Lo-fi Hip Hop and POV Playlists are symptoms of late capitalism
Contradictory, these trends aim to provide comfort for the audience while feeding an original loop of suffering
In 2020, the Brazilian influencer Mário Júnior grew popular beyond TikTok as he was turned into a national meme. One of the motivators was the fact that he was producing content in a format that is typical to the platform: POV or point of view. This audiovisual format generally appears in the tab “For You” on TikTok, which is a section that offers similar content to what the user has engaged previously, but not necessarily published by profiles they already follow.
For that reason, the POV format has become a new engagement strategy in a social network that promotes the remix of videos, sounds and memes. In order to stand out in an ocean of similar content (that is, a same meme or viral trend being reproduced, only performed by different people), the POV format has generated engagement precisely because it is supposedly more “humane”.
Using soundtracks that, oftentimes, feature lyrics that communicate the message the creator wants to share, POV videos can also be very specific: they may portray embarrassing and trivial moments for teenagers or even the simulation of a relationship, such as in the case of Mário Júnior.
Ultimately, as suggested in this article, POV videos promote empathy between users and, this way, they can address situations or topics that are sensitive to this audience mostly composed of people younger than 34. By the way, this is also the demographic for those who watch the videos and streamings of lo-fi hip hop playlists on YouTube.
YouTube channels such as Chillhop Music, ChilledCow, and Mellowbeat Seeker are some examples of creators that are publishing playlists or livestreaming this music genre. Curated by humans, the streamed songs are characterized by its low fidelity sounds (lo-fi), samples extracted from popular sources, and titles that oftentimes are already a disclaimer of the intention of these radios — examples include the songs “Things will be better by morning” by Jonas Langer or “I have love for everyone besides myself” by barnesblvd.
In other cases, the playlists themselves communicate their function, such as in the case of the popular streaming lofi hip hop radio — beats to relax/study to. The streaming became popular after using a looping video of a girl studying 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Since approximately 2015, this kind of content is multiplying on YouTube and Spotify, which brings us to the fact that the music genre is also achieving traction and influence over the industry. But unlike many other comment sections on the internet, the chatboxes in these channels are usually friendly and cozy.
In the paper Beats to Relax/Study To: Contradiction and Paradox in Lofi Hip Hop, researchers Emma Winston and Lawrence Saywood mention how microfictions (or confessions) are shared between users who, by their turn, are answered with supportive messages. In the case of the channel College Music, there is even a robot programmed to answer an automated hug request (picture above) or to tell a joke.
Like a development of POV videos from TikTok and the lo-fi hip hop radios, more recently new playlists with very specific titles and functions are being created. Both on YouTube and Spotify, these playlists may have titles like pov: your sadness turned into anger or pov: you’re the villain with a tragic backstory. They can even achieve another levels of specificity and lyricism, such as in the case of the playlist i’m going crazy cuz your face is burned in the back of my fucking eyelids.
What Winston and Saywood argue, however, is that the lo-fi hip hop genre is in itself a contradiction. While these playlists are created for people who need energy and concentration to finish their tasks (from school or work), or even to make them reach a specific mood, what actually happens is that these streamings are precisely a consequence of the late capitalism we live in.
By using samples from other works, as well as the fact that the songs have “low fidelity” or have their quality purposefully reduced, lo-fi hip hop is a genre that stresses a feeling of memory and nostalgia, even if the listener doesn’t know the reference used there.
Winston and Saywood make a comment on the case of the song “I wonder if I’m dead” by Eevee, which uses a sample from the opening song of The Legend of Korra (2012). What the researchers discovered is that the nostalgia feeling generated by the song was also experienced among listeners who never watched the animation. This finding reinforces the fact that this music genre uses technical resources to trigger the feeling of a past that, however, is not the actual past, but rather a sentiment fabricated in the present. In the researchers’ words:
“…far from a superficial engagement with the past, [lo-fi hip hop] actually more resembles an extension and development of Boym’s (2002:82) definition of “reflective nostalgia”, which seeks neither to engage only superficially with nostalgia, nor to recreate a perfect copy of a past life, but embraces the fragmentation of memory and defers any actual homecoming, ‘enamoured of distance, not the referent itself’ (Boym, 2002:82). We suggest that lofi hip hop engages its listeners and producers simultaneously in nostalgia for their memories of childhood, but also for what is acknowledged to be an imagined past, not only unreachable in the present, but never experienced in the first instance.”
Nonetheless, lo-fi hip hop is not the only music genre that plays with nostalgia and the fabrication of memories among its listeners. Winston and Saywood also mention music genres such as hauntology, hypnagogic pop, chillwave and vaporwave. In the case of hauntology, the genre borrows the term created by Jacques Derrida, which is a portmanteau of the words “haunt” and “ontology” to address “the image of a ghost that is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive.”
Mark Fisher also discussed this term from a political viewpoint, while Vermeulen and den Akker added a sociological layer to the conversation by suggesting the coming of a new age: metamodernism, a subject I already wrote about here.
Metamodernism is different from modernism and postmodernism for being neither optimistic nor pessimistic and ambiguous as its predecessors. In fact, metamodernism is full of mockery, which makes it similar to the memes created to lament contemporary issues. Still, even when one is at rock bottom, there is still a remnant of hope, nostalgia, and romanticism about how things could, one day, get better.
