Of mixtapes and men…

Genius to fall asleep to your tape last night
So warm
Sounds go through the muscles
These abstract wordless movements
They start off cells that haven’t been touched before
These cells are virgins
Waking up slowly

My headphones
They saved my life
Your tape
It lulled me to sleep

Nothing will be the same

I’m fast asleep

I like this resonance
It elevates me
I don’t recognize myself
This is very interesting

My headphones
They saved my life
Your tape
It lulled me to sleep (to sleep, to sleep)

I’m fast asleep now
I’m fast asleep

My headphones
They saved my life
Your tape
It lulled me to sleep

– Bjork, Headphones

I cannot get enough of Stephin Merritt’s music. Stephen Merritt is the creative genius behind The Magnetic Fields, The 6ths, The Gothic Archies and Future Bible Heroes, and he has written perhaps the best songs about love, the pain of it and the beauty of it, that can be found anywhere on this earth. If you have ever had a broken heart you must hear ‘I’m Lonely and I love it,’ by the Future Bible Heroes, ‘I don’t want to get over you’ by The Magnetic Fields and ‘I think I need a new heart.’ You can find out about Stephen Merritt in The House of Tomorrow. I notice on the blog that there is talk of a stage adaptation of Nail Gaiman’s Coraline opening in New York which features music from Merritt. My mind is spinning with a vision of what such a fusion of imagination and artistic vision may bring.

How I long to go.

But in the absence of a spontaneous, crazy trip to the US for musical joy (I am half-thinking of doing one of these, since many of the artists I need to interview for a commission I’m working on are living in NYC…) I will make do with enjoying Merritt on my mixtapes and discman.

Since making the memoryphones for Love is Awesome, I have become obsessed with making mixtapes again, and have started wearing the memoryphones around town and filling my head with music. The assignment – remember a mixtape you once had – which inspired the creation of the piece was fuelled by one cassette which I recorded in Ireland from a radio station, and which I listened to constantly, for a year, in my car. The mixtape became a sort of site or emotional environment in which I dreamed and thought firstly about the times and memories associated with the songs on that specific tape, and then about The Mixtape in general as a highly subjective object of immense personal significance and value.

And then I started thinking about making mixtapes again, and I finally cracked and went to iTunes, and my mind nearly exploded with the absolute joy of so many tunes, so very, very, very many tunes…

I wasn’t going to do this; I made a conscious decision to give my best attention to ambient sounds when I began my PhD. I mean, I do listen to music loads but I made a conscious decision NOT to listen to walkmans/discmans etc. while out walking. And I like listening to the city, to the countryside, to everything. Sounds are amazing; I grow more and more deeply interested in and attached to them as I invest time and effort in their study and appreciation, and listening to music in the context of walking around the world is – for me – a way of insulating myself against all that amazing sound. I was reminded of all these things when I answered a questionnaire on a blog that I really like reading, and thought a bit about how I use a walkman when I listen to one.

BUT Music is also amazing. I do distinguish between the two… sound for me is sort of the accidental sonic consequences of life/things/actions taking place, whereas music is the conscious and deliberate organisation of sounds to specifically produce a sonic effect. That is an overly simplistic distinction and these two realms intersect all the time, rather like art and craft do, but making the distinction is useful when making conscious decisions like ‘I won’t listen to music when…’ or ‘I will pay more attention to sounds when…’ and sometimes you need to lay out some terms and conditions.

But the truth is – and especially in terms of the domestic soundscape – that the sound of music playing definitely gets mixed up in the other sounds of life. The sound of the toaster is not necessarily more interesting or meaningful than a mixtape made for you by your first boyfriend, and the world of our everyday lives is as much bound up in albums, releases, hit singles and pop charts as it is in the environmental sounds that surround us constantly. I thought of this when I was making the piece with the cassette-tape-yarn headphones; about the role that mixtapes play in a personal, interior dialogue. I thought about Bjork’s Headphones album and about the Headphones hour of Donal Dineen’s radio show, and about that whole realm of personal soundtracks and narratives that go with the territory of the mixtape, and I made my piece, and presented it with headphones covered in yarn spun from an original mixtape… my favourite mixtape of all time. (Narrative attached at the bottom of this post.)

