If you want to think I’m a narcissist for assuming Millie’s Spotify playlists are about me, go ahead. In any case, they probably weren’t about you.
Before Millie’s playlists, there was only Millie, the Tinder trombone player I matched up with in my first month of an ill-timed year abroad at Oxford University. It was September 2020, seven months after the pandemic. Most college-out programs had been cancelled, and my house-bound friends — denied the tapas of Barcelona, the techno of Berlin and the cannabis of Amsterdam — said I was lucky enough to go abroad at all.
I was lucky, sure, but lonely. Between distance courses and Oxford’s restrictions on socializing, I realized it was going to be difficult to meet real British students – the reason I’d come. I had traveled 3,000 miles to get stuck on Zoom.
Tinder had never been my thing in America, but abroad I wondered if a dating app could give 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 hadn’t gotten any closer to meeting Hugh Grant look-alikes when Millie’s profile resembled a life raft.
Her biography referred to Bridget Jones’s Diary. Photos showed her grinning in front of an adoring crowd, flanked by an all-girls funk band. Cheerful, musical, grateful to Renée Zellweger, Millie seemed just the type of person I wanted to befriend.
I swallowed my nerves and sent a message: “Hey! You seem really cool!”
After a little chat we agreed to meet for a drink.
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 heard that she was not only a funk trombonist, but also a choir singer. On Facebook I saw that 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 was reassured 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 loved Harry Potter, Patsy Cline, mood boarding. A few years earlier she had visited New York and lived for a month on the same street where I was born and raised. Of all streets! This was fate. But was it love?
To this day I can’t tell you if that first night was a date. After all, Millie and I met through Tinder. Even if I stated I was just looking for friends, maybe my presence on a hookup app implied that I was open to more.
To complicate matters, neither of us identified as straight, and we were both still figuring out what we could be instead. Anyway, what I needed abroad was not a hookup buddy (of any gender) or a serious relationship. I just needed a ticket out of my isolation.
We next met under Mars: The red planet, Millie texted, was “close,” meaning we could see its glowing craters from the banks of the Thames. “I’m aware I’m coming off as crazy because of this planet thing,” she texted, “but this won’t happen again until 2033.”
The night was cloudy, 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 with starlight and wine, I got home around midnight and opened my computer on Spotify, where a new playlist had appeared on Millie’s profile. It was called “mars is in session” and “Clair de Lune” was on the track list.
Spotify is a portmanteau of “spot” and “identify” – the function of the app is to help users recognize and identify new music. But the popular music platform also allows curious users to extrapolate other users’ mental and emotional states based on their publicly broadcast song feed and personal playlist library.
“Mars is in session” was the first of many playlists Millie made about our relationship, playlists I wasn’t sure she intended me to see. They were all public, but their meaning was cryptic, decipherable only by Millie—and perhaps me. For example, a playlist titled “ilagcl” contained a few songs that I recommended to her, and I was convinced that the title was an acronym that referred to my name.
“Am I crazy, or could the letters stand for ‘I like a girl named Lily?'” I texted my friends.
I wasn’t crazy; a few weeks later, a new playlist of hers titled “did I read this wrong? I hope not”, accompanied by a photo of white lilies.
In the weeks since we’d been under Mars, Millie and I had only seen each other a handful of times. But on one of those occasions, we’d kissed, wine-drunk in her lit bedroom. Suddenly, Millie and I no longer had a situational friendship, but a budding romantic entanglement. Our affair had a great soundtrack, although I had no hand in scoring it.
It wasn’t surprising that Millie had put together playlists around specific moments or moods in her life. But it was strange for me to have an inadvertent insight into her feelings before communicating them directly. I should have said something – but what? Should I admit the hints I had seen? It felt easier to just let things play.
Millie and I slept together for the first time the night before boarding the plane home. With England back on lockdown, I’d decided to extend my winter break indefinitely and take my next round of Oxford courses from the United States until restrictions eased, even if that meant leaving Millie and my classmates.
On the morning of my departure, eyes blurry and laden with luggage, we stumbled onto the Underground and drove in silence to Heathrow. I wasn’t sure when I’d see her again, and we kissed 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 quite long.” I pressed play and in the music I saw Millie, alone in a seat on the tube, driving back to reality as London yawned awake.
A few weeks after I got home, Millie asked if I wanted to be her friend. The proposal came via a drunken text message 45 minutes before midnight in English on New Year’s Eve.
“This would be a good conversation to have on the phone at a later and more sober time!!” I shot back.
The next day on the phone, I explained that while I cared about her deeply, I was not interested in an international long-distance relationship, especially in a pandemic.
She said she understood. Yet the next morning a new playlist appeared: “if you need me I’ll be went.”
Most of the songs on it had been added in the days after that phone call. But a few months ago, Millie added a few more. I wouldn’t have seen the new songs if I hadn’t gone looking for them. But I couldn’t help it — after Millie and I stopped speaking regularly, I found myself hanging around her Spotify profile, looking for clues as to how she was doing.
Five months after she dropped me off at Heathrow, Millie was back to pick me up. I had decided to return to Oxford for a few weeks at the end of my program so that we could finish my year there together.
While we had chatted excitedly on the phone about my return, once we were reunited in person, our past confronted us like a very big elephant in a very small room. In the months we’d been apart, we’d cut our hair, seen other people, and barely dealt with our feelings.
The day I left England again, this time for good, Millie uploaded a playlist of 91 songs. The cover was a chapel bathed in the light of the sunset. His 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 Went, I wondered if she was thinking of me, or if someone else had abandoned her.
It’s none of my business, just as looking for hidden cues in song titles and playlist names is none of my business. However, it’s my pleasure to see a playlist like “all I’m wearing is my leopard print pants” and know that my girlfriend across the pond will continue to dance to Tracy Chapman in her underwear until she’s back. starts to feel good.