I worked briefly as a temp in an office in Scotland, at this place that handled standardized tests. Another temp and I bonded over our interests in obscure music, though he liked somewhat different music than I was into, and our common love of Nick Hornby novels. At one point we were talking with another fellow temp about books. The two of us said we really liked Hornby and she said she had read High Fidelity and found the main character a total jerk (which is a fair judgment I think). We said, ‘really? we totally related to him,’ which put us all in an awkward position on two fronts – she’d dissed a book we liked and had implied that we were jerks. Our way out of that awkward spot was to talk about the bit in the novel where the protagonist makes a mix tape for someone he’s romantically interested in.

It’s been a while since I read the book but I remember really liking that bit. The guy thinks about that mix tape a lot, wants it to be just perfect. I used to make mix tapes like this. I would go through my CDs and see what all I might want to put on the tape, pile them up on the floor, then sort through the definites from the maybes, and keep track of how long all the songs were, approximately (keeping in mind if it was a 60 minute or 90 minute tape), and making sure to have as little silence as possible unless it was deliberately for effect.

When my wife and I were early in our relationship, way way before we got married, I made her two mix tapes with all sorts of stuff on them. She made me tapes at different times too. I made tapes for myself, and she did the same. The idea was to have all the songs function as an ensemble. How will the songs speak to each other? What sorts of transitions will there be? Do the song have the same or different sensibilities and if different are they contrasting or complementary?

Some of this same sensibility of mix tape making can go into making a mix CD for someone, but it’s not quite the same. First off, mix tapes have two sides. There’s a break in the middle. Each side should be its own unit, and the two sides also have to relate to each other. A CD is just one long stretch of songs, like a single side to a mix tape. And with the ease of putting CDs onto computers and MP3 players and all that stuff, it’s easy to listen to the songs in any order whatsoever or to listen to only some of the songs. That’s the thing that’s most different about mix tapes and is I think a key element to mix tapes for or from someone you have a crush on.

To overstate the case, when you listen to a mix tape from someone you give them control of your time. With tapes it’s harder to fast forward and skip around; you’re more likely to listen to the whole side of the tape in the order of the songs on the tape. That’s the point of spending all that time on making the tape – making a mix tape is making a sort of architecture for the listener to enter into. It’s like… the only metaphor I can think of is an obstacle course (which probably speaks to my poor musical taste, if I think of the music I like as running an obstacle course) which isn’t quite right – it’s like a set of things that the listener will move through, a set of emotional experiences and sounds and ideas experienced in the order on the tape. It’s sort of a control thing. A mix CD allows much more casual suspension of the plan of the mix maker, while the tape makes you more likely to stick with that plan. On the romantic front, it’s the equivalent of the scene in the romantic comedy where one character takes the other’s hand, maybe says “close your eyes a minute,” and leads them to some place to show them something that they hope the other person will enjoy or be impressed by. Another way to put it, a mix tape is like a sort of emotional script or short story or musical score that the listener agrees to follow out, which is an act of trust that – while admittedly so small that “act of trust” is overblown verbiage – is not the same with mix CDs. A loss, if you ask me.