Welcome to Earworm, Jen Doll's tribute to the songs we used to listen to—good or bad, cringeworthy or still surprisingly cool—and haven't quite been able to get out of our heads ever since.
The other day, I realized something disturbing. I have no mixtapes. I had mixtapes once—I know I did—with painstakingly designed covers and inside jokes written next to song titles and 3.5 seconds of perfect silence between each song. But somewhere along the way, my mixtapes disappeared, as did that giant stereo with the two tape decks (all the better for mixtape making) that I scrimped and saved for months to purchase. What I found in lieu of any mixtapes was a big box of CDs, because what do you do with your old CDs if you’ve uploaded their contents to your laptop and they’re not good enough to sell and you feel strange about throwing them away and it’s not like anyone will accept them as a gift? You stash them in a box and close the lid and put the box in that little space under your windowsill, and you shut your curtain and you go on with your life. They're there, but they're hardly there at all.
Until you go looking for a mixtape.
I opened the box and there were my old CD pals, clustered together in strange arrangements not unlike an eclectic mixtape: John Denver next to The Gypsy Kings. Andrea Bocelli cozied up with Blink 182, next to a Lindsay Lohan single next to the massive Rent set. Oasis' (What's the Story) Morning Glory? and Weezer’s Blue Album tucked in with the McCann-Erickson Christmas soundtrack of 1999. A Beatles CD canoodling with that “as sold in Starbucks” electronica mix a long-off boyfriend had given me, and the Office Space soundtrack spooning a Meg Ryan movie soundtrack that I will decline to name (fine, it’s French Kiss).
It was like a musical anthropological dig. I couldn’t stop pawing through the piles to see what might come next—what I had long forgotten, what I never remembered or admitted to buying in the first place, and what had stood the test of time and maybe even increased in nostalgic cache over the years. They say that the way we listen to music is different now, and though it’s still with our ears, always with our ears and then our brains and maybe our hearts, I think they're right: We pick and choose among songs, we download or Spotify or acquire for free. We don’t need to rewind, we just click, and then, if we dislike, do not click again. Without the need for a mixtape or even a mix CD, we formulate our own individualized playlists to sustain us through our days. It’s almost like the radio, except we’ve chosen it ourselves. In fact, my most frequent iTunes habit is to simply go to my “Top 25 Most Played” and hit play. Lazy, maybe, but also effective, because it’s exactly what I (clearly) like listening to the most. It's all about me: My choice, my music, my known likes and dislikes, on repeat, should I so choose.
When we can do it all for ourselves, making our metaphorical mixtapes on the go and iPod Shuffling our way though life, what’s the value of an old CD at all? I pulled out a couple of mine to find out what they still said to me, as separate entities and maybe, as their own sort of historical self-mixtape.
Ruth’s Refrigerator, Suddenly a Disfigured Head Parachuted
In 1994, right after I graduated from high school, my parents moved to London for my dad’s job, and I went with them. I spent the summer before college hanging out with my little brother, becoming a vegetarian, and shopping for entertainment mainstays: books and music. While on one such outing I discovered this CD. I bought it not because I knew the band—Wikipedia tells me they “were a psychedelic rock/indie pop band from Leicester, England, formed in 1990” and that they only released two albums, of which the one I own was the first—nor because I had any inkling of what their music might be, but because I liked the cover art and the title of the album, and it felt somehow a way to embrace my new life in Britain. As for what’s on the disc, it grows on you.
R.E.M., Dead Letter Office
Though I bought this CD early in my CD-buying years, it may be one of my most longstanding in terms of listenings, largely because of the songs “Pale Blue Eyes,” which my high-school sorority co-opted as a lead-out song for a formal dance (sorry, Michael Stipe; sorry, Lou Reed), and “Femme Fatale” (also a Velvet Underground song), as well as Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” which got a redo by Rufus Wainwright and Teddy Thompson for Brokeback Mountain.
Maybe it’s a little strange that the one R.E.M. CD I’ve ever owned is a collection of B-sides and covers—two songs of which the band has admitted to recording when they were drunk—but you know, maybe that’s something of a selling point. And, in fact, this CD is a mix; though the songs are all performed by the same band, they come from a variety of sources and employ a fair number of different styles.
