The inability to articulate what one feels in any satisfactory way is one of our enduring tragedies. – Nick Hornby, Juliet Naked
The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don’t wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules. – Rob Gordon, High Fidelity
As an only child with a lot of alone time on my hands, making mixtapes was not just a way to pass the time, but a way to surround myself with some much needed company. I remember sitting on my bedroom floor with piles of CDs stacked like skyscrapers around me, a veritable music city of which I was mayor. The musicians were my countrymen – my friends, really – regaling me with their stories of anger, heartbreak, and loneliness. I created mixes that used their words to express my feelings – a sort of emotional plagiarism that only music can encourage.
Not that I’ve ever had a lot of trouble expressing myself…
But, mixes are a different kind of expression. They’re subtle, logically emotional, and much less obvious than the rants I’m wont to produce. More importantly, even when planned, mixes are still random, which creates anticipation, a sense of wonder as to where that next song will take us – like closing our eyes and holding our breath, waiting for the big drop on a roller coaster.
In his essay “Radio Silence,” Michael Chabon connects this desire for musical randomness to a seemingly incidental trove of memories and nostalgia. He writes,
Sometimes a song happens to come on the radio and imbue a moment that way, with its aptness. More often there is no thematic connection between a song on the radio and the memory that it somehow or other comes to preserve…It’s simply the magic of an accidental conjunction, a flitting moment and resin drop of a pop song transformed by luck and alchemy into amber.
But, as Chabon notes in the same essay, radio, and music delivery in general, has changed. XM radio and Pandora offer “themed” stations. MP3 players give us the songs we want on demand without the commitment of enduring an entire album. On the one hand, technology has revolutionized the way we listen to and appreciate music. On the other hand, it has stripped music of its randomness, of its ability to keep us on our toes. This is why making mixes is so important and so necessary: it preserves the element of surprise and, like our sense of smell, helps us to create, and stay connected to, our memories.
One of the best mixes I have ever received was as a gift from my husband on our second wedding anniversary. Instead of just putting together a potpourri of our favorite songs, he had contacted all of our closest friends and family and asked them to “dedicate” songs to us. He downloaded all of their suggestions and made me a CD.
On the weekend of our anniversary, we set off on a road trip to visit some friends in West Virginia. When we got into the car, he handed me a CD with the words “Anniversary Mix” slightly smeared in black pen across the front and a handwritten list of names. He said these were the people who had contributed to his anniversary gift and explained that I would have to listen to the CD and guess which person dedicated that particular song. The CD was not only a thoughtful gift but a great road trip game as well.
I studied the list of names carefully, popped the CD into the player, and turned up the volume. The first song swished on. All I needed to hear were the first two notes before I shouted, “That’s my mom!” and started to cry. Well, it wasn’t my mom; it was Frank Sinatra, and the song was But, it was, no doubt, my mom’s pick; and the minute I heard those opening notes, filled with big band horns and symbols, I was transported back to my living room, age six, trying to learn how to spin three times under my mother’s unwavering arm.
And, that’s music. That’s what it does. And that’s why mixes are so special. They’re so random, and at any moment, a song can come on and tell you a story or take you to a memory that can only be realized through sound. The anniversary mix was the story of my life and marriage through the eyes of the people who we love and respect most. Like analyzing the inner workings of a novel, it was exciting to discover who dedicated which song and think about why they chose that one over another.
Thirty years ago, we learned that video killed the radio star. But it took almost another twenty years for that to actually be true. Music radio is out; iTunes is in. So how do we preserve that randomness, the musical surprise that radio used to afford us? We make mixes. Mixes are different and better in some ways than radio because radio is all rhyme, no reason. Mixes are not just random; they’re random stories. So while we’re waiting for those first few notes of the next song so that we can cry or laugh or dance, we can also wonder why that song is number 2 and not number 19 on the set list. We can think about what the mix maker is trying to tell us about themselves, about ourselves, and about all of the memories that have, or have not yet, passed between us.
Other mix related links:
Know your audience. Maybe not everyone wants to hear your Monday Morning Mixtape:
Mixes should be sexy and seductive, as best expressed by Tift Merritt: