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Matthew Perpetua's Infinite Playlist
"People ask me, how do you stay interested in new music? And it's like, well, I made a machine in my life 20 years ago that has made it a priority to be looking for things at all times."
A little while back Matthew Perpetua posted a playlist he had assembled called The Late 90s Sophisticate, which he described as a collection of “[u]pscale cosmopolitan sounds for discerning pre-millennium listeners.”
It was warmly received on social media. “What are you doing, Matt?” replied Twitter-user @mtedder. “It's way too early for me to get an overpriced martini at a fancy hotel bar, and yet you've dropped this soundtrack.”
As is often true of Perpetua’s themed playlists, the Late 90s Sophisticate is evocative in a way that, say, the generalized soundtrack to a Netflix period piece probably isn't. I may have only been a teenager in the late '90s, but I knew enough chic adults to know that their CD collections were full of this stuff.
The playlists are just one part of what one might call Perpetua’s Flux media mini-empire, which he launched as an MP3 blog in 2002, which he still updates almost daily, and has grown to include a podcast and a newsletter.
Having spent a number of years at Buzzfeed, first as music editor and then as Director of Quizzes and Games, Perpetua understands a thing or two about content creation. “The work that succeeds on the grandest scale does so because it has clear objective utility,” he wrote in 2019. “If you’re chasing this, you learn to make yourself useful.” But, as useful and sharable and occasionally viral as these playlists might be, there’s nothing cynical about the world of Flux. Perpetua is in it for the love of the game.
He works in themes, some more straightforward than others. Flux Caviar rounds up all the best in new music, and there are year-by-year surveys: Currently you can find one for every year from 1964 onward. Some playlists delve into genres, or explore specific ideas or trends (Punky Reggae Party: Jamaican Ska 1976-1982; Black Interpretations of Bob Dylan 1963-1977), some flesh out the extended recording universes of artists like Bjork, Missy Elliott and Steely Dan. Some set a particular scene (Instant Chill Low Key Party, The Evil Beach, Jack Nicholson Partying in Miami 1998).
The playlist schedule is built into the larger Fluxblog project, which ultimately shakes out to about one playlist per week. Of course, the more ground he covers the more challenging the process becomes. As he told me during our phone conversation a few weeks ago, “You have to start getting a little more clever.”
I’ve helpfully linked a bunch of wonderful playlists throughout this piece, but if you’re not a Spotify user, they’re also available on Apple Music.
Part of why your playlists work so well is that there’s real utility to them. You can go on Spotify and find all kinds of playlists, but most of them are not that good or useful.
Right, and that’s kind of the goal. Even when they're really historically-based I want them to be something you can put on and enjoy. And I put a lot into sequencing them.
I think utility is exactly the right word. A lot of playlists are about utility, it’s about creating a specific mood or exploring an idea, or whatever it’s going to be. Also utility is something that’s kind of drilled into my head just from working for Buzzfeed for so long.
The whole idea is that things that do well tend to have utility, and I think that’s true of music, certainly in the past few years. Songs that become successful do so because they have a specific utility for listeners… All of that kind of guides how people consume things. I think when it comes to art it becomes this very tricky thing where sometimes it’s great and other times it's super corny to try to make useful music. But there are entire categories of music that are based around utility, like dance music which I think in almost all cases has to be danceable.
Do you feel like this is a more modern phenomenon? Is it because it’s harder for artists to get traction otherwise?
I think there’s a level of self-consciousness. … Being able to see how your audience, how they consume your stuff, I think it can drive people crazy. I think there are artists who game the system a bit. The thing I wrote [about this] was kind of pinned to Lizzo, who I think is exceptionally good at this.
Oh right, I read that piece. I think it's such an interesting point. The Black Eyed Peas feel like beginning of that, to me. I don’t know if they were the beginning of it in any real historical way, but in my awareness they were.
I think you’re right, at least in the sense that the Black Eyed Peas were trying to make all-ages party songs that would last forever. I actually have a playlist where I kind of focus on that stuff. “We’re trying to make songs that you play at weddings/bar mitzvahs.” Things like that, all-ages gatherings. The Black Eyed Peas, I think, probably owned that lane [for a few years].
Bruno Mars is really good at that.
It doesn’t seem like the entire focus of his existence the way it does for Black Eyed Peas. And I don’t think Bruno Mars is really trying to game the system, I think that guy just makes songs that people naturally want to listen to. I kind of think of Bruno Mars as being this generation’s Billy Joel, they’re both pastiche guys and they just have this natural impulse for making melodies.
