High fidelity meets high art as Vox explores the aesthetics of the mix tape Above the clutter on my desk, a number of Post-It notes stick to my bookshelf. One sticky square of green paper is labeled "Mix Tapes" in small capital letters.
Under that heading, a list of friends' names stretches toward the bottom. Next to the names, I have scribbled five ideas for themes and a couple songs that would fit within the bounds of those themes, songs that would make great mix tapes.
I'm going to make tapes for my friend Toni and my cousin Rebecca. I want to make a tape for myself from my friend's record collection. (I already know it'll have "Leave" by R.E.M., the Lou Reed song "Ocean" and a Woody Guthrie song on it.) I'm going to make a tape of songs featuring lyrics sung by choirs or shouting back-up singers, such as the "Na-Nas" in "Hey Jude" or the verse of "The Gash" by The Flaming Lips.
I'm going to be busy for quite a while.
And that's good.
It's what I do in my spare time. I hang out in my room and make mix tapes. Recording songs I have on CD and vinyl onto blank cassettes - that's my hobby. But it's not like collecting baseball cards, reading Harry Potter books or shooting pool.
It's art, man.
Mix tapes are art. They're like poems and collages and sculptures of sound. Making a mix tape is like making music.
Mixes are a form of meta-art - art that draws from previously produced art and makes something new out of it. When a person makes a mix tape, he relies on the art of other artists (such as The Clash or the Rolling Stones) so he can manipulate their art and ultimately create a new creative statement.
The process involves linking individual songs from a variety of sources into a single medium. It's an exercise in postmodernism in that fragments from an assortment of pre-existing and complete works are cut-and-pasted together to create a new and complete work.
The cassette is the canvas. The music is the paint - what connects the mixer's idea to the listener. An individual's music collection is the palette. The record button is the brush. The tape playing in a Walkman, in a car or out of the boombox is the painting hanging in the gallery.
My mix career boasts 32 mix tapes, which does not include the three mix CDs I have compiled.
I am not a musicologist or even an authority on a certain style of music or artist. I have a modest collection of CDs and some second-hand and hand-me-down records. Most of them would be filed under "Rock/Pop." Indiephiles, please forgive me.
I think in mix tapes. While working, walking to class or reading, my mind wanders. Often, a song in my head will start singing as I try to concentrate. The only way to extract it, sometimes, is to put it on a tape.
Jeff House, a 32-year-old computer programmer from Washington state who has made about 250 mix tapes since eighth grade, says that making a mix tape involves "recontextualizing music." He's not alone.
"I think it's definitely an art form," Jere Chandler, a music critic for Birmingham Weekly magazine, says. He's been making tapes since fourth or fifth grade. "Sometimes, just throwing songs together is still a creative process."
But others have some aesthetic standards. "You can't just take 15 songs and slap them on and call it a mix tape," House says. "It ought to strive for some level of emotional or intellectual response."
When making a mix tape, there are many options and choices to consider. A mix tape artist must scour his collection for the perfect opening song, listen to beginnings and endings for smooth between-song transitions, be aware of the amount of tape remaining near the end of a side and choose an effective and poignant title.
An artist must also spend much time contemplating the tone of the tape, excavating the songs from his or her collection that possess that tone and determining the order that will preserve that tone best.
Like good music, a mix tape "Ä has to make you feel something," House says. "It's as close to being a musician as I'll ever get."
The time and thought spent making the tape is the most important aspect of the process which spans from buying the tapes, to listening to music, to conceiving the idea, to playing it when it's done, to giving it away.
Making mix tapes is like making your own album with other music. Chris Mathis, a disc jockey for KCOU/88.1 FM, has made about 70 tapes since junior high. "I put time into it, so that it's like listening to a good album, so it sounds complete," he says.
Here are some suggestions for those who desire to create a stunningly graceful mix tape in the broad tradition of postmodernism and some tips for those who just want a tape that rocks.
So press play and listen closely. No matter how hard it rocks, it's still art.
Before pressing record, a wannabe mix tape maker should be passionate about music, have a considerable collection and want to devote the time to making a tape.
Another good idea is to research a bit. The art of mix tapes is learned by following examples and imitating the styles of other tapes and mixers. One authoritative Web site is Art of the Mix (artofthemix.org). The site is an interactive community where people may post the track listings to their tapes and view other mixes. Potential mix artists should click around and learn what sort of themes make good tapes.
After doing their homework, mixers should form a plan of attack. Mix tapes can be compilations of songs from one genre such as country or dance music. They can contain the music of a single artist. They may contain only songs about subjects, say, rain or drugs. Mixers can choose good driving songs to play while their car speeds down an interstate. They can narrate a story.
Chandler made a tape he calls "A Warped Romance," which tells the story of a fictional relationship. The tape begins with a song title that is a question, and the next title answers that question. For example, Devo's version of "Are You Experienced?" is followed by the song "I'm a Slut" by Bis. This pattern repeats.
