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Inside the world of Spotify ‘fan fiction’ playlists

How Florence +the Machine and Billie Eilish help me geek out about ‘Game of Thrones’

By Lian Parsons-Thomason

Like millions of viewers, I had mixed feelings about Game of Thrones’ last season, especially about my favorite part of the story: Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth’s tumultuous relationship. Though the show is long over, I can still wallow in my angst for the onscreen duo, thanks to Spotify.

That’s because I created a playlist — also known as a “fanmix” — of songs that captured the emotions brought on by the characters’ growth and plot arc. Listening to Florence + the Machine wail, “I think it’s getting better, but then it gets much worse. Is it just part of the process? Well Jesus Christ, it hurts,” proved the perfect way to release my frustration about the abrupt ending of my beloved fictional couple.

Fanmixes are compilations of music inspired by pop culture — homages to TV shows, movies, books, video games, and more. The basic concept has been an underground part of nerd culture since at least the 8-track era, when collections of songs were passed around hand-to-hand, typically with cover art and handwritten annotations.

But as Spotify has become the primary way for music lovers to create and share playlists, the fanmix has reemerged as an increasingly popular way for fans to geek out. A quick Spotify search for Game of Thrones returns dozens of playlists; searching for individual characters unearths dozens more. It’s become a recognizable enough format that producers of TV shows and movies — including Stranger Things and the new Star Wars films — release fanmix-style playlists as a form of marketing.

They’re also a great way to indulge your own particular tastes, especially in shows that aren’t as widely popular. In addition to Thrones, I’ve created multiple playlists that pay homage to the CBS show Elementary, a Sherlock Holmes-themed procedural starring Lucy Liu as Watson. Creating them deepens my connection to the shows I love. It makes it more personal.

Recommendations for my Game of Thrones playlist included a bewildering bluegrass cover of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.”

Like my Brienne and Jaime tribute, fanmixes often focus on a single character or relationship. One example I found, titled “Sansa Stark deserved so much better,” features songs about rising above girlhood and ascending to royalty, from “White Horse” by Taylor Swift to “you should see me in a crown” by Billie Eilish.

It’s an alternative form to the OG of nerd-dom: fanfiction, in which writers create entirely different stories using the characters and plot of an original work — changing original endings, filling out scenes that fade to black in a television show, or adding new characters. Playlists are more about emotion. They allow listeners and creators to access those raw feelings and sense of ownership without crafting an entirely new written narrative.

Aria Feliciano, a 25-year-old animator and illustrator from New York who has made playlists devoted to the Amazon Prime show Good Omens, says she enjoys reading fanfiction, but she gets tired of certain common pitfalls: uninteresting stories that can get overhyped; fetishization of any and all characters. Plus, the writing can be terrible.

“A fanmix is a much easier and abstract thing to enjoy, and you get to discover new songs along the way,” Feliciano says.

When I began building my Brienne and Jaime playlist, I started with a mood: longing. Instantly, I knew I had to include Billie Eilish’s heartbreaking “i love you” and Mumford & Sons’ embittered “White Blank Page.” I then added songs that fit the respective characters’ arcs — “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” by Johnny Cash paid tribute to Jaime’s efforts to escape his past. “Devil’s Backbone” by the Civil Wars perfectly illustrated Brienne’s reluctance to trust the man known as the Kingslayer. I added more songs to flesh out the plot and from there, Spotify made suggestions to help round it out. All in all, I chose 25 songs that go on for an hour and 38 minutes.

Playlist building, like any type of creating, has its own unique snags. In particular, a fanmix is a hard concept for the Spotify algorithm to make sense of, so it often offers me suggestions that are nowhere close to what I’m looking for. Recommendations for my Game of Thrones playlist included a bewildering bluegrass cover of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” and The Police’s creepiest song, “Every Breath You Take.” Like other fanmix creators I spoke to, I found it was more helpful to look to other people’s playlists for inspiration.

As with any online creation, there are ways to help fanmixes gain traction, such as sharing across social media platforms and including cover art, a track list, and meticulous tagging system. But — and this sets fanmixes apart from nearly everything else on the internet —the point isn’t necessarily to go viral.

Instead, many fanmix creators seek out small, tight-knit communities that share their passion. Whereas traditional, written fanfiction is hosted on dedicated platforms like fanfiction.net or Archive of Our Own, playlists must be shared one-on-one on personal Tumblr pages, or mined from the virtual stacks of Spotify — giving the practice a smaller, more DIY community feel that hearkens back to the primitive fan forums of the internet’s early days.

Meghan Bright, a 22-year-old artist who draws playlist inspiration from obsessions including the video game Assassins Creed and the long-running sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, doesn’t publicly promote her own creations at all. Instead, she exchanges Spotify playlists with both her in-person and Twitter friends. In addition to letting her geek out with like-minded individuals, the hobby has expanded her musical horizons.

Fanmixes have “introduced me to songs I still listen to today, like ‘Tongue Tied’ by Grouplove,” she says.

And for me? Creating a fanmix is a great way to blow off steam when a movie or TV show frustrates me. I’m a sucker for on-screen duos with pent-up, unacknowledged sexual chemistry – Jaime and Brienne (for a time, anyway) or Elementary’s Sherlock and Watson. The right music allows me to channel all the pent-up angst I have about lingering looks and touches, emphasized by artful camera zooms, and dialogue loaded with double entendres. When everyone in my life is sick of hearing me ramble on about how that moment in that episode proves my theory about everything, I can always curate another playlist, then listen on and on.

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Lian Parsons-Thomason is a writer based in Boston.

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