This consideration of The Mixtape was recently reenforced by reading Rob Sheffield’s beautifully written memoir, Love is a Mixtape. I have loved reading this book so, so much. It has returned music to me even more than my trip to iTunes has. I read and re-read certain sections and felt my heart simultaneously aching with the tragedy in the book, and leaping in the joy of it. Music makes all things bearable; somehow makes it possible to endure sentiments and situations that would otherwise be untenable. The book is simultaneously full of the grief of loss, and the joy of music. It is so human, so believable, so beautiful. You must read it.

Each chapter starts with a mixtape, a list of tracks and a title, all printed in that characteristic lined-paper + hand-writing style that is the iconic cassette-tape look. Then the chapter goes on to talk about the era associated with the music on the cassette. It’s clearly a very carefully selected section of a much greater music-collection, and Rob Sheffield’s observations veer eruditely between both the personal significance of the music that he talks about, and its wider social and political significance. His observations on the 1990s as an era featuring loads of women in mainstream music were interesting for me to read, and his personal account (he was married to another music journalist who tragically died very young) of loss and music and love is incredibly moving. Throughout the book I get the sense that Rob Sheffield loves women, really REALLY loves women. It is a comforting thing to read a book by a man about his great love for one woman in particular, and women in general.

The nineties fad for indie rock overlapped precisely with the nineties fad for feminism. The idea of a pop culture that was pro-girl or even just not anti-girl – that was a 1990s mainstream dream, rather than a 1980s or 2000s one, and it was real for a while…America is a different place than it was in the nineties…The radio has become homogenized, with practically every station around the country bought up and programmed by the same corporation, and in a shocking coincidence, the weird girls have been shoved back underground.

– Rob Sheffield, Love is a Mixtape

Although you may baulk (as I did) at his suggestion that feminism was a ’90s fad, or his sweeping generalisation of ‘the weird girls’ (I presume Tori Amos, Skunk Anansie, Alanis Morrisette, Bjork, PJ Harvey, HOLE and Moloko are in this category… all, as he now observes, ‘safely back underground…’) as being emblematic of some kind of pop-culture female emancipation, I think he’s sorta right. In glib, pop-journalism language he gets straight to the heart of something really interesting to do with ‘where have the feisty women gone from the pop charts?’ His chapter on Renee’s sewing is also really lovely, and really interesting;

The more she sewed, the easier it got for her to move and breathe, since she now had clothes she could easily move and breathe in, and feel totally hot while she did so. It was really intense to see how much control over her body she could have by taking control over her clothes. It took a lot of time to make them all, but she could sew for hours. While she worked she would lose all her nervous energy and glow like a conquering goddess.

– Rob Sheffield, Love is a Mixtape

I love the way Sheffield writes about Renee’s sewing and about the music that she would listen to while she sewed. His words are full of observation, reflection, celebration and love, and his awe for the task of sewing and his respect for it as an activity of great agency and power is very interesting to me within the context of the tricky history surrounding men’s admiration of women doing handiwork.

I also felt that his way of organising feelings and memories around The Mixtape is really successful, since it is a medium that somehow reflects the very personal way that we all use music to mark our rites of passage and significant moments in time. We all have tapes given to us at some point in our lives by best friends, by boyfriends… tapes we made to get in shape, tapes we made to get over something, tapes we made for ourselves, tapes sent to us by other people who like the same music, for us to hear. The wooing mixtape. The I-fancy-you mixtape. The let’s-be-friends mixtape. The You-broke-my-heart mixtape. The party-tunes mixtape. The road-trip mixtape. The cheer-you-up mixtape, etc.

There is an amazing summary of this whole idea – of the analogous relationship between love, the mixtape, the heart, our stories, our lives and Music – at the end of the book. But to reprint that here would really be a big spoiler.

You’ll just have to read it.

In the meantime, does anyone want to swap mixtapes? Leave a comment if you want to organise an exchange of wonderful music…

I haven’t fully thought through the terms of such an exchange, but I believe it ought to include some notes on the provenance of the mixtape; why is has been made, what it represents, on what basis were songs selected etc. at the moment, I am working on the ultimate Hope mix-tape. I think the first track will be Jump by Madonna.

9 Responses to Of mixtapes and men…

  1. Pingback: The Domestic Soundscape » Blog Archive » Mixtapes #2

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