I’ll take this time
To tell my friends
What I’m thinking of.
On second thought,
I’ll think some more
And tell you later on.
She don’t even care,
But I would die
For her love.
~Teenage Fanclub, “December”
For the last few hours, I’ve been listening to a fraction of the unsolicited mixtapes and mix cds and playlists of various kinds that I made for people but, you know, never got the opportunity to give to them. It’s strange, it really is, how they evolve in your head. At the beginning, they’re just a bunch of songs you’re throwing together because the transitional aesthetics seem somehow appropriate. They’re in the same key, or one song ends with a drum fill and the next song starts with a drum roll, or they’re both about birds, or, most likely, they both rip off the Beach Boys. You listen to them and maybe cringe a little, because you know there’s a song on there that the hypothetical recipient won’t like or get or appreciate, but if only they could listen to it with your ears – or if not your ears, then ears that have you in mind. You’re thinking, “I know Guided by Voices isn’t the easiest band to swallow for a girl with a Milli Vanilli obsession, but I’ve just got a feeling about this one.” The darker songs, the less accessible songs, the most goddamn meaningful songs become a Joycean gambit, like standing under a window in the rain until you die of exposure… if not necessarily on that level.
Then, after you’ve listened to them a couple of times, you lose that sense of risk, and the tapes become perfect compositional mosaics, Picasso-esque gestalt collages that aren’t just ten songs per side – they’re two sides that perfectly dovetail and form a kind of manifesto on your enormous crush (romantic crush or, more rarely, hetero dude-crush) on the target of the tape.
The great folly of the mixtape compiler is always assuming the audience will share in your view of aggregate history, much less your sense of the importance of momentary associations. Aggregate history is tricky, because it has to do with the way thinking about musical transcends you. You know, like when you see a girl wearing a Nirvana shirt, and you get to talking, eventually the conversation is going to get to, “So, do you like Pixies?” (Except you say THE Pixies because if you don’t it sounds pretentious). If she knows them, it becomes “What about Sonic Youth,” and then, “So, the Wipers?” And eventually – even if you have to go all the way down to Beat Happening, and God forbid you ever have to bring up Beat Happening in an important conversation (talk about divisive –never mention Beat Happening or abortion in a conversation with a promising pretty girl) – you get to something she doesn’t know. Because men are smarter than women. I’m just kidding. But, I’m talking about me over here, and I have an incredible knack for falling in love with the most aloof women imaginable. The thing about aloof women is, they don’t tend to have unquenchable thirsts for college rock trivium from the 1980s. The upshot of that is, you know a lot more than they do, so you can teach them. The problem is, usually they don’t care at all.
So, in terms of aggregate history, you have to find a way to use the history that shaped their own taste for them instead of against them. Carolyn the Terrible, for example, was a huge fan of the Shins. (Carolyn the Terrible also instigated my brilliant New York-themed mixtape, New York’s Alright if You Like Saxophones (New York’s Alright if You’re a Homosexual)). (Why don’t I have any friends who would get that?). There are any number of pop bands over the years that have put a little honey in the James Mercer pot, but there is a reason the Shins have become what they have. And the problem with the people who discover the Shins like a bolt from the blue is, they’re about as apt to be impressed by the Boo Radleys as they are by being handed an iron girder and being told it’s from the Sears Tower. This is the same reason most girls would read this and accuse me of ripping off High Fidelity. Not because I’m a part of the class and culture of sad sacks who contributed to the composition of High Fidelity (not that they’ve read it, but they saw it once). But because they would think I’m ripping it off.
So you have to find songs that are somehow undeniable.
But this leads directly into the bigger problem: momentary associations. Because they tend to taint your conception of the undeniable, they are incredibly dangerous, and incredibly tempting Edenic quinces that you just want to pluck right into a prominent spot on the tape. But just because you one time had a transcendent night, say, laying in the back of a flat-bed truck with some girl watching the clouds float over the moon like a wave of grain and dandelion fluff and you couldn’t stop thinking about “Kicked it in the Sun” by Built to Spill and so “Kicked it in the Sun” has become permanently entrenched in your conception of not only your relationship of that person, but the very concept of that person, so you can’t possibly understand how they couldn’t like “Kicked it in the Sun.” And you have to take a very deep breath and ask yourself, will this person, who is a big Milli Vanilli fan, like this tape if I put “Kicked it in the Sun” as the second track?
