Spotify,, and the Fortunes of Race Science in the Twenty-First Century

Presented at the 2019 annual meeting of the American Musicological Society in Boston, MA. The paper’s theoretical frame ended up differing a little from the submitted abstract; and I’m more than happy to share the typescript upon request.


In fall 2018, the music streaming service Spotify partnered with genealogy website to turn results from the latter’s popular DNA testing kits into playlists, so that users might not only know their national heritage, but, in the words of one Ancestry executive, “experience” it through music. A century earlier, in the midst of an earlier fad for genealogy and heredity, Columbia Gramophone Company worked with psychologist Carl E. Seashore to market his “Measures of Musical Talent” to the general public. These Measures—psychometric tests of musical ability designed to reveal one’s inherited capacity for musical achievement—are now known to be a direct product of eugenic research, and their sale among the many strategies used by the movement to legitimize race science in the public eye. This paper sketches a genealogy of musical “self-testing” from Seashore to Spotify, arguing that in every instance, the idea of uncovering an inner musical self is mobilized to legitimize changing hierarchies of race and class. Through an examination of previously unstudied advertisements for the Seashore Measures, as well as family-history material from the archives of the American Eugenics Society, this paper considers first the role of music in the early marketing of scientific self-knowledge. The second half of the paper situates the Spotify/Ancestry partnership within this history. Promotional materials for the partnership are examined in light of both the contemporary resurgence of ethno-nationalism, and theorizations of “human capital” as a mode of self-actualization. Building on recent work by William Cheng and Rachel Mundy, among others, the paper concludes by advancing a theory of the “musically constituted subject,” a term I use to describe the phenomenon of a scientifically legitimized personal relationship with music that serves to justify, and obscure, relationships with race, nation, and power. In situating the Spotify/Ancestry partnership in a longer history of musical “self-testing,” this paper aims to offer window into both contemporary subjects’ changing relationships to music in the streaming era, and changing relationships to capital in the neoliberal age.

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