An Autobiographical History of the Mix tape
(friends, family, romance and machines)
WARNING: this is NOT a good mix.
Making a mixtape was once a standard expression of affection, intimacy and friendship. It was a way to share music, get tunes circulating, spread the sound. Like a seed, carried in a pocket by a farmer to a seed swap, where it will be exchanged, planted and grown up by another farmer or gardener, giving and receiving mix tapes was a primary vehicle used by music to migrate.
This method of music exchange was also very personal, involving literal swapping of a physical entity from one hand to another. There was a tactile delight in holding a tape, complete with handwritten track notes.
It is almost shocking to think just how casual making a mix tape was, considering how much time, consideration and effort was put into them. A mixtape,which could be considered an intimate act of affection still managed to maintain a cool and casual vibe. Making and exchanging mixtapes was just a normal, friendly pursuit, practiced by just about everyone.
It’s also amazing to me that this natural, easy and friendly gesture gave people at large a way to be creative and share their own preferences, tastes and takes on the world, in such a physical, sensual way.
Making a mix is not just about putting together some songs for a friend. It’s also a dance one does with the music itself—making a mixtape forces you to interact with music in a way that is at once more intentional and focused than passive listening. You begin an interchange, a play. You actually begin to interweave your own meanings and interpretations into the chosen songs. Your attention to the beginning and ending of a song is honed in a way it never was before, as you attempt to blend tracks in just the right way, flowing between songs without any abrasive jolts (unless you intend a jolt–). Making a mix is like a symbiotic experience, where you and the art form become one.
And then, of course, assuming you are making it for someone other than yourself, you consciously or not are pulling their essences into the mix too, as you call on their image to weave the songs together.
A First Mix
I remember the very first mixes I compiled: I was around 8 years old and I recorded them directly from the radio. I would sit on the floor next to my boom box, listening to Oldies 103.3 or 107.7 the Alternative Radio station (not so alternative–completely mainstream pop, to be real) and wait for a good song to come on, finger poised to quickly press record.
Those mixes contained a fair amount of incomplete songs, as you can probably imagine, along with annoying DJs and commercial music cutting into songs prematurely. Luckily, I did eventually learn how to record a tape from CDs (and other cassettes!), which greatly improved the quality.
While my skill at mixing developed and improved in direct response to my maturing music taste, the effort and energy put into the mixes only increased. Instead of listening for a good song to come on, completely dependent on chance (or breaking the not so complicated radio-playlist-loop code), I did what most sane people were doing: I’d sit for hours plotting out the best combination of songs and what order they’d sound best in.
Then, collecting a pile of CDs and tapes containing the chosen songs, it was still necessary to be completely present for the process: Hit Play on the CD and Record at the same exact moment. Hit stop on the record the moment the song ended, or you’d have to do some rewind work to find the right spot to begin the next recording. And always the puzzle of what to do with the end of a tape—Let a song be cut short? Or leave blank noise for 30-90 seconds? There was also that rare and miraculous moment when the songs fill in the time allotment to perfection and Side A clicks finished just seconds after the final song completes.
Love went into mixes. And creativity. Every joe schmoe practiced some level of mixology, and thus every joe schmoe also channeled creativity into their relationship to music and other humans alike.
My first mixes came from siblings. I was lucky to have 3 older sibs who introduced me to a ton of music. When we were real young, we’d hang out in the art room (a big wooden table in the musty basement with loads of art supplies piled around) and listen to the Stand By Me Soundtrack on repeat. For the most part we’d stop, rewind and replay the Buddy Holly song, “rollercoaster” for hours while we played with paints.
As we got older, they tutored me in the way of “cool” with conscious intention. (I still remember my oldest sister schooling me on how I needed to learn to take advantage of babysitters and commending me as I began to learn the art of sarcasm). “Life Sucks” was the proper sentiment among all youth in the 90s, unless you were a dork and thought it was great.
Life was great, but I knew better than to let on. When friends of my sisters’ asked me how it was going, I’d say, “It Sucks,” and they’d respond approvingly, “Ya, doesn’t it though?” And slip on a Nirvana record.
Music was an integral part of life. MTV was still cool (before hip hop and reality TV took over the scene) and afternoons were spent watching music videos (Alicia Silverstone fake a suicide to get revenge on a boy friend, and then flick off the camera? Yes please. Or cross dressers shoplifting? Or the hot kid from terminator steal a car? Yesss, thanks.)
