How interesting, really, are other people’s mixtapes? Am I just too self-centered? They seem specifically personal, often the product of a particular transaction between people at a particular moment in their relationship. So what is the appeal of Cassette from my ex, a site that recreates other people’s romantically swapped mixtapes for our vicarious consumption? (PSFK linked to the site recently.) At least with muxtape, the mixes are ostensibly prepared for general consumption. But what is the point of these music mixes that are more about a particular moment in someone else’s life and how music signified it to them? What good is that to us, someone else’s nostalgia? My own nostalgia is bad enough. I spent an hour one recent evening listening to an item from my high-school tape collection, King’s Steps in Time album. Life is too short to be revisiting that excrescence. (What is especially hilarious about that Rolling Stone review of King that I linked to is the fact that it is as about as uniformly negative as a review could be, but the album still warranted three and half stars. What do you have to do to get fewer than three? Record yourself murdering babies?)
Mixtapes, as I have understood and experienced them, are mainly attempts to impose the peculiarity of one’s own tastes on others and force them to recognize how special that taste is. In short, mixtapes are an ego trip; maybe only people with no ego about their musical taste can appreciate them. (I’m not one of those people, but I’m trying to be. I really am.) The benevolent motive of sharing cool finds is balanced against the less benevolent motive of competitive discovery—of scoring points by having a more eclectic taste, having a wider listening scope. When you have a lot of your identity invested in musical taste, distributing mixtapes is a way of manifesting that identity—a more significant gesture than actually talking to people, which doesn’t ordinarily afford as many opportunities to demonstrate musical taste. When you force someone to listen to your tape, it’s like you are forcing them to listen to your monologue of self. That this is sometimes cast as a romantic gesture tells you something about love among teenagers. To put this point in mixtape terms—cue Jim Croce’s “It’s Hard to Say I Love You in a Song” and follow it by Dobie Grey’s “Drift Away” (the song that features the immortal chorus: “Give me the beat boys that frees my soul, I wanna get lost in your rock and roll,” which prompted a friend of mine to propose that I get so lost in his rock and roll that I would need a map or possibly a trail of breadcrumbs to find my way out.)
I suppose apologists could say that mixtapes serve as a new multimedia form of storytelling that incorporates and transforms other pop-culture works to make them something other that merely popular and generic—it transforms empty pop songs into the soundtrack to a quirky short story. These intimate mixes, however, make us into voyeurs, and maybe that is the point—they are just another iteration of reality TV, of our impulse to sell out our memories for notoriety.