The Mythos of the Mixtape

To me, making a tape is like writing a letter — there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again. A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You’ve got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention (I started with “Got to Get You Off My Mind”, but then realized that she might not get any further than track one, side one if I delivered what she wanted straightaway, so I buried it in the middle of side two), and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can’t have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you’ve done the whole thing in pairs and…oh, there are loads of rules.

Ah, the mixtape. It’s the bonkers sort of logic in the above passage that made me really identify with Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity with such fervor when I read it for the first time six or seven years ago. As crazy as this detailed, agonized analysis is to regular people and casual music fans, it makes such completely perfect sense to me and has done for at least the past 11 years of my life. Even when my taste was pretty pitiful and the majority of my music was being recorded off the radio, I had a feel for the aesthetic of the mixtape and its “rules.” It’s precisely why the shuffle function on both my iTunes and iPod can often grate on me (unless by some beautiful serendipity it seems to read my mind or place songs I would never have put together side by side and they work). And it’s why I actually got angry at work one morning.

There was a year where I was doing inventory counting every weekday morning from 7 to 10 at the bookstore I was working at. Though the hours were hellish for a night owl like me, the job was actually easy enough and the best part for me was the fact we were allowed to play whatever music we wanted to in the morning (as opposed to bookstore-appropriate fare that had to be played when the store was actually open). I started bringing my own CDs on a regular basis and many of them were carefully crafted mixes (though my three co-counters and I had an informal agreement about equal rights to play whatever we wanted, I fully admit that I monopolized it). Then some time toward the end of my stint as a morning shift person, there was a morning when other co-workers had to come in for some early morning tasks and the music took a revolting turn. It wasn’t even that I didn’t like what was being played (which I admittedly didn’t) because I understand that everyone has their own musical tastes. I was getting increasingly irritated and then irate because the music made no sense in the order it was being played – Michael Jackson played adjacent to some band like Nickelback, which was then followed by Christina Aguilera, and then some mainstream country song. I guess it ran like a Top 40 radio playlist, utterly random. And I felt like I was going mad with a multiple personality disorder.

I started ranting to a co-worker, who had relatively pretentious music tastes, about the abhorrent assortment and order of the music being played. He agreed with me, but neither of us could figure out who would put songs together so haphazardly on the same CD. When he finally went to investigate, he discovered that someone had put several mix CDs on shuffle. Not only were the mixes, as separate entities, incoherent, but they were being remixed by a cold-hearted machine. The last straw came when two of the original co-counters quit and others joined the shift. They felt perfectly all right with putting their CDs in with my mix. On shuffle. Okay, so it’s not exactly the reason I quit. But it could have been.

I felt offended on the music’s behalf – how could someone treat songs as though they had no meaning in relation to anything else? As though they didn’t deserve to be presented artfully? To me, it’s the equivalence of a painting with clashing colours or a lack of spatial harmony. Even postmodern paintings, which appear to break all rules, have something behind them trying to be communicated, so if there are clashes or misuses, they are deliberate and still mean something. On some level they should still be aesthetically pleasing. Otherwise you may as well be listening to the hamfisted radio.

There is also something specifically mythological about the mixtape, though. It requires a forethought that CD mixes and computer playlists don’t. It requires a thorough knowledge of one’s music collection – a knowledge of how a song sounds, what mood it conveys, without actually having to listen to it first. If you make an error, you have to rewind and retape. Sometimes you do this several times before you get it right. If you’re taping from vinyl, it requires an even more delicate touch and timing. You have to account for time limitations per side (in my early days of mixtape-making I had several incidents where the tape ran out in the middle of a song). You have to decide whether the second side will differ or change theme or mood. And how you’ll manage to transition between tempos and styles.

When I was in high school, I was so obsessed with links between songs that I made a series of about 12 tapes that had a constant link (whether verbally or thematically) from song to song and tape to tape that I took with me on a band trip to Europe. For a group project in English class, I volunteered to make the intro tape to our presentation – the only real criticism our teacher had about the entire project was the fact the tape was too long. I couldn’t stop finding lines in songs about the theme of corruption and taping them seamlessly together. To compile it, it took me hours in front of the double cassette deck in our den, but I didn’t notice. And this artform extended beyond the music and to the tape cover art. I imitated my dad’s habit of cutting images and words out of magazines and making mini-collages to insert in my mixtapes’ cases (you can view some of those teenage attempts in the above photo – and, yes, that is a Mind the Gap sign slapped across Britney Spears’s head). It was a challenge trying to make something that visually conveyed what the mix was aurally and that also fit within the strict confines of a tape case. But this added DIY element just made the mixtape matter all the more to me.

