Overview

When I was in college in the 80s, my playlist was about 15 years deep. My Gen Z kids listen to music from six decades. There's a reason for that.

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I started teaching college music courses in 1991. I was 28, just five years out of college myself. On the first day of my music appreciation class, I asked the students to name a few songs or bands that they liked to listen to, that they found interesting. There was some Nirvana, Nirvana was big in ’91. Amy Grant, Boys II Men, Mariah Carey. REM, Prince. Sting. That was ’91. Hip hop had been in the mainstream for a few years, and Public Enemy and LL Cool J got a mention.

I did this almost every time I taught the course, every time I’d remember to do it. And in any given semester, the students would mention a lot of the same artists and songs, over and over. More than half of the songs would get multiple mentions in one class.

That was the same for me in high school and college. We’d all have our offshoots and obsessions, the Jethro Tull kids and the funk kids (that was me) and the metal kids. But if you combined it all, there was still a huge overlap in the middle.

I taught college music from 1991 to 2006 when I quit to write full time. When I found my way back to the classroom in 2017, I started asking the question again—and it was like I had stepped out of a time machine, because I kind of had. Everything had changed.

I don’t just mean the songs and the artists were different. Obviously they would be. But there were other differences, radical differences, even since 2006, in the way this question played out.

Now I’m teaching a class called Music and Culture at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, and I have students submit the name of a song or two as part of their first assignment. I’ve gathered more than 200 songs this way across nine classes. And among those 200, not one has ever been repeated.

Not one.

Even the artists are all over the map. Maybe half a dozen artists have been mentioned more than once. That’s it. So there are about 180 artists present for these 200 songs. Some are well known—Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar, Queen, J Cole—but most of them are artists I’d never heard of, despite being a very plugged-in guy—Dounia, Asking Alexandria, whiterosemoxie, Chronixx, Gorilla Toss. When one of my kids is listening to something, and I ask what it is, 95% of the time I’ve never heard the name of the artist before, despite the firehose of new artists I would get from every class and every semester. And here’s the thing: A lot of the time they have to check because they don’t know either. It’s a virgin entry in their playlist.

More on that later.

I’ve also asked students to look at their playlists and tell me what decades are represented by the music there. When I was in college in the 80s, we were mostly listening to music written in the 80s, and the 70s, and some from the late 60s. That’s about it. Our collective playlists were about 15 years deep. That’s like a playlist today going back to 2007.

My students now are listening to music from the past decade, but also from the early 2000s, when they were in preschool. And the 90s. And the 80s. And the 70s, when their parents were in preschool. Think about that. Many of them have songs from the 1960s on their daily playlists: Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles. My 20-year-old went through a Simon and Garfunkel phase in high school. And two of my students last year had songs from the late 50s—Ray Charles.

That would be like me, as a college freshman in 1981, listening to “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine” from before the First World War.

So what accounts for the change?

I think two things are going on here. First of all, there was an earthquake in popular music in the 50s with R&B and early rock. That’s when African American influence broke into the mainstream, and you start to get amplified instruments and all sorts of stylistic changes that created a revolution in popular music. As a result of that revolution, music today has more in common with music in the 60s than music in the 60s had with “Josephine,” or even big band music. Much more.

So it makes sense that listeners today can connect with Ray Charles. But if I was listening to music from 60 years before I was in college, I’d have been crossing into a much less familiar set of fundamentals.

So there’s that, the much longer connected history of popular music in that new paradigm. But a student of mine suggested another reason that I now think is much more on the nose. The difference is in the way music reaches us.

When I was a freshman in 1981, CDs weren’t even a thing yet. It was still LPs and tapes. CDs came in before I graduated, but that was really just a different box around the pizza. You’re still getting your music in album form, right? Whether it’s an LP or cassette or 8-track or CD, an album is a cluster of songs, a ten-song commitment to a band. Even if you buy ten albums from ten different bands, you’ve got a hundred songs but still just ten different artists. And of course you’re not likely to get albums from ten different bands in your ten albums. Half will be from your favorite band.

The real shift that explains the deep playlists of Generation Z starts when Napster—remember Napster?—launched its totally illegal peer-to-peer file-sharing service in 1999. Two years later it died from the blunt force impact of a thousand lawsuits, but Napster had done two things right: they streamed, and they made song rather than album the unit of trade.

In 2003, iTunes got it half right, selling downloadable songs at 99 cents a pop. But it was Pandora in ’05 and Spotify in ’06, streaming songs, that locked in the change. Now you could create playlists of songs you liked but also discover other music without committing to the cost of an album, or even a cost per song.

Now when I say you can discover music, it sounds like an intentional process, like you’re poking around for new music. But that’s not the way it usually happens. Both Pandora and Spotify make the process of exploration absolutely passive. I asked my daughter Erin who’s 22 how she finds new music. She said she’ll be running or driving, listening to one of her Spotify playlists—and this is a great feature—at the end of a playlist, it doesn’t just go silent. It plays another song, something similar to the playlist. And it keeps going, song song song. If she likes one, tap tap, it’s on her list now.

That’s the moment, right there. Tap tap.

Pretty soon you’ve got playlists full of artists and songs you don’t even know by name—you just liked the sound of it. And gradually your profile evolves, and the algorithm suggests even more artists and songs you’ve never heard of. Before you know it, you’re listening to hundreds of artists crossing decades and genres.

Now you’d think by feeding you similar things, the algorithm would keep you in a rut. I know that was a real problem in the early days. But they’ve clearly become more sophisticated. I know when I get to the end of my own playlists, that next song doesn’t tend to be a carbon copy of what I just heard. Sometimes the connection isn’t obvious—something to do with the treatment of rhythm, maybe, or harmonic language, or instruments. But a lot of the time I find myself saying huh, nice. Tap tap.

And the proof that it works, the vindication of the algorithm and the never-ending playlist, is the deep and wide and varied playlist of Generation Z.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.