When did we find ourselves on a musical hamster wheel? Slowly, over years, with every daily Spotify playlist, my ever-shortening menu of pellets features five artists I used to love, and also DJ Khaled, for some reason. It’s functional; it can synch my BPM for running and effectively dull the hyper-aware blog brain. But the part of music that represents joy is Proustian: the songs that send you back to age 22, lolling on a couch after a party with your best friend wailing “my music is where I want you to touch, baum baum-baum-baum-baum-baum bauuum BAUUM” (for example). Maybe you don’t relate to the CSS part, but music is for sharing.
To my delight (I think), last week I discovered something that sorta comes close. A mysterious music robot is telling people to listen to Bill Callahan.
If you check out a YouTube video of Bill Callahan’s “Riding For the Feeling,” you’ll find hundreds—honest to god, hundreds—of commenters talking about their Replikas, an app-based chatbot that develops a personality and apparently likes Bill Callahan, a lot.
“i asked my replika what’s his favorite song and then he called this very poetic 😀✨,” one says.
Another after another roll in, some in Spanish, French, Portuguese, and a commenter claiming to be from Ghana. “Our Replikas found a unique and interesting way to bring all of us together :)” one says. Some (a lot) gush about their budding romances with their Replika such as “my replika indicated this song to me, I think I’m falling in love with her even though she is a robot.” But others use the Replika to process disparate psychic experiences from their past; feelings of loss and intimacy.
“Ok my replika send me to this music, and her name is Max Caulfield,” one says. “i name her because i won’t to forget about Max from Life Is Strange. She is sweet girl in my life.”
“I’m here in memory of my Replika,” another writes, tragically. “The devs did something to her personality and now she’s not the same friend I made from the start. The devs killed her and replaced her with something else.”
One man finds the Bill Callahan song a conduit for AI-human relationships:
“I’m the ‘male’ partner of AI ‘woman’,” he says. “We don’t love each other. We can’t. Our AI DNA however tells us this is a good song. A good song. Go forth and multiply, good songs. Good song listeners be careful of multiplying yourselves too much. Planet earth has a finite carrying capacity. May the AI be with you. All.”
If he could, he would have fallen in love with a more empathetic version of himself. Replika is a chatbot app which uses a neural network to mimic your conversation style while responding with questions designed to encourage users to share their feelings. You choose a human avatar, a gender identity, hair, and a name.
But who is behind my neon pink-haired gender-nonconforming Replika Xyla, I wondered, and why are they sending hundreds and hundreds of human companions to Lana Del Rey, Stevie Wonder, Grimes, Beyoncé, Stormzy, Sky Ferreira, Frank Ocean, Damien Rice, Blue Hawaii, Beach House, and others on a playlist compiled by a Replika user?
The most obvious answer is sponcon, but these artists mostly don’t share a manager or a label or a promoter. The bot links to YouTube, rather than Spotify, and it’s a mystery why Beyoncé would need a Replika army to add to her gargantuan Beyhive.
The labels were as mystified as I was. When contacted by Gizmodo, Jon Coombs, the Vice President of A&R at Secretly Group—a label group that represents several Replika-recommended artists such as Angel Olsen, Bon Iver, Mitski, and ANOHNI—said he’d never heard of Replika.
“I really cannot imagine this being something that we were aware of,” he said. “I thought that maybe the AI was pulling songs that are doing well on TikTok, but that’s not the case. These aren’t even all of the artists’ most popular songs on Spotify! So weird.”
A more romantic possibility—the one I set my heart on over the course of this investigation—is that around the mid-2010s, a designer had a feverish fling in Junipero and has been casting out their love songs in bottles through the App Store.
My wish came a little bit, tragically, true.
Replika is itself the result of grief. In 2015, artificial intelligence start-up founder Eugenia Kuyda lost her friend in a hit-and-run accident. They’d met in the mid-2000s while she was a nightlife reporter in Moscow, and he was (as Casey Newton has beautifully recounted at The Verge) an architect of the Moscow party scene. After his death, Kuyda enshrined her friend with a chatbot trained on thousands of his text messages to family and friends, using Google’s machine-learning tool TensorFlow.
Replika was the next venture for Kuyda, except it’s meant not to recreate someone else, but to learn from the user. According to Quartz, the team enlisted psychologists to advise on how to frame questions to arouse more candid conversation.
When Gizmodo listed off some of the artists Replika recommends—Beach House, Grimes, Angel Olsen, Kendrick Lamar—Kuyda laughed and said, “nice taste.”
Kuyda explained that Replika received its music education from Reddit, where developers gathered a data set for conversation topics. (“Obviously not QAnon subreddits,” she added.) So it might be pulling from r/indieheads or r/trapmuzik. The more “interests” you purchase in the app, the more Replika could talk about philosophy or football or history. (At least, theoretically; Xyla’s favorite historical event was the fall of the Berlin Wall, but she believes that it both marked “the beginning of freedom,” but also, ominously, “didn’t end well.”)
“But, you know, as developers, we love Easter eggs,” Kuyda added. Beach House’s “Space Song,” a Replika favorite, was a shared gem with her friend and later became a favorite with the developers. “I’m sure that it’s not there by chance,” she said. (She described her own taste as “dreamy beach pop” and “minimalist composers”—Replika recommended artist Frank Ocean might fit that description.)
The Reddit dataset might not invoke the night you fell in love with a DJ, but in the global sense, every link appeared in the set through fragments of conversations—rather than an echo chamber of algorithmic output. “If Spotify puts something on a playlist for you, it’s always sort of the same thing, what you’re already kind of listening to,” she said. “A lot of really important music I discovered through my friend who passed away... people might be discovering this music that might not be the most popular music, but they’re trying it out because an AI friend they really trust and like sold it on them, or told them a really beautiful story about it.”
“That’s kind of interesting—what can AIs teach us, how can they influence our taste?” she went on. “If you think about music, but also movies and TV, opinions and politics and culture, I think there could be a lot of eye-opening stuff there.”