I was a teenage skater, which back in the eighties meant I didn’t meet many girls. But there was one – Brynn was what we affectionately called a “Skate-Betty.” She stood out from the others with her sun-bleached bowl-cut, hi-top Vans, a flannel tied around her waist and a warm California smile that gave me the courage to ask her out. We instantly bonded on music. She was into many of the same Skate Rock bands that I listened to like JFA and Agent Orange. But she also turned me on to stuff I’d never heard before like Voivod and Reagan Youth.
Do you remember the first mix-tape you made for a crush? What about the opposite – a mix that you curated following a heart-bludgeoning break-up? As we approach Valentine’s Day, it’s easy for me to flashback to the very first amorous mix that I recorded…and my first break-up tape. Allow me to share a few of the lessons that I learned from building those mixes.
Music can be a powerful communication tool – it conveys love, lust, anger and sadness – sometimes quite blatantly. Whether it’s intentional or coincidental, the choice to play a song for someone sends him or her a message. When making a mix to woo that special someone, listen carefully to the lyrics before adding a song. If Radiohead has taught me anything, it’s that some lyrics can go from beautiful to creepy in a matter of seconds.
It’s also important to balance familiar artists with unfamiliar ones. By adding a few songs that your crush already knows, you’re saying that you validate and respect their musical taste. This will make the obscure selections more inviting. Use what you already know about what this person likes and build from that. Because that first mix should always be about making something they’d like.
Knowing that all our bases in punk rock were covered, I wanted to make Brynn a mix-tape that wasn’t predictable. So I set the tone on Side A with some Peter Gabriel. I also made sure to pepper Brynn’s mix with New Order because I saw that she had written the band’s name on her backpack. Following this up with The Smiths was already making for a good flow. Rhythmic flow is important – nobody wants to listen to a mix that feels like riding with someone who is just learning to use a stick shift.
When you’re crafting that very first mix for someone, it’s important to eschew the more dramatic tunes for songs that are flirty and fun. You might want to save those Nick Drake tunes for an anniversary mix. When you’re getting to know one another, it’s much safer to go with some Blondie or Tame Impala. Or throw some Stereolab on there! Stereolab is like pizza – even when it’s bad it’s still pretty good.
One of the most important things about making that first mix from the heart – you don’t want to come off too heavy too soon. Maybe loading up Brynn’s B-side with overly sappy serenades by The Cure and Tears For Fears wasn’t such a good idea. In hindsight, I probably scared her off by telling her that I was head-over-heels for her through music.
Of course music doesn’t always tell a love story. Some of the most effective songs muse heavily on heartbreak. The 1990s were a great era for music that’s especially brooding, melancholy and angry. A particularly memorable breakup tape from my 1990s quiver was loaded with songs from The Brian Jonestown Massacre, The Verve, Sebadoh, Low and of course those pre-millennial ambassadors of heartbreak – Red House Painters.
Another thing I’ve learned about making someone a break-up mix: don’t give it to them. Keep it for yourself to help you move through your sadness. Think of it as a self-help exercise that’s similar to typing out that angry email and never clicking “send.” Listening to the right songs while nursing a broken heart can be akin to sipping tea by the fireplace on a rainy Sunday morning.
Anyway, I sincerely hope your 2014 Valentine’s Day is far better than the sum of my nostalgia. Now that I’m a happily married man, I’d like to dedicate this Pandora station of Classic Rock Love Songs to the sweet little rocker-chick that I’m proud to call my wife.