He has given 20 to 30 copies of this tape to his fellow mixers.
Or, they can just be a collection of similar sounding songs or songs and artists that people should hear. Mix tapes, if intended to be given to a friend, can just contain songs the maker thinks the friend will enjoy.
Make Me a Mix Tape
When the mixer selects a theme or some other approach, he or she is ready to start recording. The first song is one of the most important aspects of the mix tape.
Like the infamous attention-getter of the high school speech or expository essay, and like the journalistic lead, the first song on a mix tape is crucial. It is the first chance the tape has to connect with the listener or cause the listener to tune out or fast-forward. A mix tape exists to be heard; therefore, the first song should be a song the listener wants to hear.
It doesn't have to be particularly catchy or memorable. It doesn't have to establish a mood, but it doesn't hurt. "Look for a real strong opener, usually something that kind of builds up," Chandler says. He suggests "How High" by The Charlatans U.K. or "Right Here, Right Now" by Fatboy Slim.
Spoken word sound bytes work well, too, he says. For example, a tape could begin with "Lyrical Gangbang" from The Chronic by Dr. Dre because it begins with a vocal sample that says, "This should be played at high volume, preferably in a residential area." That's pretty cool.
Some people plot out their mix tapes before they start recording. My friend Paul writes down the time lengths of the songs and adds them up to determine how close to 45 minutes (if using a 90-minute tape, my personal preference) the songs will be.
This, I believe, is even more extra work because math just sucks the joy out of making a mix tape. He still has to tape over songs that don't end before the tape runs out and find replacements even when he's counted the minutes and seconds. It's not worth it.
If the tape running out during a song is one of the worst feelings, hearing a tape end right after a song ends is the best feeling. It's like class ending on Friday, Christmas morning or, some might say, an orgasm.
It might seem like I put too much thought into the process. I obsess a little. But signs of obsession and anal-retentiveness prove that the mixer has spent many minutes contemplating a number of factors and options. Rushing a mix is like cramming for a French final during an English exam.
Before hearing a tape, listeners expect "a certain level of professionalism if you're going to send it out," House says. Mixers should pursue that professionalism, that thoroughness.
"I would say that for every one minute on a tape, I'll spend 10 minutes," House says. He spends quite a bit of time picking about 120 minutes of music from his 800 CDs for a 90-minute tape. Then, he feeds the music into his computer and digitally edits the music together. He loops music together focusing on segues and transitions, adds vocal clips and even often remixes poorly engineered music.
Although many people don't have the resources to make a pristine, authentic DJ mix tape, mixers should strive to create a clean and engaging product.
To avoid being redundant, and to share as much music as possible with listeners, mix tape makers should only record one song per artist per tape. This promotes diversity, making the tape more interesting. If someone's music collection is too slim, they can keep the songs by the repeated artists on opposite sides of the tape.
Exit Music (for a mix tape)
Once Side A is done and Side B starts to wind down, mixers should start to think about ending the tape. It is the last chance to tie in a theme. It makes the last impression. Not only should mixers be conscious of the lengths of the songs, but they should try to end the tape with force.
Ideally, a final song should leave the listener hanging, in a way. It should make the listener want to hear more.
Mathis suggests ending with a sad song because he says that most good albums end with sad songs. "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" is a good example, he says, of a sad song closing a great album, Radiohead's The Bends.
As long as the song somehow makes an impact, it is successful. My personal moment of glory occurred when I made a tape for my girlfriend as she was withdrawing from Paxil (read: freaking out). She decided she didn't need or want to take the prescription because she found herself wanting to sleep all day. The tape had a lot of songs about sleep and drugs and just being numb.
I decided to end the tape with "The Drugs Don't Work" by The Verve because it contains the lyrics, "Now, the drugs don't work. / They just make you worse, / but I know I'll see your face again."
Of course, she wasn't a junkie by any means, but I just thought it was a melancholy yet hopeful song that I hope helped her get off the medicine.
I had to shuffle the last few songs around so it could fit, but all the extra work of re-recording was justified.
The morning after
After a tape is complete, the mix tape maker and listener can engage in great discussions about the tape and music in general. This is a time when the mix tape artist really needs to use his listening skills. If the mixer listens to the listener's critique of the tape and what he or she might like to hear, the mixer already has several ideas for future tapes.
It's always good to have tapes to make in the future.
When I started planning the tape for this article, I was listening to Elliott Smith. In his song "Baby Britain," he sings, "The radio was playing / 'Crimson and Clover.'" I remembered that I once had the idea to put every song in my collection that uses the phrase "crimson and clover" in the lyrics onto a mix tape. So that is how I decided to start the tape. I dug out an old Dick Clark / 20 Years of Rock N' Roll double-LP compilation that my mom received on her 14th birthday. I recorded the first track from Side D, Tommy James and the Shondells performing "Crimson and Clover."
