobtrusive and tailor-made to play in the background while a listener is working or browsing social media. All of it sounds the same and its lyrics are almost always about feeling bored or broken-hearted. For all their emphasis on interiority, the stanzas seem quite interchangeable from one singer to the next. Key motifs include cheesy vintage synths, slow groovy tempos and lo-fi production heavy on reverb. Chord progressions are dull and don’t vary much for the duration of a song. Most of these artists either recorded their songs in their bedrooms or, thanks to a major label deal, used a professional studio to make it sound like they were recorded in their bedrooms. This sonic cheapness contrives a sense of thrifty immediacy, as if these artists couldn’t help expressing themselves with the subpar equipment at their disposal.

These songs and their accompanying videos tend to centralize experiences of being Extremely Online and housebound, whether it’s Boy Pablo singing about a girl sliding into her crush’s DMs or Clairo lip-syncing in bed. The inherent disconnect of socializing on the internet appears to be a source of malaise: Rex Orange County sings A Song About Being Sad (2016) and looks so forlorn  in his press photographs that the corners of his mouth practically touch the bottom of his chin. These singers give the impression that the amount of time someone spends online defines how much of a young adult they are. Though it’s true that depression is widespread among Zoomers, YouTube indie pop’s preoccupation with it begs the question of how much these bands are aestheticizing being sad, considering that the hard truth they reveal about being young is diluted and anonymized.

Wallows (feat. Clairo), Are You Bored Yet?, 2019, video still. Courtesy: YouTube 

Newer acts continue to generalize these emotions. Contrary to its title, Are You Bored Yet? (2019) by Wallows is far from a meta-critique of YouTube indie pop. While it’s not overtly about going online, the song (released on Atlantic) utilizes the genre’s vocabulary and instrumental motifs, and features Clairo on guest vocals. Perhaps frontman/actor Dylan Minnette – already known for his palatable ennui as the star of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why (2017–20) – steered his band towards this readymade aesthetic because he took its purported DIY qualities at face value. A few months ago, the genre made it onto the Billboard Hot 100 with Benee’s Supalonely (2019); more than 11 million users have posted videos of themselves dancing to it on TikTok. Despite its upbeat tempo, the newfound hit (released on Republic) proves to be yet another song about feeling sad: Benee repeatedly calls herself a ‘loser’ and a ‘quitter’ and, in the music video, wanders around a house on her own and eats a cereal called Lonely-O’s.

Benee, Supalonely, 2019, video still. Courtesy: Vimeo

These acts are often praised for being ‘authentic’ and ‘relatable’ – on radio station blogs, in fan-made video essays and even in top-tier music publications. This humanistic language, which underscores the music’s insistence on personal experience, can also be used to denounce criticism, as it allows any perceived attack on an artist’s work to be interpreted as a rejection of their entire personhood. Journalists and fans are so keen to regurgitate these buzzwords that they miss their underlying contradiction: to be more relatable, a person has to reduce how authentic they are, and vice-versa. When relatability is framed as a mode of genuine self-expression rather than a business strategy, nascent musicians can simplify their styles in the hopes of getting picked up by recommendation algorithms while thinking their DIY attitudes remain intact. They mistake experimentation for excess and homogenization for raw expression, presuming the latter to be responsible for their success. YouTube and Spotify aren’t neutral platforms; they’re corporations seeking to profit from sustained audience figures. What better music to boost those numbers than a genre that celebrates the spectacle of endless streaming?

Main Image: Clairo performing live at the El Rey theatre in Los Angeles, 2019.Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons