The Lost Art of Saying “I Like You”: A Guide to Making a Mixtape

Making a mixtape

From its inception in 1963, the blank audio cassette tape has carried more heartache and elation than any other media form. Blank audio tapes have been instrumental in bringing countless genres of music from hip-hop to hardcore to the masses through an undergoing railroad of hand passes and cracked plastic covers. These tapes have also culminated themselves into the love letters of Generation X as well as subsequent engenderments; handcrafted displays of emotion that say far more than a note across the classroom ever could, they were simply and aptly dubbed mixtapes. The right collaboration of songs from artists of past and present fame or obscurity packaged anyway you see fit and given to an innumerable amount of ephemeral and life long crushes. Slip a mixtape and a smile to said crush at their locker and you can fool yourself into thinking you’ve got their attention for 90 minutes+ and in a best case scenario, a constant reminder of your finer points in a song whenever they may hear it again for years and years to come. This may seem like an overly romantic notion to carry but then again, if you’re not overly romantic yourself, what are you doing making mixtapes? Sadly (or not, depending on how you view it) the mixtape culture came tumbling down as the advent of 21st century and burning technology allowed for CDs (and eventually streaming playlists) to take their place. Instead of toiling in your bedroom for what could be days sorting through your record/CD/tape collection for the perfect selections, you may now just point, click and drag in the span of five minutes or less. A mixtape showed you cared; a burned CD says you’ve got other things on your mind.

Despite what some popular, independent music publications may say mixtapes are not about cramming as much good {stuff} onto one cassette as you can. However, they need to be assembled thoughtfully and in a manner that is somewhat formatted but each time original. In the novel, High Fidelity, protagonist Rob Fleming laid down some much needed guidance for the construction of a compilation tape. Picking up where Hornby left off, I present some of my own ground rules for the dwindling mixtape culture.

1. Never make a mixtape under 90 minutes: One of the few advantages mixtapes possessed over CDs is their ability to store more songs, thus prolonging the sonic experience of the listener. Making a 60 minute mixtape strips the cassette of this advantage and overall tells the person you gave it to, “yeah, it would be cool to make out with you but you know, whatever.” Sixty-minute mixtapes may be reserved for summer flings and if you want to be funny, you may title them as such ( e.g. “Deirdre’s Mix: Summer 2000”)

2. Always start it off with a bang: Hornby touched on this point rather well. You want to grab their attention and make them keep listening. The catchier, the better. This goes for the second track as well. A classic one-two punch is essential to any mixtape worth its salt.

3. Never start a mixtape off with a track one, side one of another album: Doing such a thing could cause confusion especially if the label peels off after excessive listens and we all know the label glue is not the most adhesive of materials. Plus, it comes across like an easy way out and almost shows that you yourself have not listened past the first track of the album you are picking and choosing from. I have a friend, who shall remain nameless, that constantly bucks this rule and really, it drives me mad mainly cause he’s better than that. U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is a great track one side one for an album, but not so much for a mixtape. Better off with “Like a Song…” If possible, also avoid ending mix tapes with final tracks of albums. Once again, it’s too easy to do this and expresses lack of creativity. However, you very well could end a mixtape with a track one, side one. Jimmy Eat World’s “Table for Glasses” makes an excellent mixtape farewell and leaves most with chills.

4. Bring things down a notch with track three: another Hornby-ism that mixtape aficionados always abide by and most likely did before they even heard of High Fidelity. Albums often do this as well and it works marvelously and in the end, just makes sense. Too much energy can cause songs to run into themselves and get forgotten. The track three is often the knockout punch in a whisper. Last year, “Beast For Thee” by indie-folk power duo Superwolf (Bonnie Prince Billy and Matt Sweeney) was my standard track three/side one, which was received universally well.

5. Never put downer songs back-to-back: at dances in high school, DJs used to do this constantly (usually “Take My Breath Away” followed by “Wonderful Tonite”) and I never understood why. The slow dance was immensely important back in those days and for some of us, the only form of affection we’d get until we could drive after nine and procure badly scanned fake IDs. It’s not called “slow danceS” and when that first track ended and you and your partner just kind of looked at each other and then ANOTHER slow track started, your moment was turned from ecstasy to awkwardness as you both knew not what to do and decided to either scramble for the bleachers or new partners OR dance again but it just wasn’t as special. Back-to-back downer tracks on mixtapes spoil the moment as well and usually emit tears from the listener but not the good kind. Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” is amazingly dense and beautiful all at the same time but follow that up with Lucinda Williams’ “Jackson” and you may find the recipient of the mixtapes hanging by the spools of the compilation you made for them.

