Soundtracks of Our Lives

The Baltimore Sun

The tapes saved him.

When his wife died, Rob Sheffield found comfort in the drawers filled with clothes that carried her scent, in the beagle they had adopted together, and in the trails they had walked for miles. But it was the tapes -- hundreds of mix tapes they had made each other through five years of marriage -- that meant the most.

"My mix tapes were the life rafts that I held on to," Sheffield writes in his new book, Love Is a Mix Tape. "Sometimes I would sing to Renee; sometimes I would let her sing to me."

Blank cassette tapes and CDs can take on extraordinary meaning when filled with songs chosen by someone we care about. You don't throw away mix tapes, not ever. It would be like throwing away a sweater someone knitted for you; it's just too disrespectful.

While cassette tapes -- the classic mix form -- have all but disappeared, mixes are more common than ever, thanks to Apple's iTunes and the popularity of mash-ups (combining various layers of different songs to create a new one) in the hip-hop community.

Creating a mix used to mean hours of painstaking work, transferring songs from records and tapes onto blank tapes, putting just the right amount of space between songs, and timing it to eliminate dead air at the end of each side. Now, it can be done in minutes on iTunes or similar digital music programs: Select the songs you want from your computer's music library, place them in order in a new "playlist," and burn the mix onto a blank CD.

But if the mechanics are easier, the process is not. You can still agonize for hours over which songs to place on a mix, how to order them and what meanings the listener may take from them. In his book, Sheffield lists some of the many reasons for making a mix: you're having a party, you're going on a road trip, you hate your job, you met someone with similar tastes and you want to be friends, you met someone and you want to be more than friends, your heart's been broken and you want to cry.

Especially for the shy among us, mixes are a way to say something without having to use your own words. "When you let the music do the talking for you, it can be done more forcefully and truthfully than you'd let yourself speak," Sheffield, 40, says. "You can drop your own mask a bit by letting the music speak for you."

Sheffield met his wife, Renee, in Charlottesville, Va., in 1989. They were in a bar. A song by the '70s power pop group Big Star came on. They were the only two people who perked up. They got to talking, discovered they had the same favorite Big Star song ("Thirteen"), and Sheffield told her the same thing he'd told every woman he'd fallen for: "I'll make you a tape!"

That first mix had a lot of Big Star on it, of course, and also some Lucinda Williams ("I Just Wanted to See You So Bad") and Velvet Underground. Many more mixes would come -- mixes to walk the dog by, to wash dishes to, to fall asleep with.

"I realize it's frowned on to choose a mate based on something superficial like the music they love," Sheffield writes. "But superficiality has been good to me. In the animal kingdom, Renee and I would have recognized each other's scents; for us, it was a matter of having the same favorite Meat Puppets album."

They got married in 1991, at the University of Virginia chapel. The reception was at the Best Western down the street. Their wedding dance was Big Star's "Thirteen." They were 25.

Music for the masses

Mix tapes were for music obsessives then -- people who would tape songs off the radio and who had hours to put mixes together. Now mixes are for the masses.

"It's a way of reaching out to somebody," says Sarah Lohman, a Web designer in New York who recently started a mix club with 15 friends because she wanted to hear more new music. Every week, one person is responsible for making a mix CD and sending it out to the group. (See the track listings at ear-infection.blogspot.com.)

"I often feel so limited by what's on radio these days," says Lohman, 24. "It seems like there's only a certain number of bands that get played again and again and again. So how do you find out about new bands?"

Her friend Bryan DiFrancesco, a software engineer in Washington and member of the mix club, has been making mixes since high school. He now makes about four a year that he sends to 25 friends. He says he does it to commemorate, in a way, certain times and places.

"I make them to lock in a certain group of songs that are a part of everyone's life at the time," he says. "For me, it's just creating a feeling. I can listen to a mix and jump back to where I was three falls ago."

The democratization of mixes can largely be attributed to Apple's iTunes. When people began buying music online (as of last year, Apple has sold more than 1 billion songs on iTunes) and transferring their CDs onto their computers, they suddenly gained a vast digital library from which to make mixes.

Apple encouraged this habit, making mixes a key component of iTunes. Mixes on iTunes comes in three varieties: iMixes submitted by users and voted on by other users; "essentials," mixes of various genres compiled by iTunes staff; and celebrity playlists, mixes submitted by actors, musicians and other luminaries, often with a commentary attached.

More than 500 celebrities have contributed playlists since Apple began the practice in October 2003. Some are shamefully self-promotional. The first five songs on William Shatner's playlist, for example, were all by ... William Shatner. Brian Wilson included three Beach Boys songs among his 12 selections.

