Monday, May 05, 2008

Mix Tape Nostalgia

I’ve been noticing various pieces around the web concerning mix-tape nostalgia, the act of making and distributing cassette tapes of “various artist” collections of music to friends. And the warm, fuzzy feeling people now get for this. That misguided “world was better then” feeling. Generally regarding the actions of what one did when he was younger and mistakenly qualifying this as “better than now” in some sense. Because if you honestly miss cassettes tapes, you need your head examined.

A few months ago, I did a piece on what doing a mix tape entailed, and I hope you can gather, I’m not overly nostalgic for the process. Yes, I’m one of those people with a very good grasp of recent music history who has the collection and know-how to pull together some pretty solid mixes. I may as well go around with a large “D” for “dick” branded on my forehead, but such is my lot in life to have this useless knowledge based on my love of music. Mix tapes were a very 80s thing, and I’ve noticed on TV that all the “nostalgia” cultural references have firmly shifted from the 70s to the 80s, just in time to tap into all those thirtysomethings who fondly remember being kids in the 80s. It seems like 35 is now the perfect age to miss being a teenager. You’re far enough away that you can’t remember or gloss over much of the bad shit, yet close enough to look and feel “young” in some sense.

I’m not quite sure why mix tapes inspire nostalgia when the process of making mix CDs isn’t that much different. I can see the gathering of sources has changed – I’ll often put together a mix CD these days using nothing but MP3 files, a relatively painless process compared to gathering CDs, vinyl albums and other cassettes as I once did for your average mix-tape. Less equipment, too: my laptop is all I need, with a program that allows me re-arrange track listings at the touch of a mouse, as opposed to a stereo with a receiver, a turntable, double-cassette deck and CD player. I’m glad to get all this shit out of my life! I’m not a “warmth of vinyl” person, and cassettes always sounded like shit (on top of regularly self-destructing in players). CDs are great, but I’m pretty much sold on MP3s, too. My only qualm is that I have to wonder if CDs are going to be around in a few years for me to distribute mixes to friends – having a hard time to see how one will do this with MP3 files, considering about a third of the people I know are not MP3 savvy, choosing to get off the media merrygoround as their odometers roll past 40.

I think a lot of the recent nostalgia is based on the popularity of the book, Love Is a Mix Tape by music critic Rob Sheffield. It’s about how making mix tapes for and with his wife, who died young/a few years into their marriage, shaped and influenced both their lives and their relationship. The book was a bit of a shock to me. Rob appears on a lot of these VH-1 nostalgia shows: the I Love the 70s/80s series, which can be great fun. Judging by Rob’s appearance and demeanor on these shows, I always assumed he was gay. He just has that way about him: an effeminate guy with deep knowledge and emphasis on cheesy pop culture history (a hallmark and great attribute a lot of gay men have). Those shows are stocked with guys who seem, well, gay. And not in a bad way – in that quirky, fun way that just about anyone but the most hard-core gay basher can relate to. He was married to a woman? He had me fooled! (Granted, after reading the book, I got the definite vibe that Rob is one of those deeply non-threatening guys that women easily befriend, and I guess that works just as well as coming on like Mr. Rock Solid Cock.)

After getting over the shock that Rob liked pussy, I settled into the book with trepidations. He’s a good writer, no doubt about it. The book communicates his over-powering sense of loss. I can’t recall what she died from – some type of unforeseen health thunderbolt that struck her down – but that doesn’t make it any easier. Just terrible, heart-rending stuff. Rob got that much across in his book, and I’m surprised Oprah didn’t give him a nod with her book club, because it’s the exact kind of book that would have gone over with her audience and boosted his sales.

But the awful truth about Love Is a Mix Tape is … his mix tapes suck! The only good one, he made as a teenager, if I recall correctly for a rollerskating event, that acknowledged what his audience might be listening to and enjoying, And at that time, we were talking stuff like “More Than a Feeling” by Boston, which is one of those universal songs of the mid-to-late 70s that just about any kid could relate to, unless he was totally engaged in punk or disco. The tape was filled with those sort of rock and disco touchstones that your average 14-year-old circa 1979 would have loved.

The rest was a surly mix of indie-rock hipness and quirky “me being a music critic, you’d think I really wouldn’t like Top 40 pop music in the 90s, but I really do” nod-and-wink type material that would ruin any mix tape, save one made for a 13-year-old circa 1993. The non-quirky stuff is just a stifling mix of 80s and 90s indie music that reeks of hipper-than-thou arrogance. I call mixes like this “Stump the DJ” – I’ve done a few myself. You give them to musically knowledgeable people to impress them with both your impeccable taste, and your grasp of rarities and hard-to-find material in a given genre. (This used to hold more weight before you could find just about any song via nefarious sources on the web. So kill me if I put “I Don’t Need Drugs to Be Fucked Up” by Glass Eye on one too many “Alt 80s” collection.)

But those were the times, which I remember well, and I guess when you get down to it, their audience was each other, and this was the kind stuff they enjoyed shooting back and forth. But take it from someone who knows a vast majority of the songs they bandied about, you’d be listening to their tapes and thinking, “There’s no rhyme or reason to this bullshit.” Bad, jarring segues, senseless themes, a total lack of coherency … just about everything you could do wrong in a mix. It was like someone with great taste going through their collection blind-folded and picking out songs at random. A nice in-joke for them, but no one else gets it.

