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Music compass memes
via Instagram (@thepoliticalcompass)

Incels and sad girls: how memes have changed the way we categorise music

With infinite access to music online, users are making connections between artists and bands that have little in common

Do you listen to Radiohead? Or what about The Smiths? Then, I’m sorry to inform you, you may be an incel. As with all weird online phenomena, this diagnosis comes in the form of a meme – a music compass made by the user @soundgeist, to be precise. Over the past few months, people have been sharing the screenshot and circling their ‘top five’, typically accompanying them by the usual, “It’s so over”. Even Anthony Fantano, the YouTube music critic, has done it. 

The format has admittedly been around for a few years now, the earliest example dating back to 2020, but this recent burst of memes (also included: femcel, male manipulator, female manipulator) suggests some bigger shifts in our listening habits, because what’s music if not a personality trait?

The music compass, like its relative the movie compass, taps into a wider cliché of algorithmic trends across social media. These are online archetypes, such as the sad girl with her Tumblr-adjacent feed, singing Fiona Apple songs while sharing stills from Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita. Or the male manipulator who wishes to emulate the sociopathic behaviours of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, blasting Elliot Smith’s “Ballad Of Big Nothing” between reps at the gym. It’s all a bit of fun: revealing how far you rank on the male manipulator chart or romanticising your melancholic solitude through the lens of Mitski are different ways of connecting online, in the same way that you might repost a girl dinner. What’s more interesting, perhaps, is how it groups artists under certain aesthetic umbrellas when, for the most part, they have very little in common, musically or not.

What music you listen to has always been a way of signalling your allegiance to a certain social group. Beginning in the 1950s, the band tee is one of the earliest examples of music merchandising, and a staple across youth subcultures, each with their own unique sound and aesthetic tied to a specific era. Skinheads, soul boys, rastas, glam rockers, punks, heavy metalists, goths, ravers – these subcultures were formed in clubs and venues in real locations, almost always tied to some form of mainstream resistance. Whereas now, culture almost always emerges and exists online, splintered across the feed in the form of TikToks and algorithm-friendly playlists. Listening to a certain strain of music is no longer associated with any particular ideology or political allegiance, but rather a response to meme archetypes and online trends. 

While there are still some associations between what you wear and the music you listen to – drainers have a distinct aesthetic, for example, so does indie sleaze – the way we consume music is the biggest change in our listening habits. Whereas the average music enjoyer pre-streaming might discover songs at the record store, through magazines, dedicated forums or even live shows, the move away from this has created a listening culture built on metrics, which deprioritises smaller artists in favour of big-hitters (last week, Spotify announced that it would be demonetising all tracks under 1,000 streams). With the popularity of algorithm-curated playlists – a new report on why music is becoming simpler and more repetitive points to more people tuning into playlists in the background at school or work – the music that gets recommended is optimised for mass appeal. It’s one of the main reasons why AI muzak is on the rise and why you’re more likely to find the same handful of artists in each publication’s end-of-year round-ups.

But back to the memes – or rather, why we associate certain artists and bands with meme archetypes such as incels or femcels, which are themselves categories used to make sense of our increasingly online social surroundings. When music is largely dictated by a machine, or number-hungry tech execs, there might be a temptation to find new connections. “People try to map the music they listen to onto these other categories to build visualisations, or almost mental maps of their listening habits,” explains Gabriele de Seta, an internet culture researcher at the University of Bergen. “All these things provide a useful cartography to map things out. If you know what an incel is, you can kind of translate the same vibe to music.”

Of all the reasons behind the memeification of our music tastes, perhaps what’s most striking is just how basic most of it is. By now, it’s no secret that most young people discover music on social media – think: Kim Gordon going viral on TikTo or the return of 90s genres like nu-metal. Maybe the repeat meme-ing of bands such as Radiohead and The Beatles is the result of a younger generation discovering old music for the first time. But spend enough time on Spotify’s recommendation feature and you’ll find the same artists being pushed again and again. This might even lead you to make connections where there are none. For example, if I start listening to Grimes, the next artist to appear on my ‘recommended’ might be Fiona Apple followed by Ethel Cain, which might make me associate them with ‘sad girl’ or ‘femcel’. “With infinite access to any sound or style on a phone, the kids were bound to find social bridges between aesthetics that might have seemed completely at odds with each other 20 years ago,” agrees Max Alper, AKA La Meme Young, a music educator and writer. 

With infinite access to any sound or style on a phone, the kids were bound to find social bridges between aesthetics that might have seemed completely at odds with each other 20 years ago” – Max Alper

The practice of folksonomy – “the digital folklore of building categories or larger systems to categorise stuff” – has always existed online, whether that’s putting certain songs into dedicated folders or sorting memes into various types. “Most of the internet relied on classifying things, and many of these huge platforms now use automated classification systems. But from the beginning of the internet, people have built their own categories,” expands de Seta. In the 1960s, the philosopher Pierre Bourdieu used particularly elaborate mapping systems as a way to differentiate people, tracing the relationship between taste and cultural capital. Nowadays, these formats are stripped-back for quick consumption on the feed in the form of compasses, pyramids and icebergs, their easy-to-digest formats serving as ways for younger generations to feel part of a shared moment (“I’m a femcel because I listen to Lana lol”), while also allowing for individuals to assert their superiority over others (“I know X and Y artists on the music iceberg which means I’m more esoteric than you”). 

“Vibes are a medium for feeling, the kind of abstract understanding that comes before words put a name to experience,” wrote Kyle Chayka in an article about the vibe economy for The New Yorker. “That pre-linguistic quality makes them well suited to a social media landscape that is increasingly prioritising audio, video, and images over text.” Music is similarly a curation of vibes emitted through a screen and attributed to certain aesthetic groups. So, whether you’re going beast mode on a sigma male playlist or harnessing your inner dark feminine through the subliminal frequencies of Lana Del Rey, it’s all a way to make sense of the neverending barrage of images and information that flood our screens. “My real question is, why the fuck are Deftones associated with incels?” asks Alper. “It's moody because it's human, it’s music for fucking.”

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