Mixtapes: the gifts that keep on giving

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The world is getting darker, my friends, and that special time of year is upon us—there are about to be turkeys and tofu options, menorahs and Christmas trees, special issues, Eartha Kitt singing "Santa Baby" in every store you walk in to, and, of course, all of the hanging out with those strange people who look a lot like you but might not think like you at all. And they're about to get all up in your grill. They will ask why you're not engaged to your live-in boyfriend yet. They will ask whatever happened to that nice girl Vanessa. They will ask why you haven't found a job yet. They may even be the type to tell you to pray away the gay. You and your SO may be sequestered to separate sleeping arrangements over a long holiday weekend while nieces run about with food on their faces demanding the gift of cousins from you specifically. You will fear these four-foot tyrants. But you will still give them gifts, even as your bank account crumbles in the wake of your mere sideways glance.

Fear not, small grasshoppers! You shall stand strong in the holiday chaos! And you can give the gift that keeps on giving. You will give unto the world . . . the Mixtape. It will cost nothing but your soul.

I was driving to a photo shoot and the worst song ever came on the radio so I listened to it in its entirety, mostly because autumnal air is the smell of nostalgia and it was suddenly coupled with a song that was on the first mixtape I ever received. 'Twas the fall of 1987; I was ten. I even remember what that tape looked like: clear with the hot pink and yellow reels. The song was Bon Jovi's power ballad "Never Say Goodbye." I had to laugh while hearing the lyrics "Remember when we lost the keys, and . . . you lost more than that in my backseat." Precocious ten-year-old that I was, I was sure he meant her sunglasses, or perhaps that awesome mechanical pencil. Whatever it was, I could tell by those lines that she was spending a lot of time back there so she was bound to lose something. For the most part, I was looking forward to a time when I would get to drink a six-pack with a dude and "his old friends" and we could talk about this whole "busting out" thing.

Anyway. The song reminded me of "the mixtape." I mean the actual mixtape—the kind with, you know, tape. They took hours to make. Sometimes days. Sometimes you even had to draw a map of how you could fit your songs onto it without one cutting off at the end. You had to pay attention to whether you had a 60- or a 90-minute tape. It was important. It was meaningful. You couldn't mess up because there was no turning back, unless of course you had the patience to make the whole thing over again.

Mixtapes were key in making or breaking relationships. They were especially important at the beginning of relationships because they had to hold a perfect balance of "I want you to know about some music and also I like you so here's what I like and some stuff you might like, based on the very little that I know about you." Dude. That shit's brutal. But we did it. Those whimsical reels held the key to our souls.

Even after creating content, you weren't done yet—you had to make some fancy art-school cover that not only fit perfectly within the dimensions of the cassette case, but it had to be completely cool and unique to the person you were giving it to. Most importantly, you had to title it, preferably with something brilliant that tied all elements together.

In high school, my friend got a mixtape from a new boyfriend titled "Requiems for Post-War Epicureanism." We had no idea what any of those words meant at the time, so we assumed it was incredibly profound. Naturally, we were sold on the boy. Based on his mixtape title alone, he may as well have been the Ryan Gosling of the 90s. There was also a mixtape that went viral. Or wait . . . it "trended"? The point is that everyone who ever heard this tape in the car or on the bus had to make a copy of it. At the time, that involved going over to someone's house and hanging out with them for 60-90 minutes (depending) which occasionally led to losing your sunglasses in the backseat of their car. I vaguely remember this viral tape including such hits as "Bitchin' Camaro," "99 Red Balloons," "Waiting Room," some Lou Reed, and the Soup Dragons' cover of "I'm Free." Heh.

A few years ago, I got a Christmas present that I still hold in the highest regard: a mixtape from my bandmate—on CD, as we do these days—but this was no haphazard playlist. It upheld all Rules of the Mixtape, the cover was individually and beautifully decorated, and best of all, it came with a detailed account of exactly why and how every song made its way onto this little piece of polycarbonate plastic that I would eventually destroy from overusage. The story started here: she got in a fight with her high school boyfriend so he made her a mixtape and called it "24 Hour Revenge Therapy." Side B, song one was Jawbreaker's "Do You Still Hate Me?"

This faceless boy I have never met has no idea how grateful I am for his making of that mixtape. That song inspired my bandmate to learn an instrument, and listening to Jawbreaker and Jawbox and Seam and Texas Is the Reason made her the musician she is today; in turn, she inadvertently made me love all of those bass lines as well as those bands. In fact, she's made me love a lot of things, including Munch 'Ems from the roadside gas station.

The moral of this story is that it doesn't really matter where you end up at Thanksgiving or who some of your family members voted for; if you share what you love, whatever that may be, you can't go wrong. You just might inspire someone to play music or learn to love emo. Or, you might convince someone that you have horrible taste in music, in which case you can now accept that there are just some ways that you and said person will never relate. And hey, that's a gift, right? I hereby give you permission to go into the darkness and find out.

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