Making the perfect mixtape

Music and Art

There’s something about mix-tapes, well mix-CDs really, (we were born in the 90s) that makes me very excited. For twenty or so songs the maker can adopt the role of a music critic, carefully selecting from the wealth of their iTunes library those songs they consider the most worthy. The listener is then bestowed with over an hour of meticulously honed opinion, which, hopefully, is new to them.

I was heartened last year when a group in Oxford organised an inter-collegiate mix-tape swap. I spent hours crafting my disc, whittling down twenty-one songs from seven hours of potential, assessing the pros and cons of having Public Enemy next to Joanna Newsom and wondering whether it was too kitsch to end with Farewell, Farewell by Fairport Convention. I even put my email address at the bottom of the track-list hoping I would receive some feedback and daydreaming that it would be a bit like that match.com advert when those kindred spirits meet at a record store (OMG! You like Britney album tracks too!) No such correspondence ensued and my disappointment was confounded by the CD I received in the swap. None of its songs would have been out of place booming through Topshop, which isn’t really that damning a criticism (there is always a place in my heart for The Drums) but was nevertheless a bit depressing. It got me thinking about what makes a really good mix-tape and how one goes about doing it.

‘A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You’ve got to kick off with corker, to hold the attention and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you cant have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you cant have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you’ve done the whole thing in pairs, and… oh, there are loads of rules’. So muses mix-tape maestro Rob Gordon in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, who uses mix-tapes throughout the book to woo women and impress his friends. The start is certainly of paramount importance; it’s all very well creating a 20 track CD for your listener to give up after a few songs. Listening to new music is a stressful business; you immediately want to be at the stage where you are comfortable with the song and know whether you like it or not. Thus, lull your listener into a sense of security. Start with a song you know they like or of a similar genre. Of the mix-tapes I have made for my mum, significantly more success has been achieved with those beginning with Lionel Richie’s You Are My Destiny or Kool and the Gang’s Get Down On It than any of my ‘indie dirge’.  With the pretense of familiarity, it is much easier to slip in the songs you most want to include. I’ve found that 2pac’s C U When U Get There and Nas’s I Can with their parent-friendly samples of ‘Pachelbel’s Canon’ and ‘Für Elise’ are just a small step away from Dre and his catchy ‘can’t make a ho a housewife’ refrain.

While the start is perhaps the most important part of the tape, you must be consistent. Make sure you leave some of the goods to the end and try not to venture too off-piste. The tastes of your listener should remain firmly in your mind throughout, with your playlist an attempt to introduce your tastes within the parameters of their likes and dislikes. The last song of the mix is the one that will most likely, if he/she has made it this far, stick in the listener’s mind, so it has to be good. A CD I received from a now ex-boyfriend started so promisingly with the Ramones’ I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend but ended disturbingly with the Black Lips’ Trapped in the Basement, a song inspired by the Fritzl case and harnessing the harrowing lyric ‘I haven’t seen the sun in over twenty four years’. Something should have twigged.

Most of all, you should pick songs you actually like and resist the temptation to curb the more embarrassing parts of your taste. I will always remember a CD my brother made for a family car journey in which Sexual Healing was wedged in among Ryan Adams and Elliot Smith. With Marvin’s opening invites to ‘get up’ the car erupted in laughter to which the unfazed maker earnestly replied, ‘But musically it really is a great song’.

You might argue that the advent of music emporiums like Spotify, which allow you to find any album track or obscure b-side at the click of a button inhibit the power of the mix-tape in music sharing. For me, however, the mix-tape is still a really special form of communication, that I wish people did more, like sending letters instead of e-mails. It is a way of showing someone what you like while taking into account their preferences, it can be meaningful and relationship building. But most of all, it is really, really fun. So, go on, pick a friend, make a CD and be yourself. If you draw a blank just burn the entirety of a Girl Talk album. A cop-out perhaps, but probably unbeatable.