THE BLOG
12/23/2013 09:50 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2014

The Dying Art of Mixtapes

I've been trying to put together an ideal song-mix for the very long holiday journey south, which made me think about all the hours I've spent crafting mixes for other people.

First things first: the traditional mix-tape, that plastic cassette loaded with songs painstakingly copied from other sources, is dead. Compact discs and digital music pounded the nails into that particular coffin. What exists today is the "mix-tape," a term loosely applied to custom-made CDs. I feel the need to make that distinction, because otherwise I'll harbor this paranoid fantasy of opening my email inbox one morning to find dozens of messages from old-school music purists, anxious to offer an etymology lesson.

When it comes to budding relationships, a mix-tape falls into the same category as a handwritten note. I've taken the time to craft this, it says, because I care about you. An intellectual might see building such a track list as an ideal opportunity to show off his or her music knowledge, and invite a similarly eclectic mix from their soon-to-be significant other. At its best, the intellectual mix-tape sparks a hum of appreciation from the recipient as they look over the songs on offer, along with the prospect of some in-depth conversation later.

Nick Hornby, in his oft-quoted novel, High Fidelity, gives some advice on arranging songs for a mix-tape:

"You've got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention... and then you've got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can't have white music and black music together, unless the white sounds like the black music, and you can't have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you've done the whole thing in pairs and... oh, there are loads of rules."

Come to think of it, that wasn't helpful. Better to rely on a bit of advice from my buddy Ian, a music aficionado with a bigger album collection than a decent-sized music store, who's told me on more than one occasion: make sure the music flows. Keep any crackly lo-fi recordings a few interim songs away from the overproduced walls of sound. M. Ward's "Requiem" and Martin Sexton's "Glory Bound," with their melancholy guitars, make a fine pair beside each other. Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up," smashing head-on into Marilyn Manson's cover of "Personal Jesus," do not.

There are no wrong songs for a mix-tape (to each their own). But keep in mind that after a few months, your typical pop hit starts showing its age worse than the patients in a plastic surgeon's waiting room.

And the Inevitable Footnote...

Never make a mix-tape consisting solely of John Cage's "4'33"" on repeat. The recipient probably won't get the joke, although it might earn a smile from an intellectual with a taste in esoteric music.

Adapted from How to Become an Intellectual, a firmly tongue-in-cheek guide to becoming a truly brainy thinker.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.