Yeah, I’m a week late with the Valentine’s stuff. I’ll explain later. And, yes, I know what year it is. That’s why making a mixtape – not a playlist or, for god’s sake, a USB – is something I think you should do. Because it’s not easy. It’s not quick. There’s a hell of a lot more that goes into making a mixtape than would appear, especially in the 2020s. And that’s really the point. Love is like mining sometimes. It can be heartbreaking, soul crushing work. And it hurts. But it’s the only way to get diamonds. So you do it, not because it’s easy, but because they’re worth it. Just like diamonds. Click the pic, friends, and we’ll see if we can’t muddle through this together.
“Making a playlist is a delicate art. It’s like writing a love letter, but better in a way. You get to say what you want to say without actually saying it. You get to use someone else’s poetry to express how you feel.”
You’re probably thinking this article was inspired by High Fidelity, and you’re exactly right: inspired by. But not devoted to. I knew the only way to write this article without being completely full of shit was to acknowledge the original source, so I watched High Fidelity again. It’s still entertaining, but it really hasn’t aged well. These aren’t the sympathetic, harmless poseurs I remember. For the most part they’re not even that funny. They’re petty, self-aggrandizing, self-pitying, unsympathetic, judgmental, toxic douchebag losers. Yeah, they have excellent taste in music, and the knowledge of pop history to back it up. But that’s all they have. And they’re fucking insufferable. Watching this in my late forties, I was straight up rooting for them to fail. It’s not unbelievable that Cusack’s girlfriend left him, it’s unbelievable that he ever had a girlfriend in the first place. That said, I still find some of his advice about creating a good mixtape to be valid.
But only some.
For those of you not into music, I’ll make it quick. Cassettes are back. When the pandemic hit and live venues shut down, a lot of artists needed a new source of income quickly. Cassettes are FAR cheaper and faster to produce than CDs or vinyl, and at a maximum payout of 1¢ per play, streaming is not a serious option for starting musicians trying to make a living. Cassettes, on the other hand, can be produced in small quantities for less than $1.50 each, and a professional cassette duplicator can make an exact copy of a ninety minute cassette in roughly seven seconds, making cassette tapes the medium of choice for unsigned artists. Since 2020, cassette tapes have been the fastest growing music medium in the world, and sales have only continued to increase. Artists that have released new music on cassette since 2019 include AC/DC, Taylor Swift, The Weeknd, Billie Eilish, Harry Styles, Dua Lipa, Gorillaz, Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez, The Killers, Ozzy Osbourne, Eminem, Halsey, Lana Del Rey, Ed Sheeran, and Adele, just to name a few. Like I said, cassettes are back. And this ’80s kid thinks that’s totally rad, man.
I’m not going to go in depth into the equipment you’ll need to make a mixtape. You can find that info on a thousand other websites, and in the end you can get all of it through Amazon. I will say this, though: you can get really good sounding portable cassette players for about $45, which usually have a USB input and/or SD card reader. The playback will be excellent, but the recording quality on these players is ABSOLUTE SHIT. If you’re not sure the person you’re giving this tape to has a player, give them one. You’re making this for them to hear, so make sure they can hear it. To record, on the other hand, get a two-cassette home tape deck with RCA input/output. Nothing portable. But ask your older friends and relatives before you buy anything. They may have an old one lying around you can use for free, and getting them up and running after sitting around for thirty years is surprisingly easy. You’ll be in business in no time. So let’s get started.
First thing’s first, I think a mixtape should have a good title. If you’re going to put this much work into this, you might as well give it a memorable name. A name that means something in your relationship. I don’t know your relationship, so I’m going to pick a name out of the phrases I’ve used earlier in this article. We’re going to call this Just Like Diamonds. And just like whatever you’ll name your tape, I chose these words because you and I are sharing this experience. This is between us. The title Just Like Diamonds means something specific to us that someone who didn’t read this article wouldn’t understand. And where romantic gestures are concerned, I think that’s perfect. So let’s call this:
JUST LIKE DIAMONDS: [HER NAME]’S MIXTAPE, VOL. 1
Yeah, Volume One. I can’t speak for you, but if I love a woman enough to make her a mixtape, I sincerely doubt that my emotions could be constrained to just one cassette. Demonstrate to her that you’re invested. Don’t just say it; put it right there in writing. Let her know that you’re in this for the long haul. Assure her that more romantic gestures await her. If you can’t truthfully do that, and do that with genuine, eager happiness, then you should probably stop reading right here. You’re not ready to give her a mixtape. And she deserves a man that is.
