I have angst over mix-tapes but I blame Nick Hornby which means it’s not a massive problem. See, Nick Hornby helped romanticise the mixtape in his novel “High Fidelity”. Exhibit A, the closing words from the film adaptation of the book:
The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don’t wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules.
It’s all about the mixtape as an artistic and romantic gesture. You carefully – very carefully – choose not just songs but the order in which they are played. And it is these songs and the play order which truly shows how you are feeling (because you are shy and don’t express yourself so well in words).
This idea of a mixtape has haunted me and tormented me because I’d never been able to create a mixtape (or CD or iTunes playlist) that I’ve even been remotely satisfied with.
I recently found a tape I’d put together in 1997 full of moody surf instrumental music. It was going to be my late-night driving music, like that scene in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta shoots up and drives around in his convertible. Only without the heroin, and in a Toyota Corolla.
I’m not sure if I ever got around to putting the tape into use, but listening to it with a decade’s distance between when I first held down play and record together, it seemed terribly pretentious and horribly embarrassing. What was I thinking? Oh yeah, Travolta.
When I was in Nelson on holiday a couple of years ago, I burned a CD to be my soundtrack on the day I drove to Blenheim. Only trouble was about half the tunes I’d put on the playlist in iTunes were DRM-controlled and wouldn’t burn to disk. And as it happened, they were all the good tunes.
Specifically, there was no Tom Tom Club and I really wanted to listen to some Tom Tom Club tunes and the whole way over on that stupid winding road between Nelson and Blenheim I had to listen to a whole lot of songs that were not by the Tom Tom Club and then Blenheim (on a Sunday!) was silent and grey and still no Tom Tom Club and so it wasn’t until I got back to Nelson in the late afternoon that I could finally get some Tom Tom Club.
Wait, really? Tom Tom Club?
My department at work was having a party. The venue was booked, food was organised and then someone realised there needed to be some music. “Hey, Robyn, you know a bit about music. Could make a playlist on your iPod.”
So I tried. First I separated my music into music my workmates would like (Beyonce – “Crazy In Love”, Amy Winehouse – “Rehab”, Gwen Stefani – “What You Waiting For”) and music my workmates would not like (Muffpunch – “Clitoral Thorns”, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – “Fuck Shit Up”, “The Sexual Politics of Meat” – Consolidated).
Then, with the workmate friendly tunes, I tried to make a coherent playlist. But it just seemed about as sexy as old underwear – completely functional, but with no joy to it.
On the night, we ended up dancing to someone else’s compilation CD which alternated tracks from The Prodigy’s “Fat of the Land” and Oasis’s “(What the story) Morning Glory”. Which made me feel so much better.
The closest I’ve ever come to having a mixtape I’ve been happy with was in 1987, when I used to tape songs off the radio. I managed to capture the last 90 seconds or so of Harold Faltermeyer’s synth classic “Axel F” which – at the time – sounded really sophisticated. Yeah, I know.
I also blame High Fidelity for the romanticism of the mix-tape; the “Oh, baby, I love you so much, I made you this tape to express how I feeeel.” Yet all of the mixtapes I’ve received have been for educational purposes, probably from people who feel sorry for me.
So it’s little surprise that I’m a huge fan of the shuffle function on my iPod. I just let Apple’s algorithm pick the tunes for me, guiding from song to song in a semi-random, semi-logical flow. While shuffle can come up with some inspired sequences of songs, it always manages to stuff things up (ruining a great run of 1960s pop with a BBC political comedy radio show), just to remind me that it’s not actually a person. And certainly not a person who cares enough to have made a mixtape for me.
But I’m not about to sink into a deep hole of depression just because Nick Hornby managed to romanticise the mixtape for an entire generation. I’m going to happily listen to my iPod on shuffle, content that it will give me just what I need and a whole lot that I don’t need.