A young colleague recently asked if I thought he could be as cool as I am when he grows up. The question elicited both hot-cheeked pride and the urge to laugh; I was, for many years, the most resolutely, hopelessly un-cool person in the tri-state area. My clothes were wrong, I tried too hard, and I was never really up on pop culture, let alone ahead of the curve and into the snarky and well-guarded province of “hip.” After collecting myself, I smiled (ironically) and told him that I was sure he could become stunningly, mind-blowingly cool before he hit 35. I offered him the magic talisman that long ago steered me away from Billy Joel and “Top Gun,” and towards the world of art films, Kerouac and Ramones T-shirts: the gift of a mix tape.
For something the size of a panini, mix tapes (and later, CDs) have given me a great education. The first one was a gift from Lisa, a friend in college, who was the coolest person I had ever met. She wore skinny jeans and Chuck Taylors, had a boyfriend named Slash, or Lurch or something like that, and possessed an encyclopedic knowledge not only of the most recent bands on the horizon, but of vintage aural fabulousness. She was not “cool” like the candy-boxy pretty high school girls who had mastered the flawless construction of a Farrah “do;” she was an effortless, un-self conscious magnet for all things outside the box. While I was (unsuccessfully) pursuing a guy named Kermit, she made me a mix tape with all of the song titles and artists written on the paper liner in her striking, back-slanted hand, included “Human Fly” and “Jungle Hop” by The Cramps, “Holiday” by the Bee Gees, “Bowling Green” by The Everly Brothers and “Rockaway Beach” by the Ramones. She included “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” by Herman’s Hermits, but wrote on the liner “Mrs. Graham, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter – Kermit The Frog.” How could I fail to love such a gift?
This music was life changing; I had always felt uneasy with the frantic energy of The Pointer Sisters and their “Neutron Dance,” and the drippy, sentimental ballads about soaring eagles lifting us up where we belonged. Lisa’s carefully curated mix was made solely to speak to my soul, to offer me the tastiest hooks, and to transport me with lyrics that seemed written for my sore heart. By virtue of The Rule of Hipster Transference (look it up) the mix also gave me a first glimpse into the world of music beyond classical and Top Forty. I lost the tape at some point, but I remember every single song, and the sheer pleasure of filling my head with an exquisite, musical poem written just for me.
Years later, I came into possession of another mix tape. It was also a kind of poetic assemblage, with well-chosen and carefully ordered songs replacing the words and images that are the writer’s materials. My closest friend in Boston, who I believed I was dating (although I was not), had a tape that was made for another female friend by a man who was in love with her. She was not in love with him (at least not any more), and in the process of Ritual Ex Obliteration she offered our mutual friend the tape because it was just too good to throw away. We listened to it together, endlessly; it was a strange, voyeuristic glimpse into a message of love that we were never meant to overhear. It had a few not-so-great songs, but it also introduced me to The Dead Kennedys, Bjork, Sinead O’ Connor and Donald Fagen.
That mix, the naked, desperate attempt to use songs to revive the corpse of love, was a powerful lesson in the realities of relationships. It also reinforced the notion that a play list could send a message, and that when one’s own words failed or seemed inadequate; there was another way to say “Come On Baby, Light My Fire,” “So Happy Together,” or “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers, Anymore.” I still have that cassette; it lives in a box on my dresser along with a lipstick that belonged to my grandmother and the journalism prize from eighth grade. Since I no longer have a cassette player, it has assumed the status of Holy Relic.
There were other mix tapes, less important to my development as an insightful (and modest) hipster, and I have made many of my own over the years. I have chosen songs to send messages of attraction, confusion, and the rage of a woman scorned. I have made themed mixes from “winter” to “food,” and I have assembled songs simply because I am in love with them and want to share them with everyone I know like some latter day Johnny Appleseed spreading my personal taste throughout the land. Today, long past the pain of turgid hookups and breakups, I will make a mix CD for my young friend. The culling of just the right songs, the re-ordering, replacing and fine-tuning will absorb me completely, and keep me from the laundry, the raking, and other pedestrian concerns. I will be creating, and continuing the music-sharing tradition that has, like a great poem or sculpture, opened my mind and shown me plaints, pleasures and experiences outside of my own small sphere.
Plus, I’m cool like that.