That's such a good point.
I think Chris Molanphy may have actually made that point and it kind of stuck in my head. Nevertheless, I think it’s pretty accurate.
Yeah, they both have that thing where you’re like, oh wait this is Billy Joel?
I grew up listening to [Billy Joel]. My parents weren’t really music people, so I listened to a lot of Top 40, but also adult contemporary stuff. And I’m also from the Northeast [and] Billy Joel is bigger in New York and New Jersey. So I think a lot of the things that were pastichey about him I didn’t realize. Billy Joel was just a fact.
It didn’t hit me that “Piano Man” was him basically trying to do a Bob Dylan song until I did it at karaoke once and I was like, this is a fucking Bob Dylan song!
I’m assuming that you made mixtapes when you were growing up.
Yeah, like, cassettes.
I was really into making mix tapes and it was usually motivated by either having a crush on someone, or wanting to, like, educate someone or get them to share my musical tastes.
I think more often than not it was the latter for me. It's funny because I think the things that became the focus of my life were really there by the time I was 13, 14. Like, trying to get people I went to high school with to like Pavement for some reason. And it worked! I saw a bunch of Pavement shows last year. For one of them I went to DC and while I was there I reconnected with a guy I went to high school with who was two years younger than me, and he got into all this stuff from me … It was kind of cool, like, I had more of an impact on that guy than I could have ever imagined.
Were people making mix tapes for you?
Not as much. I know I got some, but I was really more the giver in that way, and I think I kind of stayed the same too. My tastes were really self-determined, my family had no interest. I’m the oldest of three, neither of my siblings really care. So I didn't really have that big brother thing. My “big brothers” were all writing for SPIN Magazine in the '90s.
I had a similar thing where I was the oldest and … well, my dad is into music but SPIN was so important to me.
Yeah, I collect a lot of old magazines so that kind of feeds into this.
A lot of these playlists feel like historical documents.
Yeah, there’s a lot of research that goes into some of them.
I think the way I research them gets better over time, so a lot of those year survey ones I really should fix before too long. The '80s and '90s were some of the first I did and they are some of the least up to snuff.
They’re much shorter, they’re missing things, the aesthetic breadth isn’t as wide as the others ended up being. Especially for genres I don’t listen to a ton but kind of need to be in there: Country music is a good example.
As I try to cover more ground it gets harder. The earliest one I have now is 1964 and I’m not really inclined to go back further. Partly because the '60s ones just did terribly, maybe because people feel like they’re so tired of hearing about the '60s.
What tends to do well with people?
There are some nostalgia buttons that always work. The last two that did really well were super ’90s ones. The ones that lean '90s, or early-to-mid aughts – any time that it can be like, “Oh my god, this is my youth!” – those tend to get a bigger pop than most. Or ones that are explaining a genre, or some sort of moment in time.
Like you pointed out, there are tons of playlists on Spotify. And whether they’re professionally made or just some random person, a lot of them are terrible. They’re aiming for something but just really do not get there. The most popular [playlist] I have is a result of that. It was the indie sleaze one. I was seeing people making these [playlists] and I was thinking, wow these are so off the mark, I can tell this person is at minimum 10 years younger than me and was not really living in that moment. Where, unfortunately, that is my 20s.
The indie sleaze one was mildly triggering for me it because it takes me back to the time in history when I was the most annoying I’ve ever been.
I don’t love doing 2000s stuff because I have such terrible associations with that whole decade. I don’t like that era, I don’t have a ton of good memories. But when I drill down, you know, there’s plenty of good things.
But yeah, like, Bush era, ugh. I don’t have as bad of a feeling about the more recent past, though maybe eventually I will. I'm sure lots of people who are in their 20s now are not going to be thrilled about being like, in your teenage years and 20s during Trump and Covid. It seems like a bad combo to be nostalgic about.
I’m thinking of your neo-grunge girl, alt-rock girl playlist Brutal. You have a respect for things that I think a lot of people our age don’t have respect for, which I’d say includes the artists on that particular playlist.
I think sometimes you have to demonstrate to people that something is happening. With that one it’s like, look at the sheer volume of young women playing music in this style. This style was considered pretty outdated not even that long ago. Some of these are massively popular songs.
There’s a couple that are kind of living documents and I have to update them after a while. There’s also the new indie sleaze thing, and I’m just kind of trying to point out [that] this is what’s happening right now.