The very fact that there is someone empathizing with that specific feeling is already a reason to make engagement more “humane”, as suggested in relation to POV videos on TikTok. I believe this is precisely the kind of humor enjoyed by Millennials and Gen Z, especially when we see pages such as Melted Videos, which, by the way, also has this vaporwave aesthetics for their brand identity.
Now, unlike TikTok’s POV videos where there is an explicit narrative and characters, playlists are more subjective and, at most, they may have an illustration that makes the creator’s intention more visible. Still, it is common sense that music can affect our mood or even be used for medicinal ends— such as in the case of music therapy.
This method is so popular that even the Brazilian Hospital Albert Einstein created specific playlists on YouTube, with titles such as “Mother and Son Time”. Similarly, “music branding” companies are creating playlists for specific experiences (a wedding party or a corporate event, for instance), as well to help people who suffer from anxiety. By the way, songs are being composed precisely for this end.
During the pandemic, lo-fi hip hop streamings became even more popular as they were being used as a resource to alleviate anxiety. One year before, in 2019, the YouTube channel College Radio also made a partnership with the Samaritans in the UK, so that they created a streaming that offered mental health resources to students. Instead of adding a comments section, the streaming features a live chat through which people can communicate.
Winston and Saywood mention that, for the past years, the time spent at school increased as much as homework, an implementation that is simply reproducing the mechanisms of post-Fordist economy. In other words, young people are being prepared not to perform repetitive tasks, which were already automated by machines, but rather to perform “affective labor”.
This term, suggested by the theorist Paolo Virno, is about the way contemporary labor focuses on communication, emotion and intellect, thoughts and discourses which make us function as “productive machines”. We are no longer educated to perform repetitive, mechanical and predictable tasks, but rather to be increasingly more adaptable in terms of emotional and personal investment. According to Malcolm Harris, quoted by Winston and Saywood,
“… the increasing prevalence of affective work in the post-Fordist accompanied by a corresponding increase in emphasis upon preparing for the labor market which extends as far back as childhood; those who preparing are millennials and younger, claims Harris, are being raised to work with their emotions as soon as they begin school, drilled to understand that “efficiency is our existential purpose”.”
For Winston and Saywood, lo-fi hip hop is therefore a genre that expresses a contradiction for being a kind of music that tries to alleviate the effects of late capitalism while also functioning according to the rules set by this same system. In other words, these streamings are made available on huge platforms (YouTube or Spotify) and some channels generate a recipe from ads or from the payment of fees for the streaming of a song.
While fomenting what the researchers call “ubiquitous listening”, these streamings reinforce a “passive, inattentive form of listening which…is a result of the omnipresence of music in contemporary life, and which is characterized by people ‘living in industrialized settings…listen(ing) ‘alongside’ or simultaneous with other activities’.”
This ubiquity of music, of 24/7 livestreams, can thus represent precisely the nonlinearity of contemporary life, something that Winston and Saywood claim to be a characteristic of late capitalism. Jonathan Crary uses the term “24/7 capitalism”, since it is “not simply a continuous or sequential capture of attention, but a dense layering of time, in which multiple operations or attractions can be attended to in near-simultaneity, regardless of where one is or whatever else one might be doing.” When living like this, burnout is just around the corner.
Therefore, finding aesthetic trends like “Dark Academia” or simply “Academia” popping out on social media platforms like Tumblr, Pinterest and TikTok is just a corroboration to the analysis made by Winston and Saywood — also because, besides this romanticization of academic environments, of the acts of reading and studying, some users may share rants about their efforts to pass the exams or finish a series of homework, for instance. For this reason, the researchers believe that lo-fi hip hop (and I would extend this to POV playlists too), in its own contradiction, expresses precisely our contemporary spirit:
“Lofi hip hop’s student participants are among the first generation too young to remember a time before what Jonathan Crary refers to as “the paradoxes of the expanding, non-stop life-world of twenty-first-century capitalism…inseparable from shifting configurations of sleep and waking, illumination and darkness, justice and terror, and…exposure, unprotectedness, and vulnerability”. If twenty-first-century normality is characterized by “systemic impossibility”, then, perhaps, engaging with the impossible through popular culture is simply a way to make sense of everyday life.”
This sounds much like a Brazilian expression that says “bite and blow”, which is about a bad behavior that is followed by praise, so it can mitigate the effects of the first act. In this context, lo-fi hip hop and POV playlists are contradictorily born in the mechanisms of late (and algorithmic) capitalism at the same time they attempt to comfort listeners affected by these same actors. Once again, Mark Fisher can be mentioned here for when he argues in “Capitalist Realism” that even oppositional attitudes towards capitalism are co-opted by the system and turned into a product — to the point that even the theorist himself has already become a meme.
Hence, based on the conclusions arrived by Winston and Saywood, the only choice for millennials and the following generations is to adopt this metamodern stand of “guilty pleasure”: it is about laughing and empathizing with everyday challenges at the same time you give a like to that post, leave a comment, follow the profile or even donate some money that cements the structures of late and algorithmic capitalism.