love is a mix tape

My music collection, these days, is primarily digital. I still own a ton of CDs — they slide around in the backseat and under the front seats of Azula the Little Red Toyota of Doom, they’re stacked on the bottom shelf of one of my newly installed and reorganized bookcases. There’s three and a half Case Logic books of them under the expensive coffee table liberated from my parents’ house that serves as our entertainment center-slash-resting place for impertinent cats who would like to help with the video games, please. Once I paid 99 cents for Poison’s Greatest Hits, and I still consider it a valid purchase.

But mostly, it’s iTunes. I’m a Mac user. I’ve been building, curating, organizing, tweaking, obsessing about my iTunes library since I bought my first iBook in 2003. And at this point, I have hundreds upon hundreds of playlists in iTunes. I mean. Probably more than 1000, archived and in current use. There’s the smart playlists — to sync things to my iTunes, to keep box sets together, to create and auto-update enormous (5000+ tracks) playlists of highly rated music I haven’t listened to in 3 months, 6 months, a year. There’s playlists I made when I was writing a specific story, playlists I made for other people and burned to CDs, playlists other people made for me (even a few mix tapes that I’ve digitized for myself), playlists that have nothing more than a date on them, playlists with themes and playlists with no themes and playlists full of songs that remind me of ex-boyfriends and ex-friends and events that happened years ago. Playlists for roadtrips, playlists for times in my life. Every end-of-the-year mix I’ve made since 2002, and they only don’t go back further because I’m too lazy to convert them from tape.

And it wouldn’t be the same, anyway — my end of the year mix tapes have a totally different feel than my end of the year CDs, or now my end of the year digital playlists. The medium matters, I guess. I mean, I think that last year’s mix was really the perfect summary of my year — but I’m not sure it would have worked as well if I’d tried to sum up the year on a tape. Last year was a digital year, start to finish.

I stayed up too late on Monday night, watching 10 Things I Hate About You (mmm, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and also, oh, Heath — they’re both so desperately young in that) and lying in bed reading Rob Sheffield’s Love Is A Mixtape, which though absolutely up my alley (music and memoir? yes, please) I had never read before this. I picked it up in part because Sheffield has a new book out this summer — Talking To Girls About Duran Duran — and in part because Someone, a few months ago, told me that Sheffield’s Renee reminded them fiercely and utterly of me. That someone wasn’t entirely off base, either. There’s a paragraph, oh, about a quarter of the way into the book that startled me so desperately with its clarity into how I see myself that I dog-eared the page, something I try not to do in library books, and came back to it several times, wondering how Sheffield knew me so well.

I could have made some of those tapes, too.

Most of the playlists on my iPod, now, are recent playlists, or they’re playlists meant to turn over my collection, if they’re not playlists solely for the purpose of making sure certain things get synced. Half-finished mixes I’ll never give to the intended recipients. An early draft of my end of 2010 playlist. (All my old end of the year playlists, too.) 2010 albums I’ve only listened to once. Tracks from bands I’m going to see live in the next few weeks/months. Stuff I’ve added to iTunes in the last month.

Once in a while, though, I’ll pull up an old playlist and throw it on there, listen to it at work on shuffle, remember songs I’ve forgotten. Turn over the deep cuts of my own music collection and, in turn, my own psyche.

I did that last night, an eight hour playlist called they say with every broken heart, which means that even though I didn’t hear it today — I didn’t get through the whole thing at work, because obviously I spend at least half my day talking to people, not listening to music — Rilo Kiley’s “More Adventurous” is probably on there somewhere. It means that it’s probably a playlist from sometime in late late 2005 or early 2006, when I was desperately obsessed with that song, but no later than the spring of 2007, because there’s nothing from Bright Eyes’ Cassadega on it, and that album dominated my playlist making for about 18 months after it came out. It’s heavy on tracks from Picaresque, including multiple versions of “The Engine Driver”, another 2005 obsession, and features the Weakerthans’ “Our Retired Explorer (Dines With Michel Foucault In Paris, 1961)”, which I think makes it firmly early 2006.

So think: the first half of graduate school. It was a period in my life where I was broke as hell and kind of lonely; I missed Chicago (Anna Fermin’s Trigger Gospel’s “This Town” and Jim Croce’s “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” and Steve Goodman’s “A Dying Cubs’ Fan’s Last Request”) and I missed the idea of The Ex, though my journals from that period (and, hell, this playlist, too) reveal that I was on my way out of that relationship even that early. School wasn’t as exciting as I wanted it to be. I wasn’t doing much with myself because I was so broke — farting around on the internet, watching a ton of Food Network, downloading science fiction television shows when they aired in Canada before they aired in the States.

It’s a restless, hopeful, kind of sad mix. It’s a playlist full of what I wanted and couldn’t figure out how to get.

But this playlist was full of old songs, too, old by memory and old by labeling. Soul Coughing’s “Circles” which of course lives on my iPod on its original album and in several live Doughty and SC sets, but also once was ripped to iTunes from a CD burned for the sound design of a production of Fortinbras I worked on in summer stock (2001, I think), because the version in this playlist is labeled, in the album spot, “Fortinbras Sound Design (Final 1)”. The Waifs doing “London Still”, which my Someone up there gave me on a mix in 2003. An inexplicable amount of Bobby Darin and Frank Sinatra in between Hot Hot Heat (“Oh Goddamnit”) and the Decemberists. (Inexplicable not because I have anything against Bobby Darin and Ol’ Blue Eyes, because obviously I don’t; just inexplicable as to why they’re in this playlist — no idea why there’s all this old swing stuff dumped into it.) It’s also full of the Eagles, which for reasons that don’t need exploring at this junctue can be linked to how much West Wing I was watching at the time, and Johnny Cash, and John Flynn’s great baseball song “Hey Vincente”. It’s accurate about what I was listening to, then — all the afore-mentioned bands, a lot of the Whitlams, Stars, Mike Doughty’s Haughty Melodic and Mason Jennings’ 2004 album Use Your Voice.

(My concept for that sound design, by the way, was based around “Circles” and Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”. I don’t even know. That wasn’t the summer that Lirette put his turntable in the window that looked out onto the porch and I made him play Volume 3 of Oscar Brand’s Bawdy Songs & Backroom Ballads over and over again, though — the summer of Oscar Brand was 2002. He found it in a stack of vinyl that the theater props shop had and stole it. In 2002, he and I and Joshie and the aforementioned Someone played a lot of euchre and drank a lot of Jack Daniels on that porch. I listened to the Refreshments’ Fizzy Fuzzy Big & Buzzy and Pavement’s Crooked Rain Crooked Rain on repeat, and spent my mornings babysitting. I had a great tan from taking the kids to the pool.)

And I don’t know why I put Bobby Darin’s classic version of “Mack the Knife” on this playlist, but I did, and it’s still there, and it was a surreal, startling and oddly peaceful moment when it shuffled up this afternoon.

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