Sarah McLachlan, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy
Oh, man. In college, my freshman year roommate would regularly wake me up by playing TLC’s “Waterfalls,” which I did not appreciate—not in the slightest—but the CDs most resonant of that early college experience for me wasn't that. It wasn't Enya (why was “Orinoco Flow” my running music?), either, or Tori Amos (well, maybe a little bit Tori Amos, especially “In the Pink”, but those years came later), or Dave Matthews (think make-outs set to “Satellite”), no. It was from she of the saddest ASPCA commercials of all time, Sarah McLachlan. The first few bars of “Possession” take me right back to lying on that top bunk bed in that tiny cement-block room and thinking my "deep" thoughts and studying semi-diligently and wondering what would be in my life and future, riding on the waves of harmonies and intensely felt lyrics.
The video above is so dramatic you nearly forget about those sad dogs.
David Gray, White Ladder
Joey and Pacey not withstanding, this CD holds up against the test of time, in my opinion. Gray’s searching, seeking lyrics are just as evocative and beautifully written today as they were back then. Take “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye,” which starts out, “Standing at the door of the Pink Flamingo crying in the rain / It was a kind of so-so love and I'm gonna make sure it doesn't happen again,” and ends, “As for me, well I'll find someone who's not going cheap in the sales / A nice little housewife who'll give me a steady life and not keep going off the rails." This is some driving and crying music, and I’m pretty sure Gray's songs have appeared on many a mixtape since the album came out in 1998.
Max 4, 18 Original Earth Shattering Hits
This one, a real, live, mix CD, was a gift from dad and it came in my stocking for Christmas. I do not remember being thrilled to receive it, though it includes earth-shattering hits from Savage Garden, Natalie Imbruglia, and Jimmy Ray, as well as the Will Smith classic, "Gettin' Jiggy With It." I knew it was bad at the time and I know it is now except that it’s retro and might actually be sort of good, in a way, which is a funny thing that happens with music sometimes, and with mixes in particular. "Remember when?" they ask. And you say, "Of course, and wasn't that hilarious?"
Truth be told, after finding this CD in my collection I immediately loaded it onto my laptop because sometimes what's bad can suddenly be good, and sometimes you really just want to listen to "The Cup of Life — Spanglish Version."
I found two more CDs worth noting in my collection, one a Neil Young & Crazy Horse CD that my brother had burned for me. It’s not a mix, it’s just an album, and the CD cover is otherwise blank but for the neatly printed small capital letters that my brother used, writing in pen, to tell me which songs were included. How often does someone care enough to write with a pen today? I will never throw that CD away. Then there’s a CD made by a college friend that has as its cover a picture of me and another of our friends, smiling and laughing at the old bar on campus, and inside, a mix of songs she chose, featuring Tom Petty and Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan and Lenny Kravitz, among others. I haven't listened to this CD in years, but there was a time in my life that I played it again and again, and I will never throw this one away either.
And if there is a key value in a mixtape, or a mix CD, it's that: Trusting that someone else has made something you might like, hoping you might like it, that's important, I think. It's personal. Sure, you can listen to a mix on Spotify; you can Pandora it; you can pick and choose the songs you want to buy from all the albums available to you online. You can do it all yourself, listening again and again to your iTunes Top 25 so those songs never fall off the ranking. You can rifle through your old CDs and imagine the mixtape of your life. But handing a CD you’ve made to a friend and saying, “I think you’ll like this,” or “I made this for you," or receiving such a mix from another is a form of musical gift giving that should not end, even as polycarbonate plastic degrades in value. It's not the plastic that matters. The gift of music, track by chosen track, regardless of the form, can transcend and transform, and unlike homemade cupcakes, it's got a pretty long life. Maybe the best thing about looking through your own weird, dusty old CDs is getting inspired to make a mix for someone else. By the way, have you guys heard Ruth’s Refrigerator?
Jen Doll thinks you'll like this mix. She writes for The Atlantic, The Hairpin, New York Magazine, the New York Times, the Toast, and elsewhere. Her first book is due out from Penguin/Riverhead in the Spring of 2014. She's on Twitter — @thisisjendoll