The first time I heard Sublime was when my sister put it on for us one night during dinner, hoping to either shock or influence my mom, with What I Got (making extra sure she heard the part about “I don’t get angry when my mom smokes pot.”)
Music, and music mixes by extension, was interwoven into the fabric of life. A strong culture of sharing music remained in our family, and we exchanged music at least until the last of us (me) reached the end of our 20s. Jobs, kids and depression finally ended the era of epic music sharing. Well, that, and the new age of no CD drives and music which, being all online, doesn’t exactly inspire mixes and burning cds. Somehow, just clicking share is not the same.
Siblings were the first to expose me to music and make mixes, but friends didn’t come too much later. We made compilations and passed them back and forth like books, or playing cards (if that’s what people do with playing cards?). In the beginning, our mixes focused around the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, Billboard Hits and Now 1,2 &3 with timeless classics like Jackson 5’s “123,ABC” and one-offs that nobody even remembers any more like Robbie William’s “Millenials”.
But, luckily, our collective tastes expanded and grew also.
If one friend made an especially good mix, we’d all copy it, burning them on our family computers (since we’d moved onto burned cds by now). Giving a mix was a common gift whatever the occasion: birthdays, summer vacation, or, most especially, as a goodbye present.
Oh, the goodbye mixes! To capture all the love and memories in a compilation of music intended to bring it all back in a shock wave of shared experience, shared tunes. This was especially the case at camp, where we’d cry our eyes out singing Leaving on a Jetplane at the end of every session. The Peter, Paul and Mary version inevitably bringing up the last song on any mix we made for one another. Our own signet of choice, an understanding between us: this was our song.
And of course, don’t forget: the Roadtrip mix!
Once wheels came into the picture, oh man! We’d blast music out of our car speakers, knowing that it was important that the whole world could hear what we were hearing. With windows down, cigarettes burning, and wifebeaters on, we could cruise around town for hours, so long as we had music to pump.
It’s no wonder that driving and music go together. Driving long distances, with the contant, rhythmic movement through space, is an especially dreamy time, to slip through the realm of music and into another reality all together. Everyone adores a good roadtrip mix. The one you can just play on repeat for hours, with fresh excitement for every new round.
In college, I spent a lot of time driving through the states, dropping by friends homes in kansas, colorado and new mexico every 6 months or so, as I experimented with total freedom and long distance between Tucson (where I went to school) and St. Louis, (My hometown).
Either I was lucky as hell to have the friends I did, or it was just common practice (a bit of both, I believe) to make a friend who was passing through a mixtape for their hours on the road. It was almost just a common courtesy. Given, these mixes tended to be rushed—not the long thought out, methodical compilations. It went something like this: “Oh, I’ll throw 3 songs from MDMA on there, the best three, you gotta hear these guys, and a couple Neil Young, cause, Duh, and do you know Josh Rouse?”
Simply put, a mix is considerate, friendly and just plain cool: a solid way to connect with other people. And every single time you listen to a mix from a friend, you’ll think them, connecting you across time and space in the same way you do when an old pal appears in a dream. And that’s not even to mention music freshies for the drive. Hell yea.
Combine friend mixes with the massive downloading of entire music libraries onto harddrives and my music trove was beginning to really swell. Top that with the brief years during which OurTunes allowed you to download every rando’s Itunes library at the local coffee shop or dorm (so long as you were on the same network) and I was something of a nomad, travelling the country, harvesting new music from friends and strangers alike, filling the stores for the winter.
Filling up my cellar full of music came in handy, because the final category of mix exchangers was about to explode in my life, and I’d need every possible lyric, every ounce of poetry, every full, ecstatic, low or painful sound to grab onto in order to weave a mix that could begin to express the feelings that were about to come pouring through me in world of romance.
The mixes of lovers. Oh my god, the mixes of lovers. (I can just hear Cat Power singing to Bob Dylan in Song for Bobby, oh my god, can you tell me, who were you singing for?). Uhh, just thinking about it makes me swoon, makes me want to slip into a silk robe with red lipstick, sip on red wine, light some candles and drift away on the lover-mix melodies.
