Last Night, the Spotify App Talked to Me for Two Hours

Last Night, the Spotify App Talked to Me for Two Hours

It was around 10 PM on a weeknight, and as usual, I was on the couch staring at my phone. I tapped open Spotify to pick a little background music for my bedtime death scroll, but this time the app had something new for me. It was a popup with a green circle on a blue background, asking if I wanted to try the new AI DJ. Well Spotify, don’t mind if I do. I’d heard a bit about this feature, but I wasn’t ready for what came next: Spotify started talking to me.

“It’s really great to be here with you. I’m Xavier, but my friends call me X. And from this moment on, I’m gonna be your own personal AI DJ on Spotify. Yeah, I’m an AI but listen, I don’t set timers, I don’t switch on your lights. I’m all about music, your music. I know what you listen to. I see the Lijadu Sisters there,” the app said, referencing a recent favourite of mine.

“So I’m gonna be here every day playing those artists you got in rotation,” going back into your history for songs you used to love,” it said, “and I’m always on the lookout for new stuff too. Just to push your boundaries a little bit.”

I’m all for testing my boundaries, with this new digital friend, Spotify has pushed them. When I saw my pal Kevin Hurler’s article breaking down Spotify’s AI DJ announcement, I had the same reaction he did. It seemed like an odd, hype-based decision. Spotify has always had a (basic) AI picking songs for you. There’s an algorithm analysing your listening habits and making recommendations. Rebranding this as an “AI DJ” seemed gimmicky at best. But at the time, I didn’t read Kevin’s piece that closely (sorry Kev), and I hadn’t grasped that the thing was actually going to talk.

As the robot gave me the breakdown, the top-right-hand side of the circle moved along with the words, mimicking a human mouth.

“I’m gonna come back every few songs to change up the vibe. But if you’re ever not feeling the music, there’s gonna be a DJ button at the bottom of your screen. Tap that and I’ll come back early to switch it up,” the AI said. “All right, enough talk. I mentioned Lijadu Sisters. Let’s get it going with that and some other music you’ve been listening to.” The tunes started playing.

Spotify, it seems, wants you to think that it is a guy now. Specifically, a person of colour, which is interesting and — almost certainly — a carefully considered corporate strategy. It’s appropriate in at least one sense. Modern DJ culture, like so much American heritage, comes straight out of the Black community.

But it’s not just any person of colour. Xavier “X” Jernigan is a real person, Spotify’s charismatic head of cultural partnerships. And the AI, which Spotify calls just “DJ,” is using his voice. The company says it trained the voice model on his cadence, inflections, and slang. Writers at Spotify come up with scripts for DJ, and, apparently, can now make the app say anything it wants.

As I listened, DJ would pop in every three or four songs to introduce the next set. The recommendations were surprisingly good, cycling through genres and styles I listen to, playing tracks I hadn’t heard before, and picking out some of my more obscure favourites, whose names the AI pronounced perfectly.

Robots Cannot Experience the Weather, Guys

It felt, at first, surprisingly human and realistic. But as the tracks kept going, things got weird.

“Up next we got some of your favourite summer jams,” it said. Fair enough, but the commentary DJ peppered in struck an odd chord. “There’s just something about those hot summer nights,” DJ said, its usually stellar voice glitching robotically on the last few words. Wait. Is there? Jernigan is a real person, but the AI DJ is not. I’m pretty sure computer programs cannot experience summer, let alone have opinions about the weather. For that matter, did this AI even exist last summer? As I listened, I was increasingly aware that I was hearing echoes from across the uncanny valley.

“It’s a little wild, because it’s so big, and like it’s blowing up, but I’m honoured and humbled to be the voice,” the real Jernigan told a local TV news anchor in LA recently. Spotify didn’t return an interview request, sadly. (I swear I’ll be nice!)

“Wild” doesn’t quite capture it. DJ is still in beta, so it’s hard to say what’s coming next. But it’s rolling out to Spotify’s 205 million premium subscribers. DJ introduces itself as Jernigan and uses the words “I” and “we” a lot, but then it also seems to identify as its own thing, or perhaps even its own separate person. As you listen, you’re hearing the Spotify app have an unspoken identity crisis.

In Gizmodo’s article about the Spotify DJ introduction, we said that it “mimics the worst parts of listening to the radio,” which is a good headline that I can’t decide whether I agree with. Radio, once the world’s most glorious medium, is in a sorry state in 2023. Almost every major radio station in the US is owned by huge conglomerates, where the tracklists are picked out in advance by corporate overseers, and the “DJs” typically get zero say in the music. Stunning to me is the fact that 83% of Americans aged 12 and up listen to terrestrial radio every week, and that number was even higher before the pandemic.

