Pearl Jam Week: Mix Tapes

Gone is the sacred art of the mix tape, and the world is lesser for it. Sure, you can go on Spotify and create a playlist and share it with the world, or maybe just your friends, but it’s not the same. I’m sure you can still agonize over choosing just the right songs and putting them in the same order, but there are some key things that you’re missing out on.

First, you don’t have the same limitations. Your average mix tape was a sixty minute cassette. That’s roughly thirty minutes per side, so you had to carefully assemble the songs in such a way to fit within that half hour time frame. Run too long, and that all important song before the flip or the finale song you chose to end on gets cut off. Run too short, and the recipient is treated to minutes of silence instead of music, a major buzzkill. Sometimes you didn’t want to commit to the full hour, so you went with the thirty minute slim cassette. Now you have a fifteen minute block to carefully plot out. That’s approximately three or four songs, but that uncertainty can be deadly. This has to be precise. Maybe you’ve got more to say than sixty minutes can hold, so you go for broke and get the ninety minute cassettes (my personal favorite). Still, it’ time to really sweat whether it’s a hard limit at forty-five minutes, or can you pull of forty-seven minutes. Depending on the manufacturer, you might be able to. But it was always a gamble, and your math better be right and you better remember to carry the one or you’ll end up cutting off half of that song that finally says what you’re really feeling. Playlists just don’t have those blissfully frustrating limitations. I have enough room on my phone to fill it with enough songs to drive across the country and return home without hearing a repeat. That’s not the same.

Second, putting a playlist out for public, or even selectively private consumption, will never be the same as the rush of emotions you feel when you hand that tape to the person it was intended for. Maybe they’re excited. Maybe they’re confused. Maybe they are also so overcome by the gesture that they just don’t know how to react. The point is that whatever their reaction is, you get to see it. When you send something out into the ether of the internet, you don’t get that immediate, instinct based reaction. You get a planned and rehearsed reaction. Plus, how are you ever supposed to ask them what they thought of it if you never know if they even saw it. With the mix tape, you handed it to them. You were there. You are free to ask them about it later, and they can never say “I didn’t get it” or “I never saw it.” You know they did! If they haven’t listened to it, they have to say, because no one believes the lie that “it was good.” That’s a slap in the face. I’ll buy “I haven’t had a chance to listen to it” and I can deal with “I lost it” and I’m even understanding to “I threw it out,” but telling me “it was good” means one of those three things, but mostly means you did not listen. But I know you had it at one point, and now the recipient has to cop to what happened. There’s accountability.

Finally, a mix tape is a one shot. It’s personal for the person who receives it. No one in the history of mix tapes has ever made the same tape twice, not even if you lost the first one. It lives in a moment. It never was before, it will never be again. It is the soundtrack for that person at that time in that place. A playlist is the same playlist for everyone. Hit that shuffle button all you want, you just got the same twenty songs that the last person got. It lacks the immediacy and fleeting nature of the mix tape.

I have received several mix tapes in my life, and I have crafted only three or four. I did have a collection of over forty tapes that were personal mixes, but they were the equivalent of me hitting shuffle on my phone. No, really, they were the most random things I could create. They weren’t the carefully curated masterpiece of a true mix tape. These tapes were born out of a need to listen to my music in a car without a CD player. They were built by writing song titles and running times on little slips of paper, crumpling them up and putting them in a bowl, then selecting them at random to fill a few cassettes. They were adequate, but they lacked soul. Of the “real” mix tapes I have given and gotten, three were the most important.

The third most important mix tape I received I got on my sixteenth birthday, just before I took my final exam for Spanish class. It was called “David’s cool mix tape for his 16th birthday made especially for him by Lisa.” The title lacked creativity, for certain, but had personality. It was given to me in a wildly decorated cigar box, covered with stickers and puffy paint. Inside was the tape, a bunch of those little pom pom creatures with feet and eyes and antennae that you used to get at places like Chi Chi’s, a pom pom caterpillar of the same variety (basically just take one of those singular creatures, take off the feet and glue a bunch more pom poms onto the back of it) and a pen that was also a mini water pistol made by Super Soaker (though, at that size, the idea of it being a “super soaker” was more of a cruel joke than an actual expectation). I loved this tape, and listened to it pretty much all summer. A few things were at play here. To start, I had a little crush on Lisa. I never had the stones to talk to her about this, mostly because at the time I had only ever asked one girl out (sort of, there was an “anonymous” love letter involved, but never a real conversation) and that didn’t go well. There were also the two pen pals that I had scared away, figuring that having a girlfriend in Colorado or New Jersey that I would never see or do more than write letters with was preferable to not having a girlfriend at all. This was before I would meet my first girlfriend, Missy. The idea, however, that Lisa thought enough of me to make me a mix tape gave me hope though. I still didn’t do anything about it, but I had more hope that girls might be interested in me than I did before. Also, this might actually mean I was “cool.” I had always thought of Lisa as cool. To be honest, I thought of her as too cool for the likes of me (another reason I never pursued anything). But she gave me a mix tape, and the mix tape was cool. It said so right on the spine. This might mean I was cool now, too. Another confidence boost. Lastly, Lisa made excellent mix tapes. They were the gold standard of mix tapes. Every mix tape I made for the rest of my life was in an effort to emulate the genius of that one. It was eclectic and masterful, flowing From Live to The Beatles, then transitioning seamlessly to Belly before sauntering into Van Morrison and climaxing with Aretha Franklin. It was a diverse group of artists, of genres and of decades, but it all worked together. Listening to it, I felt cooler. I felt musically smarter. I felt like maybe I was becoming the person I wanted to be. It was a work of art. Plus, it came with little pom pom creatures and a bunch of glitter, so how could it go wrong.