6. Only allow for one song per artist: A girl I once dated (read: Andrea’s Summer into Fall Mix 1999) returned the mixtape favor with two (!) of her own and needless to say I was shocked at this reciprocation. My shock melted into disappointment when I saw the format; rock blocks of 3-4 songs per artist adorned each side of the cassette tape. Mixtapes are to be viewed as compilations from history and not from one singular label. Allowing for more than one song per artist showcases certain musicians and places more emphasis on the parts than on the whole. Remember with mixtapes its about expression throughout. Yeah, the songs still have to be good but in a way they also have to be unifying.

7. Having go-to tracks is never a bad thing: For years, I had three standard openers to my mixtapes; “Let Down”-Radiohead, “Sick of Myself”-Matthew Sweet and “Morning Theft”-Jeff Buckley. These were givens if you got a tape from me between the years of 1999 & 2001 and boy, did they bring down the house. A 1-2-3 that rivaled any. “Let Down” usually got em’ right off the bat and in a way was my “door test” for potential significant others. An ex-girlfriend once told me one minute into to the song, she knew nothing was perfect but everything was going to be alright. Wow. Granted, you can never stick with one formula forever but if ain’t broke you can always delay fixing it.

8. Know your audience: If I received a mixtape with Train of Thought’s “Self Inflicted” and 4 In Tha Chamber’s “Strength of Convictions” on it serving as the 1-2 combo, I would think it was the coolest thing ever. If I gave this mixtape to someone, 9 times out of 10 it wouldn’t get past the 2 minute mark. Girls are smarter than guys which is why most of them don’t like terrible late ’90s hardcore bands who never got past a 2-week VFW tour. If your girlfriend DOES happen to like late ’90s hardcore, propose. Propose right now and have Rick Ta Life sell merch at your wedding.

9. Don’t underestimate the power of side two: You’ve finished side one and now have 45-60 minutes and/or 11-15 tracks of awesomeness. So you can naturally slack on side two, right? Wrong. Side two may be even more crucial. Think of it this way—how many albums have you purchased that lag after track 7? Thousands of albums go from great to good based on weak output from their second halves. This can also happen to mixtapes if the creator happens to stumble come side B. Solution? Start it off with an equal bang as side one BUT make it an extended song of varying emotions. My go-to side two, track one was (and often times still is) Built to Spill’s “Velvet Waltz” (easily one of my top five favorite songs of all time) that clocks in at 8 minutes. Other suggestions include Springsteen’s “Rosalita,” The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” and/or Pulp’s, “Sylvia” Note: The rule concerning the ineptitude of starting mixtapes off with track one (see section 1, rule 3) , side one of a CD/record DOES NOT carry over to side two, track one. Meaning, using a side two, track one of a record for your mixtape’s side two track one is acceptable. This is due to a number of variables including frequency of tape collections, difference in presentation, etc. 

10. Subtlety is key: You’ve started things off with “I Want You So Badly” then segued into “You Belong To Me” and capped off the 1-2-3 with a stunning live version of “Love Me Tender.” What’d you do wrong? Apparently you forgot to affix a diamond ring to the tape. This type of trifecta is dead on for a Valentine’s/anytime present for your long term significant other (high schoolers read: 2 months) but if this tape was made for a potential, then you’ve just sunk your own battleship my friend. Now, you may say, but Kev, your own go-to three contained two blatantly obvious songs of desire and want, how can you diss one these? Easy. Songs such as the ones described in this passage are far too affirmative and can be construed as creepy. Jessica Hopper would eat Elvis Costello’s track for breakfast, declaring that she belongs to no one and other girls would follow suit. My 1-2-3 dealt with themes of “independence,” “boyish love” and “friendship.” Granted, they were all sprinkled with flakes of something more but overall, they were mere hints that leave one guessing.

11. Avoid obvious mistakes: If the person you’re making a tape for happens to be in a band and you put one of their songs on a tape for them, you deserve to be alone. If you put Yo La Tengo’s “Night Falls on Hoboken” (17 minutes and 41 seconds) right in the middle of side one and wonder why they never made it to side B, you also deserve to be alone. These are easy to sidestep blunders that I should not have to touch on but serve as the “just in case” portion of this list.

12. When using a cover version of an original song, always note it as such: Mixtapes are a great way for music geeks to flex their intellectual muscle and even make for conversation post tape givings. Oh, your crush thought Strummer & Jones wrote “I Fought The Law?” Well, allow yourself to educate them…

13. When making a mixtape for yourself, pay no attention to these rules. Who knows you better than you know you? Your dog? Well, they can’t make you a mixtape so after Snoopy, you know you the best. Therefore, buck these rules when making yourself a mix. Who have you got to impress? Besides, mixtapes are all about cramming as much great music onto one media form as possible…right?

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