But when you put on the radio, the DJ telling you about the songs usually doesn’t get to have much of a personality. Often they’re even reading scripts. But you still get that personal touch on indie and college stations, something I really miss in New York, where I don’t have a car and don’t listen to music on the radio. I miss it so much, in fact, that I’ve started my own radio show on a platform called Blast Radio, a free service where music is exclusively picked and sometimes performed by the users, who can do whatever they want when the mic is on.

Spotify’s DJ is a weird in-between. It sounds like you’re getting recommendations from a music expert with great taste (it has your taste, specifically, in fact) and you get a little colour commentary. But this commentary is scripted, read by a computer, and while Spotify does have human curators for some playlists, most of the DJ’s picks are “hand” selected by an algorithm. I don’t mind hearing a friendly voice talking about the music I’m hearing, but DJ usually doesn’t have much to say about the songs or artists aside from “up next is an artist you can’t get enough of lately, Talking Heads.” It almost feels like what I miss from my days stuck in California traffic, but it’s not, at least not quite.

Spotify’s AI DJ Plays Echoes From Across the Uncanny Valley

The whole thing is part of a much broader phenomenon. There’s a mild anti-corporate undercurrent running through the United States, which you can perhaps trace back to widespread disillusionment after the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent bailouts. Giant consumer-facing companies spent the last few years adopting a new kind of PR strategy. They want you to think of them as individual people with distinct personalities.

It’s a trend that flourished on Twitter, where brands like Steak-umms and Wendy’s parade around as though they’re just some dude you can talk to online, and not what they actually are: the PR department at a faceless organisation. Sometimes the accounts adopt the persona of the company’s social media manager, but often, it’s just Dominos acting like it’s a person who has thoughts and hot takes.

This trend is especially pronounced in the tech industry, where companies make an effort not only to present themselves as people you can get to know but as actual embodied entities. Apple and Amazon gave their voice assistants the names of human women. The new ChatGPT-powered Bing had a very distinct “personality” before Microsoft stepped in and lobotomized it after it got all racist and weird. You’re not just talking to a digital assistant. Many of these tools are scripted to make it feel like you’re sort of talking to the company itself.

Spotify isn’t doing anything new here, in that sense, but it’s gone further than its techie competitors. None of the other tech companies gave their digital voices the personas of real human beings, and most speak in generic language with distinctly “White” voices, unless you change your settings. One key difference though is you can’t talk to Spotify’s DJ, only listen. Spotify had its own voice assistant, but it was retired in 2022.

There are even bigger changes afoot at Spotify. The company doesn’t want to just be a music streaming service, which is one of the only corners of the tech industry with real competition. There are over a dozen music streaming apps from big-name companies, with identical pricing, mostly indistinguishable libraries of music, and copy-cat features.

That’s changing, at least as far as Spotify’s interface is concerned. The company recently adopted a TikTok-style visual feed, where you can scroll through visual content for songs and artists in the music tab. DJ is a part of this project, which seems like a broad effort to categorise what it means to be “on Spotify” in a sort of anthropological sense. Spotify wants to be a media company, with an app that you look at, not just listen to.

The web is coming out of a phase of top-down creativity-cursing sameness. Tech companies hijacked the good things about their own platforms, focusing monetisation strategies and copying features from competitors, rather than embracing what’s unique and interesting about their services. It was a response to a new economic reality; the skyrocketing wave of growth big tech used to enjoy is no longer possible. But it feels like that’s starting to change. In my early days online, large swaths of the internet were reserved for young people and passionate weirdos. It almost feels that way recently. Hanging out with Spotify’s DJ reminded me of my recent trip to a wedding held at a Taco Bell in the metaverse (seriously). For the first time in years, the internet is delightfully strange.

DJ and I went back and forth for hours, and I returned to it over the next few days. “Up next is a track you used to love, but it’s been a minute since you’ve listened to it,” DJ said, before putting on a track by the Memories that I haven’t heard since a girl played it for me in 2014. It felt good to think back to that moment, and it’s the kind of recommendation you can only make from harvesting my data. Then DJ played “Something I Learned Today,” by Hüsker Dü, a truly great punk band I don’t listen to enough.

I can’t sort out my feelings about DJ yet, but I don’t hate it. But the next time DJ chimed in with its smooth, bass-ey voice, it said I was listening to “share dee,” which is a pretty strange mispronunciation of Hüsker Dü, even when you factor in the umlauts. DJ can be a little mesmerising, but eventually, the robot always breaks the spell.

We’re nowhere near the freedom of the web in the early 2000s, even when it comes to corporate experiments, but things are a little less grim than they used to be. If nothing else, it’s nice to have an experience on the internet that makes you ask, once again, “what the fuck is going on here?”