We should talk about what I just said. About gender roles and verbiage. I just wrote, “You’re not ready to give her a mixtape. And she deserves a man that is.” Normally I wouldn’t need to state this explicitly, but for the purposes of this article I’m writing from the perspective of a straight man in love with a straight woman. And from the perspective of a straight guy talking to a younger straight guy, because I believe that’s the scenario that is mathematically most likely for me to find myself in. I am the first to admit I don’t know a damn thing about women. I absolutely love them and I’m endlessly fascinated by them, but I’m no expert. The longer I live, the more I come to doubt that any man ever will be. And I think that’s pretty fantastic, if I’m being honest. I think that’s just the way it should be.
But I do have this going for me: I’m old. Which means I have mixtape making skills which have lain dormant since my late youth. And I intend to pass on my wisdom, such as it is, to the current generation of tapeheads. This article will contain discussions about how I feel, and how I think other men might feel, and how I have observed women reacting to displays of those feelings, and the emotions I believe I witnessed during those reactions. But, as the author, I’m telling you right now the verbiage doesn’t matter. Not in the slightest. It’s merely a tool I’m using to share my thoughts with you. It doesn’t mean a goddamned thing beyond that.
Back in the day, my cassette of choice was the Memorex dBS 90, specifically in the color scheme you see above. I thought this might be a useful illustration, and I almost didn’t read the article it was attached to, which would have been a damned shame. If you want to learn how mixtapes were integral to the gay community, read Hidden In A Fire Island House, The Soundtrack Of Love And Loss. A couple who bought a house in Fire Island Pines, NY, found over 200 mixtapes, almost all made by local DJs, which were a chronicle of the music mixed for gay clubs and private parties from 1979 through 1999. In the 1960s, Fire Island became a safe haven for gay men, but when AIDS emerged in 1981 The Pines was decimated, with some people reporting friends and loved ones dying at a rate of thirty per month. These cassettes not only chronicle the musical evolution from disco to late 1990s house, but they are a record of a critical time when the survival of the gay community was in doubt. Per long time Pines resident Patty Rosado, “There were times on the dance floor where some of us would have breakdowns, because a song would come on and it reminded us of somebody that we loved and had lost. But in spite of all that strangeness, there was still joy. We kept trying to stick with the joy of trying not to get morbid and bitter and angry. That was our release.” You can listen to the cassettes which have been digitized so far here.
It feels very important to me that we’re on the same page about this, because I have tried my best to defend LGBTQIA+ rights for way too long to let myself get away with accidentally hurting or excluding anyone with careless speech. Don’t get me wrong, I will absolutely tease you sometimes, particularly about your acronyms. Especially now that it’s been lengthened to LGBTQIA2S+. Let’s be honest here, that’s too many goddamned letters. It’s ridiculous. Even you guys got tired of it. You tried to tack a plus sign on the end to prevent any further additions to the jumbo order of alphabet soup you’ve created, but still they kept coming. I believe I have called it LGBTQIABBQM16±ACDCBLT in other articles. But no matter my questionable attempts at humor, just know that this article excludes NONE OF YOU.
With that in mind, I tried at first to write this from a gender neutral point of view, but I ended up sounding like a fucking serial killer. Really, I sounded like an alien trying to fake my way through human emotions so I could continue my butt probing and cattle mutilations unquestioned. It was awkward and off-putting. So I’m writing it this way, like an old man giving advice to a young guy new to mixtapes, because that’s what I am. But regardless of the voice I use in this article, I sincerely believe that no matter where on the sexual spectrum you fall, these sentiments are universal. I don’t care about your genitals nor gender; I just want you to express your love with songs. If you have a love who likes music and genuinely cares about you, then this applies. Everything I’m about to say applies.
Okay, enough with the explanations. Now, on with the countdown!
Track 1: [her song] – I can’t tell you what this song will be. I don’t know who you love. I’m willing to stand behind every song I’ve chosen here; they’re solid choices for any mixtape. But Track 1 needs to belong to her specifically. This should be the ringtone your heart plays when you think of her. If you cannot see her face without hearing this song in the air, then you’ve found her song. But it’s the first song, so it needs to be catchy and exciting. If her song is slow or melancholy, you might want to use that for Track 3.