It ended up being a great song to start the first side because it starts a bit soft. He sighs, "Oh, now I don't hardly know her ..." The song progressively builds up with some tremolo and wah-wah guitars. At one point near the end of the song, it even sounds like "How Soon Is Now?" by The Smiths.
I planned to record "Johnny Feelgood" by Liz Phair and "Baby Britain" by Elliott Smith because both of those songs contain the phrase "crimson and clover." Later on Side A, I taped the Liz Phair song, but suddenly, I abandoned my goal.
Instead of recording "Baby Britain," which sounds bouncy like "Getting Better" from the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, I recorded "Cupid's Trick" from Smith's either/or album.
Why? It just sounded better with the rest of the tape as I was making it. A good mixer needs to be flexible.
Although the original concept of my tape relied on lyrical connections between those three songs, I ultimately decided to challenge myself and set a new goal: to create a smoothly flowing tape. "Cupid's Trick" just seemed to fit better, both musically and in the time-space of the tape.
These are valid concerns to embrace when making a tape.
I wanted an Elliott Smith song to close the first side because I thought it would mirror and contrast with the Tommy James song. "Baby Britain" wouldn't have worked because, as I mentioned before, it sounds too much like the Beatles and wouldn't have been similar to "Crimson and Clover."
"Cupid's Trick" on the other hand tends to have dynamics that are more similar to "Crimson and Clover," and the lyrics have a twist to them.
"Segues are important," Mathis says, and I agree. At least on this tape, I really tried to make the tape flow unobtrusively and nonconfrontationally.
"Baby Britain," at the end of Side A would have followed "Johnny Feelgood," which has some pop qualities to it. The Elliott Smith song, if I based the tape solely on transitions from one song to the next, would have definitely worked quite well.
But I considered the other songs I had recorded.
They were all good, of course, but "Baby Britain," as one of my favorite Elliott Smith songs, just would have been too good.
A good mix tape, Mathis says, is one in which "each song is so good that it makes you forget the last song."
"Baby Britain" would have been too unforgettable.
Also, it just didn't fit.
I did originally record "Baby Britain," but it was too long. The music still played and then the tape deck squealed and clicked to a stop at the end of Side A.
It sounded like it was hissing at me and mocking my flawed mix tape. Maybe that's the real reason I didn't put it on.
Length does matter.
I had to rewind and record over the song. Then, I rewound it again and played it from the end of the Liz Phair song while I timed the amount of tape left.
So much extra work. Luckily, "Cupid's Trick" was the perfect length, so perfect that it ends, and Side A ends less than five seconds later.
Which brings me to my current musical roadblock: the end of Side B. On the tape I just made for Vox, about one minute and 30 seconds of silence stretch on after The Smiths' song on Side B. I am stuck. I don't know what to do.
Maybe I'll try to put a Starlight Mints song on there. Or maybe Nick Drake. I don't know, though. I really wanted to end with "There Is a Light that Never Goes Out."
So do me a favor. Take my little mix tape lessons and help me finish this tape. Don't forget that the goal is a tape with smooth transitions.
Remember, there's no more than a minute and a half to fill, and I can usually deal with 15 seconds or so of blank tape at the very end.
E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org your ideas, and whoever proposes the most powerful yet graceful "swan song," if you will, will receive a copy of this mix.
Making mix tapes is not easy. I still struggle, but when I do finish, I'll have a pretty decent tape. Hopefully you will, too.
"Crimson and Clover" by Tommy James and the Shondells
"Red-Eyed and Blue" by Wilco
"Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" by U2
"Love Like Laughter" by Beth Orton
"Falls to Climb" by R.E.M.
"I'm Waiting for the Day" by The Beach Boys
"Denise" by Fountains of Wayne
"Starman" by David Bowie
"Trimm Trabb" by Blur
"Tiny Cities Made of Ashes" by Modest Mouse
"Johnny Feelgood" by Liz Phair
"Cupid's Trick" by Elliott Smith
"Sissyneck" by Beck
"Eggman" by Beastie Boys
"Bron-Y-Aur Stomp" by Led Zeppelin
"She's Losing It" by Belle and Sebastian
"In the Garage" by Weezer
"Words and Guitar" by Sleater-Kinney
"Nearly Lost You" by Screaming Trees
"Blissed and Gone" by The Smashing Pumpkins
"Idioteque" by Radiohead
"Hey Joni" by Sonic Youth
"Blood" by Pearl Jam
"There Is a Light that Never Goes Out" by The Smiths
[Plus another song - chosen by you. About one minute and 30 seconds of blank tape remain. E-mail email@example.com with your ideas. The best wins the mix!]