Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The mix tape mentality

with 4 comments

It’s always hard for an author to predict which of his works will endure. My novels will hopefully survive for a while longer as physical objects, but whether they’re still read ten or twenty—or five—years from now is another question entirely. The January/February 2004 issue of Analog, which includes my first professionally published short story, is already looking pretty yellow, and it’s only a matter of time before the same fate befalls most of my other author’s copies. None of the journalism or movie reviews I did in print or online before graduating from college has survived, except in fragments, and although my more recent pieces will presumably be available for a while longer, I doubt they’ll be read much, except in the form of a random search result. This blog, too, is inherently ephemeral. But as a writer, I can take comfort in the fact that I’ve made one lasting contribution to our culture. Eight years ago, I created and wrote the bulk of the Wikipedia article for mix tape.

Looking at the page now, I can’t say I feel a lot of ownership toward the result. I haven’t touched or read it much in the years since I created it—mostly in a single burst of energy on August 18, 2004, when I probably should have been working—and without a consistent guiding hand to curate it, most Wikipedia pages start to look a little messy, as this one certainly has. The page was written during Wikipedia’s early, wild years, so the original version fails to meet most current standards for citation and objectivity. And the article, as it stands, suffers from one major conceptual flaw: it distinguishes only haphazardly between the original definition of a mix tape, “the generic name given to any compilation of songs…[that] reflects the musical tastes of its compiler,” and the more specialized and widespread meaning that has since emerged in hip-hop. Somebody should really fix this, although it probably won’t be me.

Still, for all its flaws, the article has managed to retain lengthy blocks of my own prose throughout close to a decade of revision, vandalism, and wholesale deletion. (My sections on mix tapes in popular and global culture seem to have disappeared down the memory hole, perhaps not without good reason.) And I’d like to think that the result has incrementally shaped people’s feelings about mix tapes, even without their knowledge. It’s the first result you get for “mix tape” in Google, and like all Wikipedia articles, it’s been widely cited, quoted, and occasionally plagiarized. As such, it may well end up being the most influential thing I’ve ever written, even as I’ve long since moved on from my own mix tape obsession. I spent most of my high school and college years putting together mixes, and even built a reputation among my friends, entirely undeserved, as a kind of music aficionado. In fact, my knowledge of music was probably narrower than most—it was the act of compilation and arrangement that I enjoyed.

And this explains why I haven’t made a mix in a long time. My passion for structure and juxtaposition still exists, but has been fulfilled in other ways. A mix tape, as I saw it, was a kind of short play, complete with rising and falling action and its own version of the Aristotelian plot pyramid, but now I just write novels instead. When I sit down to figure out the ideal form for a section of a book, switching a pair of chapters, deleting scenes, cutting for rhythm and pacing, it’s the same part of my brain that I engaged while seated before a tape recorder in my living room, headphones on, finger poised over the pause button—or, even better, in the initial stages of planning a mix, with nothing but a pen, a legal pad, and a handful of CDs. And when I find that perfect transition between chapters, it’s with the same kind of visceral satisfaction I felt when I realized that “Vanishing Point” by New Order could segue seamlessly into “Change” by Tears for Fears—a moment I still think about ten years after I made that particular mix. Like screenplays and collage, mix tapes are about structure, a rage for order that expresses itself in all works of art. Someone should point this out on Wikipedia…

Written by nevalalee

October 8, 2012 at 10:04 am

4 Responses

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  1. You forgot one category of art that will live on – your mix tapes themselves! I’m still listening to my wedding mix tape fairly frequently. Thanks again.


    October 8, 2012 at 11:07 am

  2. That’s still the best mix CD I ever made!


    October 8, 2012 at 11:17 am

  3. I love this post. Your passion and creativity shine through! Many thanks. I, too, remember that rush that came from the perfect segue, and I can also attest to the same feeling when I stumble across the perfect point at which to call “Cut,” in a chapter.

    Now I’m off to read your entry on mix tapes ;)

    E. A. Hughes

    October 8, 2012 at 4:29 pm

  4. Thanks! Another parallel I forgot to mention: just as a novelist often falls back on a handful of proven tricks, a mix compiler often brings out the same handful of songs that he knows will work in a given context. The Onion had a great piece on this a while back:,3515/


    October 8, 2012 at 6:43 pm

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