Maybe you don’t know what this song is yet. That’s cool, it happens, even in long term relationships. Don’t be hard on yourself, and don’t get frustrated. There’s no rule saying you have to take these steps in order. It’ll come to you eventually. Just keep in mind that, weirdly enough, this song has to be as much about you as it is about her. The whole point of communication is putting your thoughts and feelings into another person’s brain as accurately as you can. So this song should make her feel what you feel about her. It should make her see herself the way you see her. What sucks about this is that you can never know if you’ve truly succeeded. It’s impossible. But have faith in yourself, and, more importantly, have faith in her. If she’s the one, she’ll get it. Maybe not right away, but give her time. It’s been my experience that women are, on the whole, a hell of a lot smarter and wiser than us. They have to be in order to survive in a world full of small-minded, dumb ass men. She’ll get it. Trust her.
If you’re really having trouble with this one, and your tastes align, there’s nothing better to start with than a track from her favorite band. But if you need alternatives, you have LOTS of choices. The oldest extant musical recording was made on April 9, 1860, so you have very nearly 162 years of choices, in fact. But too many options can be overwhelming; sometimes a plethora of choices is worse than a few. If you need directions, here are some of my very inexpert, amateur suggestions.
If she’s a pop fan, you probably don’t need my input. There are literally thousands of choices. Romantic rap tends to be pretty slow, so if you’re going to start with hip hop, I’d suggest you go way back to the heyday of mixtapes and use 1991’s upbeat “Now That We Found Love” by Heavy D & The Boyz. If she likes instrumentals or electric guitar, “Always With Me, Always With You” by Joe Satriani is a damned solid choice; the version from Satriani Live! will blow your mind, but it will also eat up ten minutes of tape. If she’s a country fan, I don’t see how you could go wrong with Joe Diffe’s “This Is Your Brain.” Or use the song above, which is too dark and slow for Track 1 in my opinion, but has a very old, very dark Appalachian country mood, with a surprisingly powerful rhythm and an even more powerful love theme. The song’s metaphor also works well with our mixtape title, which is a nice bonus. Whatever song you choose, just make sure it feels like her. Chances are good it’ll fall right into place.
Track 2: THE LA’S, “FEELIN’” – She’s your caffeine. Every. Single. Morning. I mean, if you’re at all like me, caffeine is probably also your caffeine. But between her and coffee, she’s the one you reach for first. She’s your drug of choice. Make her feel this. She gives you a high-energy body rush, so give her something she can shake her ass to. Something that gets her heart pumping. And if you can make this an obscure song from an obscure band, so much the better. She’s the woman you love, so give her a really energetic surprise. And very few surprises are as nice as a killer track from an unknown band. This song is my suggestion, but, as always, go with your gut. I can’t say for sure, but I imagine she’ll appreciate it.
Track 3: QUEEN, “YOU TAKE MY BREATH AWAY” – The one piece of advice I think the writers of High Fidelity got exactly right was that Track 3 needs to be a cooling off song. The movie wasn’t very specific about it, but this is dangerous territory. Slow it WAY the fuck down, but keep it interesting. It is my opinion that filling this slot with a tired old love song you’ve heard a thousand times is a terrible idea. It’s unoriginal, it feels lazy, and you will bore her. Nobody likes to be bored.
I chose this song because it’s slow, it sounds experimental, and the lyrics are PERFECT. I’ve heard a lot of Queen songs on the radio, but I’ve never heard this played anywhere except on my own stereo. I’ve never even heard another song that sounds like this. It’s so moving. And weird. But, then again, so is being in love. The minor key makes it sound full of doubt, and if you’ve ever been in love but didn’t know where you stand with the woman you adore, you’ve been there. It’s not a fun place to be, but this song let’s you know two things: 1) Freddie Mercury has been there, too, and 2) that odd, hopeful darkness you’re experiencing is sometimes a part of love for all of us. And you have to accept it right along with all the joy, because love, like a lover, has to be taken as a whole. You don’t get to divide it up and parcel out your favorite pieces. There will be good and bad, and, like this song, there will be weirdness. Accept it all. Love it all. Because there is nothing more worthy in the world.
