Mix Tapes That Changed My Life

mix tapes that changed my life

If you’re reading this, chances are you remember mix tapes and miss them. While I don’t lament the ease with which I can create a musical message of incredible length and variety for my near and dear, the labor of love behind the mix tape simply can’t be expressed with MP3s.

Right off the bat, you’re working within the constraints of the music that’s physically nearby. Of course it makes sense that I want to put “Against All Odds” on a broken heart mix, but what if I don’t have it? I have to borrow it from someone who does, go to a store and buy it, wait for it to come on the radio and time it perfectly, or figure out what among my collection I could replace it with without changing the emotion.

And then there’s the medium of the cassette tape, far less predictable than CDs and nowhere near as simple as clicking and dragging songs to their desired home. Make sure you have a pencil handy to slurp garbled tape back onto its loop, because inevitably whatever fancy pants boombox system you’ve invested in will eat at least one tape during your project.

There has to be a cover, right? Because what’s a mix tape without an explanation of each song? The dimensions are pretty tricky, though, and then you have to consider how many times you can fold the cover and still leave room to slide the tape itself in there. This is going to involve at least half the paper from your Mead notebook.

For someone to go through all of this just for you says immediately what you mean to them, before you even start listening. And then that first listen – you don’t dare read the cover to see all of the songs, because you want to discover each song on its own and watch how the message unfolds with each new lyric. It’s like a love letter in your ear, and you listen close, begging for more clues and love.

Three mix tapes stand out in my life has being game-changers, and I will never forgive myself for losing their full song lists:

1. The one from Andrew
Andrew was my Jordan Catalano. His wavy hair fell into his eyes, he wore flannel and Converse, and I was inexplicably tongue tied whenever I saw him in the hall. It turned out we shared a Spanish teacher, and I asked her about him. “Oh ANDREW?!” Ms. Medina yelled, “He’s TERRIBLE at Spanish. Do you like him? HOW CUTE! OH SWEETIE you’re going to TUTOR HIM!” And so it went. Andrew brought me a Tshirt from the Cure concert, let me borrow his Lightning Seeds tape for months, and made me a mix tape that made my heart ache and my ears start considering more than the hip hop I usually listened to. The songs I recall:

Classic Girl – Jane’s Addiction (he DID like me!)
The Wagon – Dinosaur Jr.
Something In The Way – Nirvana
Pictures of You – The Cure
Tomorrow, Wendy – Concrete Blonde

2. The one from Tony
I went to high school with this guy named Todd. (I actually dated him for 2 weeks when I was 13, but that’s a hilarious story for another blog post.) Todd’s older brother went to Rutgers and knew people who made zines. SO COOL, right? Todd brought in a copy of a zine, the name of which is long forgotten, written by a guy named Tony. And I dug it, so I wrote to Tony and sent him some cash and bought my own copy. Tony and I started writing back and forth, and I contributed a very personal piece to his next zine issue. It kicked off a very intense conversation in letters, all of which I fear I’ve lost, about a topic that was much bigger than a couple of teenagers should ever have to think about. And one day Tony sent me a mix tape. He didn’t see me as a high school kid, he saw me as a writer and a passionate human being, and there was nothing romantic or sexual even hinted at. To date it was one of the most beautiful friendships I’ve ever experienced, and we never met face to face. His mix tape included:

Puzzle Pieces – Tiger Trap
Hello Kitty – Cub
And a song by Throwing Muses, although I don’t recall which one

3. The first mix from Pat
Pat is my best friend. We’ve known each other for 25 years. In that time we’ve lost touch, found each other, lived together, fought, cried, laughed… shared everything you share with your best friend. We weren’t super close in high school, but we ran in the same nerdy circles. After high school, Pat ended up in DC and I was 3 hours away at a small woman’s college in Virginia. Email kept us in touch and brought us closer than we’d ever been, and so late that first post-high school winter I brought my roommate with me on a visit to DC. There’s a lot I remember about that trip, and even more that I don’t, but what has stayed with me through the years is the mix tape he gave me entitled “Jenny and Angie Visit The Big Big City.” It started many years of many more mix tapes, each one amazing in its own right but none as dear to me as this first one. It included:

Eleanor – Shannon Worrell
Smokin’ Oysters – The Emptys
Little Green Bag – George Baker Selection

Tell me about the mix tapes that have changed your life.

By Jennifer Spencer

I'm a storyteller, food lover, book collector, and a Southerner at heart. I love connecting people.