The first time I made a mixtape, it was for a girl in middle school who I couldn’t be friends with. We weren’t enemies, we weren’t star-crossed lovers in a family feud—we just couldn’t be friends. But we cared about each other. We’d give each other small gifts, and pass notes about what we meant to each other. This would always be a two-second interaction. In person, it was so awkward. During recess, we’d make eye contact across the basketball court, pass each other down the breeze way, and say nothing. There was always so much I wanted to say, but I just couldn’t. I didn’t know if she wanted me to, and I wasn’t sure if I was alone in how I felt.
So I started making her mixtapes. A lot of mixtapes. I can’t remember the very first one, but I remember the process: get picked up from school by my older cousin, go to his house where my brother and I would stay until our parents picked us up, and get on the desktop to scroll through his Kazaa filled with ‘80s, ‘90s and early aughts R&B. While I carefully selected Boyz II Men’s “Water Runs Dry,” 112’s “Cupid,” and Kai’s “Say You’ll Stay,” songs I discovered on TRL that week, like N*SYNC’s “Gone,” would be downloading on LimeWire.
The process was always careful and patient. It had to be.
More than just hinting my crush, being a queer kid burning her a CD meant also testing the waters of my identity, seeing if I was safe with her. Gender non-specific songs were paramount. Songs that addressed the second person, or only used female pronouns made up most of the tapes. The words had to be right. To this day, every song I hear, I listen to the lyrics first.
More than just hinting my crush, being a queer kid burning her a CD meant also testing the waters of my identity, seeing if I was safe with her.
Which is why song sequencing was extra crucial—it was my way of constructing a physical form out of the thoughts and feelings I wanted to communicate. Frontloading an excess of Brian McKnight without giving it some levity with Musiq Soulchild’s “Just Friends” conjured too many emotions at once. I wanted to tell her that I loved her, but that I was also fun and cool and had dope taste—not utterly and hopelessly obsessed.
When the CD was done copying and I’d hear the click of it slipping out of the CPU, and it’d be at least another 30 minutes for the custom Sharpie art. Keep it minimal and mysterious, list out the tracks, or try to tag it? It would always be try to tag it.
Then there was the act of actually handing it over. The working myself up, the waiting ‘til the last minute when I saw her dad’s car round the gate into the parking lot, the running to pass it off and then running away. There were no takebacks after this point, but I was both so exhausted and relieved by the process that I was just happy to give it to her.
Now, the disc slipping out of my hands and into hers is a form of physical intimacy that’s merely a memory.
The last time I made a mix it was a Spotify playlist, for a girl who’d end up breaking my heart.
I texted it to her when we were casually seeing each other. No CD, no custom art, no weight in my hands—just a link. I looked at it for maybe two seconds before hitting send, since I didn’t have to deal with nerves of actually seeing her in person.
Of course, the emotional remove of technology helped, since this particular mix was peppered with clues that I wanted more, and hints at how absolutely terrified I was. Metric’s “Help I’m Alive,” Majid Jordan’s “Small Talk,” Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” to name a few. The length of time it used to take to wait for songs to download was now replaced by the adult in me overthinking if I should be making a mix in the first place. I dragged and dropped songs, with literally all of the songs in the universe at my fingertips.
“She burns, yeah, she burns / Like petrol soaked paper and fireworks / And I'm burning, I'm burning / I'm burning so deep that just breathing hurts / I'm melting darling and I can't let go” - Foy Vance
It’s no surprise that one of the biggest problems with our eventual relationship was that I had trouble communicating how I felt because I always felt like I was too much.
I deleted that playlist when it was over, just as easily I sent it. It’s both deeply upsetting and extremely relieving that technology makes things so easily disposable now. But that also meant that now, I could take it back.
I haven’t made a playlist for someone else since.
Maybe streaming has made everything too easy—how intimate and valuable can it actually be when we all have access to everything?
Maybe I’m just old and jaded and lazy. Maybe streaming has made everything too easy—how intimate and valuable can it actually be when we all have access to everything? Maybe there are too many options out there, and to commit to anything feels pointless. Or maybe the truth is I just don’t need songs like that anymore.
Thinking about this piece, I’ve been attempting to make a playlist for someone I openly care about. I’ve started and stopped several times. Honestly, it’s extremely overwhelming. I guess every time I select a song it feels like I’m still a kid hoping she’d get the hint, but I’m not hiding anything anymore. I’d rather use my own words to tell her I’m in love with her, in person, over and over again.
But if you’re reading this, listen to “Easy” by Mac Ayres.