How the music of those mixes made love to my mind, my soul. Listening to a lover mix on repeat, a spell woven and enforced: Something special is here. It’s happening. Can you hear it? Each song chosen out of his own deep heart, explicity for me, a collection of artists and a poetry of lyrics strung together into a secret message–as though he’d written, composed and sung every song himself. I melted inside, fusing with the universe and letting go of myself completely into the love song —whatever the actual content, each song became a love song in this context—no matter if it was dirty, rough rock—all the better, actually, cause who doesn’t like it rough?
A lover’s mix was a treasure. A secret. A declaration of devotion, of love of muse-ship. It was foreplay and it was sex. It was heart breaking and utterly expanding. A way of connecting with the greater culture from within the confines of a very private relationship–it was thrilling. It was comfortable.
It was Big, OK.
A mix was all part of the wooing process. While a bad mix didn’t break a relationship (though a part of you may never think quite so highly of that person again, adding to cumulative negative pings that could lead to ultimate dissolution of the relationship), a good mix could seriously make it. A good mixtape with new music I never knew existed, all contributed to the “mind blowing” effect of falling in love and being exposed to brand new ideas, ways of thinking and being in the world. The mixtape was no small part of this experience.
A couple of the coolest mixes anyone ever made me, came from a long time off and on again boyfriend–music was a part of the thread that kept the conversation moving between us. he recorded onto tape cassettes directly from an old record player, because it’s all he had access to at the time. This was well into the 2000s, so it was a delightful throwback and made all the more fun since I couldn’t just listen to them anywhere. I had work for it. Luckily, I still had a tape player in my car (a sad day when they took those out) so I could only listen to them while I drove, a romance in itself, wheels moving through space and music moving me forward.
Like a true cassette mix, they sounded alternately loud, soft or scratchy and the classic last song on side A was cut off just before the end because the tape needed to be flipped. I adored those tapes, that arrived all sweetly wrapped in a care package (don’t even get me started on the sad disappearance of carepackages!) complete with handwritten tracks and little pictures.
He had excellent taste in music and an unerring ability to always introduce me to novel tracks that I actually liked–which is still a pretty big deal (veryveryveryRARE).
Damn I’ve had some good mixes come my way. And I’ve made a few myself, that I felt really proud of…Not, sadly, the one I made for a mixer when I was 16–everyone bailed for making the dance mix, and thinking it was my Big Break, my chance to make the dance mix I’d literally been planning for years, begging only a captive audience. I learned what it is to bomb in front of some multiple hundreds of young horny kids. I thought it would be cute to put the Sesame Street song on it, for instance–who doesn’t like to hop around being silly?–but the entire barn just stood still, audibly moaning with “what the fucks” and NO sense of humor (how could they grind and rub to this crap?).
Nobody but my friends knew the mix was my doing—and bless their souls, they didn’t give a hard time–likely because they were too busy making out with boys, the same boys for whom they’d bailed on the mix-making. In retrospect, my priorities were right on. And my sense of a group vibe totally off. The failure still sits with me as the biggest of that camp session–and that despite getting kicked out a week later for smoking weed.
The Last Mix
The last time someone made me a mix was in 2014. He lived in a leaking RV and I lived on a sheep rug in a cold unfinished apartment over a barn. Neither of us paid rent or stayed on properties where we could invite the other back to hang, so we’d meet up in the rainy graveyard and take turns playing eachother songs. It was around Halloween, also my birthday and the mix he made me was a goodbye mix, though it incorporated elements of the season, naturally.
It was an excellent mix—everything you want from one: music I’d never heard (or only heard for the first time in the last couple weeks & through him) including some music from artists I loved, but songs I didn’t know (there was a cohen song, and a lou reed song I’d never even heard) as well as one or two songs I was very familiar with (maggie may, by rod stewart, was perhaps the only song he self admittedly could have cut, since that song, love it though I do, is a bit overplayed to me).
It felt personal, yet he had thrown it together quickly–We’d met to say good bye and getting the inspiration, he said, “can you meet me again on your way out of town?” I was driving out of town in about 3 hours from then. But ya, duh. For a mix? Are you kidding? From you? Hell, I’d do anything. “no problem,” I said.
And that was it.
The last mix that ever came my way. I may as well have burned a hole through that cd, I listened to it so often. It was a good one to end an era. I think a sibling has tossed me a track or artist via spotify a few times in the interim, but even they, who I always depended on for music, have faded into families and jobs and making mixes is a real effort these days. It isn’t just a normal thing people do on the weekends or in the evenings. Now, we watch netflix (don’t get me started…) or maybe, to mix it up, youtube.
