The Art of the Mix Tape: Courtship, Breakup, Memory, Fantasy

By Martha Michaela Hutchman Brown
aka Marf

What are the objects featured on this MarfDaze bag?


Partial credit if you answered tapes, or cassettes.

Full credit if you answered love letters from hopeful would-be lovers, teenage diary entries of moods and experiences or musical gateways to fantasy realms in which you, young person with a walkman, are the star of your own personal music video as you go about your day.

Making mix tapes is a lost art. Before the iPod, before shuffle, you had to make hard choices. You could squeeze 16 to 18 songs tops on a 90-minute mix tape. And math skills certainly came in handy: the only thing worse than four minutes of dead air at the end of Side 1 is only four minutes of an awesome six- minute song. Every seasoned mix maker had a few short 2-minute songs that were on standby in case they were needed to fill out the end of a side.

If someone you found crush-worthy gave you a mix tape, you listened the crap out of it, reading in hidden messages, real or imagined. When you broke up, those tapes became rich archeological digs, offering proof that once there was love, and maybe some clues of what went wrong.

The upside of receiving mix tapes:

  1. You discovered new music.
  2. You could pretend that your romance is worthy of the drama in the songs. Nothing really does compare 2 U. If you walk away walk away, he/she will follow. She/he thinks of you everywhere she/he goes. It is in fact great, after staying out late, to walk your baby back home.

The downside:

  1. You sometimes discovered your dreamboat gave the same exact mix of meaningful songs to other girls, including your best friend.
  2. Not all the messages were sweet.

One dreary late-late-1990s day, I couldn’t find my discman and had a long walk to work in front of me. I grabbed my walkman and dug out a tape from an ex who gave me a mix after we dated briefly. According to the neatly lettered song titles on the case, only the first side had music — lots of good songs that alluded to the fun days we had together. A nice, lovely trip to nostalgiaville from a safe distance.

Today, 14 years later, I still remember the crosswalk I was on (on the Ben Franklin Parkway near the Philadelphia Art Museum) when I discovered there were songs on Side 2. And those songs had one overarching theme: I sucked. I was a sucky girlfriend. I was a sucky human being. Suckage, thine name is Marf. Song after song of bile.

All Side 2 needed was Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like a Hole” to be in full violation of the Geneva Convention.

Oooooooh. Revenge served ice cold. Well played, Jerkface*. Well played. (*not his real name)

An aside: Two people who love Elvis Costello should never ever date. It can only end in tears.

But not all mix tapes changed hands or were fraught with meaning. Tapes were made for parties and road trips and just for fun. These personal playlists were the permanent fixtures in our cars’ tape decks. Eighteen songs can come to symbolize an entire summer or an old friend or a single eventful night.

Now, of course, I have upgraded. I have an iPod. And a nano. And an iPhone. And a gorgeous, smart and sweet husband who holds my entire heart within his.

And, I’m putting my now-digitized and thinned-out collection of sexy, silly and angsty songs from the past to good use: I’m training for my first 5K and I need plenty of different tunes to keep me going. Through the magic of shuffle, I have a seemingly endless mix of old songs and new songs to get me around the track.

My new walkman takes phone calls.

My new walkman takes phone calls.

I enjoy my little jogs down memory lane, for the most part. But if one or two otherwise great songs unearth a less than pleasant memory, that’s fine, too. It just motivates me to run faster, Jerkface.

Here’s an example mix of my running tunes and what they are to me.

  • “Little Atoms”  and “Beyond Belief” Elvis Costello (Junior year of college)
  • “I’m Afraid of Americans” David Bowie (Senior year of college)
  • “Dig” The Who (Summer before starting high school)
  • “Sit Down” James (High school friend Ryan, who was king of all mix tape makers)
  • “Train Song” Andy Summers (Reading the books 2010 and Lolita in Vermont)
  • “La Concubine De l’Hémoglobine” MC Solar (College friends A and J)
  • “Everywhere I Go” The Call (Summer between freshman and sophomore year of high school)
  • “Dance Hall Days” Wang Chung (Trips to Canada when I was a kid)
  • “Hong Kong Garden (With Strings Intro)” Siouxsie & The Banshees (Fun 2006 trip to NYC with big sister E)
  • “Downside-Up” Peter Gabriel (2003)
  • “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” Chris Botti and Sting (My husband, David.)

One thought on “The Art of the Mix Tape: Courtship, Breakup, Memory, Fantasy

  1. Marf, this post is great! I think everyone of our generation has mixtape stories. Oddly, they made a resurgence with a certain kind of music enthusiast born in the early 80’s, too. Or maybe that was just 2 dudes I met around the same time who both made mix tapes. From LP’s. It was a few years before the death of the brick and mortar record store. Vinyl was not quite trendy yet. Oh 2002, what a strange and liminal time.

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