Track 4: ERIC CARMEN, “HUNGRY EYES” – No mixtape is complete without plenty of ’80s pop love song cheese. And there is no more delicious slice of 1980s cheese than “Hungry Eyes.” I’m smiling right now just listening to it… for the fifth or sixth time in a row. And I’ll be honest, it rocks. It shouldn’t, but it does. Everything about this song applies to a good relationship. And I’m chair dancing. Holy shit, did I just become an Eric Carmen fan?? I think I did!
Track 5: THE ROLLING STONES, “THIS PLACE IS EMPTY” – This is another little thing I like to do: choose a very well known band, then give her an obscure track no one has ever heard of from that band. But it can’t just be obscure, it has to be romantic. If you can’t do romantic, do sexy. If you can’t do either, then ask the women in your life what kind of song fits the bill. They will not steer you wrong. Or you could save yourself the trouble and just use this Stones song. I don’t think you’ll regret it.
Track 6: WHEN IN ROME, “THE PROMISE” – When you’re making a mixtape for the girl you love, you are required by state and federal law to include this song. Seriously, you can look it up. I had no choice but to include it here. I don’t want any of my readers to be arrested.
Track 7: LOUIS ARMSTRONG, “A KISS TO BUILD A DREAM ON” – Before I said that you should never make a playlist or USB, and after compiling these songs, I am convinced more than ever I’m right about that. Part and parcel of making a mixtape is what you leave out. With a playlist or mixtape there is no editing necessary. It’s the province of the lazy and disinterested. You can throw literally thousands of songs on there, and, in that quantity, they mean absolutely nothing.
Back in the late eighties/early nineties cassettes typically came in sixty minute or ninety minute lengths. You could get “CD length” tapes from forty-six to 110 minutes in length, even though the maximum CD run time is seventy-nine minutes and fifty-four seconds. But none of us did that. Sixties and nineties were our jam. And when you’re making a sixty or ninety minute mixtape, you are forced to be selective. You have to really think about what you want to leave in. It forces you to examine the songs you have chosen, not just in terms of length, but in terms of which songs are more meaningful to you or her. Is it more difficult? Absolutely, without question. But it also makes every selection better. It forces you to examine yourself and your relationship. It requires the sort of introspection that not only makes for better musical selections, but better partners.
Track 8: DEF LEPPARD, “HYSTERIA” – Love makes you a little crazy sometimes. Don’t deny it. Roll with it. Embrace it. Let it take over for a bit. There’s magic to be had in falling out of control. Especially when you can trust her to catch you.
Track 9: QUEEN, “BIJOU” – Hell yes.
Track 10: ENYA, “ON YOUR SHORE” – The spotty-faced high school kid I was who first heard this song recognized its beauty and artisanship. But I never really got it. You need the perspective of years to understand it, but you also need the right person. When I started thinking of which songs I would put on a mixtape, I thought of Enya’s lyrics in the context of being in real love. And everything clicked into place. I think I get it now. When the right one comes along, you just get it.
Track 11: CHERRY POPPIN’ DADDIES, “SADDEST THING I KNOW” – I don’t hate myself. With the Daddies you’re gonna get some dark lyrics like that. But the rest of this song… knowing the perfect person is out there. The torture of never meeting them. That stinging heartache peculiar to unfulfilled longing. Been there… been all the way there. But then that saxophone comes in, and suddenly everything’s gonna be okay. And that’s your girl stepping into your world, just her and that smoky, soulful sax, cutting through the dark like a streetlight through fog. Like a muse. Like salvation.
Track 12: THE ROLLING STONES, “THRU AND THRU” – Tender then pulse pounding. Haunting and ethereal, then visceral. Sensual then primal. Raw. Irresistible. Undeniable. They should have called this song by her name. And you should make sure she knows that.
Track 1: FOREIGNER, “I WANT TO KNOW WHAT LOVE IS” – Any man who makes a mixtape for his girl and fails to include this song DOES NOT, in fact, know what love is.
Track 2: WARREN ZEVON, “KEEP ME IN YOUR HEART” – When he says, “if I leave,” he doesn’t mean leaving. He was dying when he wrote this, and he knew he didn’t have much time left. This was his last love letter to his wife. “Sometimes when you’re doing simple things around the house, maybe you’ll think of me and smile…” That is exactly how much I want to love someone – all the way to the end. I think on some level we all do. If she ever wants to know how your heart feels, just have her listen to this song. Everything she’ll need to know is here.