Where has all the music gone?
Well, spotify. and pandora. And soundcloud. And other online venues. Which I love, frankly. Sort of. Sometimes I think I only think I love spotify, because the aesthetic appeals to me so much (can you tell?) and their logarithms blow my mind.
In fact, Spotify– a fucking algorithm–is the only “thing” that takes the time to make me mixes any more. Like everything else, we’ve given over our creativity to a computer.
And believe me, i’ve tried to make mixes for people since–tried to do the ol’ throw back, a desire to inspire in culture at large, but beginning with my friends and x lovers, to bring it back. But, like the email (yes, the email, not even mail), which I try again and again to inspire in old friends who used to love to be penpals: it’s outdated, gone in favor of one liners on facefuck or text. Perhaps gone forever. Perhaps I’m alone in trying to convince myself to hold on to the analog, the thought out, the longhand, while everyone else is just flowin on, enjoying life’s river, always forward–it’s only natural.
The lover who made me the most mixes and the last mix I ever made are somehow convoluted in my head as the same, even though they were years apart.
The last mix I made for another person was in 2016 and I never had the chance to give it to him. I was in love. Or playing at it. It felt close enough, and if fed appropriately, with plenty of mixes and little gifts, it would no doubt become a whole hearted loveship.
I poured over this mix, channeling all the energy that really should’ve been going into finding a job and a place to live, pouring it all into this love poem in the form of a mixtape for my new beloved.
Well tuned at this stage of life in the art of lovemaking, I wanted to weave a web of seduction, wanted to blow his mind with tunes he’d never heard, make him forever indebted to me for the exposure. I wanted him to understand the words as my own, as spoken to him and him alone. I was making a mix, but what I was crafting was a spell.
It’s always worked on me. God, if someone makes me a mix, a good mix, I’m done. And making a mix for someone else is how I show I care. So there was nothing mischievous in playing at love spells via the mixtape medium—afterall, everyone goes into love knowing more or less that they are saying yes to the illusion.
For instance, when he wove words for me, telling me he hadn’t felt this way in so long, and I’d only reminded him what was possible and I was blowing his mind, and blahblahblah, I fed into it, fully aware that he barely knew me and was actively himself feeding into a projection, a fantasy and a dream. Simply, I decided to go along with it too. Because…it felt good. And his delusions seemed strong enough to carry us both.
I was making the mix on spotify, having finally ditched my walkman and given in to be a new age girl. Technically then, I could have put every last song I wanted him to hear on there—but I still wanted to constrict myself to a song limit, else the message get sloppy. It’s important to contain what could become a free-for-all into a neat, considerate package, especially if you really want them to hear each song.
Just as I was making finishing touches—ordering songs into a perfect flow and making crucial decisions over which songs to cut, he bailed.
He bailed on coming to visit me, and bailed on telling me about it, and bailed all together on his long, over the top expressions of “feelings” for me.
The truth of it was that I wanted to want to make him a mix. But I didn’t really feel inspired to. Truth be told, I was forcing it, because I missed so much the feeling of being excited to share music. With him, it was more of an educational mix (I didn’t think he had very good taste, and he was one of the main writers for a band–I thought, “christ, this guy needs help!”).
Plus, he was younger. Young enough to not understand the analog era or thus the importance of mixtapes–the fact that a person pours their own sweat and blood into a mix. Or maybe he did get it, but I didnt get him.
I remember talking to my girlfriend, Legs, at the time, and she was appalled that I was making this guy a mix. “What!?” she said. “You’re making him a mix?! That is so nice. And he’s not coming to visit!? Girl! Stop! Don’t waste your energy on him! Give that mix to that other cute guy!” (I was dating an even younger kid in the city by then, and he actually had good taste, plus a massive crush on me, and would’ve wagged silly had I actually given him a mix. Which I considered for about 5 minutes and didn’t. How could I? I’d made it for someone else. The threads were all wrong.)
Making a mix involves both taste and skill (or lack thereof). It is a creative expression of self and yet involves a concentraion on the other. It is no less than an incantation. To make art while calling up the image of a friend, sibling or lover, you interweave yourself into your gift, just as you interweave images, feelings and connections of the other as well as the feelings of the sound, the art of the lyricist, the vibes of the bands.
A New Era
This is it. Mixtapes for no one, so they don’t have the same discipline and are designed for my own pleasure. So not for no one then. For me! And you, if you want.
“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