“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
Every once in a while, I find myself missing something. A ritual, an item, a shared experience. I’m thinking of making this a regular feature for this blog, but today I just want to think about good old mixed tapes. Do people make mixed tapes (CDs? iPod mixes?) for other people anymore? I think this is one of my top five things I miss about college – being introduced to new music and, by default, learning more about your friends, through the medium of the mixed tape. For those of you who do not remember mixed tapes, I will define them thus – a mixed tape was a specifically chosen group of songs copied onto an old-fashioned cassette tape and given to the recipient. The reasons for participating in such activities were myriad – you wanted somebody else to think this obscure band you love was cool, too. For romantic reasons. For friendship reasons. For reasons of the musical education of another human being. Sure, I love my Pandora and my internet radio. But there is something infinitely warmer and more intimate about getting a group of songs specially chosen for you by a human bean who knows you, at least a little bit.
I think my first mixed tape, though not a mixed tape in the traditional sense, was half R.E.M’s Automatic for the People and half Apollo 13 by They Might Be Giants. And the person who made it for me will likely read this and remember more about it, and you can correct my memory if you like. It wasn’t a traditional mixed tape in that there were only two bands represented, only two musical stylings, but it did fulfill the criteria of musical education. R.E.M and TMBG are still two of my favorite groups, even though R.E.M seems to have zoned out a little bit but that’s a story for another post.
College was the real scene for the mixed tape. Though I didn’t attend a particularly well-mixed college (lots of middle-class and upper-middle class white kids from Kentucky and a few other places), there were lots of cultural educational opportunities. There were mixed tapes for your summer vacation, made for friends you might not see for three months. There were the professions of love sung through the lyrics of The Cure, Dave Matthews Band, Sarah Maclachlan. There were tapes made because the giver just couldn’t contain her zeal for a particular artist – Tori Amos, Ani DiFranco, David Gray. You can’t just walk up to a person and say, “Hey, your love? It’s better than ice cream. Better than CHOCOLATE!” It’s cheesy. And you stole those lyrics. Didn’t we see how this turned out for Cyrano?
My friend A was a DJ at her college a few states away. She sent me a tape and one side had the radio show she did with her college friend. Of course, as a Toriphile I loved that the show was called Happy Phantoms and the tape included several Tori songs including Take to the Skywhich is still one of my favorites. “Have a seat while I take to the sky.” The other side was a mix of songs in the vein of other mixed tapes. Barenaked Ladies, Poi Dog Pondering, B-side stuff that hadn’t quite reached my school yet. We didn’t have a radio station at my school so hearing this was a peek into college life for other people, and a connection to my friend who was hundreds of miles away.
My senior year I spent a semester in London. I went on my way with at least two memorable mixed tapes – one from the guy I was dating and one from a dear college friend. I could hardly stand to listen to the one from the boyfriend because it was full of sad songs about going home. Simon & Garfunkel’s Homeward Bound and The Only Living Boy in New York, Peter Paul and Mary’s Leavin on a Jet Plane. But my friend R’s tape got me through some rough times so far from home. It was full of support and energy, just what an anxious Kentucky girl needed on her first trip abroad. One from a Chorus Line, I’m The Greatest Star from Funny Girl, the Indigo Girls’ Tangled Up in Blue, Don’t Dream Its Over by Crowded House. I walked the park near the college in Regent’s Park, remembering home and very glad to be away. The cover, decorated with stickers and her distinctive handwriting, was durable plastic reminder of home, even in the medival streets of Germany or the bustling high roads of London.
I still have some of these tapes, though I don’t listen to them much anymore. They are stretched thin with years of play and replay. But they are mementos of relationships. They’re like watching children discover and fall in love with their new world, you can’t help but be moved with them, at least until the tape player clicks off and you flip to the other side.
I went to that huge music festival in Atlanta one year, I think it was the summer after I graduated. I went to visit one of my roommates who lived there. I think the festival is Music in the City or something. I was so excited to see Oasis and Collective Soul. While we waited with the thousands of other concert-goers, a guy near us and I struck up a conversation. He was, like so many people at the time, a huge fan of the band Phish. My freshman year roommate had loved Phish and I just couldn’t get into them much. This guy insisted that I was missing out. We ended up exchanging addresses – he lived in Ohio. Cincinnati, I think. He wanted to send me a Phish CD. A few weeks later the CD arrived, complete with a handwritten letter explaining his choices. This was the zealous band-fan type of mix but his letter highlighted his genuine affection for this music. In return, I sent him a short story I had written. Although I like Gotta Jibboo, I still don’t love Phish. But this was such a unique encounter. The guy didn’t want to start some long-distance romance, he didn’t call me five thousand times. I even wrote him back thanking him and leaving it open for further contact but I never heard from him again. Just a Phish disciple spreading the gospel of the Phish, I suppose.
In grad school, I was friends with one of those writer-types who’s a little extra sensitive, a little hermit-ish, a bit enamored of the writing life. He had hundreds of CDs and he took it upon himself to make me a three volume mixed set of music he thought I should have heard. I discovered Kate Rusby’s delicate voice, Morcheeba, more Johnny Cash that I’d had in one place, and a host of other songs I delighted in hearing. The guy is gone, moved on to a professorship somewhere, but I still have the CDs.
There’s something beautifully tangible about a mixed tape or CD. Like a love letter, it carries more weight than its electronic counterparts. And like the love letter or the handwritten note, the mixed tape seems to be fading into my memory as a quaint little thing we used to do. I’m no Luddite, but I miss the rituals if only for the meaning behind them, but also for the activity of creating them. Asking friends to make me a mixed tape seems childish. People are busy. People don’t get excited about new bands and new music like we did in high school and college, do we? We listen to our Pandora and download the songs we find ourselves, and shut out the recommendations of our friends.