Mad Mix in Thunderdome
Of all the work I do here at Spin (when I’m not analyzing my fantasy football team or staring at frightening photos of Supergrass), the most taxing is always writing reviews. This is an opposing view to a common perception; most people I know assume that reviews are by far the easiest thing to write, because all you have to do is express your opinion about something, and you don’t have annoying things like facts to worry about. Theoretically, this should be true, but I go into psychological overload whenever I’m reviewing records (this does not seem to happen when I review DVDs or books). When I like something, I always assume my words sound too much like advocacy, and since people paid money to read Spin, I like to offer more insightful comments than a friend who just thinks the record is kickass. However, when I don’t like something, I always feel guilty about it, no matter who the artist is. Recently, I completely panned Tommy Lee’s Tommyland on this very site and honestly lost sleep over it because I felt I was harsh to Tommy (and perhaps he should be given the benefit of the doubt, since I’m a really huge fan of Motley Crue). There’s a lot of angst that goes on, especially when space is limited.
So while reviewing records turns me inside out (just like Eve 6), I have found that I am wholly adroit at judging mix tapes. Not those official hip-hop mixtapes — I’m talking about people who burn CDs (if anybody still burns CDs anymore in the iPod era). I like the challenge of taking songs that are (seemingly) unrelated and placing them in a greater context — after all, that’s part of the joy of making mix tapes for other people. Analyzing somebody’s mix becomes a sort of pop-cultural Rosarch test, where a person’s identity can be read through the bizarre ticks in song choice and sequencing. It’s a total crapshoot and often wildly condescending (and I’m almost always entirely incorrect), but it’s an enlightening (and usually entertaining) experiment for anybody who dabbles in the mix trade.
The first mix comes from an anonymous donor — I found it on the floor of the laundry room at my old college dorm and never gave it back. Judging from the songs contained within and the other stuff in the box, I have deduced that this particular CD was probably made between February and April of 2003, and the only marking on the disc is what I assume was it’s given title, scribbled in black Sharpie: Mix 2: Stolen Summer. At the risk of sounding totally sexist, I’m pretty sure it was made by a guy (or a guy was at least the intended audience) and given that it was in the laundry room of a dorm mostly housing upperclassmen, he was probably 21 or 22 at the time. I rediscovered it amongst a bunch of old storage boxes recently, and I figured I’d take a crack at psychologically diagnosing whoever the mysterious DJ was. On with the show.
1) “Set Me Free,” Velvet Revolver: This happens to be the slightly different mix that appeared on the soundtrack to Hulk, which makes sense because that movie premiered in June of 2003. This is a pretty excellent opening track for a mix, actually: It’s got a sweet opening riff, is very loud, and at the time would have been new enough to sound cool. It’d be interesting to know exactly what angle this guy’s Velvet Revolver interest was — did he dig Slash and the former Gunners or was he one of those crazy people who defended Stone Temple Pilots tooth and nail?
2) “Inspire,” Cave In: A bit of a swerve here, as Cave In were never all that popular, so this song doesn’t necessarily jive well with the populist aspects of the opening track. However, this does happen to be one of the more pop-oriented (or rather the least-proggy) song the band ever did, so perhaps he was just drawn to the riff, and as they were played on mtvU, it wouldn’t have been impossible to overhear this. Two pretty aggro songs opening up, suggesting at least a bit of mookiness.
3) “Diary of a Madman,” Gravediggaz: One of the few hip-hop tracks on the CD, this further cements the idea that our DJ might have been a bit of a meathead. While “Diary of a Madman” is a dense, Prince Paul-produced slice of horrorcore, this track is mostly remembered for the RZA’s insane verse about torture, which is sort of scary but mostly funny because it’s so over-the-top.
4) “Bleed Black,” AFI: Again, another loud guitar track, though AFI are a little on the “artier” side, which leads me to believe that there may be some Goth leadings in this guy’s taste. This was not a single either, which suggests that he owned the album and dug the deep cuts. This not only suggests that he’s an actual AFI fan, but that he’s a certain type of fan who actually buys albums, or at least puts himself in a position to hear more than just radio songs. At this point, the mix could still go either way, but it still seems like we’re in mook territory.
5) “Exploder,” Audioslave: There is a clear affinity for modern AOR. Not much to be said about Audioslave, as they are one of those bands that suggests absolutely nothing about you whatsoever, except that you like things loud. In fact, that’s one of my big complaints with this mix so far: It’s pretty one-dimensional. We’re five songs in, and they’re all running at similar tempos, similar lengths, and are all pretty loud. Mix tapes shouldn’t be this monochromatic.
