Pop Noir: UPSAHL’s “Stressed” and the Failings of Apple Music

Apple has a long and storied history of copying its competitors (and then pretending that’s not what it’s doing). Sticking to that business plan, since entering the streaming audio marketplace with Apple Music, the company has made a concentrated effort to mimic what it deems to be the most important aspects of the market leader, Spotify. The Fruit’s white whale here is clearly the Discover Weekly playlist, a recurring, algorithmically generated playlist that’s customized to recommend new songs to each individual user and which apparently creates intense customer loyalty. But Apple is smart enough to know that it lacks the broad data set that would make such a playlist successful and so it has instead turned its near-trillion-dollar gaze on curated playlists in the hopes of stealing some market share from Spotify luminaries like RapCaviar. (It should be noted that Apple’s For You compilations are so thin that they probably shouldn’t be considered as Discover Weekly analogues.)

The problem with this approach is that Apple has mostly churned out a series of blandly broad playlists curated with genre goals, rather than any specific listener, in mind. Most playlist options come in the annoyingly titled A-List series and are simply defined by their genre (The A-List: Hip-Hop, The A-List: Alternative, etc.) while a few revolving options are, theoretically, more open-ended and include titles like Office DJ, Happy Hour and I Miss Y2K Pop. Weirdly, if you scroll through more than a few of these choices, you’ll find a handful of songs and albums heavily represented across multiple playlists. For example, at the time of this article’s writing, songs from Billie Eilish’s WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? appeared on Today’s Hits, The A-List: Pop, The A-List: Alternative, Up Next and Office DJ. How well curated can any of these supposedly diverse playlists really be if so many of them share the same material?

I know that this album is a big deal right now but does it make sense to feature it on nearly 30% of your supposedly unique playlists?

The point is not to drag Apple through the mud for failing to be innovative or even creative but rather to point out that, for iTunes and Apple Music power-users like myself, the Cupertino powerhouse is missing an opportunity. I love new music. Obviously. And while I enjoy exploring recommendations from my friends and reading assorted reviews online, the avenues for discovery that Spotify provides to its customers vastly exceed what’s available to me as an Apple user. I’m too deeply engrossed in Apple’s iTunes product to completely jump ship but dammit if I don’t envy some of the perks that Spotify offers.

To date, I’ve only come to love one song that I’ve found through Apple’s bizarre playlist ecosystem: the sly, pop noir blast “Stressed” from UPSAHL’s Hindsight 20/20 EP. The song itself is wonderful, opening with roaring horns that permutate from a big band sound to a decidedly contemporary affectation. And thank god for those horns because, beyond the fact that I’m a big fan of repurposing classic sounds with modern flourish, if it weren’t for the song’s opening horn blast, it’s likely I never would have listened to “Stressed.” The bland mundanity of Apple’s playlist selection is such that I’ve come to expect that most featured songs won’t appeal to me so if their first few seconds don’t grab my attention, as those of “Stressed” so magnificently did, then it’s on to the next thing. But that’s not UPSAHL’s fault. It’s Apple’s, for failing to create a product that inspires confidence that it’ll be worth my time.

Fix this, Apple. Give me more “Stressed.”

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