I miss mixtapes. And I know I’m not the only one because countless other bloggers make “mixtape” posts on a regular basis or treat their entire blog like a mixtape shared with friends, and applications like muxtape and devices like mixas continue to confirm this need for the mixtape ethos. (The unfortunate and unnecessary demise of muxtape is fodder for a different post at a different time.) This sharing aspect is just as signficant as the artform itself. Mixtapes are meant to make connections between music lovers – music is both a way of conveying ideas and emotions and a way of opening up others’ musical horizons and exposing them not only to new music, but new thoughts and new feelings. The DIY aesthetic for mixtapes speaks to something beyond the ugly commercialized aspect of music as an industry. It speaks to an indie myth – a myth of making art for the sake of art and for the people who enjoy it, who then create more art because of it.

I don’t think I’ve made an actual mixtape for the past two years (and the only reason I was still making them up til that point was because our car still only has a tape player in it), and I’m sad about this. But now of course I make weekly mixes for download on this blog, and I look forward to it every week with more anticipation than most people would consider healthy – even when I feel a bit stumped as to what my theme will be. I put just as much care into crafting these mixes as I did as a teenager making mixtapes, and whether people actually download all of the songs in each mix, or whether they even notice the fact they’re in a particular order, I can never truly know. All I know is that I deliberately put them in that order and that they are meant to be listened to in that order. The method to the madness is in the selection and arrangement, and it’s these aspects of the method that keep me tied up in front of the computer for entire afternoons and evenings.

I suppose the art of the mixtape is linked to the ethos of the ultimate fan. Fans not only compulsively collect, but they also arrange. The way a collection, whether it’s diecast car models, stamps or sports cards, is organized and displayed is just as important as the collection itself because it’s a way of presenting disparate things in relation to each other and making a bigger meaning than any item could have on its own. And isn’t that what’s at the heart of the mixtape?

**I’m in the process of working on a year-end round-up of all of my weekly mixes, so come December there will be quite the special (and lengthy) edition of Everyday is Like Sunday, Except for Blue Monday and Ruby Tuesday, and…Well, Friday I’m in Love.**

It Started With a Mixx – Los Campesinos

DIY – Robots in Disguise


5 Responses to “The Mythos of the Mixtape”

  1. 1 Urban Gypsy
    October 2, 2008 at 10:09 am

    This post made me ridiculously happy. So well said. Applause! Many things you said resonated with me, spending hours in front of the tape deck, training my fingers to be nimble enough to cut off the song at just the right nanosecond. As you said in the last paragraph, I think there is an art to fandom itself. You know what just hit me as I was reading this… the fact that songs take on new and different meanings in juxtaposition to each other makes me think of Burroughs and his philosophy of the cut-up… thoughts? You had better know that we appreciate all those hours you spend in front of the computer composing these lovely mixes and essays! Thank you so much!

  2. 2 zico
    October 2, 2008 at 11:56 am

    I agree with the above, loved this post for selfish nostalic reasons alone. Hours like minutes in front of the radio, making my own album art, and deliberating forever over the all important track 4.

    Check my blog, which aims to be a mixtape of sorts, not sure if it succeeds, mismatch perhaps.

  3. 3 cougarmicrobes
    October 2, 2008 at 1:24 pm

    What an amazing post to stumble across. I thought it might have been coincidence that hype machine was playing 2 mix tape themed songs back to back so i had to check it out and really enoyed reading this.

    Made me miss the mix tape days when i planned every journey carefully so as to have the right mood for the car and the right dynamics.

    More recently my grilfriend and I got through our attempt at long-distance by compiling elaborate playlists designed to pass the time apart.

    Thanks again for this, it was a great read, the tracks were ace. Im a fan.