Track 3: KEITH RICHARDS, “HATE IT WHEN YOU LEAVE” – Damn straight.
Track 4: CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL, “LONG AS I CAN SEE THE LIGHT” – Because that’s what finding her feels like. Like relief. Like the weight of the world just slid off your shoulders, and you’re you again. Like coming home. Because that’s what she is, when it all comes down to it. She’s home. She is where you belong.
Track 5: RUSH, “GHOST OF A CHANCE” – This is my favorite love song. Ever. It doesn’t sound like a love song. It doesn’t even sound romantic. But every single word of this describes my heart, and how magical I feel being in love is. It tells her who I am. And I feel that’s important in love, as well as on a mixtape. More than just important, really. Vital. Crucial. Part of being in love is sharing who you are, in your entirety, with that one person. And wanting them to know you for exactly who you are, warts and all.
This song is about the sheer unlikelihood of finding someone and making that connection. And while that may sound bleak or hopeless, it isn’t. Because, just like me, Neil Peart didn’t believe in much. But he believed in finding the one. If you have a song that describes your heart perfectly, I suggest you use it in place of this song. Let her know EXACTLY who you are. But for me, it has to be “Ghost Of A Chance.” This is my “giving my everything to her” song. I couldn’t ask for one more perfect.
Track 6: BLUES TRAVELER, “THE MOUNTAINS WIN AGAIN” – I think, like most of us, I’ve been carrying around a lot more pain than I knew. For a long time. So long that I wasn’t even aware it was there anymore. When she asks you about your day, or calls you “babe,” or just does something that is quintessentially her, you feel some of that pain fade. I don’t think they’re even aware they’re doing it, but the right woman will bring you respite you didn’t know you needed. So, ladies, if you see your guy looking at you and his eyes are a little watery, it’s because, whether you realize it or not, you just took some of that pain away. And although this is a heartbreak song, the lift just after Popper sings the title lyrics feels precisely like the relief she gives. It feels like hope.
Track 7: THE ROLLING STONES, “SLEEP TONIGHT” – Snobby, self-important, record store dwelling music police will tell you that there should be no repeats of an artist on a mixtape. But come on; only one song by my favorite band on the tape I make for the girl I love? I don’t fucking think so. The Stones can rock my baby to sleep anytime.
Track 8: FLEETWOOD MAC, “SONGBIRD” – When every word of this song applied. Every word, every note, every chord, every emotion. That’s when I knew. And that’s when you’ll know, too.
Track 9: SQUIRREL NUT ZIPPERS, “MEANT TO BE” – I’m not sure if it’s possible to fall in love with a woman just because of her voice, but if it is, Katharine Whalen stole my heart with this song. And when the right one falls into your life, she’ll steal yours, too. Because this is how it should feel.
Track 10: STRANGE FRUIT, “THE FLAME STILL BURNS”
“Yeah and I, I know the fear and the cost
Of a paradise lost in frustration…“
These lyrics… yes. Just yes. If the two of you understand this, and feel this together, then you understand everything. This song is a slow fuse that sets a rock ‘n’ roll love poem ablaze, then explodes it across the sky like a billion fireworks made of hope and love and the pure, unfiltered energy of joy. It’s the perfect finale. But it’s not really a finale, is it? Because tapes don’t really have a beginning or an end. Unlike a vinyl record, or a CD, or a playlist, or a thumb drive, there’s no first song or last song. It’s not linear. Because as a cassette plays, it rewinds the other side to play again. And, to me, that’s what love does best. It cues itself up for more love.
You know, I think I’m really going to embrace this cassette tape revival. It feels… I don’t know. It feels right, somehow. It feels more genuine than the return of vinyl. It feels like people really get it, like things are heading in the right direction. Like maybe there’s some hope for the future to be found in the past. Looking at popular entertainment, I’d say the world isn’t quite done with the ’80s and ’90s. Not by a long shot. And maybe in those once forgotten reels of ferric oxide coated polyester we’ll all find a little more of what we need. Just maybe there’s a little more love out there for everyone.
Oh, and here’s one last tip: use mp3s to figure out your total running time and to help sort your track order. Listening to them before recording will give you a sense how they flow together, and will save you a lot of hassle. Okay, enough from me. Now get taping!