Even the most casual music fan has made or received a mixtape at some point. For the kind of people who see music as the soundtrack of their lives, assembling a list of songs for a friend or lover is a compulsion that is difficult to deny. But in the age of file-sharing and iTunes, does this form of gifting still exist?
"In the '90s, the mixtape was an essential form of communication, a way of saying 'Here's how I feel' or, sometimes, 'Here's how I feel about you.'" So reads the back of the latest impulse-buy sampler from Starbucks, My Last Mixtape. Starbucks, of course, isn't exactly the nexus of cool for young people today. So the fact that they view the mixtape as a nostalgic novelty item, suggests that, in the very least, the mixtape has lost its cache of intimacy in a post-Spotify world.
Personally, I find it difficult engaging in any activity without being armed with a carefully selected arsenal of songs, be it cleaning, writing, love-making -- I even have different mixes for getting dressed in the morning or going out at night. I can do these things without music, but I prefer not to. I often wonder if my relentless need to make a mix CD for every friend, acquaintance, co-worker or lover that crosses my path is viewed as a silly anachronism, on par with renting VHS tapes or sporting Reebok Pumps, or if there are still nerds out there who assemble songs in this fashion.
Turns out there are -- or at least there used to be. In the past, I've had roommates with mix CDs titled "workout" or "morning," and they'd often burn these for other people as themed gifts. But that was years ago. These days, people make Spotify playlists and share them with other people, but is that really the same thing?
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Honestly, I can't imagine anyone putting in the same kind of thought and care that goes into a good mix CD as they would into a Spotify playlist. Click, click, click. Done. What's more: I certainly can't picture the recipient of one of these ephemeral files looking for clues and becoming giddy at the implication behind each song. But then, keep in mind, I'm one of those people for whom there's a certain romanticism attached to this whole process of crafting the perfect mixtape, whether it's to communicate certain emotions or sentiments that are otherwise difficult to express or to simply set the mood for specific occasions.
For instance, I once knew for a fact that my girlfriend was about to breakup with me. She'd invited me over to her house for "a talk," and I made it there about an hour late because I'd urgently gone to work recording a mixtape to have playing while she broke up with me. Rough drafts were made and discarded. I searched for lyrics with the proper vitriol and self pity, things that would give context and emotional weight to the experience.
The Smith's "Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want," hit the proper aesthetic tone, but the lyrics made me feel too vulnerable. R.E.M.'s "Sad Professor" was mildly self-loathing but was ultimately written from a place of strength, which I liked. As I drove over to her house, I remember being far more concerned with figuring out how to orchestrate having her bring our relationship to its natural conclusion in my car (she didn't have a tape player in her house) than I was about being dumped.
Giving a mixtape to someone else comes with an even bigger set of expectations and complications. I'd like to say that making a mix for someone else is a selfless endeavor, but that would be a lie. It's often just a way to monopolize the stereo ("Hey, why don't we play that mix CD I made for you?") Sometimes it's just a utilitarian method of turning a friend on to some music they've missed or dismissed, but it can also be a non-committal way of testing the waters with someone you fancy.
This raises the interesting question: Should the lyrics of each song in a mix be interpreted as a message to the person? In my experience, this usually only comes if you're looking for messages in the songs you send or receive. A girl I liked once used the Blow's "True Affection" as the intro song for a mix she made for me, leaving me dizzy at the contradictory lines, "I was out of your league ... You were out of my league." What happens if you give a mixtape or CD thinking you're just introducing a friend to some new music, while they think that you were subtly dropping hints?
I used to spin vinyl records twice a week a few years back. My friends would often come hang out, and my DJ set would dominate the conversation. This would often lead to me burning them a CD of songs they'd liked, and I'd put no thought into the possibility that any of the tracks might be interpreted as "message songs." Though this carelessness backfired with one girl who confessed her feelings for me, thinking I felt the same way because of the songs I'd put on her mix. After establishing that we were just friends, I blushed, remembering the thoughtless inclusion of songs like Blur's "Tender" or Rod Stewart's "Tonight's The Night" on the CD I'd given her.
In contrast, when I make breakup mixes (I always give a breakup CD, it's a passive/aggressive way of fighting after you've split up -- a tactic I highly recommend), every song is a message song. And with titles like "Idiot Wind," "Baby Bitch" and "It's Not Your Birthday Anymore," the intent behind each selection is never misinterpreted. I always feel good after making these CDs -- and feel even better after sending them in the mail.
Somehow, a Spotify playlist just doesn't seem to pack the same kind of punch.
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