Why you should care
Because giving — and receiving — a mixtape used to be the epitome of cool. Can’t it be again?
The writer is a San Francisco-based journalist who will happily make you a mixtape if you wish.
This is how to make a mix CD for the girl you met hiking last week who may or may not be into you, but who you hope is, and if she isn’t maybe she will be once she hears how awesome your CD is. Because isn’t that what happens when you believe in love?
A rejection story in 11 tracks.
After you decide to make a mix CD for the girl you met hiking last week, you wonder whether it’s even still possible to buy blank CDs. You discover that it is: at the Walgreens on Church and Market, a couple of blocks from your favorite San Francisco diner.
This is weird. It’s like renting a movie from Blockbuster, or using a paper map that has numbers and letters up and down the sides, or looking up a phone number in an actual yellow book with pages. Musically speaking, we’re in the age of iTunes and Pandora, Spotify and 8tracks. The age of streaming playlists.
If mix CDs are the hearty soup of musical curation, then playlists are instant noodles. They are convenient and easy to prepare. You can live off them, love them even. But in the end they’re not as satisfying as a hard-earned meal.
There’s something intimate about taking a blank, lifeless disc and turning it into a mix CD — that is to say, giving an inanimate object a tiny chunk of your own heart and electrifying it so it will live forever. Making a mix CD is like writing a poem or a love letter. There’s nothing instant about it. You agonize over it, choose the tracks, arrange the tracks, rearrange the tracks. You add a song and delete it and add it again, and then, once you’ve given the CD away and it’s too late, you realize you should have gone with “Blackbird” over “Michelle.” When you’re done you have created something real, something tangible, something more powerful than a list on a screen: a work of art. (See also Track 8: cover art.)
You have to believe this — that organizing songs on nearly obsolete technology is a grand romantic gesture, that it is the auditory equivalent of handpicking a bouquet of flowers, that it means something, that it is art. Otherwise your CD will be as soulless as a MIDI rendition of a Kenny G song. And nobody wants to hear a MIDI rendition of a Kenny G song.
For the girl you met hiking last week in Bolinas, choose tracks that fall under the category “folk” and bear a slight resemblance to songs by the band The Magnetic Fields and that can be described as “somber” and “gray,” because you’ve gleaned from the hike that these are things she enjoys. She also enjoys Richard Linklater films and collecting flowers and walking very slowly while looking at things closely and leaving her mother short voice messages in Mandarin.
Begin with “The Book of Love” by the Magnetic Fields. The first song is the most important one. It’s like the opening line of a novel.
You are interested in the girl you met hiking last week in Bolinas with the long, gorgeous hair because she makes you feel like you’re living in a Frank Sinatra song and because her voice sounds like it should be recorded and listened to through headphones on repeat and because she has long, gorgeous hair.
“The Book of Love” is probably the greatest song ever written, or at least you think it is at the moment because your judgment is clouded by the sentimentality of the Richard Linklater films you’ve been watching and the smell of the mint leaves she gave you, which you later find in the pocket of your hoodie. (These leaves are now on your desk, and they’re starting to crumble.) The song says, “The Book of Love is filled with music, in fact that’s where music comes from. Some of it is just transcendental, some of it is just really dumb.”
Scratch that track because it comes off as dumb. Begin instead with The Magnetic Fields’ “Absolutely Cuckoo,” which more accurately describes the situation: “Don’t fall in love with me yet, we only recently met. True, I’m in love with you, but you might decide I’m a nut.”
Scratch that track because it comes off as crazy.
Instead, begin with “Acid Tongue” by Jenny Lewis, which is hopeful, but cynical enough as to not be obvious. It is folky and somber and gray and beautiful.
It goes: “To be lonely is a habit like smoking or taking drugs, and I’ve quit them both but man was it rough.”
Choose up to 15 songs, but no more. Any more and a CD becomes bloated, wordy, a waterlogged ship, a collection of noise.
Go with 13 because you’re not superstitious.
Realize that even though you’ve gotten so into making this CD, it’s not clear whether or not the girl you met hiking last week actually wants it.
But you’ve just seen Richard Linklater’s movie “Boyhood,” in which Ethan Hawke’s character makes a mix of the solo work of John, Paul, George and Ringo that he calls “The Black Album,” and in the liner notes to his son he writes: “Maybe the lesson is: Love doesn’t last, but the music love creates just might. …Your mom and I couldn’t make love last, but you are the music, my man.”
Convince yourself that mix CDs can solve all the world’s problems.
Try to figure out ways to suggest making her a mix CD like it was her idea, even though it was your idea and you’re practically already done with it.
Email her to see if she wants to get tea sometime.
Think about CD titles. Maybe the ironically self-titled “This Is a Mix CD.” Or maybe the moody-artistic “The Gray Album.” Or maybe just the open-ended “Untitled.”
Wait for her to email back. Keep waiting.
You don’t get to making cover art.
Read an article on NPR about a thing called “CD rot.” Learn that in the 1990s, historical societies and museums started transferring information and audio onto CDs. The Library of Congress has around 400,000 of them. Compact discs are supposed to last for centuries. But some are starting to rot, and nobody knows exactly why.
NPR says: “Sadly, your favorite CDs — the ones you’ve played a lot — are often the ones that are most likely to be damaged.”
Hear from your mutual friend that the girl you met hiking last week doesn’t want to get tea with you. Put the CDs you bought from Walgreens in the top drawer of a dresser with the cigarettes you smoke when you’re bummed out and the external drive you use to play discs because your computer doesn’t actually have a CD player. Turn the songs you curated into a playlist on your iPod.
Call it “CD rot.”
Call it “The Book of Love.”