12 June 2008

mastering the (re)mix: now with links and complete track list!

Over the weekend, I spent 14+ hours driving to Chicago. Though the drive can sometimes get monotonous, other times I find the lush, green linear route up 90/94 to be meditative. I let my mind wander. I let my mind go blank. And of course, the music playing sets the tone. This time, it unintentionally ended up as a revisiting of past music mixes that I have received and made over the years. Although I am a little too young to have fully experienced the mixtape culture, I have always loved the art of the mix (coincidentally the name of this website called Art of the Mix that is a community in which people post and rate each others' mixes). Your mix is an artifact, a time capsule for your current feelings, thoughts, and preferences. It can also help introduce the listener to a particular genre, artist, musical movement. For example, the Ken Burns's Jazz: The Story of American Music provided me with a wonderful entree into this diverse genre. Personally, I haven't made nor received too many didactic mixes, save for a nice Aimee Mann mix I should really bust out again.

As I was going through my cassettes from home, I came across my first mixtape ever from 1994. I made it in the sixth grade and a good chunk of its contents were hardly appropriate for a 12 year old - most of Salt 'n Pepa's Very Necessary album, some Snoop Dogg (Gin and Juice), and Warren G. Not surprising that this around the time I was hitting puberty and teenage rebellion. As I was home this weekend, I found another mix I made that captured my teen angst and depression (Alanis Morissette, Fiona Apple).  Another was a compilation of awful, mushy songs (Savage Garden? Oh dear.) that was a soundtrack to the romantic life that I created in my head. Creating a mix out of bits and pieces of music was a mode of expression in itself, albeit a vicarious one.  

Then there were the mixes that I made for others and that others made for me. Honestly, there are few greater simple gifts than a thoughtful mix CD.  I love finding the inside jokes, decoding the subtext, analyzing this rare earnest glimpse into the soul of the creator. Listening to the mix that I made at the age of 16 as a six-month anniversary gift, which narrated the course of our relationship, effectively transported me back to those more naive days of young love. I had to skip over some tracks because it was just too hard to listen to them. And then there were tracks that I had even forgotten why I had included them. I wondered if it was because it was simply a poor song choice (lack of attachment, meaning) or if I had changed so much that I simply do not remember.

Listening to all these mixes got me to thinking about the whole idea that there are "rules" for making a good mix. Anyone who has seen High Fidelity or read the novel by Nick Hornby knows what I'm talking about. A quote:
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.
Though I am not a strict adherent to all these rules, they're one way to think about the structure and flow of your mix. Here are some other tips that I've come up with regarding its content:
  • Avoid novelty songs. Ideally, the entire album should be listenable. Even if you share some hilarious inside joke about male genitalia, no one really wants to listen to AC/DC's "Big Balls." 
  • Seriously doubting whether the song fits? Whether it sends the wrong message? Ditch it. 
  • Try to avoid songs you truly adore if you are making this for a current love interest or the mix has a particularly romantic theme. If things go sour or the mere thought of that relationship becomes uncomfortable, that song will never be the same to you again. You will kick yourself for creating that association. Call it selfish if you want, but unless you can do some kind of memory rewriting a la Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, then I'm never giving up "My Cherie Amour" by Stevie Wonder.
  • Think about what the other person would want to hear. Yes, much of the joy is in creating that perfect mix that captures exactly the essence of how you feel at that moment in time, but remember that it is still a gift. And what's the use of a gift that is not fully appreciated by its recipient! That 6-month anniversary mix I made was much too self-induglent. I doubt that he ever listened to it after I gave it to him. He, on the other hand, was really good at making mixes. One Valentine's mix was filled with quirky songs from bands that we both liked (Magnetic Fields' "A Chicken with its Head Cut Off") and versions of songs that I didn't even know existed (Johnny Cash and Fiona Apple cover "Bridge Over Troubled Water"), and I can still listen to the whole CD the whole way through.  
Thanks to everyone who has ever made me a mix! I cherish them dearly, being the sentimental hack that I am. If you were to make a mix for your life right now, what would be on it? I have been thinking about making a soundtrack for the Summer of Steph...

1 comment:

Katie said...

Love this post. I shouldn't be surprised by now when I find things we have in common, but I love mix tapes/CDs too (listening to them and making them)! :-) And I definitely made a mix/playlist earlier this summer that was basically my equivalent to the 'Summer of Steph' playlist :-)