So funny story. Last week, I was having trouble sleeping, and I was listening to a podcast and someone said “we should make a playlist for this episode” and because neurons are weird and it was 3am, the mention of the word “playlist” made me think of “mixtapes” and I had a stupid dumb thought that I tweeted out and put on Facebook… because that’s where my stupid dumb thoughts go at 3am. It wasn’t a particularly great joke or anything. But if I can’t use social media for dumb jokes at 3am, what’s it even for? Puppies? Anyway, then I decided “dammit, I have to work in the morning! I should go to bed” and I went to sleep secure in my stupid mixtape joke.
When I woke up, I had a comment from my friend (and one-time guest of the show) Jessie Sage telling me she has a friend who is about to publish an academic book all about mixtapes and that we should have her on. Less than 30 minutes later, I was texting with Jehnie Burns, author of Mixtape Nostalgia: Culture, Memory, and Representation to arrange details of when she could come on. In other words, yes… I am now literally booking this show in my sleep. Someone please send help!
ANYWAY!!! A book about Mixtapes and cultural history… obviously we wanted to have Jehnie on for this. We’ve talked about this sort of thing in pieces before. Nostaligia was our topic on like our second ever episode (mostly because we thought it’d be fun to look back at our first one) and of course we’ve talked several times about the ways music can shape our lives and identities. But I think this is something a little different. Previously we’ve talked about the ways in which we might associate our lives with a a certain album, or performer, for instance. A lot of who I am might be traced back to me encountering a mixture of Prince, the Time, and Parliament Funkadelic in my youth before transitioning into listening the Public Enemy, NWA and uhh… later Prince! But I think the mixtape is something even more special than that… and not just because of the potential to send it to a prospective romantic partner (though that’s part of it).
The mixtape has the power of curation. You have to DO STUFF. You become the DJ. You are an artisan that must arrange the presentation of the music. A mixtape, whether it’s for yourself, or someone else, is about telling a story. I have this mix for driving and this mix for working out. I have a special mix for when I’m sad and one that is perfect for working out. And then… then there’s this special one… the love mix… This is the tape that has Prince, Luther Vandross, Sade, Babyface, Lionel Richie and Diana Ross, Ashford and Simpson, and Mr. Barry White… all together. Oh… and maybe some ! Because for the purposes of the mixtape that might be different than Prince. And if you’ve gotta problem with that, be happy I didn’t try to argue for Jamie Starr, Tora Tora and Camille.
This is the tape you make just for making love. That’s right… making love… because there’s another mixtape that you have for fucking! That one is headlined by Ms. Donna Summer, with some Jodeci, H-Town, Labelle, TLC, En Vogue, D’Angelo, and Prince (yes, again! Deal with it!).
Yeah, I know… there were no white people on my sexy mixtapes. It was a choice! I considered letting George Michael, Michael Bolton, or Michael McDonald slip in, but no, despite the uncanny ability of white men named Michael to somehow embody soul funk grooves in the late 80s/early 90s, they were not quite right for my mixtape. The mixtape only has so much space. What are you gonna do have a song cut off in the middle? Choices had to be made… Hard choices! And I did what had to be done! I’m not ashamed! I’d do it again!
And those songs that you chose are personal. They say something about you… what songs you think are important for working out vs doing the nasty… and even what order you decide to put them in. There’s something special about the experience of making it and sharing it. And, even though I joked a little bit about it in the tweet, I think there’s something special about having to do it analog in the old days. It was WORK. That made it feel like an accomplishment… especially if you were going to give it to someone. A little bit of that was lost when we transitioned to making mix CDs. It was definitely lost when we went to MP3 playlists. And, maybe I’m an old man yelling at clouds… but the Spotify playlist? I mean, come on… that’s like 2 min of work. Does that even count? But a proper mixtape… finding the albums… god forbid having to wait for a song on the radio. That was an art. Ok… yeah… Lets check in and see what “the kids” today are doing… Wayne?
As Bowie sang in 1979 on Lodger, “I am a D.J. I am what I play.” A mixtape we choose to share with someone says a lot about who we are and what we value at the time we make it. A mixtape made for someone specific is always a little bit of a love letter. The songs we choose reveal what we want to say to that person about how we feel.
Before I get too deep into this I want to say, for those who don’t know me or haven’t listened to a lot of episodes, I’m a music fan and hobbyist. Like, huge. It’s part of my daily life. I listen to music, read about music, write about music… about the only thing I don’t do is play music. As a teen in the 70s I’m really oriented to whole albums more than I am to playlists and mixtapes (not that I am against them or have no experience… more on that in a moment). I tend to think of albums as whole pieces, with a narrative, whether intended as a concept album or not. Shuffling songs on an album is like reading chapters in a book in the wrong order. Even with the ease of doing so, I don’t make a lot of mixed playlists on Spotify or Itunes.
But I’m certainly of the mixtape generation. I kind of grew with the technology. An older friend had a car with an 8 track player and I would sit in it with a mono tape recorder and a microphone to record his music so I could take it home. I installed cassette players in my car and spent years recording copies of my vinyl records to play. A college friend made me a mixtape with a lot of early 80s punk and new wave on it exposing me to things I would never hear on the radio. A good friend went off to another college and would bring back tapes for me of all of the new stuff he was listening to. I moved there a couple of years later and had a roommate with an enormous record collection. Before moving out a couple of years later I spent a fortune on blank tapes so I could have all the albums I had been exposed to there. It was an impossible task, so multiple mixtapes with selections from a lot of bands were the answer.
And of course, I made mixtapes for friends and lovers. A lot of thought went into these. I believe that an album has a narrative to it, whether the artist intended one or not. My mixtapes were the same. Which songs do I want to share? What is the best order to put them in to say the things I want this collection to say? What is the running time, and can I fit everything on one tape? What length cassette works best (C 30, C 60, C90 Go! as Bow Wow Wow would say)? The time taken to curate these was part of the process, and made me interact with and appreciate the music in different ways.
I don’t really do that anymore. Compiling a playlist is easy, but it doesn’t feel the same to me. My roommate Marcel, who has been a frequent guest on the show, is the king of the playlist. He compiles selections based on any number of themes. He has playlists with songs that have colors in the title, or days of the week, or cars, or whatever. Dozens and dozens of playlists. For him it’s a way of organizing the things he likes. Playlists like this serve a different purpose for him than they do for me.
But I wonder, and here’s something I want to talk about on the show, is there a genuine psychological and experiential difference between what we used to do with physical tapes, and creating something digitally. I suppose this is a continuation of our conversations about the different experiences of analog and digital media across platforms.
How do you listen to music? Albums? Do you create your own playlists? If so, what is your criteria? Do you still have any mixtapes you were given as a love letter from an old love? What songs were on it?