I Bet You Think These Songs Are About You

If you want to think I’m a narcissist for assuming Millie’s Spotify playlists were about me, go ahead. In any case, they probably weren’t about you.

Before Millie’s playlists, there was just Millie, the trombonist from Tinder I matched with in my first month of an ill-timed year abroad at Oxford University. It was September 2020, seven months into the pandemic. Most study-away programs had been canceled, and my homebound friends — denied the tapas of Barcelona, the techno of Berlin and the cannabis of Amsterdam — said I was lucky to go abroad at all.

I was lucky, for sure, but lonely. Between remote coursework and Oxford’s restrictions on socializing, I realized that meeting actual British students — the reason I had come — was going to be difficult. I had traveled 3,000 miles to get marooned on Zoom.

Tinder had never been my thing in America, but abroad I wondered if a dating app might offer me what my program couldn’t: a pool of potential British connections.

“Looking for friends to play music with,” I wrote in my bio, setting my preferences to “Show Everyone.” After a few days of swiping, I had come no closer to meeting any Hugh Grant look-alikes when Millie’s profile appeared like a life raft.

Her bio referenced “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” Pictures showed her grinning before an adoring crowd, flanked by an all-girls funk band. Cheerful, musical, appreciative of Renée Zellweger, Millie seemed like just the type of person I wanted to befriend.

Swallowing my nerves, I messaged: “Hey! You seem really cool!”

After a little small talk, we agreed to meet for drinks.

In the days before, I subjected Millie to a neurotic deep dive, scanning what social media profiles I could find for clues about her. On Instagram, I learned she was not only a funk trombonist but a choral singer. On Facebook, I saw she was active in social justice movements. On Spotify, where her playlists had titles like “Feminism in electronic music” and “Joni Mitchell: ode to the greatest woman in the world,” I found reassurance that we would get along.

In person, Millie was everything I hoped she would be — charismatic, fashionable, generous (and British). Buoyed by a mutual love of gin and tonics, our conversation danced. We adored Harry Potter, Patsy Cline, moodboarding. A few years earlier, she had visited New York and lived for a month on the very street where I was born and raised. Of all streets! This was destiny. But was it love?

To this day, I can’t tell you whether that first evening was a date. Millie and I did, after all, meet through Tinder. Even if I specified that I was only looking for friends, my presence on a hookup app perhaps implied I was open to more.

Complicating things further, neither of us identified as straight, and both of us were still figuring out just what we might be instead. Regardless, what I needed abroad wasn’t a hookup buddy (of any gender), or a serious relationship. I just needed a ticket out of my isolation.

We met next under Mars: The red planet, Millie texted, was in “close approach,” meaning we might be able to spot its glowing craters from the banks of the Thames. “I’m aware I’m coming across insane because of this planet stuff,” she texted, “but this won’t happen again until 2033.”

The night was overcast, but we set up camp anyway with a blanket and a bottle of cabernet sauvignon. Swans slid across the glassy river in time to Kamasi Washington’s “Clair de Lune,” which Millie played on her portable speaker.

“I love this song,” I said. Drunk on starlight and wine, I arrived home around midnight and opened my computer to Spotify, where a new playlist had materialized on Millie’s profile. It was called “mars is in session,” and “Clair de Lune” was on the tracklist.

Spotify is a portmanteau of “spot” and “identify” — the app’s stated function is to help users spot and identify new music. But the popular music platform also offers curious users the opportunity to extrapolate the mental and emotional states of other users based on their publicly broadcast song feed and personal playlist library.

“Mars is in session” was the first of many playlists Millie created about our relationship, playlists I wasn’t sure she intended me to see. All of them were public, but their meanings were cryptic, decipherable only to Millie — and maybe me. A playlist titled “ilagcl,” for example, contained a few songs I had recommended to her, and I was convinced that the title was an acronym referencing my name.

“Am I crazy, or could the letters stand for ‘I like a girl called Lily?’” I texted my friends.

I wasn’t crazy; a few weeks later, a new playlist of hers popped up titled “have I misread this? I hope not,” accompanied by a picture of white lilies.

In the weeks since we had sat beneath Mars, Millie and I had only seen each other a handful of times. But on one of those occasions, wine-drunk in her lamplit bedroom, we had kissed. Suddenly, Millie and I were no longer in a situational friendship but a budding romantic entanglement. Our affair had a killer soundtrack, though I had no hand in scoring it.

It wasn’t strange that Millie had curated playlists around specific moments or moods in her life. But it was strange for me to get an unintended view into her feelings before she communicated them directly. I should have said something — but what? Would I have to admit the hints I had seen? It felt easier just to let things play out.

Millie and I slept together for the first time the night before I boarded a plane home. With England headed back into lockdown, I had decided to extend my winter break indefinitely and take my next round of Oxford courses from the States until restrictions eased, even though it meant leaving Millie and my classmates.

On the morning of my departure, bleary-eyed and baggage-laden, we stumbled onto the Underground and rode in silence to Heathrow. I wasn’t sure when I would see her again, and we kissed goodbye at the airport with more resignation than passion.

Days later, separated from Millie by an ocean, I saw a new playlist on her Spotify profile: “the piccadilly line is really rather long.” I pressed play, and in the music I saw Millie, alone on a subway seat, riding back to reality as London yawned awake.

A few weeks after I arrived home, Millie asked me to be her girlfriend. The proposal arrived via drunk text, 45 minutes before English midnight on New Year’s Eve.

“This would be a good convo to have over the phone at a later and more sober time!!” I shot back.

Over the phone the next day, I explained that although I cared about her deeply, I wasn’t interested in an international long-distance relationship, especially in a pandemic.

She said she understood. Nevertheless, the next morning, a fresh playlist surfaced: “if you need me i’ll be wallowing.”

Most of the songs on it had been added in the days after that phone call. But a few months ago, Millie added a couple more. I wouldn’t have seen the new songs if I hadn’t gone looking for them. But I couldn’t help myself — after Millie and I stopped speaking regularly, I found myself lingering on her Spotify profile, looking for clues about how she was faring.

Five months after dropping me at Heathrow, Millie was there again to pick me up. I had decided to return to Oxford for a few weeks at the end of my program so we could finish my year there together.

While we had chattered excitedly over the phone about my return, once we reunited in person, our past confronted us like a very large elephant in a very small room. In the months we had spent apart, we had cut our hair, seen other people and barely addressed our feelings.

The day I left England again, this time for good, Millie uploaded a 91-song playlist. Its cover art was a chapel bathed in sunset light. Its title? “Let Go.”

If playlist titles are any indication, Millie is doing well these days: running, hosting dinner parties, slow dancing. But when those new songs appeared on “if you need me i’ll be wallowing,” I wondered if she was thinking of me, or if someone new had let her down.

It’s not my business, just like searching for hidden signals in song titles and playlist names is not my business. It’s my pleasure, though, to see a playlist like “all i’m wearing is my leopard print pants” and know that my friend across the pond will keep dancing to Tracy Chapman in her underwear until she begins to feel OK again.

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