Friday, November 12, 2004

The Ineffable Wonder of the Theme Mix

A dark confession: I make mix tapes. Sometimes CD's, but mostly tapes, because tapes free me from the vagaries of the mp3 and allow me to roam freely though my musical life, a significant number of years of which occurred before the advent of the CD. I don't have a huge vinyl collection, and I reveal a real prejudice for power pop (duh), but I have a few things that mean a lot to me aside from everything else: an original White Album (the clue is the serial number stamped on the cover), a copy of Skylarking which preceded the "Dear God" kafuffle and lacks that song, but includes a beautiful tune in its place, "Mermaid Smiles" (FWIW, this one is Rundgren's vision, not the restructured version usually purchasable these days), an original copy of Black Vinyl Shoes (complete with iron-on transfer and sticker--I also have the PVC release). My fascination with (okay, crush on) vinyl aside, cassettes allow me the freedom to range freely through the media of my life and pick and choose what I like. Besides, my car was probably one of the last ones made with a cassette player.

Th mix tape is an achingly personal matter, it seems to me. In High Fidelity, perhaps the best novel written for audiophiles of my generation, Nick Hornby's Rob describes making a mix tape for the girlfriend whose loss and return structure the novel:
I spent hours putting that cassette together. To me, making a tape is like writing a letter--there's a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again, and I wanted it to be a good one, because... to be honest, because I hadn't met anyone as promising as Laura since I'd started the DJ-ing, and meeting promising women was partly what the DJ-ing was supposed to be about. A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You've got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention (I started with "Got to Get You off My Mind," but then realized that she might not get any further than track one, side one if I delivered what she wanted straightaway, so I buried it in the middle of side two), and then you've got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can't have white music and black music together, unless the whie music sounds like black music, and you can't have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you've done the whole thing in pairs, and... oh, there are loads of rules.
Anyway, I worked and worked at this one, and I've still got a couple of early demons knocking around the flat, prototype tapes I changed my mind about when I was checking them through. (89)

Rob's project is nothing less than creating a snapshot of the soul, because for an audiophile, music is the soul. The mix tape, then, is an aural journal, a set of songs by people you've never met who somehow express who you yourself are. Combining these songs to reveal the warp and weave of thought, of personality, of personal history: that's the art of the mix. And different phases of our lives require different mixes. Thersites, long before we were a couple, made me a tape which included things like Redd Kross's "Blow You A Kiss in the Wind," The Replacements' "Unsatisfied," and Superchunk's "Brand New Love": clearly bait for a switch. ("Any thought could be the beginning/ of this brand new gentle web you're spinning....") I fell like a ton of bricks. Never had a chance.

In a recent Popmatters posting, Elisabeth Donnelly examines the nature of the "dumped" mix:
Breakup albums can become a habit, a way to deal with pain (And do note that I mean breakup albums in relationship to the listener being "broken up", unlike the artist). It's very easy to trace your romantic history out in music. For me it goes something like Spoon, Fiona Apple, Veruca Salt, The Walkmen, and Lyle Lovett. Your mileage may vary-in a poll of my friends, I've found that there's usually a "bitter boy album" slot of the Elvis Costello variety or something that's emo if they're sensitive, the Dirty Three if their sensitivity transcends mere words, and many a girl has a mopey girl album in her collection, Joni Mitchell if she's annoying, Tori [Amos] if she's loopy, and Fiona [Apple] if she's smart.

Donnelly's argument is about whole albums, but it points to the evanescent bubble of the mix. Because as much as we choose music based on who we are, it also shapes who we're becoming. As Hornby says:
People worry about kids playing with guns, and teenagers watching violent videos; we are scared that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands--literally thousands--of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss. The unhappiest people I know, romantically speaking, are the ones who like pop music the most; and I don't know whether pop music has caused this unhappiness, but I do know that they've been listening to the sad songs longer than they've been living the unhappy lives. (25)

We all have artists who appear on every mix we make, songs or artists that are so indicative of who we are they we can never leave them off. Who are yours?


Anonymous said...

Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands--literally thousands--of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss.

I like Zappa's take on this: "There are more love songs than anything else. If songs could make you do something we'd all love one another."Central Scrutinizer

Phila said...

Tough question for me to answer. I tend to tailor compilations to what I think the person getting it will like, and since I have so many different kinds of music, I can do many, many, many comps without repeating a song.

It's interesting...I never gave this much thought, but in retrospect I guess I was never really "expressing" myself by making comps. I made some tapes for girls I was sweet on, Lord knows, but in choosing the songs I think I was trying to put myself in their shoes, rather than make some proclamation about myself...go figure!

Anonymous said...

