I still have most of the mixtapes I carefully (or recklessly) assembled with the assistance of the now-defunct shelf unit I bought with a Montgomery Ward's employee discount in my senior year of high school. They're piled up by the dozens — the hundreds? — gathered in grocery bags and left in storage to undergo the inevitable deterioration process that befalls all magnetic tape. I tried retrieving them recently for purely nostalgic purposes, but was turned back by the stifling heat and cramped conditions of the attic crawlspace where I'd stashed them. It's just as well, since I no longer have a tape deck and I'm fairly sure most of the songs I'd taped made the transition into MP3 format anyway. But just thinking about the scores of C-60s (and C-90s and the odd, overstuffed C-120) led me to wonder just what sort of effect the actual process of making these things had on the way I learned about music itself.
Putting these things together could be tricky, and not just in the technical sense of needing to calculate whether all the songs I wanted to put together could fit on a single side or, a few years later, on a single CD-R. By that aforementioned senior year, I was scrambling to figure out how the De La Soul, Sonic Youth, and Pink Floyd songs I liked equally (but for drastically different reasons) would cohere somehow when they all shared space. And cobbling together vague stuff-I-like mixes could lead to some funny accidents: I once converted a friend into a die-hard Guided By Voices fan by including "Teenage FBI" on a tape I gave her — which was the only GBV song I actually knew at the time. (This was 1999, when embarrassing knowledge gaps like that had to be carefully concealed instead of just bondo'd over with a quick run to BitTorrent.)
But the conscious act of determining which songs sounded good together and what seemed important enough to be permanently enshrined in an hour-plus statement of personal expression helped teach me how to listen to music, not just for pleasure, but analytically. These mixtapes, CD-Rs, and playlists were part of my education sure as any alt-weekly or 'zine or tattered copy of Spin was, and in the run-up to becoming a critic myself, they served as my own personal attempt to build some kind of catalog that would hopefully help sort out and make sense of a developing musical taste. And this education came in a few different phases that aligned with practically every way someone can approach the idea of becoming a pop music fan.
My first mixtapes as an Eighties kid were cobbled together from one or two radio stations I listened to on the regular. Mostly I just cut the undesirable crud from the drive-time playlists and preserved the stuff I didn't want to wait to listen to, occasionally mixing up formats just to get at the heart of whatever sounded raw and new and exciting to my fevered young brain. Why should I have wasted crucial baseball card money on some Time-Life compilation when I could just drop a couple bucks for a two-pack of Maxells and hover my finger over the REC button, waiting for the classic rock station to finally play some Creedence? And why not solve the aggravating flaw of their boomer-centric playlist cutting off after 1981 by twisting the dial a bit and seeing what comes up — hey, maybe the modern hits station would drop something from Superunknown during its twofer Tuesdays. The best thing about that old wait-for-the-favorites method is that it invariably exposed my unwary self to things I wasn't expecting to hear and enjoy, which often resulted in the frustrating mystery of getting something on tape and never catching the DJ's identification. I spent a fair amount of my sophomore year of high school going off a friend's parent's guess that "Do You Feel Like We Do" was recorded by Ted Nugent, and since this was before I had any idea that both Ted Nugent and actual artist Peter Frampton were eye-roll punch lines to record-store clerks, I spent a lot of time caring more about the song than its reputation.
Eventually my high school friends started getting cars. My closest cohort wound up with a Geo Metro, which might as well have been a Shelby Cobra for all the freedom it extended to us. That opened up a need to have music to aimlessly drive around to, so I finally started putting together mixes that were a public display of taste meant to be shared. The idea of the mixtape as a romantic overture – the old auditory "DO YOU LIKE ME CHECK YES/NO" passed note – has been well-documented, but there's something platonic about the idea of wanting to impress people with how cool you and your record collection are. Mine were marked with the amateurishness of someone who wanted to just gather all this accumulated stuff he's hoarded and consolidate it somehow, but with one added problem.
