My High School Mixtapes: A Critical Analysis

This time of year, when visiting my parents’ house for tree trimming and turkey eating and general holiday festivities, I’m always confronted by insistent reminders of my not-so-distant adolescent self: my mixtapes. Though by the time I got to high school, the tape was being swiftly eclipsed by the mix CD and iPod playlists, my beloved broke-ass 1994 Saturn Coupe wasn’t equipped to handle such technological innovations. Add in the relative difficulty of destroying a tape — as opposed to the fragile and scratchable surface of a CD-R — and, of course, the Wes Anderson-instilled romantic appeal of outdated audio equipment, and you’ll begin to understand why I ended up making a lot of tapes.

Every Christmas, I rediscover them, scattered in the backseat of  my younger brother’s car or stacked in neat piles next to my college textbooks. This year I chanced listening to their potentially cringe-inducing contents. Listed below, as best as I could muster, a critical reassessment of four of my high school mixtapes.

Wine in the Morning and Some Breakfast at Night

Side A:

“Beginning to See the Light” by the Velvet Underground

“Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles

“Baba O’Riley” by the Who

“What Goes On” by the Velvet Underground

“The Wind” by Cat Stevens

“Tiny Dancer” by Elton John

“Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys

“She Don’t Use Jelly” by the Flaming Lips

“Pink Moon” by Nick Drake

Side B:

“Search and Destroy” by the Stooges

“Kick Out the Jams” by MC5

“See No Evil” by Television

“Gloria” by Patti Smith

“Blitzkrieg Bop” by the Ramones

“Your Phone’s Off the Hook (But You’re Not)” by X

“The Murder Mystery” by the Velvet Underground

“Wild Thing” by the Troggs

“Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)” by Disney

As you may have deduced from the title, this tape is from a pretty serious Velvet Underground phase. So serious, in fact, that it led me to defy one of my cardinal self-imposed mixtape rules: “Don’t put more than two songs by one band on the tape.” Hence the triple whammy of “Beginning to See the Light” and “What Goes On” followed by the weird, off the hinges crescendo of “The Murder Mystery.” They are broken up by some Cat Stevens, Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” and, sort of suddenly, a streak of primo 1970s grime: “Search and Destroy” by the Stooges, “Kick Out the Jams” by MC5, and “Gloria” by Patti Smith.

Listening to this streak, I remembered something I read once by the critic Ellen Willis, to the effect that good music makes you forget about all other music. The Stooges exist. That was enough to get you through high-school calculus. But then there’s a weird lull in the action courtesy of “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me),” salvaged off an old Disney tape. Crucial error: novelty songs are fun the first few listens, but the nature of a tape makes it difficult to skip them. I give it a B plus.