Connections | Magazine

Staying in tune with my son in college through his Spotify feed

My son and I always related through music. I gave him his space when he went off to school, but followed his listening habits closely.

(image from adobe stock/globe staff photo illustration)

It wasn’t a crisis, exactly, but it was concerning: The Spotify friend activity feed for my son was stuck on “Takin’ Care of Business” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive. For days.

He’d told us the week before that he wasn’t feeling well and that a couple of kids in his dorm had mono. I immediately feared the worst. He was sick, in the hospital. No one had bothered to contact us.

Or he’d been abducted. Aliens, Moonies, whatever the current equivalent of Moonies was. I knew it would take nothing less to keep him off the app he uses to listen to music.


The friend activity feed was the way I kept track of him last year, his first away at college. Before he left, he and I and my wife sat on our back patio, sad, happy, excited, apprehensive messes. As was typical, he was the most grown-up about it. “I’ll sign you up for free Spotify,” he said. “We’ll have a family playlist where we can add songs and keep in touch. What do you say?”

Music is our language. We talk about other stuff, but we talk about music the most. I used to think I had a lot of opinions — until he turned 16 and found Spotify and its vast library.

The family playlist was a failure. After the first few weeks, none of us added anything to it. But the app has another feature that lets you see what the people you follow are listening to in real time. It provided just enough of a glimpse of the life he was leading on his own to keep my empty-nest ache at bay.

At first it was old stuff, the rap music he’d been passionate about in seventh and eighth grades, mostly Kanye. That made sense. Alone, finding your way, you go for the standards, the anchors. Tyler, the Creator. I hated that stuff back then, but now I was glad he was playing it.


Later in the fall, I worried when he started listening to Tom Waits at 2 a.m. But I’d done my share of listening to Tom Waits at 2 a.m., especially during my freshman year, and not always sadly. Knowing he’d discovered that there’s no better time than 2 a.m. to listen to Tom Waits made me feel better.

I was disappointed when the Foo Fighters came up on the feed. Too much time hanging out at frat parties, I thought. Be careful of that!

In February, a flurry of Frank Sinatra. My boy’s fallen in love, I thought with a smile. But then a month later, “Only the Lonely” and “Here’s That Rainy Day.” Ah, buddy, there are other fish in the sea.

I never mentioned his listening habits during our weekly phone calls. That would have been too intrusive, too creepy. I was teaching myself to be a spectator.

On the fourth “Takin’ Care of Business” morning, I e-mailed my wife. “I think we should call him.”

“We said we wouldn’t do that. You told me we shouldn’t do that.”

“I know, but I just . . . all right. I guess we can wait until Sunday.”

Then an awful thought — had he blocked me? Was this a conscious decision not to give me even this little bit of access to his life? Devastating!


I got on Google to see if it was even possible. A lot of other people were complaining about frozen friend feeds, addressing the app by name — “C’mon Spotify!!!!” — as though it were a single guy in a room. It wasn’t just me.

My son’s been home for the summer. We mostly see him as he heads to work, a party, another state to visit school friends. Still, it’s been nice to occasionally hear his music playing in the house rather than having to read about it. And you bet I gave him a hard time when “Takin’ Care of Business” blasted from the bathroom one Saturday morning while he was showering. Never liked that song.

Jim Lindsay is a writer in Arlington. Send comments to Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.