The second most important mix tape was one that i made for Heather. It was just after I was finally booted from Ashland University for my anemic academic performance. I was back in my home town, back in my parents house and back in the bedroom I grew up in. Before college, that had been a place of power for me. It had been a place of hope and of solace. Now it was just were I was because I was a failure (we may explore the overwhelming feeling of failure in a later post, but for now I’m just going to graze it here and move on). I was upset with myself for how my college career turned out, but mostly I just missed my friends. As discussed in the last post, I missed some more than others. I missed Jeremy, but I especially missed Heather. Technically, we were still dating, but now we were trying to do a long distance thing. There were some problems. Only one of us had the ability to drive a car, and access to one. Neither of us had the money to pay the huge long distance phone bills we were going to wrack up. But I wanted to let her know that I still cared, and that I missed her, and that I was still thinking about her. So I made her a mix tape. It was filled with songs that either reminded me of her or that I wanted to remind her of me. The first track was based on something you used to say when I was being a stubborn git and not giving in to her affections. She would get annoyed, start tickling me and say in a sing-song tone “play with me!” So I used the Thompson Twins song Play With Me from the Cool World soundtrack as the opener. She never liked it when I mocked her “play with me” tone, so she was less than thrilled with that pick, but she told me she loved the rest of it. I was very proud of that mix. It was the best one I ever made. It didn’t hold a candle to the previously mentioned mix from Lisa, but it was pretty solid. It was my starving artist landscape to her Sistine Chapel ceiling.

But by far, and without contest, the most important mix tape was the one given to me by my friend Kris before the summer of 1993. I briefly mentioned it way back in the post about Belly, but it’s worth getting into a little more. I din’t listen to anything in particular my freshman year of high school, and what I did listen to was popular trite that said nothing and meant nothing. I had the C+C Music Factory cassette, and the album from Technotronic. I had Aerosmith’s Pump. I had both albums by Roxette. I had a Weird Al Yankovic collection that I was more proud of than I should have been. All told, my musical tastes were boring. I wasn’t really a fan of any of these bands (except maybe Weird Al), I had them because I heard the songs enough on the radio that I figured I could be cooler if I just had the same music everyone else did. Kris changed that with one tape. He hit his rebellious phase way before I even knew that was a thing, mostly due to a not-so-great home life. He understood the frustrations I had before I knew I had them. They were there, I just didn’t understand or acknowledge them. So he gave me a mix tape to give voice to my emotions. The tape started with three Pearl Jam songs: Jeremy, Evenflow and Alive. It moved on to Primus, Belly, the Breeders, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and Screaming Trees. There were a couple songs from most of the artists, three from more important ones and just one from a few of them. It opened my eyes. These people talked about real things and real emotions. They played music in a way I had never heard. It was all new, and it all made sense to me on such a primal level. Later that summer, I would go to Denver, Colorado for World Youth Day with my church youth group. I was the youngest member of our youth group at the time, and had not yet meshed with the older members who had known each other longer. I had nothing in common with the guys in the group, and I was scared to talk to the girls. But I had a four hour plane ride and a lot of time in a hotel room ahead of me. I brought my mom’s Walkman with me and the mix tape from Kris. It was all I listened to for over a week. I didn’t sleep much at night after a prank these same guys had played on me on a previous overnight trip (woke up covered in toothpaste) and because I didn’t feel comfortable sleeping in the same bed as someone (I was an only child, it wasn’t something I was familiar with). Instead, I would stay up all night, writing ideas for comic book characters, drawing in my sketch book and listening to that mix tape. I had every nuance of every song memorized by the end of the week. When I got back from Denver, I stopped listening to all of my other tapes (even the Weird Al) and still listened to nothing but this mix tape. It started to wear down and warp, so I copied it to another tape. I started buying the albums from the artists on the tape, and started buying albums from related artists like Nirvana and Alice in Chains. The mix tape remained in rotation, though. I listened to it while mowing the lawn, or on long car rides with my parents. I copied it over again because it was starting to wear down again. I stopped wearing Bugle Boy shirts and got myself some flannels. The jeans with the holes in the knees that I was too embarrassed to wear to school made a comeback to my wardrobe. It was the beginning of actual me, a me who wasn’t pretending (as much) to be what others thought I should be and started being more of the me I thought I should be. That tape is the reason for probably a quarter of this top 40 list.

Mix tapes were a beautiful thing, and a lost art form. By combining the voices of different artists and different genres, they became your voice. Maybe it’s the era I grew up in that forces me to romanticize them so much. Since I only have my perspective on the matter at the moment, I going to say that’s not it. They were handcrafted. They were personal. They took effort and care and planning. They changed my life, and I doubt I’m the only person who can say that. Modern playlists are fine, but the mix tape will always be something magic that I don’t know if we’ll ever stumble upon again.


Mr. Tooduloo

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