She will not.
Right about at this point in your understanding of the mixtape you’re making or have made (but not yet given), your relationship with the hypothetical recipient always sours, breaks, unspools, or somehow otherwise ceases to exist except as a heap on the floor, waiting around to be swept into the dustbin. This is the point that you lay in bed listening to the mixtape and realize what you were really saying all along. You put “Thirteen” by Big Star on it, and when Alex Chilton is singing, in that perfect perfect alto, about taking her to the pool, you realize that, in your cowardly way, you were asking her to go to the pool with you. Or, when Stephen Malkmus sings, “You’re the kind of girl I like, because you’re empty and I’m empty, and you can never quarantine the past,” you were telling her that you’ve forgotten everything that happened to you before she popped up and you promise to never think about anything again. And you start to get a little embarrassed, because you’ve been saying some things that you realize could have come off as a little bit creepy at the end of the day if only you’d had the guts to say them. But really, you didn’t have the guts to say them. In fact, you were going to have some popular musicians say them for you, but you didn’t even have the guts to have them say it, because the tape, elaborate packaging and all, is still in your possession. In fact, you’re laying on your bed listening to it, and you’re no longer on speaking terms with the person who was supposed to get the fucking thing. Holy shit, did I really put a Joni Mitchell song on this tape that goes “Star bright, star bright, you’ve got the loving that I like alright”?
That’s about the point that the tape somehow turns the corner and becomes a scathing indictment of everything they stand for. Because when Joni Mitchell sings “I shouldn’t have got on this flight tonight,” and then she’s like “I’ve got the headphones on, I can’t drown you out of my mind,” you’re like, “Who the fuck do you think you are, bitch?” And what motivation could I possibly have had for putting a Flaming Lips song about bugs on this thing if I didn’t secretly hate you all along?
So you like Pavement? Do you like Urusei Yatsura?
It’s getting harder all the time, too, because musical omnivores are increasingly becoming dismissive of the masculinist oblique love song tradition of the guitar rock of the last 25 years and more and more forward-thinking. Synthesizer bleeps and shit. And there’s nothing wrong with synthesizer bleeps. But the beautiful thing about the mixtape used to be, it was a way to sit there and play a guitar for a girl without sitting there and playing a guitar for a girl. If anybody in Cambridge, Massachusetts is currently wooing a girl he invited to his dorm room by covering a Silver Apples song with a Roland 909 and a sequenced saw-synth bassline, I will eat my hat.
And the ones who aren’t musical omnivores are weird specialists who know what they like and don’t like anything else. Delta blues, Stax soul, 80s dance pop, dubstep, Dipset (those chicks are fucking weird), even Counting Fucking Crows. Making a mixtape for these people is suicide, because just by being out of their element, you’re out of your element. It’s like, don’t take a girl you think you might marry to a Godard movie, unless you think you might divorce her, too. The people who aren’t wound too tight for living are much harder to make mixtapes for, unfortunately.
Why do I bring all this up? When the daily high temperature hovers around -1 degree Fahrenheit, you don’t have a job, you’re absurdly over-educated, too smart to have any fun, and you have nothing else to do, your life’s organizing principle becomes baroque and heavy-handed symbolism. My dad gave me this ipod dock speaker thing that’s incredibly loud and sounds incredibly good, just because he's a nice guy. It was on my bedside table. Then I wanted the sound to hit both of my ears equally, so I put it on my headboard. But then I couldn’t reach it easily. So I decided, instead of putting it back on the bedside table, to put it on the bed, where the other person would be. (In the original 8billion megapixel version of the photo, you can zoom in close enough to see that "Seeing Other People" by Belle & Sebastian is playing, in the great tradition of absurdly sentimental metaphors, in place of my alternate pillow).
Then I thought, why not make it sing to me the way I used to try to sing to people?
Fuckit, I’m gonna go make a mixtape. One that I’m never gonna give to anybody.
I’ll take this time