Over the last twenty-five years the mix tape has become a paradigmatic form of popular expression. It is one part Victorian flower album, one part commonplace book, one part collage, and one part recital. The maker dubs onto cassette or burns onto CD a group of songs by other hands, the selection and sequence intended to compose a billet-doux, score a dance party, prove a point, or simply demonstrate the compiler’s taste and expertise. It is a natural outcome of home-recording technology, and represents a back-porch, scaled-down amateur version of the highly competitive art of the DJ.
Being a DJ demands not just sophisticated equipment but access to advance releases of records, an ear for matching beats, and a finely tuned sense of dance-floor dynamics, among other things, while making a mix tape requires only a modest record collection and appropriate sentiments. The mix tape can be transitive—a letter—or intransitive—a diary entry. It can follow a particular line or expansively juxtapose. It can be ruled by sound or by concept. It is almost always fleeting—often more so than the songs it comprises—and endures best as a time capsule of a vibe gone by.
Both of the books under review are mix tapes, or rather they are track listings with commentary. Nick Hornby’s is exactly that, a thirty-one-song, ninety-minute cassette, with a few quasi-related essays bringing up the rear, while Geoffrey O’Brien’s is a collection of essays on pop music that includes four chapters of autobiography via mix tape and, for good measure, ends with an idiosyncratic account of the history of popular music in 150 titles, which roughly would amount to a six-CD compilation. As a way of writing about popular music that admits the intense subjectivity and chance associations that define the topic no matter how much intellectual ballast is brought to bear, the mix-tape approach is an honest one. The mix tape, after all, is the fruit of contingency; it has no truck with canon-building. And while such a book is at first glance pretty easy to put together, or at least not much harder than compiling the tape, since any fool can go on at length about the circumstances under which he or she first heard “Ebb Tide” or “Bring the Noise,” it is vexingly tough to shape. If the mix tape itself is by nature a transient object, the book is, as it were, a permanent record.
Thanks to his 1995 novel High Fidelity, Nick Hornby has a well-known association with mix tapes. It may not have been the first novel in which they figure significantly—in Alan Warner’s bleakly lyrical Morvern Callar (also 1995), a sort of rave-era parable, the eponymous heroine makes compilations, lovingly enumerated, to mark stages in her disaffected progress from Scottish poverty to Mediterranean indulgence—but High Fidelity is all about mix tapes, or at least it’s about a culture of repressed, squirrelly, obsessive young men who use pop songs …