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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The fine art of crafting a mix tape without the tape

Published: January 30, 2009
Section: Arts, Etc.

diverse-city-1-30-09_final_page_3_image_0001Even though it’s been years since I’ve actually seen a cassette tape, when a friend was going through what might be termed breakup angst, the first words out of my mouth (Well, not the first. The first several hundred were variants of, “I’m sorry, and he’s an idiot.”) were, “I’m going to make you a breakup mixtape.” Reading “High Fidelity” a while back had only nurtured my incipient interest in spending an afternoon listening to songs I know by heart in order to hit on the perfect song order.

Of course, I didn’t actually make a mixtape. It was a CD, because my college supply list did not include a cassette recorder. Nonetheless, over the last several years I’ve made numerous mixes and received a few as well, which is why I felt compelled to devote a little time to exploring the art of the mixtape, which I use as a catchall term for CDs, tapes, and even just playlists.

I’m not the only one interested in the art of the mix itself. For example, the website features postings from a wide variety of writers and musicians, sharing the backstory of a mixtape they were given by an ex, complete with full audio of the track listing. However, there’s sort of a generation gap at work here, because I left cassettes behind for CDs several years ago. As a result, I don’t have any hissy, staticky tapes anywhere, but I do have numerous CDs from an ex-boyfriend, a few gifts from friends, and one awesome birthday present of a two CD mix.

The most memorable were amazingly creative, or at least that’s how they seemed at the time. There were a few genre primers, getting me deeply interested in punk, post-punk, and hardcore. But my favorites were the emotional mixes, which had a nice combination of subtly sweet and ironic songs (and nothing unbelievably angsty or obviously loathing). The magazine collages as covers, the illegibly labeled burned CDs and the annotated tracklists, it’s all unbelievably compelling not only because of the effort but also the thought involved.

I returned the favor for the ex and a few others, quickly running into a few common problems. The first is, how much is your recipient going to read into the songs? This isn’t a problem so much if you’re introducing someone to a genre, or just making a mix to introduce someone to new music. But what if your mixtape is some sort of statement? Perhaps it would be best to leave off the angsty PJ Harvey breakup songs for a romantic interest. By the same token, avoiding the stalker-themed narrative of “Every Breath You Take” might prove equally beneficial.

The key is not to get hung up; good music, possibly centered around a particular theme, and the appropriate track sequence will be enough for your intended to fall madly in love with you, or at least decide they want to be your friend due to your excellent taste in music.

Song selection in general is extremely difficult. The strategy I’ve hit on is to pick either a theme or a mood and be somewhat consistent. The songs shouldn’t all sound the same, because that’s boring. But you do want some sort of overarching mission, or, if you are like me, you will wind up with a list of 200 potential songs to include, and winnowing that down to, say, 14, feels a bit like “Sophie’s Choice,” because don’t your favorite songs feel like your beloved children?

Possible themes range from punk, to songs with text-message titles (which would make a pretty good Prince compilation), to non-sappy love songs, to artists on a particular label, and so on. Any mood, idea, or concept that strikes your fancy is fair game. Within a theme, shoot for a mix of tempos and vary genre/artist selections. Notably, avoid extremely well-known songs, except when used for irony’s sake; that is, if you’re including a Nirvana song, dig just a bit deeper than “Smells Like Teen Spirit” unless you’ve fallen in love with someone who was really unlucky in the housing lottery and lives under a rock.

The perfect list of songs is nothing without a suitable track listing. For the ending song, I tend to choose between either slow and melancholy, or long and epic. And the opener should always be something high energy enough to convince the listener to keep going. Of course, there should be a climax of sorts in the middle, or two-thirds of the way through, and then there should be a bit of a break in intensity before leading to your outro song, but of course that’s just my personal preference.

Finally, make an effort at presentation, regardless of artistic skill. Include a track list, because few things are more annoying than a totally blank CD. And make a cover! That’s always fun. To go above and beyond, though, add a few notes about each song, either a lyrical excerpt or why you like the song or perhaps even an interesting bit of trivia.

And if anyone makes you a mix, return the favor. I always do so, in what I assure you is nothing less than fairly awesome fashion.