Spotify is #TheDress.
Seen from one perspective, the industry-defining streaming music service is a golden beacon, a bright light piercing the gloom of a profit-hungry, dangerously amoral industry, thanks to its renewed commitment to ethical business practices. Shift your vantage point a bit, however, and it’s a dark and sinister censorship machine—a bleak harbinger of our technodystopian future in which unaccountable internet services become our nanny bots, removing any power or responsibility from human end-users sucking at the silicon teat.
Here’s how we got here: On Thursday, Spotify rolled out a new “Hate Content & Hateful Conduct” policy, which says the service may remove songs or entire artist catalogs from curated playlists—or even erase them from the service altogether—if a song “incites hatred or violence against a group or individual” based on their race, religion, sexual orientation or other sensitive aspect of their identity. Furthermore, even if their music is unobjectionable, artists may also be deep-sixed if their personal behavior doesn’t live up to Spotify’s moral standards. For example, the company says, violence against children and sexual violence are beyond the pale.
To make it absolutely clear that this is not merely corporate cover-your-ass lip service, the company immediately enforced its new policy by removing R&B crooner R. Kelly and hip-hop bad boy du jour XXXTentacion from its popular curated playlists, such as Discover Weekly and Rap Caviar.
As with the infamously ambiguous photo of the dress that threatened to crash the internet in 2015 (simpler times!) with arguments over whether it was black-and-blue or white-and-gold, the Spotify decision was followed immediately with passionate outcry on social media, split right down the middle of the issue. Supporters of the decision argue it’s an important new step in the #MeToo movement. They’re even using a new hashtag, #MuteRKelly, to pressure additional music-industry organizations into following Spotify’s lead. Detractors, such as Terrence “Punch” Henderson, president of “major indie” record label Top Dawg Entertainment (home to SZA, Kendrick Lamar, and other luminaries) argue that this is “dangerous” censorship, and that a “conversation needs to be had” before steps like this are taken. Henderson’s in luck: the conversation is now in full swing.
Let’s break it down. First of all, most Americans who aren’t failed candidates for the Alabama senate race would agree that sexual violence and child abuse are a bad thing. And though there’s a backlash against the #MeToo movement, spearheaded by some wealthy old white celebrities, there’s little question that it has brought long-ignored issues of sexual violence and gender inequality to the forefront of the political agenda, forcing hallowed institutions and entrenched interests to rethink and renegotiate their actions and policies in a way they haven’t had to for generations. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that’s a good thing.
Secondly, although neither R. Kelly nor XXXTentacion has been convicted of a violent crime, both of them have long and ongoing legal entanglements spurred by multiple credible allegations of appalling behavior. In 2002, Kelly was the alleged subject—and creator—of an infamous sex tape that purported to show him having sex with, and urinating on, an underage girl. More recently, he’s been accused by multiple people of running a “sex cult,” again featuring videotaped, coerced, degrading sexual acts with young women. And XXXTentacion, who spent his seventeenth year in a youth detention center for gun possession, is currently facing multiple charges related to assault with a deadly weapon, domestic violence, and other serious allegations. As with Kelly, there’s incriminating evidence—specifically, a video of him punching an unidentified woman, hard, in the back of the head.
Given these compelling allegations, it’s perfectly reasonable for a publicly owned company like Spotify to want to distance itself from such toxic public figures. Furthermore, in an era when our government seems less and less likely to protect its most vulnerable citizens from violence, it makes sense to use market power, such as boycotting and blackouts, to censure unconscionable behavior. If our elected representatives are no longer beholden to taxpayers, the logic goes, at least our commercial institutions are still beholden to their paying customers. And, for the moment at least, Spotify hasn’t technically censored either Kelly or XXXTentacion; it’s simply removed them from its featured playlists. So where’s the harm? And how is it any different than Netflix cutting its ties with Kevin Spacey or Warner Bros. excommunicating Brett Ratner after the allegations against them?
On the other hand, maybe it’s not such a black-and-white situation. (Or white-and-gold, for that matter.) To begin with, do we really want Spotify making these kinds of decisions for us? The company currently supplies music to 170 million monthly users, nearly half of whom pay for the privilege of accessing its catalog of tens of millions of songs on demand. Whatever its good intentions, this is a massively powerful and influential company, and we should be very wary when it uses that power selectively to remove individual songs and artists from its catalog.