But others are thoughtful and inspired. Russell Crowe's list includes songs from Johnny Cash, Marvin Gaye, k.d. lang, Billy Bragg and the Indigo Girls, whose song "Closer to Fine" gave him a sense of irony. "I think this song helped me grow up," Crowe says in his liner notes.

Celebrities will often approach Apple and ask to contribute a playlist, says Alex Luke, iTunes director of music programming and label relations. Sometimes the celebrities have something to promote; other times, they've just come up with something they want to share.

"I think everyone loves to play DJ and introduce music to people," Luke says. He also thinks music is playing a bigger role in people's lives than before, and it's not just the earbud-wearing, iPod-toting people you see on the street. On community Web sites like MySpace, people use music to define themselves.

"What's happened in the last five or six years, with technology, is that music is more accessible and immediate and ubiquitous," Luke says. "Music has always been a bit of a fashion statement, and it's become even more pronounced and more people are using it to describe themselves."

'Incredibly personal'

The biggest celebrity playlist dust-up came last month, when director Kevin Smith posted a note on his Web site saying Apple had rejected his playlist because his liner notes were too long. Smith said he had spent hours culling through 10,000 songs to create his list.

"Putting together a playlist is incredibly personal and lays the author naked," Smith wrote on his site, viewaskew.com. "It's the modern day equivalent of making a mix tape for someone you're crushing on: you run as much risk of winning her/his heart as you do firmly ensconcing yourself on their 'Avoid At All Costs' manifest."

Luke says Apple was working through a third party to get Smith's playlist and didn't know editing the liner notes would be a problem until Smith went public with it. Both sides say there are no hard feelings.

Hip-hop has also fueled the popularity of mixes. Artists will put out drafts of songs they're working on, encouraging fans and other artists to take a layer of the music (such as the vocals) and combine it with layers of other songs, creating mash-ups.

"In hip-hop, if you're not on mix tapes, you may as well not exist," Sheffield says.

Though he left Virginia (he lives in New York now and is an editor at Rolling Stone), he still has boxes of mix tapes he can't part with. Renee died unexpectedly in 1997, of a pulmonary embolism. She was in the living room of their apartment; Sheffield was in the kitchen. He heard her fall and ran to her side. The coroner later said she was probably dead by the time he reached her.

"I knew I would have to relearn how to listen to music," Sheffield writes, "and that some of the music we'd loved together I'd never be able to hear again."

There are still tapes he can't listen to, including some he made during a deep grieving period after Renee's death. In that period, he says, he went to chain restaurants to avoid his friends. Some places he couldn't go to, because he couldn't bear to tell people what had happened. Instead, he would go to Wal-Mart and push a cart around, to spy on married people and listen to them argue.

His friends made him mix tapes to cheer him up, and he made mix tapes to cheer himself up, and he listened to the tapes Renee had made, when he was sitting up late, unable to sleep. The songs got him through. The last mix Sheffield made was for his new girlfriend in Brooklyn.

"They're definitely connected to a specific time and a specific place," Sheffield says. "A mix tape is something you spend a few hours [making], and there's no way to fake that. ... It's a fundamental human thing to share music with people."

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

Celebrity playlists

Recent celebrity playlists from iTunes:

Carrie Underwood, country music star

1. "Welcome to the Black Parade," My Chemical Romance

2. "Waiting on the World to Change," John Mayer

3. "Like Red on a Rose," Alan Jackson

4. "Beautiful Day," U2

5. "I'm Your Man," Wham!

6. "Paint It Black," The Rolling Stones

7. "Innocent," Our Lady Peace

8. "Bicycle Race," Queen

9. "Stealing Kisses," Faith Hill

10. "My Love," Justin Timberlake

11. "The Chair," George Strait

12. "Once In a Lifetime," Keith Urban

13. "The Kill," 30 Seconds to Mars

14. "Into the Ocean," Blue October

15. "Waitin' On A Woman," Brad Paisley

Al Gore, former vice president

1. "I Need to Wake Up," Melissa Etheridge

2. "Gone Going," Black Eyed Peas

3. "This Land Is Mine," Dido

4. "After the Garden," Neil Young

5. "Umi Says," Mos Def

6. "I'm Alright," Kim Richey

7. "The Brand New Tennessee Waltz," Jesse Winchester

Jay-Z, rap artist, mogul

1. "Go Crazy," Young Jeezy

2. "Know the Ledge," Eric B. & Rakim

3. "My Mind Playin' Tricks On Me," Geto Boys

4. "Vertigo," U2

5. "Victory," The Notorious B.I.G. (Featuring Busta Rhymes)

6. "Diamonds & Wood," UGK

7. "Ballad of Dorothy Parker," Prince

8. "Who Is He (And What Is He to You)?," Bill Withers

9. "Crack Music," Kanye West (Featuring The Game)

10. "Nothing Even Matters," Lauryn Hill

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