Love from the ’90s, Mix-Tape Style

Those who spend years hearing about love through music before actually experiencing it may have difficulty separating relationships from the world of aural delight.

“Love hurts. Love stinks. Love bites, love bleeds, love is the drug. The troubadours of our times all agree: They want to know what love is, and they want you to show them. But the answer is simple. Love is a mix tape.”

So says Rolling Stone scribe Rob Sheffield in his recent New York Times bestselling memoir, Love Is A Mix Tape. The book was one of many gifts my girlfriend gave me over the eight days of Hanukkah, a haul which also included a Santa Claus Pez dispenser and a $10 rice cooker. To her, love is a full shopping cart at Target.

Sheffield’s book focuses mostly on his relationship with his former wife, Renee, who died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism at 31. Concurrently, he chronicles the other significant love of his life: music. More specifically, the mix tape. Each chapter is introduced by a different mix tape (complete with track listings) from Sheffield’s past, because, as he says, each tape “tells a story. Put them together, and they add up to the story of a life.” It’s a precious gimmick, and one that could easily get old after a couple of chapters, but it did keep me reading, if only to see what songs would turn up on the next tape.

Rob and I may not see eye-to-eye on every artist or on the proper construction of a mix tape (he’s fond of including multiple songs by the same artist in batches), but we definitely agree on one thing: there’s always a reason to make a mix, from the “Party” tape to the “Road Trip” tape to the “You Like Music, I Like Music, I Can Tell We’re Going To Be Friends” tape. He goes through all of these variations and more over the course of the book, even reminding me of a time in my life when taping songs off the radio was the only way to get the songs I really liked. The frustration of missing Del Amitri’s “Roll to Me”, again, on Rick Dees’ Weekly Top 40 show came roaring back to me as I turned the pages.

Sheffield does a great job of explaining the peculiar obsession some people have with music, and what he calls the “human need” to share it with others. In his case, this mostly means sharing with the opposite sex. Renee takes center stage, but Sheffield spends ample pages discussing the intersection of music and women in general in his life, beginning with the lessons he learned when DJing his first school dance (the most important: “Girls enjoy music they can dance to, music with strong vocals and catchy melodies. Boys, on the other hand, enjoy music they can improve by making up filthy new lyrics”).

Like many of those who spend years hearing about love through music before actually experiencing anything close to it, Sheffield has difficulty separating his relationships from the world of aural delight. Not surprisingly, he gets a crush on most female musicians he sees (what guy doesn’t?); a bit surprisingly, he fantasizes about being in a synth-pop duo with each of his new infatuations, whether they’re musically inclined or not. He dreams of being the guy behind the girl on stage, meekly playing his melodies while his partner steps into the spotlight he could never handle.

This theme of playing backup to strong musical women is a recurring one. When Renee tells him, after a sing-along session to “Midnight Train to Georgia”, that he makes a good Pip, Rob is overjoyed. “That’s all I ever wanted to hear a girl tell me,” he writes. “That’s all I ever dreamed of being. Some of us are born Gladys Knights, and some of us are born Pips. I marveled unto my Pip soul how lucky I was to choo-choo and woo-woo behind a real Gladys girl.”

The majority of the book takes place during the ’90s, a decade that Sheffield identifies as one of the best and most important times in pop music. A big reason for that, he argues, is because of all the Gladys girls, or their rock equivalent. “Something was happening in nineties music that isn’t happening anywhere in pop culture these days, with women making noise in public ways that seem distant now,” he writes. Sleater-Kinney, Liz Phair, Sonic Youth; these artists and more brought an entirely new voice to rock music, he argues, something that hadn’t been heard before. It was something foreign that not everyone knew how to handle. Now, he says, “the weird girls have been shoved back underground.” This argument stuck with me more than anything else from the book, mainly because I’d previously considered grunge the main legacy of the ’90s, and I never did get into Nirvana and Pearl Jam the way some of my peers did.

I don’t have the best impression of that decade from a musical standpoint, something you can easily deduce from the “’90s” playlist on my iPod – it’s mostly cheesy party songs from the likes of Sir Mix-a-Lot and Vanilla Ice. I have plenty of other music released during that time, including some of my favorite rock and hip-hop, but I don’t lump it into that undistinguished category. Maybe it’s because I didn’t really start listening to a lot of great ’90s artists (like Pavement, who Sheffield calls his favorite band of all time) until the new millennium had begun. I was too busy taping my nipples for cross-country races to realize that there was some sort of musical revolution going on.

Still, it’s hard for me to be too impressed with the ’90s. Even if I wasn’t really in the scene at that point, I was around. I was alive. It’s easier to elevate a time I have built up in my mind, like the ’60s or ’70s, or even imagine that something better is on the horizon, than to acknowledge something I’ve that’s happened in my lifetime as all that great. I think back to that quote in Dazed and Confused, when red-head Cynthia discusses her thoughts on the decades: “The Fifties were boring, the Sixties rocked, and the Seventies…oh god…well, they obviously suck. Maybe the Eighties will be radical.”

In my favorite movie of 2007, Juno, the title character has a conversation with her baby’s soon-to-be father, Mark (Jason Bateman), in which they discuss the best time in music history. Mark goes straight to the early ’90s; Juno, a punk aficionado, goes back to the late ’70s, when her now-idols had just burst onto the scene. Just as Cynthia would be startled to hear someone call a time she lived through as the “best ever”, I, too, felt little bewildered about this reverence for the ’90s.

What if that time really was that significant, I thought, as I sat in the theater amid dozens of giggling teen girls who thought they were seeing Superbad 2. How could I have let it mostly pass me by, just so I could get a halfway decent grade in physics? I love to give my parents grief over not taking advantage of all the musical opportunities they had as students in the hippie era, but one day I might have to explain away the same mistakes to my children. Thankfully, my growing worry was tempered by Juno’s eventual declaration that Sonic Youth was “just a bunch of noise”, a statement that drew the ire of at least one Kim Gordon fan in the audience.

Over time, I may develop a greater appreciation for the ’90s; I may even one day regard the decade as highly as Sheffield does. If I do, it’ll likely be because someone with as much appreciation for the music introduces me to it in a different way, makes me see the good in it. That, in large part, was probably the biggest thing to take away from Love Is A Mix Tape; time and again, Sheffield learned to love a song or a band because of how someone else experienced it, or because of a memory it dredged up.

His point is that music is a living, breathing thing that can change; mix tapes, more than anything else, prove that. “When you stick a song on a tape, you set it free.” Free of that awful song that comes after it, free of its cheesy cover art, free of its time period, free to mean something completely different, to be placed in a different context, to become someone else’s favorite song. That’s why, for him, love is a mix tape. Do I agree? I’m not sure. But I do know my girlfriend is expecting a little more than just another mix tape for Valentine’s Day.