See, the common thing in the Nineties was to find your niche and stick with it, riding on the simple notion that there is one thing you really like and will never get sick of, ever. Usually the teenage fan leans specifically towards one category of music in their quest for figuring out exactly who they are, which means they may wind up deciding to reinvent their formerly dorky self as metal or punk or goth, that their favorite strain of techno or hip-hop speaks directly to their physicality in ways nothing else can, or that some trend in pop or R&B hits them at exactly the right time that they need it to get through one of the most stressful times in a person's life. It's the music that says who you are, a consciously assembled body of evidence that you fit somewhere. If it sounds a lot like the same bunch of stuff your peers like – well, isn't that the point?
But not everyone fits into a single social faction, much less a musical one. In high school I went from the archetypal ostracized loner to a gregarious clique-hopper, which meant learned pretty quickly how to be down for whatever. So after devouring recommendations from three different circles of friends, following recommendations from every publication I could get my hands on, and picking out anything with an intriguingly weird cover from the used bins, I came away with more stuff than I knew what to do with. Narrowing it down by genre wasn't that exciting or worldly to me, so I just pulled whatever sounds good from my collection and Frankensteined some slapdash mixes where everything is cool in its own way without necessarily having anything else in common. Sounds ricocheted off each other at odd angles, eclecticism became a pose, personality turned hard to discern, and even two sincerely appreciated songs ran kind of like a weird private joke to everyone else when put next to each other. (I made at least one tape where I segued from a track off Kind of Blue into something by the Ramones.) Still, there was that crazy sense of adventure – one that shuffle has never quite managed to capture in the right way.
Not that I'm complaining about the iTunes era – not in the least. Because that's not only made making playlists a hundred times easier, it's helped me cultivate this sense of broad-minded yet orderly dot-connecting in my listening habits. If you're the type of person who has ever worried about throwing out your back during the process of moving your music collection, there's a good chance you've also tried to find some sort of common threads in all this accumulated stuff, no matter how far-flung and wide-reaching it gets. Creating harmony out of chaos becomes more of an imperative the higher that stack piles, and while it might be easy to see a bunch of individual works gathered together on your record shelf, looking at the little notification in your MP3 library that tells you just how far into five figures your song count extends is an intimidating reminder that you could listen for months and have a hard time tying it all together. It's enough to invoke Steinski, the sound-collage artist who turned an encyclopedic collection into his own prism to refract popular music, and ask yourself: What does it all mean?
My answer to that question was to start constructing themes, building imaginary scores to movies in my head or soundtracks meant to time themselves with evocative landmarks in my commute. Juxtaposing GZA's "4th Chamber" with Portishead's "Elysium" originated as a nod to RZA's influence and subsequently felt like I just cracked the code that made late-night train rides into my own personal film noir. I look at all the matching details in the different sorting columns, rebuild history in my own image, and start working my way through the feelings those connections stir up, like stumbling across the revelation during the assembly of a 1973-centric mix that Led Zeppelin's chillingly ominous war-trudge "No Quarter" makes for a hell of a segue into Funkadelic's post-Nam dirge "March to the Witch's Castle." It becomes a game for me: I put together a 75-track list of car songs and challenge myself to find a logical progression from Johnny Cash's "One Piece at a Time" to Devin the Dude's "Lacville '79". Making those connections and revealing new elements of a song through that kind of juxtaposition is maybe the most entertaining form of music criticism – even it's not immediately recognizable as criticism. But if it gives a new angle to an old favorite, or justifies a guilty pleasure by revealing its commonalities with a more widely acclaimed work, or draws supposedly disparate scenes closer together than you'd expect – well, that's a good way to keep growing as a listener. And to think it started with a two-pack of Maxells.
Nate Patrin is a music critic whose work has appeared in Pitchfork, eMusic, Minneapolis/St. Paul City Pages and BlueNote.com.