A few months back I had a discussion with a friend about music: what we were listening to now, how our tastes had changed over the years, and so on. At the close of the conversation my friend said “Next time we get together, can I go through your phone and pick out some songs?”
This was just the bait I’d been waiting for, and eagerly I jumped at it: “Why don’t I make you a CD and you can burn it to your iTunes?”
He looked at me as though I were an obsolete relic from the 1980s pulled from the Atari landfill. “Or I can just rip your whole collection directly from your phone. I have an app.” I grappled with the urge to sigh.
“The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. It takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick it off with a killer to grab attention. Then you gotta take it up a notch. But you don’t want to blow your wad. So then you gotta cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules.” — “High Fidelity”
No one makes mixtapes anymore. It’s heartbreaking. As a teenager I was the mixtape queen. I had
rather exotic musical tastes for my small town and I delighted in putting together the more obscure selections of my cache for friends, friends of friends, acquaintances – anyone who would ask, really. It was a point of pride for me that I had stuff that no one else had, and to truly be in the know musically they had to come to me. Pride, and a certain amount of bragging, was the first reason I made mixtapes, and I suspect it’s the same for most people. It’s the same reason people invest in eardrum-shattering sound systems for their cars, and why they blare the music from those systems at maximum with all their windows open: “This music is who I am and I want you to know it. Recognize my impeccable taste! Revel in my utter coolness!”
Barry: Here’s the thing. I made that tape special for today. My special Monday morning tape for you. Special.
Rob: Well it’s f***in’ Monday afternoon, you should get out of bed earlier!
— High Fidelity
Later, of course, my mixtapes went from merely sharing my offbeat music with random people to trading more symbolic playlists with selected friends. At first it was just my favorite songs, the ones with lyrics that spoke to my personal Sturm und Drang (needless to say, there were a lot of Smiths tracks on my mixes). Once those were absorbed and accepted, we would up the stakes by making themed compilations — love and death featured heavily. My personal favorite — and typically the most risky as far as maintaining one’s coolness factor was concerned — was the guilty pleasures mix. You really put your reputation on the line with these, and only the most trusted friends were privy. In my experience, the guilty pleasures mix is the most revealing of all compilation tapes. All pretenses of cool are dropped and you get to see what really makes a person tick, or dance, or sing loudly (and badly) in the car. Besides, where else are you going to hear Wham!, Frank Stallone, Olivia Newton-John, and Tony Joe White back-to-back-to-back? A no-holds-barred guilty pleasures mix is a thing to behold. Have a few friends over, play the cheesiest selections from everyone’s iTunes, add copious amounts of alcohol, and you’ve got yourself an awesome get-together.
Then there’s the love mix. I don’t know anyone that hasn’t, at one time or another, made a mixtape for a boyfriend, girlfriend, potential romantic interest, or infatuation. These were the mixes that were themost thought-out, the most angst-ridden. After all, you had to find just the right blend of romance and lust to convey all the feelings you were either too shy, too embarrassed, or too scared to reveal in your own less-than-poetic, barely-articulate lovestruck words, especially in the case of an unrequited crush. These were almost always delivered via third party, after which you waited for days in a state of anxious anticipation for word to come back from the object of your desire, good, bad, or indifferent. It was the artsy teenager’s version of the note passed in class that read “Do you like me? Check yes or no.” Of course, the love mix can backfire on you — today’s romantic compilation is tomorrow’s heartbreak mix when you split up. To this day, there are songs I can’t bear to listen to because they were part of a mixtape made for me by an ex-boyfriend. The feelings for the men are long gone, but the music still manages to find the scar tissue from those breakups and poke at it like needles.
[“If You Leave Me Now” by Chicago comes on the juke box] Ed: [glaring at the juke box] Who the hell put this on?
Shaun: [With tears in his eyes] It’s on random.
“Shaun of the Dead”
It’s amazing how much power lies in the choosing and arrangement of a dozen or so songs: the power to impress, to inform, to invite, to take the art of others, which has moved you, and create a new and unique expression of your very own with the hope of affecting others. But the mixtape is a dying art form, slowly suffocated by the cold and dispassionate efficiency of 21st century technology. It’s easier just to upload your entire music catalog to someone’s computer or mobile device without thought or meaning, and for the recipient to scroll through a playlist and pick-and-choose what suits them, which makes it an ineffective delivery method. Even if you did take the time to assemble a compilation for a friend, would they have the time and patience now to listen?
The memories of those long-ago mixtapes fills me with a wistful longing for the good old days of cassette tape in all its analog splendor. Perhaps I’ll begin a new mixtape, songs from the past for the person who is as nostalgic for the art of compilation as I am. And who knows — there might actually be such a person out there.
External Links & References
Image credit:8trackmixtape by Original uploader was Teamgoon at en.wikipedia – View original.