  4. 4 Rol
    October 3, 2008 at 3:19 pm

    I miss ’em too. Making CDs or playlists just isn’t the same as sitting on the floor in front of your record player / CD player with all your records piled up around you, choosing the songs in real time, and digging out choices you wouldn’t ever pick just by scooting through your overstuffed media player.

    A good mixtape used to take forever to put together, but it was a thing of beauty.

  5. 5 JC
    October 12, 2008 at 8:58 am

    “It’s the bonkers sort of logic..”

    Not to me it wasn’t!

    And while I still spend hours trying to put songs in the right order for compilation CDs, Rol has got it right in that its not just the same. But I tend to think that’s maybe cos I’m older – and there’s no longer such a need to impress.

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The only certain thing that is left about me

There is no part of my body that has not been used

Pity or pain, to show displeasure's shame

Everyone I've loved or hated always seems to leave


So I turned myself to face me

But I've never caught a glimpse

Of how the others must see the faker

I'm much too fast to take that test

The Smiths Queen is Dead

A dreaded sunny day

So let's go where we're happy

And I meet you at the cemetry gates

Oh, Keats and Yeats are on your side

A dreaded sunny day

So let's go where we're wanted

And I meet you at the cemetry gates

Keats and Yeats are on your side

But you lose 'cause weird lover Wilde is on mine

The Clash London Calling

When they kick at your front door

How you gonna come?

With your hands on your head

Or on the trigger of your gun


Charles Windsor, who's at the door

At such an hour, who's at the door

In the back of an old green Cortina

You're on your way to the guillotine

Here the rabble comes

The kind you hoped were dead

They've come to chop, to chop off your head


Then you came with your breezeblocks

Smashing up my face like a bus-stop

You think you're giving

But you're taking my life away


Won't someone give me more fun?

(and the skin flies all around us)

We kiss in his room to a popular tune

Oh, real drowners


Don't walk away

In silence

See the danger

Always danger

Endless talking

Life rebuilding

Don't walk away

Walk in silence

Don't turn away in silence

Your confusion

My illusion

Worn like a mask of self-hate

Confronts and then dies

Don't walk away


You don't want to hurt me

But see how deep the bullet lies

Unaware I'm tearing you asunder

Oh there is thunder in our hearts

Is there so much hate for the ones we love

Tell me we both matter don't we

The Associates Affectionate

I don't know whether

To over or under estimate you

Whether to over or under estimate you

For when I come over

You then put me under

Personal taste is a matter of gender


I wake at dusk to go alone without a light

To the unknown

I want this night inside of me

I want to feel

I want this speeding

I want that speeding


You'll never live like common people

You'll never do what common people do

You'll never fail like common people

You'll never watch your life slide out of view

And dance and drink and screw

Because there's nothing else to do

Vanilla Swingers

All I have is words, words that don't obtain

And I feel I'm a stain on your horizon

So I stay away - it's easier that way

And there won't be no-one I need to rely on

Is it him, is it me

Or is there something only I can see

How did I get here, why do we blow around like straw dogs on the breeze

I'm a special one, what they used to say

But I've to stay on, finish levels-A

You don't need exams when you've read John Gray

The Indelicates American Demo

And nobody ever comes alive

And the journalists clamour round glamour like flies

And boys who should know better grin and get high

With fat men who once met the MC5

And no one discusses what they don't understand

And no one does anything to harm the brand

And this gift is an illusion, this isn't hard

Absolutely anyone can play the fucking guitar

JAMC Darklands

And we tried so hard

And we looked so good

And we lived our lives in black


Plucked her eyebrows on the way

Shaved her leg and then he was a she

She says, hey babe,

Take a walk on the wild side

Said, hey honey, take a walk on the wild side


Hide on the promenade

Etch a postcard:

