- CD-R: 1.93-millimeter-thick polycarbonate digital optical disc
- Audio storage capacity of ninety-three minutes (between eight and seventeen songs)
- Careful arrangement of tracks, interludes, and transitions
- Possible hidden message from one’s crush
The first mix CD I ever received was from a twenty-four-year-old drama instructor named Josh, who, for the one fleeting summer we worked at the same day camp, was my biggest—and totally unrequited—crush. I was fifteen and a sophomore in high school and I had bright pink hair that I dyed in my bathroom every other Sunday. He was tall and lean and handsome and biked everywhere wearing an army-green Chrome bag that buckled diagonally across his chest, which I’d seen bare with my own eyes because every day after he showed up to work he’d immediately, right in front of me, change out of his sweaty T-shirt, not caring that I was in the room. And though I knew that the nine years between us meant we couldn’t even be friends, I longed for him anyway—desperately, impossibly.
It wasn’t that I wanted to be with him but that I loved who I became in his eyes. He had already gone out into the world and made a personality, and yet he treated me like I wasn’t a child. All my short life I’d felt helicoptered, sheltered. Hanging out with Josh that summer (in my memory, it’s always some kind of golden afternoon) made me feel like I was already someone lively and interesting. Someone with taste. What did we talk about? That was easy. Music, house shows, bands playing in town. It was 2008. We were both vegetarian. We were in Portland, Oregon. Indie was the filter of everything.
At the summer’s end, Josh made me a gift: a mix CD in a bright-green jewel case, which he labeled with blue Sharpie. It was a playlist of all the bands he’d introduced me to: Beirut, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, United State of Electronica, and a cover of the Cars’ “Just What I Needed”—which, to my fifteen-year-old heart, gave the mix a romantic bent. For months, I played the CD constantly, alone in my room, parsing the lyrics for hidden meaning. I hoped I’d find a sign that he liked me, too, that maybe I could be just what he needed, if only I was a little older.
Those last two years of high school, I kept a stack of iridescent blank CDs piled on a spindle next to the family PC. Mostly they were for copies—I could rip an album I’d bought at Music Millennium for my friends to put on their iPod Nano or play in their ’97 Volvo hatchback. But making mix CDs was more fun. Ninety-three minutes on a CD-R was just enough room for seventeen tracks; seventeen tracks could build a full narrative arc. On the CD’s matte side, I would write the track listing in fine-point colored Sharpie.
When I put together a playlist for someone I liked, I was trying to create a feeling. I was always searching for the perfect configuration of tracks, a sonic order that would say everything I couldn’t say with words. I wanted a pure communion that would transcend all of our bodily imperfections. For my best friend, the playlist would end on Regina Spektor’s rhapsodic piano ballad “Us,” while mixes for crushes would inevitably include the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights,” a dreamy long-distance love anthem that kept its staying power no matter how many times—or for how many people—I etched it into polycarbonate. Some mixes were more literal: for a friend’s seventeenth birthday, I made a CD with seventeen tracks, the opener Stevie Nicks’s “Edge of Seventeen.” But for each I agonized over track times, interludes, and transitions. I imagined the listener alone in their bedroom with the songs I had chosen, headphones on, looking at the ceiling, thinking of me.
When I left the West Coast for college, in 2010, my Discman and iPod Nano stayed behind. Around the same time, music went mostly online, first with pay-as-you-go models like iTunes and Bandcamp and then with subscription-based streaming services like SoundCloud, Tidal, and Spotify. For a while, I still made playlists for crushes. I’d put Four Tet and James Blake on the same mix as Iron & Wine, or the xx next to Uffie, hoping to impress them with my wide-ranging taste. But it wasn’t quite the same. Gchatting a link to a Spotify playlist didn’t have the thrill of marking up a shiny jewel case by hand. Most of the time, anyway, I ended up showing off only to one-night paramours in my dorm room, tinny laptop speakers rattling.
And then, so gradually and inexorably that I hardly even noticed it, my relationship to music changed. When listening to music started to mean activating an algorithm instead of snapping a CD into a Discman or car stereo, I stopped dedicating that searching attention to it. Music became something to put on in the background, the equivalent of leaving a record spinning long after the last song ends. Apps like Pandora supplied me with an endless playlist of songs, each resembling the one that came before. Those moments of sublime discovery, those unexpected confrontations with new sounds—once frequent enough that I didn’t think I’d ever miss them—became increasingly rare. I can’t remember the last time someone curated a mix CD for me, thinking about what I’d want to hear, the way Josh instinctively knew I’d like Beirut, back in 2008. I still share songs with my friends over iMessage or email. But sending a link to an individual track gives just a hint of a mood—it misses a larger palette of possible feeling. These days, the only playlists delivered to me are algorithmically generated. Usually it’s Spotify trying to know me better than I know myself: “Made for You,” scrubbed from the detritus of my listening habits and demographic data. Each week, I get a new selection, but still I miss feeling chosen.
This essay was supported in part by the Tran Thi Oanh Fund.