Which is fine – most people who make mix tapes or CDs have limited resources and/or knowledge to really pull it off and end up with ragged mixes. But no excuse for Rob and his late wife, they knew music inside and out, and just got lazy, most likely out of love. Why am I busting the guy on this, something that’s really inconsequential and in some ways deeply personal? Because it would be like a famous chef, say Gordon “Fucking” Ramsay, making a greasy, half-raw hamburger, served on Wonder Bread for his wife on their anniversary. Maybe that would represent some kind of in-joke between them, but the rest of the world would think, “Gordon, you fucking cunt, what the fuck where you thinking?”

And it would then be like Gordon writing a book about it! With the effect of thousands of cooking enthusiasts who read it deeply sighing over whatever hidden meaning he shares with his wife, while ignoring that the guy came perilously close to serving his wife a shit sandwich, and she declaring it the best thing he ever cooked.

There’s a certain amount of cleverness I can see in Rob’s reasoning for writing this book and basing it on the “mix tape” premise. For one, I gather his core audience will be people in their 30s and possibly younger, for most of whom death is still pretty much a mystery, a short story from college about their grandmother dying, therefore the subject is approached more romantically. You watch someone you love die slowly and painfully, all the romance is burned away forever.

A person dropping dead in his prime, or being killed, is different. It’s certainly more of a shock, which makes it easier and harder to deal with. Easier in that there’s not a months or years long period of darkness leading to the final blow. Harder in that the shock of death is immediately felt, as opposed to being slowly anticipated. And the person dying generally should have had decades more to live, as opposed to probably a few more years on the end of their mortal coil.

No one gets nostalgic for long slow deaths. No one thinks, “Man, remember that summer your Mom slowly withered from 135 lbs to 80, and we watched her vomit blood, regularly shit the bed, have hallucinations where she thought you were her grandfather, and spent her last five days zoned out on Dilaudid before dying in her sleep? Wasn’t that cool? Ah, the good old days.”

Death is the antithesis of nostalgia. But at least it allows people to see the past clearly. The same can’t always be said for nostalgia. Chances are, you are remembering a good time in your life, and embellishing it to make it seem even better than it was. Like the summer you fell in love, conveniently forgetting you felt and looked like a duck, one of your older brothers was routinely wrestling you to the living room floor and farting on your head, and you were convinced one of your neighbors was a serial killer with you targeted as his next victim.

I don’t know which would be worse: to be in Rob Sheffield’s shoes and experience one of those lightning-bolt deaths of a loved one. Or what if that never happened, that Rob and she had stayed married the rest of their days, for decades, a 50th anniversary, and he spent five years on the tail end watching her succumb to various forms of cancer that pounded the shit out of her and left her looking like a corpse at Auschwitz, while he lived on another 10 years without her?

Sorry to paint that grim a picture, but it happens all the time, you just don’t hear about it, because it’s not the sort of thing people want to dwell on. But imagine having that sort of experience, decades of memories to draw back on regarding the relationship, months or years of brutal decline, and then going on for X number of years afterwards. This is why I tend to respect and get along very well with old people – I now understand they’ve gone or are going through this, and I can see how that sort of experience is just as necessary to understanding life as any more happy one.

I’ve gotten to the point in life where I don’t look at it in terms of better or worse. In the worst experiences, like watching someone die slowly, you’re going to find a lot of good things, certain kinds of strength you never knew you had, certain types of lessons you would never learn otherwise. People are going to open themselves to you in ways that you’ll find humbling. People you thought were complete assholes will reveal themselves as decent human beings. You’ll see a lot of the best in humanity when there are people around you who understand and have been through the same experience, know the drill, so to speak. To paint it as a purely negative experience is almost as bad as painting the past in sky-blue shades of nostalgia. Life just isn’t that way. At least mine hasn’t been. Maybe I’m living wrong? But I can’t see how you get through life without embracing the darkness of it and understanding it’s part of the deal.

Rob never got that slow lead-in to death. He surely got the lingering after-effect we all get. But that one good thing about a quick death, the lack of foresight and visible evidence of life fading away, leaves a lot more room for genuinely happy memories. That may not seem like much, but it will years after the fact, long after the immediate pain has dulled down, however many years that takes. If we picture heaven as being some place where we see ourselves at our physical peaks, with wings and haloes, the memory of a loved one who died young is somehow similar.

I can remember a friend who killed himself in high school, L., and my memories of him are all pretty good, despite the obvious fact that he was distraught over the end of a long relationship with his girlfriend. In my mind, I still see him in top physical condition – he was a runner on the track team, in top shape. He had a great sense of humor, before he lost it via however burning teenage love influenced him. He was a fun guy. Smart. Good future in front of him if he had been seeing things more clearly.

What if he hadn’t killed himself? Man, I don’t know. Would we still be friends? Would he have grown in life and become a solid, decent human being I’d want to still know? I hope these things would be true, but who knows. As it stands, the memory of him doesn’t haunt me, but I can recognize it’s compact and fits a little too neatly into a category I don’t want to recognize as nostalgia, but somehow applies. Simply because I don’t have decades of real experience with him to judge it against. I knew the guy for about six years of junior high and high school. I suspect Rob knew his wife about as long?

I suspect a lot of the people I see cooing over Rob’s book – I liked it, but would never coo over it – haven’t made that distinction in their lives, learned the degrees of suffering and shades of gray that come with losing someone you’ve known for decades. All they see is a Love Story type passing, augmented by the nostalgia and romance of making mix tapes, a now-defunkt act of goodwill and sometimes love. It all fits a little too conveniently for me. Kudos to the guy for making it work, for reaching beyond the shallowness of silly cultural touchstones and pulling something real out of it. But there’s nothing magical about death or mix tapes, and that’s an emotional trick being employed here that I’m slightly uncomfortable with. We’re all going to die, but many of us are never going to make a good mix tape. That’s pretty much the one true thing I took from his book.

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