Chris DeLine

Cedar Rapids, IA

The Politics of Playlists

Published in Blog. Tags: , .

On the first day of June in 2022 I loaded up the last of my belongings into my car, signed papers closing on the sale of my house, and made my way to Highway 24, heading north out of Nashville. When considering whatever a “hometown” might be, Nashville was as much a hometown for me as any place I’d ever lived. I’m originally from western Canada, and have lived in several Midwestern states, but Nashville is still what feels like my “home.” It’s where I grew most as a person, and have spent the bulk of my adult life. As I drove out of town that day, however, I began the process of starting to make a new place my home: Iowa, and in particular, Cedar Rapids.

Over the course of my years down south I had the good fortune of being around a lot of different aspects of the music scene, and several times tried my hand at creating a blog dedicated to celebrating the creativity that inhabited the city. For the better part of a year before I moved north, I leaned in on a different medium, creating and sharing playlists specifically aimed at elevating a few different genres within the city’s scene (rap and hip-hop / dance and electronic music). While I hadn’t been focusing on doing so for long by the time I left town, I knew I’d found something that was important to me in the process; not just in terms of the rich experiences stemming from tapping into music and meeting artists along the way, but in terms of strengthening my bond with the space around me. Every month I compiled playlist updates and shared them across several different digital service providers (DSPs), airing out my journey in public across social media and attempting to build a small audience along the way. About two weeks after touching down in Cedar Rapids, I decided to carry the spirit of that exercise forward to see what I could find within what was to be my new home.

There’s no exaggerating when I say I knew nothing about the Iowa music scene when I started this project, but in the year and a half that’s passed since then I’ve been repeatedly blown away by the depth and variety of creativity coming out of the state. In the process of carrying on my original mission, I’ve built up a collection of playlists incorporating genres ranging from rap to punk to pop and electronic music, with scattered elements of everything in between thrown in along the way. As I’ve carried on, it’s been interesting to see how this process has intersected with broader cultural talking points, and what sort of personal conversations have grown out of attempting to shine a light on Iowa’s local and homegrown talent. One such question was recently raised to me, which inspired this very article; that being, “Is there a political dimension among the Iowa artists you follow?” 

While I’ve never considered this process to be a particularly political one, the more I thought about it, the more obvious my answer became. I’ve been making mixtapes of one kind or another since childhood, but rarely do I recall thinking outside the lines of aesthetics when considering my own process of curation. Absolutely, the hunt for new music has led me down rabbit holes, learning about the artists who’ve created songs I enjoy. But under the scrutiny of a question focused on whether the process is guided by a political dimension, I’m prone to saying yes, it is. It is, but… it’s also politically inconsistent. This point is made far more apparent when considering identity politics, and the implications that follow learning more about the people behind the music they create. While publishing updates at least once a week, I’ve shared over 2000 songs since I started these Iowa music playlists. My intent has never been to take on a role of ideological bouncer, however, standing at the door, checking to ensure that creators’ belief systems are purely aligned with my own. But over the course of sharing that many songs I’ve absolutely been challenged to reassess the basis behind my selection process. 

After one update last summer I received a message reading, “I’m not sure if you know, but [name redacted] got pretty heavily canceled here. Multiple accounts of sexual harassment & abuse spanning years & some of the victims were even minors. Pretty sleazy guy, honestly. Just wanted to let you know.” A month prior to that, I’d released a podcast interview with Indigenous composer Geneviève Gros-Louis, focused around advocacy work stemming from her own personal history surrounding this topic. I remember the feeling that washed over me when I saw that message; I absolutely do not want to be a part of any process that implicitly cosigns harmful or damaging behaviors, but in a way that’s exactly what I’d done. Had I known about the background to the song I shared I wouldn’t have included it, and when I was informed I was quick to remove it from the rotation. How is this relevant? Looking more broadly at this particular situation now, I believe a conversation about platforming the work of an alleged abuser has absolutely become a political one, particularly when framing it within a modern social context. When you have the  bulk of a Republican voting base unwavering in their support of a Presidential candidate who’s also a convicted and unrepentant abuser, how does the fallout from sexual abuse not become political? 

It’s not that I haven’t been aware of the political dimension to music, or art in general, but that I don’t have a good handle on how to regularly and consistently reconcile it within my own process. Is it black and white that I shouldn’t platform a band that has supported a President with views and policies staunchly perpendicular to my own? Perhaps. How about artists whose social media posts occasionally reflect a bit of dog whistling? How about artists who share ideological red herrings online, whether they be curiously conservative “Libertarian” messages or overt religious beliefs suspiciously aligned with modern conservative fundamentalism? And should I be holding everyone along the way to the same standard? I don’t feel confident in always knowing where the line is.

Even the DSP of choice bears relevance when considering the political impact behind which platform one uses to merely listen to music. Just this week, Spotify reportedly inked a new deal with podcasting giant Joe Rogan to continue selling ads against his show; a show which has historically been reviled for championing conservative dis and misinformation. Spotify’s past inaction over issues specifically surrounding Rogan’s messaging led to the likes of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell pulling what they could of their catalogs from the platform, yet Spotify remains the most widely used music streaming service in the world. That said, it’s not as if other streaming options are without issue. Touted over its sound quality and marginally higher payout rates for artists, TIDAL is owned by Block, Inc., which itself is owned in part by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, who endorsed Robert Kennedy Jr. last year. It shouldn’t go without saying that other streaming leaders, such as Apple, YouTube, and Amazon are hardly without fault when considering the litany of scandals each has produced over the years. 

Without question, the listening process is one subject to refinement over time. And music being a fundamental part of life for me, listening is an extension of living. Implicit within that practice are decisions around how closely what I’m listening to, and what I’m sharing, are to align with my own personal values. I value the celebration of local art, and recognize that doing so is itself a politically loaded gesture in an era when financial support of the arts is being hamstrung by short-sighted federal and state budgeting restraints. But existing within a stew of ideological gray areas doesn’t preclude me from questioning whether there’s a political dimension to what I’m doing personally. In an unexpected way, asking whether there’s a political consideration among the Iowa artists I follow has led me to reconsidering what it is I’m doing through the lens of what I feel makes a space a home. In part, that takes buying in and investing in a space, and celebrating the elements of it that reconcile with one’s core beliefs. Without grandstanding or making personal promises to myself that I might not be able to keep, this has opened the door for a different sort of question surrounding how ideologically inconsistent I want to be within this practice. The politics of playlists are only ever as complicated as one chooses to make them.

[This article was originally published February 11, 2024 at Blog for Iowa.]