There’s a long history of powerful institutions making these kinds of decisions on behalf of the general public, and it rarely ends well.
For four hundred years, the Catholic Church would regularly publish its Index Librorum, a catalog of prohibited books that was enforced under threat of excommunication, or worse. In the 19th Century, societies for the “suppression of vice” in Britain and the United States took it upon themselves to ban books and other materials that they deemed immoral or obscene, even checking people’s mail to make sure they weren’t getting magazines or letters with sexually explicit information, including advertisements for birth control. At the time, this was widely, although not universally, seen as a progressive policy, and a means to accomplish a variety of social benefits, including curbing domestic abuse. Even more recently, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a committee of “Washington wives,” successfully used the threat of legislative and regulatory oversight to pressure the music industry into self-censoring its products, and putting warning labels on songs containing sexually explicit or violent lyrics. Today, these measures are widely seen in retrospect as a terrible mistake—a censorious overreach by autocratic pontiffs, sex-negative Victorian patriarchs, and their schoolmarmish 20th century descendants.
So although our society may be fairly consistent over time about the impermissibility of immoral behavior and sexual violence, we tend to have very different ideas about its definition, and about appropriate measures to stop it, from era to era. Right now, we’re engaged in a bunch of broader debates about algorithmic accountability, and the role of AI and digital intermediaries in our public and private lives. We can’t even decide what Facebook should do about fake news; how are we supposed to come up with a meaningful consensus about the social benefit of digital music censorship, let alone make decisions that won’t be seen as barbaric a generation from now?
To make matters even murkier, Spotify’s choice of artists to excommunicate seems arbitrary at best, and possibly racist. At the time of writing, songs like “Animals” by Maroon 5 and “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke, both of which are songs by white artists explicitly celebrating sexual violence, are available on Spotify (it’s unclear what their curated playlist status is). And, as XXXTentacion’s representatives have pointed out, Spotify has yet to purge white artists who have been convicted of sexual assault or domestic abuse, including Gene Simmons, Ozzy Osbourne, and Nick Carter. In an era where the #BlackLivesMatter movement rivals #MeToo in its scope and ambitions, and where the public spotlight has justifiably been focused on the systematic silencing of black voices from the public sphere, this unequal treatment is problematic, to say the least.
Finally, while Spotify didn’t go full Index Librorum on Kelly and XXXTentacion, erasing them from the company’s catalog, it has reserved the right to do so, and, let’s be honest, eliminating them from the Discover Weekly and Rap Caviar playlists is bad enough. About half of all new music streamed on the service comes from playlists such as these, which means that exclusion can be a career-killing proposition for top-tier artists. It’s no different than when Pink Floyd’s The Wall was temporarily blackballed from nationwide radio networks by mobbed-up independent promoters, or when Walmart, then the king of music retail, demanded that record labels remove songs the company disapproved of from CDs before they would stock them on their shelves. When one company wields as much power as Spotify does (and as Walmart and independent promoters used to), exclusion from the market—even in in the name of morality—becomes an instrument of power and corruption.
Ultimately, there’s no way we’re going to reach a satisfying conclusion to this story. The furor over Spotify, R. Kelly, and XXXTentacion is sure to die down after another news cycle or two (OMG can you believe what the president just tweeted?!?), but the underlying issues are only going to become more and more of a crisis in the years ahead. And it’s not just about the music industry, or the entertainment industry, or even the inevitable tensions and power dynamics between the #MeToo movement, #BlackLivesMatter, and the principle of free speech, whatever that means.
The problem is fundamental to the internet, and to its increasingly central and all-encompassing role in our cultures and societies. Spotify isn’t quite the same as a radio network or a music retailer, just like Facebook isn’t quite the same as a newspaper or a postal system. These new digital intermediaries are creating new niches for themselves in our information ecology, carving out bits and pieces that used to belong to legacy analog and brick-and-mortar institutions, but at a much larger scale and with the power of data, algorithms and AI behind them. Even 25 years after the invention of the web browser, we have no idea what the appropriate role of the internet is in our lives, and what kinds of constraints we should put on their ability to sift, sort and reorganize the information that flows between us, the companies that serve us, and the institutions we belong to. Until we do, we’re going to be stuck having this same argument over and over again, in a million different guises.
In other words, I was wrong: Spotify isn’t #TheDress, after all. The whole damned internet is #TheDress. And it’s black-and-blue. No, wait, it’s white-and-gold. No, wait…