It’s the Modern Equivalent
To start, I have to prepare to be savaged by Afistaface, Andey DeLesDernier, because my mixtapes long ago ceased to be rendered on actual cassettes. She is the only person I know who is more of a purist than I am.
Mixtapes are a very important subject to me. I’ve been thinking about them for as long as I can remember, even though I was never quite the savant that some of my friends were when they were younger. In fact, I don’t think I ever made a proper mix until recordable CDs were on the scene; I made a few tapes to play in my car or give as gifts, but I didn’t really use them properly back in their heyday, and it’s definitely a case now where “mixtape” is more the preferred nomenclature than any representation of the physical product.
As I tend to do in my life, I have over time evolved a set of rather draconian rules about what a mixtape is for me. Of course, as with most of my self-imposed rules, they apply only to me; I think someone else using them might even defeat the purpose.
(This gets into a whole other issue of why I give myself strict limitations for work on which I have historically failed entirely to follow through. But I think that might be an entirely different subject.)
When I first started making mixes on CD, roundabout 2000 or so, I generally slopped songs on until I filled up the time, then arranged them in a pleasing order. My crowning achievement of this method was a mix I made for a girlfriend around then; clocking in at 79:59.80, I came as close to perfection as anyone I’ve ever known. Unfortunately, this was all undone by the fact that the version of Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” that I’d put on the mix was incomplete by a couple of minutes; when I listened back over the CD and the song cut off in the middle, I learned a valuable lesson.
My insane rules for structuring mixes had their genesis not long after. I picked up Nick Hornby‘s High Fidelity at work one day. I was vaguely interested because I’d heard the movie was good; in fact (shamefully), my copy of the book is the movie tie-in version. In the book, the narrator mentions a few rules that I adopted for myself; a couple years later, when I first started trying to codify my rules, I came back to that passage and realized that he’d not put in nearly as many as I’d remembered. Nevertheless, it was a critical moment for me.
I refined my rules over time, starting with “Never allow two songs by the same artist on a single mix”, still my number one most important rule. I became better at making mixes. I learned the pleasure of a well-sequenced mix from a tape that a friend brought over one night to listen to while playing video games. I picked up the need for context on a tape when I was pulled over for speeding while listening to a particularly high-energy tape after a rough night at work; I stopped listening to fast, angry music if I was already angry.
The next turning point for me came just a few years ago, with the release of Rob Sheffield‘s Love is a Mix Tape. It is, ostensibly, the story of his life with his late wife Renee, but one of their main methods of communication was the mixtape. Every chapter is headed by the track list of a mix that one or the other of them made, or someone made for them. They capture moments in time, documents from people who were in tune with the music of their lives.
I don’t make that kind of tape.
It was instructive to learn from the way they made their creations. At several points, Sheffield writes about the 20 or 30 songs that fit on a 90-minute cassette, which made me think of the early mixes I made on CD. What hit home, however, was a critique of precisely that medium: CDs are 80 minutes, but they’re uninterrupted. Tapes are 45 minutes per side, so each is, as a listening experience, 2 mixes (barring an automatic flip cassette player, of course).
This opened my eyes. Just because there were 80 minutes to fill on a CD didn’t, and doesn’t, mean that every one needs to be filled. I further restricted my own mixes. Initially, I was planning to cap length at an hour, but I changed my mind, instead deciding to put exactly 13 songs on every mix I made from then on. This has been so ever since.
I make many types of mix; if it’s all pop songs, 13 songs might come in at 40 minutes or so. Sometimes I’ll mix it up and make a 20-minute Godspeed You! Black Emperor track one of the 13; those tapes tend to run a little longer. But in addition to the restriction of how many songs there will be comes my ultimate, end-all be-all rule, that the transitions must work. I listen to my tapes slavishly, not least to avoid repeating the mistake I made with “Sweet Child O’ Mine” all those years ago, but mostly to assure that every track flows from one to the other, telling the story I want it to tell.
This is ultimately what mixtapes are to me: using other people’s words and music to tell my stories. And I like it that way.