Thousands of young, socially inept, bohemian men and women have spent their singlehood hunched over their tape machines trying to get the perfect playlist of unpretentious pop, esoteric rock and songs of unrequited longing to reflect their heart's dearest desires. Essayist and poet Geoffrey O'Brien called the mix tape, "the most widely practiced American artform." Anyone can do it. There's nothing to it except a music collection, a few hours of your time and a recipient who'll hopefully understand the deeper message in the mix.
According to website Art of the Mix, there are many different kinds of mix tapes. You've got your traditional go-to standards like the romance mix, the breakup playlist or the road trip tape. Of special note is the subcategory involving romance: the foreplay mix, the coital mix and the after-sex mix. Of course, these are self-parodying jokes about a very real phenomenon: The strangely obsessive habit that some people have where they feel the urge to put every moment of their life to music.
Whole groups of young people have spent their lives soundtracking their years to tunes. The character of Rob in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity is the perfect example. In the film version, one of his relationships started when he gave a fan of his DJ sets a mix tape. Every major breakup has a song associated with it.
Outside of film, young bands like Los Campesinos! have songs entitled "It Started With a Mix" about hand-lettered track listings, trying to make the perfect mix CD for someone and how every relationship inevitably seems to start when a CD changes hand from boy to girl.
Why is there such a pop cultural obsession with mix tapes? It's simple: it's a common, shared experience for many young men and women in the First World. From the first mix CD made for that really pretty girl in English class who dug that t-shirt you were wearing to the jaded hipster dude who asks--with a cocked eye and a sneer--for the latest shit-hot tunes, whole groups of people think of their lives by the labels of their favourite mixes.
Now that these young people are starting to come of age, they've begun to move their self-created playlists to their jobs. When you're someone like Scrubs actor Zach Braff though, millions will open their ears to your mix tape--not just that sweet-hearted girl you met at a Belle and Sebastian concert. Braff attributed the success of the ludicrously-popular Garden State soundtrack to the phenomenon in an IGN Music interview.
"Essentially, [I made] a mix CD with all of the music that I felt was scoring my life at the time I was writing the screenplay," he explained.
Listening to the soundtrack at least once through is almost a right of passage nowadays for anyone interested in independent music. It's so patently un-offensive that it can appeal to everyone's musical tastes, but with enough indie cred to make it seem like the creator is in with the cool new tracks. It's the perfect mix, because everyone can connect over the music whole groups of young men and women have spent their time trading the CD back and forth, chattering on about The Shins or Frou Frou. This connection between music is why the mix tape is so popular. At worst, it can be a conversation starter; at best, an admission of puppy-dog love.
In a society where people are becoming less connected with one another, where Facebook and text messages are the way to breakup with someone or ask out that hottie that you've met a couple times, there are very few real cultural traditions left.
Anomie, the feeling of hopelessness caused by a removal of values, has begun to cause a real sense of detachment, which is why something so simple as the creation of a mix CD is actually important in the age of internet pseudo-intellectualism. While it's presumptuous to call something like making a CD full of your favourite tunes a cultural tradition, it helps people connect with one another.
Sharing the latest and greatest tunes allows for people to also share an intimate moment with one another. Even though we are not our taste in music and movies--no matter what the bearded alt-rock demagogues would tell us--the connection over a shared love of one particular song can help build long-lasting friendships or strengthen burgeoning romantic ones. It's why couples have "songs."
People who argue against pretension--who are inevitably a bit pretentious themselves--think it's moronic to make each other mix CDs and it's just some wanky exercise in musical snobbery. More often than not, that isn't the case. Some express themselves through art, through dance or through their writing, the creation of a mix--a good solid mix tape--helps reveal something about the creator.