Music » Pop

Mixed emotions: how we get the music to talk for us


I so make the best mix tapes. Seriously. Give me 60 minutes of your time and I'll show you where it's at, and how to get there. That is, if you really like your mix tapes chockfull of Mike Patton noise projects balanced by a smattering of Brownesville Station, with a nod to Charlie Parker, showing you where the aforementioned "it" came from.

            Mix tapes have been music lovers' form of communication for years. Indeed, it was the Beastie Boys who chimed in '92: "Life ain't nothing but a good groove / a good mix tape to put you in the right mood."

            Finding old mix tapes is like opening an old photo album. They are the soundtracks to our daily lives, compilations of our personal music collections' greatest hits. It isn't hard to find someone who professes to make the world's best.

            Mixes come in all shapes and sizes. I prefer the battered, lousy-sounding 60-minute cassette that will be adorned with my own title (Solace for Humbert, for example). But with the advent of the digital age, mix CDs are everywhere, and bear fancy Photoshopped covers. (I've been to an increasing number of weddings where mix CDs of the newlyweds' favorite songs are given as gifts.) And the iPods attached to everyone's belt seem to bastardize the art (meaning they make the poorer of us jealous) by carrying around eight Tranzor Z's worth of mix tapes.

            "I think there are several reasons why people make mix tapes," says Abby Danhart, a friend who once sent me a mix tape for my birthday titled Country, Bluegrass, Blues, and Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandizers, for which she included 20 pages of penned literature on the importance of each song. "To introduce someone to new music, for a fun occasion, like a long road trip... and of course, the ever dangerous: to express feelings to someone without being totally direct."

We've all done it at one point or another: You get a significant other and try to let your mix tape do the talking. John Cusack's Rob Gordon of High Fidelity said it best: "You're using someone else's poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing." A girl in high school once gave me a cassette and all it had on it was Styx's "Babe." I'd like to snub my nose at this, but it was I who left GN'R's "Patience" on a tape at my college girlfriend's door when things were getting rocky.

            Or consider the plight of my friend Rizmo, who lives in New Orleans. Riz computes his mix tapes down to the last second and arranges them with the care that you might find a nuclear physicist using. I asked him a few questions via email about his obsession with the form. He replied with a four-page letter.

            "I feel like an expert on the subject," he says. "It is a process I enjoy, but also take somewhat seriously. I have found that the most interesting mix tapes are the ones I've made for others, none of which seem more memorable than the ones I've created for my significant --- or many times potentially significant --- other."

            He then tells the tale of starting a mix tape when he started dating one of those potential girlfriends but being dumped after only three songs. It started with "Buon Giorno, Principessa" from the Life is Beautiful soundtrack, then found its way to the Sex Pistols "Liar" and American Music Club's "Keep Me Around," eventually leading to the depressing stage of "How to Disappear Completely" by Radiohead, ending up --- weeks after having concluded his relations with the disaffected female --- with the reaffirming "I've Got My Mojo Working (And I Thought You'd Like to Know)" from the Young Fresh Fellows.

But the RomanticMix is only one of endless variations on the theme of using your favorite tunes speak for yourself. hosts "mixes of the week" and posts a ton of submitted play lists, all loosely categorized in genres like The Platonic Mix or The Road Trip Mix. One hundred play lists were posted on two recent days --- March 2 and 3 --- and carried titles like Gravity Rides Everything, Steve's ' 90s Rock, and the seemingly obvious HATE, which is listed in the category of Break Up tapes.

            Artofthemix doesn't mess around when it comes to analyzing the importance of the form: "The politics of the mixed tape concern the politics of art, for the mixed tape itself is an art, albeit a 'lesser' form of expression, ranking more with forms such as the collage, the pastiche, the juxtaposition of found elements. Nonetheless, if we are to grant it the status of art, what follows are a politics, implications that are housed in two distinct spheres: economics and empowerment."

            All this proves what us music dorks have known for a long time: Mix tapes pretty much help with it all. The right mix gets people psyched up for working out, they help build relationships, they make those long road trips all the more tolerable, they bring back memories you had put into storage at the back of your brain. With the right mix tape, you're never at a loss for words.