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Mix tapes get down to the good stuff

Analise Lipari | Monday, October 1, 2007

This past weekend, I had the privilege of staffing the Sophomore Road Trip, a mysterious Campus Ministry retreat held in an undisclosed (read: If I told you, I’d have to kill you) locale.

While I had a variety of things to prepare for this weekend, one of my major tasks was putting together a mix CD for the sophomores to keep after we parted ways on Sunday afternoon. It was easy enough, in an age of iTunes and singles, right?

Or so I thought.

As I spent hours putting together what I deemed to be the best blend of songs, I realized that I was investing an almost unhealthy amount of emotion in the process. With other leaders’ suggestions and heated internal debates, I wanted to make this mix the icing on the cake that was our weekend. Looking back, what I sought was much more than a collection of songs; I wanted this mix to be perfect.

The mix tape has been part of our musical consciousness since man first pieced together songs of his choosing, outside of their original albums, with the invention of a newfangled object – the cassette tape. With this unassuming little device, music mavens and casual listeners alike were suddenly their own personal deejays, all in the privacy and comfort of their own homes.

Since those dark days of the 1980s, we’ve moved on to CD players, mp3s and other ways of creating mixes, but the art of the act itself is still the same. You can tailor whatever songs you choose to the listener, all while putting a little piece of your heart and soul into the choices you make. This inconspicuous collection of songs is an extension of “you” – three-minute nuggets of music serving to sum up a message, a feeling or even a whole relationship.

In the musical “Avenue Q,” the main character, Princeton, makes a simple mix tape for his friend Kate Monster. Kate, who’s interested in Princeton, analyzes the tape to try and understand the guy who made it. “‘I Am the Walrus’… ‘Fat-Bottomed Girls’… ‘Yellow Submarine’… what does this mean?” she says. When she hears songs like “She’s Got a Way” and “A Whole New World” on the tape, she can’t help but want to see a glimmer of Princeton’s feelings in the musical choices he’s made.

To be honest, who wouldn’t do the same? If your cute study partner from chemistry lab made you a mix CD, you’d be intrigued, even if you weren’t sure you were all that interested.

Why?

In a bookstore back home, I recently noticed Rob Sheffield’s memoir, “Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time.” In the book, whose chapters begin with a different mix, Sheffield says that a good mix “steals moments from all over the musical cosmos and splices them into a whole new groove.”

More than that, though, the book shows us what good mixes, or even music in general, can do for us emotionally. It’s as though the nuances of each track sum up what words can’t get right – the nitty gritty of “us,” the emotional guts of our bodies – through music and poetry.

Maybe I’m taking this way too seriously. In the end, it’s just a bunch of songs on a CD. Isn’t the semi-annual “Now (That’s What I Call Music)” series the best example of what mixes essentially are – nothing more than a collection of what’s around?

But then I look at the retreat mix – how I handpicked Billy Joel’s “Vienna;” how Coldplay’s “The Scientist” fit perfectly with someone’s retreat talk; how we woke up the sophomores with “Life Is a Highway” each morning at sunrise – and I can’t help but think that there’s more to it than that.