Like many of my generation, I was a mixtape-making fiend in high school. I spent long hours honing my craft, carefully considering the transitions between songs, striving to give each side of the cassette its own cohesive mood, timing out my track lists to the second so the final song of the side wouldn’t get cut off.
I made tapes for friends and even family, but mostly I made tapes for girls. I wasn’t the first teenage boy (and, in the age of Spotify playlists, surely not the last) to use music as a kind of emotional cheat, a way of expressing feelings I wasn’t mature enough to put into words and hopefully stirring up reciprocal feelings in my intended listener. It may even have worked a time or two. What to do once she took the headphones off was another story.
I’ve given out dozens, maybe even hundreds, of mixtapes over the years, but as far as I can recall, I’ve only received a few in return. My freshman year of high school, I had a crush on a ballerina named Jenny. After one awkward walk on the waterfront, I could tell she wasn’t interested, but she did want to be friends, so she made me a mix for my birthday. It was weird—the A side was mostly cherry picked from the Reality Bites soundtrack, which was new at the time (shout out to World Party), the B side was acoustic blues by the likes of Lightnin’ Hopkins and Taj Mahal. I later learned Jenny had outsourced the blues side to her dad. She must have recognized I was already an old man at heart.
My first real girlfriend was born again. She made me a mix of the big contemporary Christian acts of the day: Newsboys, D.C. Talk, what have you. I only got through it once. I responded with “God Only Knows” and “Hallelujah,” T-Bone Burnett and Sam Phillips (Christian artists, as opposed to Christian Artists), but it was pretty clear we were talking past each other.
By far the most significant mixtape anyone ever gave me came from a girl I never dated or even knew that well. Amanda was close with my college girlfriend Natalie. I hung out with her a lot in those years, but she was always a bit inscrutable to me. She spoke quietly and sparingly. Her eyes were sleepy but watchful. She wore overalls and got her tongue pierced. All I knew about her background was that she came from a religious family. We were never in any classes together, and I’m not sure what she studied. I remember having at least one intense private conversation with her but not what we actually talked about. I could never completely decide if I found her sexy.
I was surprised to get a mixtape from Amanda, although I’d made at least one for her (and everyone else in our social circle). It was a more outgoing gesture than I’d come to expect from her. The mix itself was surprising, too, in a variety of ways. First was the fact that it had cover art: a photo, presumably clipped from a magazine, of a boy sitting in a wheat field looking up at the sky, his face shrouded in shadow. The tracklist was typed out and pasted to the back of the jacket. The care and formality of it impressed me. I’d never gone beyond scrawling the names of songs in erasable pen. Amanda’s handwriting only appears on the spine. She’d given her mix a title: “The Broccoli Mix.” Looking at it now, I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean. Did I know then? Probably not.
On the surface, the choice of songs wasn’t all that remarkable. Most were highly familiar, though not necessarily staples of my record collection—everything from “Crimson and Clover” and “Walking on Sunshine” (slyly juxtaposed with Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cloudy”) to “La Bamba” and “Sultans of Swing.” The real surprise was how the music made me feel. For years, I’d been invoking the power of the mix to cast a spell on the ones I wanted. But until then I’d never been under that spell myself. “Sh-boom,” “Let’s Get It On,” “Rock with You,” “Close to Me,” “Sunday Girl,” “In Your Eyes,” even “Why Don’t You Write Me”—these were seductive songs. Weren’t they? Was it possible Amanda meant them that way? All I knew for sure was that I felt seduced.
I was aware I was reading into things, selectively at that. After all, “Sultans of Swing” isn’t a romantic song. Neither is “Dinner Bell” by They Might Be Giants or “My Sister Rose” by 10,000 Maniacs. But what to make of “In the Bath” by Edie Brickell? The idea that my girlfriend’s best friend was trying to send me a message seemed farfetched, but I couldn’t shake it, especially when I listened to the last two songs on the tape: “Living with the Dreaming Body” by worldbeat cult heroes Poi Dog Pondering (“Drunk on margaritas and full of food/She says, ‘It’s hard to be with one when you’re in love with another’”) and “Three of Us in a Boat” by college folk-pop duo Jackopierce (“There’s three of us in a boat/And it doesn’t look like this boat’s gonna float”). The tape ran out before the song ended (on the jacket, Amanda had typed, “cuts off—sorry”), deepening my sense that something had been left unsaid, unresolved.
It was such a nagging feeling that I made what I now recognize as a dipshit move: I brought it up with my girlfriend. I think I prefaced what was on my mind with some mealy-mouthed qualifier like, “If I didn’t know better…” Lucky for me, all Natalie did was laugh. The idea was preposterous, not worth even a moment’s consideration. I never said anything about it to anyone again. Natalie broke up with me at the end of our sophomore year. Amanda started a relationship with the guy she would go on to marry. I haven’t spoken to her since we graduated. I’m not on social media, so she isn’t even a residual presence in my life. Needless to say, I don’t have a cassette deck anymore.
I still think about that tape, though, because of the handful of songs that gave me what I’ve always longed for as a listener: the thrill of discovery. “Living with the Dreaming Body,” for one, has stuck with me, so much so that I recently tracked down The Best of Poi Dog just to hear it again. The other revelation was the English singer-songwriter Paul Heaton. Amanda’s mix included three of his songs: “Get Up Off of Our Knees” by his early band The Housemartins, along with “You Keep It All In” and “When I’m 84” by his more popular follow-up The Beautiful South. (“You keep it all in”—another lyric that got me wondering back in the day.) I’ve been a fan of Heaton ever since. His sensibility—understated, sardonic—reminds me of the girl I knew, if only a little bit, when we were young.
It was embarrassing, getting so hot and bothered over Amanda’s mixtape. It still makes me squirm a little knowing that what I heard in it was almost certainly a figment of my imagination. I can see now I was projecting. I thought mixtapes were for making people love you. Time moves on, and what lasts is the love of the music.
+ + +
My Five-Song Mix for Amanda
- Elvis Presley, “Return to Sender”: An answer to “Why Don’t You Write Me” from her original mixtape and an acknowledgement that I know nothing about the woman she is today, not even where she lives.
- Kali Uchis, “Your Teeth in My Neck”: Any mix I make now would have to include some commentary on the sorry state of our nation. Amanda, at least the Amanda of twenty years ago, seemed to prefer her class consciousness couched in lite pop (see: The Housemartins’ “Get Up Off of Our Knees,” Cream’s “Anyone for Tennis?”). Kali’s got her covered in 2018.
- Bell X1, “The Great Defector”: I want to repay Amanda for introducing me to artists that found a lasting place in my life. The Irish band Bell X1 is more or less unknown on these shores. Like the songs of Paul Heaton, their wry lyrics and sleek sound (think Coldplay, if Coldplay didn’t suck) don’t give everything away on the first listen.
- The Specials, “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)”: The presence of The Toasters on Amanda’s mix suggests a penchant for white-boy ska. So how about a reminder of time’s passing from the OGs of that genre?
- Pet Shop Boys, “You Were Always on My Mind”: Because one good mindfuck deserves another. Maybe for the next twenty years Amanda will be the one wondering, “Does this mean what I think it means?” Alternate: Lucinda Williams, “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten.”
Daniel Browne has contributed to Salon, The Oxford American, The Believer, and 40 Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial, among others. His first novel In the Weeds is out this month from Garrett County Press. You can visit him at danielbrowne.net.
Featured photo: courtesy of the author