I don’t usually think of them as “mix” tapes so much as “faves” tapes, or more recently, faves cd’s. I mostly make them for myself (although I love to share) because my musical journey began in the age of AM radio, when it was all singles, all the time. The only records I had, briefly, until the used, beatup 45 rpm player we had for a month or two froze in place, were a four-song disc that included “Jailhouse Rock”, and an Andy Griffith record with his prĂ©cis of Romeo and Juliet (“Oh, Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” “Ah’m ri-chere down in the bushes!’) on one side and “What it Was Was Football” on the other. Oh, and Walter Brennan's paean to his trusty mule (“I break my back with a cotton sack just to pay the mortgage off on you”). So I listened to the radio. Endlessly. The only control I had over what I listened to was the on/off switch. Down in McAllen, Texas, there was only one rock station, KRIO, but let me tell you, it did rock, and I was there from “Rock Around the Clock” onwards (yes, heard the curly-cued one do it in Blackboard Jungle).

I didn’t own an album until my family finally got a high-fi monoaural record player when I was 17. I bought Meet the Beatles, Peter, Paul and Mary, Out of Our Heads," The Brothers Four, Chad and Jeremy, Surfer Girl, and the Surfaris. And The Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World of Jonathan Winters and a Smothers Brothers album. I revelled in the opportunity to drop the needle, gently of course. If I didn’t like a song, I could move on to the next, or the next, and I could pick out any song I fancied and listen to it over and over. Due to prior conditioning, I seldom listened to an album all the way through. I had little patience with songs I didn’t like. I had had to sit through too many of those on the radio, so I loved being able to listen only to songs wired to the happier neurotransmitters. Then my dad got religion, we got rid of the high-fi, got rid of my records, moved from Houston to Waco, Texas, no less, and dedicated ourselves to holy rolling. I also redicated myself to the radio. The next time I got a record and something to play it on was during my senior year in college. Oh, man, it was my first stereo, it was a component setup I had thrilled to at a friend’s house, and he sold it to me cheap when he upgraded. I had headphones and good speakers and good wattage. I was in heaven and have stayed in that particular part of it most days since. I bought The Beatles, Yesterday and Today, etc., etc., etc., PP&M, S&G, The Doors and Strange Days, High Tide and Green Grass, Surrealistic Pillow, The Byrds Greatest Hits, Cheap Thrills, on and on. And I discovered classical music, indescribably beautiful. Now that I could listen to from start to finish, although I did have my favorite movements.

So that’s why I love faves tapes and cd’s. Oh, sure, there have been times when it was inconvenient to get off my glute and lift the needle or hit fast forward, so I would just keep listening. Repeated listenings have helped me come to like songs I didn’t initially enjoy. But I wanta hear what I wanta hear and I don’t wanta waste time with crap don’t please me. So I adore faves collections. I love making them for others, and when I do so, I try to imagine myself into their mind. As with Hornby, the first song is critical. Depending on the recipient, I usually like to start out with five or six perfect songs, usually fastish, maybe slow it down for one at most, and then kick it again. Each song must segue perfectly into the next, and a suitable valedictory is preferred. I don’t generally send messages via the songs. I just choose songs the other might like. And when something I like pleases them, it immeasurably enhances the song for me. While listening, I often think of those who share this song with me. Probably the most sustained pleasure from this type endeavor was during the Alternative High Age (AHA) of 1988-92 when I discovered incredible song after incredible artist and made a copy of each and every one of the twenty-three Possible Pleasure-Inducing Aural Experiences (PP-IAE) faves tapes for you-know-who-you-are. It was all innocent. Thanks to you wonderful friends who have returned the favor. Every so-so boy deserves one. --zygote22000

Pastabagel said...

Two words: Dire Straits.

As Douglas Adams put it, Dire Straits sounds "like angels on a Saturday night, exhausted from being good all week and needing a stiff beer".


NYMary said...

Definitely yes on DS, though they're a bit moodier than my usual suspects. But Knopfler.... damn, that man can play. One of the few musicians whose instrumental stuff can hold me past one song, I admit it.

Pastabagel said...

Hi again.

Yeah, sometimes instrumental music can be hard to listen to. For a very upbeat instrumental song, try Joe Satriani's "Summer Song". Track 6 here.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading zygote's post because so many of the first mix, or "faves" tapes, I made or recieved were for or from him. Perhaps that is why my "style" of making these reflects the manner of process he put forth. For the past few months, however, I have been participating in the International Mixtape Project, wherein the moderator sends each of us a name and address at the beginning of the month and by the end we send that person a mixtape, or CD, as the case is now. We also receive a mixtape from another particpant in the project. This process has removed my ability to attempt to create a product that I think the recipient will enjoy and becomes a much more personal process. Through this process, and throughout the years of making mixtapes for known recipients, I have noticed that the artists that I always include seem to change from period of my life to period of my life, however, the artists that remain constant are the ones who are near and dear to my heart who don't get the recognition I think they deserve. Currently, that artist is Will Johnson. Whether I include a song by centro-matic, South San Gabriel, or one of his two solo albums, Will is always represented on each of my final products.