If a mix is not made for you personally, is it still a something you would enjoy as much as a personal mix tape/CD? Or would you feel like you just got someting made by a competent amateur DJ or heard a truncated playlist from a weirdly cool radio show--in other words, would it feel oddly distant, professionalized, and not only less meaningful but meaningless? Without that intimate connection of being made for you by someone you know because they want to provoke some kind of feeling in you (let's party! cheer up! I'm sorry your friend died!), might you just as well be listening to the radio?
It seems as though there is no shortage of free mixes (I would, as a contrarian traditionalist and owner of four (five?) analog watches, call them mix tapes, but as most people make mix CDs now or go all techie and upload a single file online) available for download. They are created by cool people: music aficionados, elitists, freaks, what have you.
However, this is not very personal. It was not specially made for you. I have only ever given/received personalized mixes, and they obey no good mix rules: I repeat artists, I sometimes stick with one genre/style, I don't always mix periods well--oh, the sins abound. But they are very personalized. I tend to make mixes based on some sentimental theme to either cheer up a friend or to help her wallow in misery. Or sometimes just differently themed ones, like "Cool Kid Music" (Nick Drake, the softer songs of Wilco, the cheerier songs of Cowboy Junkies). They always come in my specially printed CD sleeves along with homemade cards and little gifts in a big care package. What my mixes lack in quality they make up for in stuff.
This is The Philosophical Werewolf's take on one of his public mixes, although he is a college radio DJ (does that make him semi-professional?) and way cooler than I am:
It's not personal—or rather, what personality it has is purely inner-directed, since I only made the thing to satisfy what you might call my "muse" (BL: I have tried to change this to Roman to clarify that this is not entirely meant in earnest, but for some reason can't un-italicize this particular word and am bad at html. So, the scare quotes are mine, the sardonic intent his, and the interpretation entirely yours.). Being personal is not a necessary quality of good mixiness, though.
There is some logic to this argument. Good mixes are good mixes, independent of their intent. It's like the law, really. A useful, clear, well-crafted law that does what it means to do--whatever the motivations underlying the enactment--well, that's a beautiful, rare thing. I'd still prefer a personal mix to a random one, but fortunately I know The Philosophical Werewolf, and I will get one from him.
This is Sarah Vowell's take from Take the Cannoli:
While I was reading Hornby's book (BL: High Fidelity, a better American movie than a book, and full of obsessive rules for making mix tapes for someone you want to cajole into loving you), I happened to glance at an ad in San Francisco Weekly that read, "I'll tape record albums for you. Reasonable ratse, excellent service. Pick-up available. Bob." And it gave a phone number. Prostitution! That's what I thought anyway. Paying someone to make a tape for you seems a whole lot like paying someone for a kiss It is traditional to cover for one's inability to articulate feelings of love through store-bought greeting cards. It's another thing entirely to pass off a purchased compilation tape, a form which is inherently amateur and therefore more heartfelt. To spend money on such a tape would be a crime against love. Aphrodite herself might rise from the ocean to conk such a criminal on the head with the seashell she rode in on.
Okay, whatever, her argument has as its central conceit the love mix tape, the one you make for somone you want to romance. I dont' talk about that on my blog at all, if you recall, and so I will make my argument that third party mix tapes devoid of sentiment or personal direction are still a little whiffleballesque even if they are intended to be totally platonic and ambient. E.g., if they are message mixes, the message is "hey, there, how about a hi-five" and if lacking a message, then it's just good background music. There's lots of reasons to make a mix tape--a party mix, a dinner party mix, a road trip mix, a boudoir mix--so, if you're not making these mixes yourself, isn't usin' and groovin' to someone else's mix tantamount to buying a TimeLife CD compilation of Greatest Hits from the Golden Age of Soul?
Plus, mixes are independent works of art--and like any painting, the brushstrokes will vary. Some tracks will not be to your liking, and if you had received it from someone you know, you will think "aw, well, that's interesting" and if you don't know them, you just think "dude, this sucks."
In any case, I occasionally enjoy the free mixes on the web, but it makes me feel like I'm outsourcing my music mixing. I'm getting something for free, yes, but it's like getting free pre-printed cards in the mail during Christmas from real estate companies. Well, that's not a very apt metaphor, since these cool people spend a lot of time on their mixes. It's like getting free cookies in the mail from someone you don't know. One the one hand, cookies! On the other, no lingering warmth in the belly because they weren't made by anyone you know or particularly care for. It is, indeed, like getting a TimeLife CD.
So I listen to TPW's free mixes, and like them well enough, but I it doesn't give me the warm fuzzies the way I do when I listen to TC's mixes (but she is awesome and indulges my love of bizarre themes and '80s pop). I'll wait to get a TPW personalized mix. And I'll make him one of my own. In a big ol' carepackage that will make him squeal with delight like a little girl at a basketful of kittens.
For more evidence of my obsession with mix tapes:
My post arguing that you can apply canons of statutory interpretation to mix tapes, and that they can be so ambiguous that you just might want to.
A terrible mix I made for myself in a fit of self-indulgent self-pity. Hey, it was a blah-inducing summer, which is why this Fall is so awesome by comparison.
My public wish for Teh Mix Tape, a mix so awesome and High Fidelity-ish that I would be transported, as the ancients would say, to 1997, the last time I got such a tape (and it was a real audiocassette tape!). I've gotten some really great mixes this year from TC, The Screenwriter, and The Journalist, but they aren't Teh Mix Tape.