One of my biggest pet peeves is when people are like, “Nobody listens to rock music anymore” and it's like no, tons of people do. In fact some of the most popular acts right now are rock artists. Its very easy to take a bit of conventional wisdom that may have been true ten years ago, that someone internalized and then stopped thinking about. Like, no, things are constantly moving, things are going in and out of style, that’s the nature of all of this. And just because one thing is down, or just not hegemonic anymore … that’s not really how it works.
How do you keep your brain fresh when you’re approaching this stuff?
I think it’s more like, how do I figure out what to do when I don’t have an idea. I’ve developed certain formulas for things. I’m finishing a summer one for 1980 which is a very weird year. The interesting thing about 1980 is that there are a bunch of things that don’t seem like they should be happening chronologically at the same time. The best example of this — and I sequenced them back to back for this purpose — is “Isolation” by Joy Division is the same year as Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” And Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” comes out that year, and Hall and Oats “Kiss on My List.” It all connects, but it’s weird … not all years [feel] that way.
I can only speak to the '90s onward, but your era-based playlists really do capture what the vibe was at the time, whereas you watch a tv show and it's supposed to be the '90s, but the way they express it musically is a little off.
Or they’ll do songs that are not quite chronologically right. I was just watching Yellowjackets last night and they drop “Song 2” and I’m like uhh you’re in 1996.
Yeah, these things irk me more than they probably should.
The one movie that drove me insane was House of Gucci. The use of music in that movie is … you can’t say it's arbitrary because there are good picks that are evocative, largely, of the '80s, but they don’t do them in an order that makes sense. One thing that comes to mind is they have a wedding scene and they use George Michael's “Faith,” but then once you get a sense of the actual timeline its like, “Wait, that's 1979 or something.” I feel like in doing period pieces music should be used to anchor people in moments
I guess I understand the function of the most recognizable needle drop.
Yeah, I mean, they use good songs in that movie. I understand it from that point of view, and I don’t think that Ridley Scott cares. But I was actually confused by that movie because of where things fell in the timeline. And maybe most people wouldn’t be.
How do you listen to music? Are you always listening in service of the playlist?
It's not really for the playlist but for the site itself. I've been doing it for like 21 years now, so I don’t know how to listen in other ways now.
I do have this kind of screening process, and the main playlist I listen to all the time is whatever year I’m in, it’s called Flux Caviar … And then I have a secondary one that's for things that are new but I haven’t written about yet. So I keep that process going. And then there’s stuff that I just like to listen to, I’ll become really interested in something and all the sudden be like, I need to listen to Lana Del Rey all the time.
I listen to music all the time, it’s a very large portion of any given day for me, and I also do a lot of walking, so it all kind of clicks together. But it is mostly about these two main processes that I have to get through every week, that are entirely self-directed. People ask me, how do you stay interested in new music? And it's like, well, I made a machine in my life 20 years ago that has made it a priority to be looking for things at all times.
What you do has a kind of forward-moving positivity that I think is rare.
Yeah, I generally try to lead with positivity. I keep my meanest opinions to myself, generally, or to my friends. I think the earliest reason for that was because what I was doing initially was piracy, so it wasn’t worth risking trouble over things I did not like. And especially in my 20s, it could have been a very different thing if I did not have that there. I could have had absolutely horrible takes for years. It does keep you from having terrible takes on the record. It doesn’t stop it completely, but …
[Making] the playlists is really [about] trying to understand things in some way, trying to understand the past, how it connects.
I don’t know exactly how far back this goes but at some point I became fascinated by currents. Like, the way that people talk about history, they talk about what is essentially one storyline. But there’s also all the other things that were happening in the world, and [I’m] trying to contextualize stuff as much as I can for myself above all else, and trying to understand these things. In doing this, a lot of things become more clear to me, or I can kind of understand things in the present better because I have a sense of this continuity. And seeing how cyclical things can be.
Also, I think doing all these year ones … the one thing that becomes very clear is that trends do not last more than four or five years. Music fashions, regardless of what they are, will change. Whether its people getting sick of something, or people within the genre moving on to something else, technological changes … Technology drives so much in music history. Not just in terms of transmission but with instruments or new ways of recording things. Obviously music history goes before the 20th century but we really only have recordings from the 20th onward. So my knowledge at this point goes back *confidently* to 1955, but that’s only because I’ve become more of a jazz person.
It's interesting that the more historical context one has, the less hostile one might be to modern music.
What I do doesn’t seem to be as appreciated by other music writers, but it’s not really for them? [laughs] It’s definitely for people who need the help. I like the idea of someone kind of stumbling onto my Spotify profile and saying, “Well, ok, I’m going to learn about all this history now.”