6) “Shameless,” Billy Joel: This is our first major curveball, and it’s a difficult one as well. Sonically, this song has nothing to do with the previous tracks at all, and yet it doesn’t really suggest anything about the listener. This particular Billy Joel song is especially confusing because it seems like the sort of song that should only be known to big-time Billy Joel fans. I would understand if this were “Piano Man” or “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me” or even “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” because those songs are so huge that it’s hard to find somebody who doesn’t know them by heart. But “Shameless”? It was a minor hit for Joel from the Storm Front album, but was made way more popular by Garth Brooks a few years later. A curious entry that suggests it has a little more personal context — perhaps this song reminded him of a woman, or perhaps it reminded him of a particularly impressive performance of Movin’ Out.
7) “Camel Toe,” Fannypack: This ode to female crotches suggests that A) He has a subversive sense of humor, or B) He couldn’t get over the fact there was a song called “Camel Toe.” A coin flip. The mix has suddenly taken on a couple more colors, but honestly these last two songs are still pretty overpowered by the first five — it already seems like we’re in afterthought territory. Better sequencing would have remedied this.
8) “American English,” Idlewild: We’re now in a whole weird area here. It’s almost as though the focus of this particular CD has shifted halfway through. This is a wonderfully anthemic song by a fine band, but it’s unlike anything else on the mix so far. This suggests that he might be more sensitive than meets the eye, or could introduce another variable: He might be a musician who is a big fan of melody. These songs don’t have much in common, but they are definitely all catchy as hell.
9) “She Loves My Cock,” Jackyl: Or not. This is helpful, though, as the inclusion of two novelty songs (this and “Camel Toe”) points at a pretty randy sense of humor. If not for all the big, loud rock at the front, I would almost consider the inclusion of this song ironic.
10) “The Price I Pay,” Jane’s Addiction: This is a god-awful song from their god-awful comeback album from a couple of years ago. This song has almost no melody, and outside of being loud doesn’t really apply to the context of the big rock stuff at the top (it’s too weird and esoteric for that). I’ll bet he regretted including this shortly after burning it.
11) “My Beautiful,” Lennon: I had no idea what this was initially, and only after some research to I vaguely recall Lennon, who was going to be big for about 23 seconds a couple of years ago. It’s sort of catchy, but it feels strange to have a female voice in here (especially one that isn’t singing about camel toes). It’s a hard rocking angry chick song, and the lyric is halfway between existential and trite, but it does tell me that he either has a girlfriend or at least talks to women on a regular basis.
12) “Dancing Through Sunday,” AFI: Another AFI song, which is a blunder on such a short mix — you never want to have more than one song by any given artist on a single-disc compilation. His faux-pas is helpful, though, as he was clearly way into that AFI album that was out at the time. AFI fans are a weird read — it’s hard to tell whether they come from a punk background, a Goth background, or a metal background. This guy seems like he would land on the metal side, but a few songs on here (“Diary of a Madman,” both AFI tunes) suggest he’s at least a Goth sympathizer.
13) “Lady Picture Show,” Stone Temple Pilots: Totally out of context, though probably the best single this band ever put out, so we’ll let it slide. Since most of their songs mean nothing, being a fan of STP similarly meant nothing.
14) “Better Off Dead,” Sum 41: This may actually be the most informative inclusion on this disc. By 2003, it was way uncool to like Sum 41, which suggests that he still really liked Sum 41 (or at least wasn’t listening to them to feel cool, because such a feat would have been impossible). Perhaps I’ve been giving this guy a bad rap — I’ve been lambasting him for sticking to populist hard rock, but these last couple of picks tell me he’s more independently-minded in his musical discovery. Not that he listens to music that could be described at “independent,” but that he forms his own opinions about what he likes with little interference from the outside world.
15) “Minerva,” Deftones: Same as above — the Deftones had gone more or less completely out of style by the time their fourth (!) album dropped, but our fearless listener still threw props at the single from said record (which, at the end of the day, is a pretty kickass tune).
16) “Here We Go,” Jon Brion: The pacing and sequencing at the back half was much better than the front, as these last six songs built a nice tone of wistfulness and balanced the loud/soft dynamics quite well. This song, a deliciously melancholy tune from the soundtrack to Punch Drunk Love, comes across as sad but is actually full of hope — it’s optimism for Goths, no doubt. It’s by far the softest tune on the mix, but it somehow makes a nice closing track to this mostly loud mix.
Final Verdict: It seems like our subject is a fan of melodic rock with an ear for melancholy and anthems. He appears to be able to develop a certain devotion to bands, which suggests that he also reads music magazines and watches MTV in addition to listening to albums. He probably listens to the radio but not too frequently. Most importantly, he seems like he might come across as a bit of a mook at first glance, but he actually lives a pretty emotional inner life. He probably has trouble with women, and wavers between anger and sadness over that fact.
As I said above, it’s entirely possible I have this guy (or girl) totally wrong. But these are the things I think about when I consider what people listen to, so leave your records around me with caution — you’ve been warned.
Got a mix you’d like crudely over-analyzed? Post the list of songs on the message board or e-mail them to [email protected].