How I dearly wish I was not here

In the seaside town...that they forgot to bomb

Come, come, come - nuclear bomb


Back when we were kids

We would always know when to stop

And now all the good kids are messing up

Nobody has gained or accomplished anything

Wire Pink Flag

Prices have risen since the government fell

Casualties increase as the enemy shell

The climate's unhealthy, flies and rats thrive

And sooner or later the end will arrive

This is your correspondent, running out of tape

Gunfire's increasing, looting, burning, rape


Well, maybe there's a god above

But all I've ever learned from love

Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you

It's not a cry that you hear at night

It's not somebody who's seen the light

It's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah


And what costume shall the poor girl wear

To all tomorrow's parties

For Thursday's child is Sunday's clown

For whom none will go mourning


My body is your body

I won't tell anybody

If you want to use my body

Go for it


Oh it's opening time

Down on Fascination Street

So let's cut the conversation

And get out for a bit

Because I feel it all fading and paling

And I'm begging

To drag you down with me

Mansun Six

And you see, I kind of shivered to conformity

Did you see the way I cowered to authority

You see, my life, it's a series of compromises anyway

It's a sham, and I'm conditioned to accept it all, you see

Japan Gentlemen

Take in the country air, you'll never win

Gentlemen take polaroids

They fall in love, they fall in love


We just want to emote til we're dead

I know we suffer for fashion

Or whatever

We don't want these days to ever end

We just want to emasculate them forever

Forever, forever

Pretty sirens don't go flat

It's not supposed to happen like that

Longpigs The Sun

There's no perfume I can buy

Make me smell like myself

So I put on perfume

To make me smell like someone else

In bed

Calvin Harris I Created Disco

I got love for you if you were born in the 80's, the 80's

I've got hugs for you if you were born in the 80's, the 80's


Does his makeup in his room

Douse himself with cheap perfume

Eyeholes in a paper bag

Greatest lay I ever had

Kind of guy who mates for life

Gotta help him find a wife

We're a couple, when our bodies double

Simple Minds Sons and Fascination

Summer rains are here

Savaged beauty life

Falling here from grace

Sister feeling call

Cruising land to land

No faith no creed no soul

Half a world away

Beauty sleeps in time

Sound and fury play

Bloc Party Silent Alarm

North to south


Running on


As if to say, as if to say

He doesn't like chocolate

He's born a liar, he'll die a liar

Some things will never be different


LCD Soundsystem

Well Daft Punk is playing at my house, my house

I've waited 7 years and 15 days

There's every kid for miles at my house, my house

And the neighbors can't...call the police

There's a fist fight brewin' at my house, my house

Because the jocks can't...get in the door

Johnny Boy

I just can't help believing

Though believing sees me cursed

Stars Set Yourself

I am trying to say

What I want to say

Without having to say "I love you"

Josef K Entomology

It took 10 years to realise why the angels start to cry

When you go home down the main

Your happy smile

Your funny name

Cocteau Twins Bluebell


Doesn't she look a million with her hairagami set

Hair kisses 'n' hair architecture

Yes, she's a beautiful brunette angel from heaven with her hairagami set

Hair kisses 'n' hair architecture

Augment a beautiful brunette

New Order Power Corruption

How does it feel

To treat me like you do

When you've laid your hands upon me

And told me who you are


You must let her go

She's not crying



Feeling like I'm waiting

Modern times



Hating to distraction

Just leave them alone


Girls in the back

Girls in the back

Puressence Don't Forget

They say come back to earth and start getting real, yeah

I say come back to earth and start getting real

I know I can't


So I walk right up to you

And you walk all over me

And I ask you what you want

And you tell me what you need


The problem of leisure

What to do for pleasure

Ideal love a new purchase

A market of the senses

Dream of the perfect life

Economic circumstances

The body is good business

Sell out, maintain the interest


Sitting in my armchair thinking again and again and again

Going round in a circle I can't get out

Then I look around thinking day and night and day

Then you look around - there must be some explanation

And the tension builds

Psychdedelic Furs

India, India

You're my love song

India, you're my love song

In the flowers

You can have me in the flowers

We will dance alone

And live our useless lives

Ladytron Light Magic

They only want you when you're seventeen

When you're twenty-one

You're no fun

They take a polaroid and let you go

Say they'll let you know


No consolation prizes

Spit out your lies and chewing gum

Cut off your hair yeah that's it!

If you look like that I swear I'm gonna love you more


All the neighbors are startin' up a fire

Burning all the old folks, the witches and the liars.

My eyes are covered by the hands of my unborn kids

But my heart keeps watchin' through the skin of my eyelids


Prince charming

Prince charming

Ridicule is nothing to be scared of

Don't you ever, don't you ever

Stop being dandy, showing me you're handsome


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