Following in the steps of Facebook and YouTube, Spotify is trying to scrub its platform of controversial content. The streaming music service has released a new "hate content and hateful conduct" policy, outlining how it intends to identify and deal with music that violates the company's core principles of "openness, diversity, tolerance and respect."
According to the policy, any tracks or artists identified as "hate content"—defined as music that "principally promotes, advocates, or incites hatred or violence against a group or individual based on characteristics, including, race, religion, gender identity, sex, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, veteran status, or disability"—will be either removed from Spotify altogether or suppressed in promotions and stripped out of any platform-generated playlists.
The "hateful conduct" part of the policy will take aim at musicians' off-the-clock behavior. "When an artist or creator does something that is especially harmful or hateful," the company explains, that will affect the company's dealings with them. R. Kelly, who has been accused of sexually abusing underage girls, appears to be the first casualty of this policy: The singer's music will still stream at Spotify but will no longer be promoted there.
Several advocacy groups will help Spotify identify "hate content." Among them: the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League, and GLAAD.
Fighting bigotry is a fine goal, and I am sure Spotify's intentions are pure. It also goes without saying that a private company can moderate content however it wants.
That said, the this "hate content" policy is an ambiguous mess doomed to failure. Music, including a lot of incredibly popular music, is full of hateful, racist, sexist, homophobic, and otherwise appalling messages. Attempting to sort the truly objectionable from the merely edgy or dated will only lend itself to arbitrary enforcement.
Take "Gangsta Gangsta," from NWA's 1988 album Straight Outta Compton. The rap has racked up an impressive 31 million streams on Spotify, dazzling listeners with lyrics like "dumb-ass hooker ain't nothing but a dyke" and "life ain't nothing but bitches and money":
Or take Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing," which reached the top spot on the Billboard charts back in 1985 and now has been streamed some 88 million times on Spotify. This popular rock song contains such gems as "See the little faggot with the earring and the make-up/Yeah buddy, that's his own hair/ That little faggot got his own jet airplane/That little faggot he's a millionaire":
Savvy listeners can certainly muster defenses of these tracks. "Money for Nothing," for example, was based on a conversation that Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler overheard in a store; it would be a mistake to declare the singer homophobic just because a character in his song is. But the language could still offend people. How exactly Spotify should adjudicate that is anyone's guess.
At any rate, both songs peddle in homophobic and misogynistic slurs. Do they rise to level of "hate content," though? One might argue that these songs aren't "principally" promoting or inciting hate, as required by Spotify's policy. But that again is a fuzzy line. Is misogyny the principle message of "Gangsta, Gangsta" or just an ancillary theme?
Then there are questions about songs that do explicitly promote hate and violence are going to be treated. We live in a time, after all, when some states are adding the police to the protected classes in their hate crimes laws. So consider another popular NWA track, "Fuck tha Police." It's undeniably hateful. And it includes explicit calls for violence against law enforcement, with lines like "Beat a police out of shape/And when I'm finished, bring the yellow tape":
At a time when some states are adding the police to the protected classes in their hate crimes laws, you can see where this is going. Were Spotify to employ its "hate content" criteria neutrally across its entire platform, it would almost certainly have to suppress this song. Remember, the new policy bars incitement against groups marked by a potentially limitless set of characteristics, not just the ones explicitly listed.
Yet NWA's invocation of violence was itself a reaction to police racism and violence. Hatred, anger, and violent fantasies are real, predictable, even common reactions to injustice. Part of what makes songs like "Fuck tha Police" so powerful and enduring is that they capture that hate and turn it into popular art that speaks to an audience. Will they have to go nevertheless?
Spotify's new policy acknowledges this dilemma by saying that "cultural standards and sensitivities vary widely" and that "there will always be content that is acceptable in some circumstances, but is offensive in others, and we will always look at the entire context."
OK, good. But that raises more questions than it answers.
What context might make violent or hateful lyrics safe for Spotify? Would they have to be a response to injustice, as with "Fuck tha Police"? A lot of people like being titillated by dark, violent, and grotesque images. This is particularly true of music, where whole genres of music exist to horrify their audiences with obscenely violent lyrics and themes. Try to apply Spotify's standards to large swaths of rap, punk, and metal without barring them entirely will become an exercise in absurdity.
Take death metal superstars Cannibal Corpse's song "Hammer Smashed Face" (5 million listens on Spotify):
The lyrics here include "I smash your fucking head in, until brains seep in through the cracks." That might survive the cut, since they refer to a neutral "you" rather than a "you" whose race, gender, sexual orientation, or veteran's status has been specifically stated. The band might run into more problems for its song "Entrails Ripped from a Virgin's Cunt" (212,000 listens), since—as the name suggests—it includes some graphic descriptions of violence against women. But is smashing someone's head in with a hammer less hateful than pulling her innards through her vagina? I guess Spotify will have to decide.
The company's policy becomes even more troublesome when one considers that the Southern Poverty Law Center will help to guide and enforce it. Given that group's history of using exceptionally broad definitions of "hate" and "hate groups," one can be forgiven for being pessimistic about their ability to vet musical content with a light and sensitive touch. (I reached out both Spotify and the Southern Poverty Law Center to ask how this identification of hate content will work in practice but did not receive a reply.)
Inevitably, some songs will cross lines of acceptable expression. Part of musical exploration is finding where that line is for yourself. But now Spotify plans to put itself in the role of defining where that line has to be, undercutting its own value as a library for listeners to explore.