Soundtracks of Our Lives

A new book about a love measured by mix tapes reflects how music compilations have become a widely used way of making a statement

January 03, 2007|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,sun reporter

The tapes saved him.

When his wife died, Rob Sheffield found comfort in the drawers filled with clothes that carried her scent, in the beagle they had adopted together, and in the trails they had walked for miles. But it was the tapes -- hundreds of mix tapes they had made each other through five years of marriage -- that meant the most.

"My mix tapes were the life rafts that I held on to," Sheffield writes in his new book, Love Is a Mix Tape. "Sometimes I would sing to Renee; sometimes I would let her sing to me."

Blank cassette tapes and CDs can take on extraordinary meaning when filled with songs chosen by someone we care about. You don't throw away mix tapes, not ever. It would be like throwing away a sweater someone knitted for you; it's just too disrespectful.

While cassette tapes -- the classic mix form -- have all but disappeared, mixes are more common than ever, thanks to Apple's iTunes and the popularity of mash-ups (combining various layers of different songs to create a new one) in the hip-hop community.

Creating a mix used to mean hours of painstaking work, transferring songs from records and tapes onto blank tapes, putting just the right amount of space between songs, and timing it to eliminate dead air at the end of each side. Now, it can be done in minutes on iTunes or similar digital music programs: Select the songs you want from your computer's music library, place them in order in a new "playlist," and burn the mix onto a blank CD.

But if the mechanics are easier, the process is not. You can still agonize for hours over which songs to place on a mix, how to order them and what meanings the listener may take from them. In his book, Sheffield lists some of the many reasons for making a mix: you're having a party, you're going on a road trip, you hate your job, you met someone with similar tastes and you want to be friends, you met someone and you want to be more than friends, your heart's been broken and you want to cry.

Especially for the shy among us, mixes are a way to say something without having to use your own words. "When you let the music do the talking for you, it can be done more forcefully and truthfully than you'd let yourself speak," Sheffield, 40, says. "You can drop your own mask a bit by letting the music speak for you."

Sheffield met his wife, Renee, in Charlottesville, Va., in 1989. They were in a bar. A song by the '70s power pop group Big Star came on. They were the only two people who perked up. They got to talking, discovered they had the same favorite Big Star song ("Thirteen"), and Sheffield told her the same thing he'd told every woman he'd fallen for: "I'll make you a tape!"

That first mix had a lot of Big Star on it, of course, and also some Lucinda Williams ("I Just Wanted to See You So Bad") and Velvet Underground. Many more mixes would come -- mixes to walk the dog by, to wash dishes to, to fall asleep with.

"I realize it's frowned on to choose a mate based on something superficial like the music they love," Sheffield writes. "But superficiality has been good to me. In the animal kingdom, Renee and I would have recognized each other's scents; for us, it was a matter of having the same favorite Meat Puppets album."

They got married in 1991, at the University of Virginia chapel. The reception was at the Best Western down the street. Their wedding dance was Big Star's "Thirteen." They were 25.

Music for the masses

Mix tapes were for music obsessives then -- people who would tape songs off the radio and who had hours to put mixes together. Now mixes are for the masses.

"It's a way of reaching out to somebody," says Sarah Lohman, a Web designer in New York who recently started a mix club with 15 friends because she wanted to hear more new music. Every week, one person is responsible for making a mix CD and sending it out to the group. (See the track listings at

"I often feel so limited by what's on radio these days," says Lohman, 24. "It seems like there's only a certain number of bands that get played again and again and again. So how do you find out about new bands?"

Her friend Bryan DiFrancesco, a software engineer in Washington and member of the mix club, has been making mixes since high school. He now makes about four a year that he sends to 25 friends. He says he does it to commemorate, in a way, certain times and places.

"I make them to lock in a certain group of songs that are a part of everyone's life at the time," he says. "For me, it's just creating a feeling. I can listen to a mix and jump back to where I was three falls ago."

The democratization of mixes can largely be attributed to Apple's iTunes. When people began buying music online (as of last year, Apple has sold more than 1 billion songs on iTunes) and transferring their CDs onto their computers, they suddenly gained a vast digital library from which to make mixes.

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