Mixed Messages

by Ben Rubenstein

31 May 2007

I want the music I love to speak for me, but I can't control what it's going to say.
"Headphones Saved My Life" (photo by
Rhys Bennett)

I remember finding it one day in my brother’s room when I was about 13—a clear Memorex tape, hand-labeled and slipped into a thin, plastic case. Its contents were listed in bright blue ink on the handy insert, and a quick scan of the titles (which, I’m pretty sure, included “Wind Beneath My Wings”) confirmed my suspicions: this was clearly a mixtape of the lovey-dovey variety.

It didn’t bother me so much that my 16 year-old brother was receiving such a gift from his girlfriend—though if it were me, I would’ve hidden it a lot better. I was more concerned with the possibility that somewhere, perhaps blasting from a pink boombox, was a similar tape made by Josh’s own hand. I wondered what songs it contained (he couldn’t still be a fan of the Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy”, could he?), and whether he felt any shame about this particular courting ritual. Judging from the absurdly high phone bills he’d run up in recent months, I guessed not. In any case, I vowed that I’d never make a tape like that.

Out of all the mixes I’ve made for others, none have been expressly intended to woo, or at least, I’ve never selected songs based on a romantic theme. I’m not totally averse to themes; over the years, my compilations have been inspired by geography (“Vegas Mix”, “O Canada”), season (“Rubes’ Winter Mix ‘04”), and even prescription drugs (the schizophrenic and multi-drafted “Zoloft Mix”). And I’m not against sentimentality, either—just ask my friend Jess, for whom I made a 20-song mix during our junior year in college. Along with the disc, I included a crudely made booklet highlighting passages from each song that I thought most directly applied to our relationship. Hard as it is to believe, there were no ulterior motives involved; I just wanted to do something a little different for her birthday.

For the most part, though, I don’t like being too explicit with my mix-making. One, it’s rarely a good idea to choose songs based on message rather than merit. And two, bold, blatant statements just aren’t my style; I prefer a little mystery. It’s like when I read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in high school, and had every little symbol pointed out to me by my overzealous teacher. Soon, the book didn’t seem nearly so great, as it should have seemed—reading it became an exercise in excessive symbolic detail. Even if I do have an intention with a mix I make for someone, I try to be more subtle, utilizing the music’s contextual power: by employing a song that played a key role in our past, or one by an artist that I know the listener enjoys, for example. Of course, if you aren’t explicit about your message, you might end up sending the wrong one.

Like any self-respecting audiophile, I spend a lot of time on my mixes, re-ordering tracks, replacing one song by a particular artist with another. I’ll often go through a couple drafts before hitting upon just the right formula. Rarely do I feel that that effort is met with the proper amount of appreciation from the recipient, but I’m not really offended when all I get is a simple “thank you” and never hear about it again. I’ve come to expect this sort of minimal response.

So you can imagine my surprise when two female recipients were convinced I was sending them a major romantic message via the CDs I burned for them. It wasn’t their conclusions that got me—I had at least some romantic history with both—but rather the way they arrived at them. The girls weren’t particularly impressed with the way I’d labored over a CD specifically for them (though in the second instance, the only extra work I did was to burn a copy of a mix I’d already distributed to many of my male friends, none of whom made any advances toward me), but instead focused on the particular tracks I’d included.

In both cases, I did my best to defend myself. My point was simple: a considerable majority of songs are about love, or the absence of love, or what one wouldn’t do for love.  How could I be expected to create a mix without at least a few come-ons? I included Bill Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Solomon Burke’s “Got to Get You Off My Mind” because they’re great songs, not because they said something I didn’t know how to say myself. And to suggest that Bob Dylan’s “I Want You” and Elvis Costello’s “Alison” aren’t that good in their own right, well, that’s just blasphemy.

We run into some serious problems when we start to literally interpret every song we encounter. I should know, since I used to spend a fair amount of time deciphering lyrics, and it resulted in little but frustration and confusion. Unless we make the music ourselves, it’s nearly impossible to find songs that perfectly fit every real-life situation. Sure, you might find that one song that seems to perfectly express your feelings about a certain situation, whether it’s a new relationship, an episode of social anxiety, or a particularly painful breakup. But often, upon further listens, you realize that it doesn’t quite fit—it just helped to convince yourself that someone else had gone through the exact same thing. As comforting as it may be, relying on songs to tell our stories for us doesn’t always work, because most of life is not like the lyrics of a pop song. We’re not all walking around constantly thinking of teenage crushes, or cheating spouses, or dudes that look like ladies, yet we pump such tales set to catchy tunes into our ears at all hours of the day. 

I’m not saying we should ignore the messages inherent in any song because they aren’t specifically created for our own lives, and just view music as mindless entertainment. If that was all I cared about, I’d listen to Mims and be done with it (it’s hard to misinterpret “This Is Why I’m Hot”).  Music’s openness to interpretation may make things difficult, but that’s also what makes it endlessly interesting. The same song can mean something different to everyone—heck, Salt n’ Pepa’s “Shoop” probably holds more romantic significance for me than Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” does—so we should think twice before assuming anything. This whole experience has made me feel a little like an artist myself (every mix-maker’s dream). You can spend hours, days even, on a product, but once it’s out of your hands, people are free to interpret it however they want—and they’re mostly going to get it wrong.

Of course, no one likes to be told her assumptions are mistaken. In an attempt to make up for my inadvertent romantic gesture (and what might have been seen as my overly enthusiastic protest), I decided to make another mix for one of the girls. Knowing how she took the first one, though, I was nearly paralyzed when it came time to choose the songs. I felt that every song I chose was going to be broken down and analyzed and interpreted differently than I intended. A message was unavoidable, and nothing seemed to send the right one.

Photo from AVECMobile.com

Photo from AVECMobile.com

The Coup’s “Ijuswannalay
aroundalldayinbedwityou”? Too sexual. Jens Lekman’s “Maple Leaves”? Too earnest. Crooked Fingers’ “You Threw a Spark”? Too depressing. After briefly considering an all-instrumental format (no one knows what Ornette Coleman’s notes mean, anyway), I decided to throw caution to the wind and choose as I normally would. After all, I’m always saying how much I want the music I love to speak for me. I can’t control what it’s going to say.

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