Last week I went to the first anniversary of Cringe, the monthly reading series where drunk people with a whopping masochistic streak read from their adolescent diaries, notes, and letters from camp. I signed up to read next month because I recently found a stash of stuff from the sixth and seventh grade, which, I discovered upon inspecting it this week, included a number of mix tapes I made before I had a portable CD player.
The six or so tapes I found are artifacts from a really peculiar age in my life, and I speculate in the lives of all humans who live to see the awkwardness of their twelfth year and don't have better things to think about than how they should modify their handwriting to look cooler on a mix tape track listing. Like, I'm sure Masai twelve-year-olds are more concerned about being eaten whole by lions as they sleep, or something. I had little more to think about than myself, and I did, and it occupied the vast majority of my time.
(...and probably planted the tiny, self-absorbed seeds of bloggerdom.)
Talking on and on about how self-absorbed I once was reaches meta-levels of self-absorption, so let me get to my point, which is: my mix tapes are weird, and funny, and possibly indicative of way my twelve or thirteen year old brain worked, and how it might still work. There's my thesis statement. Now back to me.
All of the tapes I found were made during the summer between seventh and eighth grade, I think. Which makes me twelve, but aaaaaalmost thirteen. Technologically I was in a weird spot because the stereo in my room was such a hand me down it played only tapes and eight tracks, and I couldn’t play (my very few) CDs anywhere besides living room of my house. So I made tapes for my walkman. It never occurred to me to make tapes that included tracks off my CDs, so my tapes are from the radio only. The living room got three stations I deemed worthy to tape from: one top 40, one alternative rock, and one dance, which I totally pretended I hated even though I put that cover of "Total Eclipse of the Heart" on every tape.
My mixes (all of which were numbered and labeled, though only one track list and case seems to have survived several room purges) are ridiculous because not only are they filled with crap (La Bouche, anyone?), they recycle the same crap over and over. I’m not just talking from tape to tape. I mean you’ll hear “She” by Greenday more than once on the same side of the same tape. I also must’ve had a deep love for that song “Roll to Me” by Del Amitri, or else a Pavlovian impulse to hit record every time I heard it, because it’s on these tapes like, seriously, eight-hundred and fifty times. I even put stuff on here that I know I didn’t like at the time—Dave Matthews, for example. Never liked him. Still don’t like him. It would follow that “Ants Marching" isn’t on my mix tapes. Wrong-o, buddy. It shows up a bunch of times, and sometimes I only got the second half of the song.
Seal, “Kiss from a Rose?” Check. “Rhythm of the Night?” Check. Spelled it “rythem” on the insert in the tape case? Check. U2’s forgotten “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me,” included only because it was on the Batman soundtrack and I was trying to get more into Chris O’Donnell so I would have something to talk about with my friend Melissa? Gold freakin’ star!
My hypothesis is that these tapes had almost nothing to do with music. It wasn’t until eighth grade that I really started to get into what I listened to. When that happened, it was all about the baby-barrette wearing kind of grunge--even though that whole scene was so almost over it was exhaling its last death-rattley breath. But tell that to a thirteen-year-old growing up as the oldest child, which is a really unfortunate circumstance when your parents listen to Rod Stewart, and there’s no cool older sibling to shuttle you into similar coolness. You’re blazing musical territory on your own. Sometimes it works out (Juliana Hatfield!). Sometimes it doesn’t (Blues Traveler!).
These mix tapes are more like study guides before a big final exam, except this exam was to take place in the dim cafeteria of Mildred E. Strang Middle School once a month while the DJ spun Boyz II Men (“Water Runs Dry”) and I psychically tried to will a guy off of the opposite wall to ask me to dance. I needed to know the opening strains of “Waterfalls.” How else would I recognize my cue to adjust my kerchief, tie-dyed shirt and Doc Martens to make myself attractive enough for the fellas to slow dance with?
If only I had known then that tie-dye is never the answer. Ever.
It wasn’t about enjoying a song (though I’m glad now I get to do the dishes listening to The Real McCoy). My mix tapes were all about archiving little steps toward coolness, and were born completely out of an obsession to catalog and study whatever made me feel like I was finally getting my life underway. If Technotronic was the soundtrack to the big seventh grade dance, then Technotronic was recorded and replayed in my headphones until I fell asleep, counting stomach butterflies and thinking about how better to ingratiate myself to the object of my enduring, painfully long middle-school love.
(Seriously, I liked the same guy for four years. I’d say that’s a pretty big commitment for someone still occasionally watching Nickelodeon.)
It was a fundamentally nerdy way to approach life, and I don't think I've entirely outgrown it because I'm a dweeb to the core. I still plan important outfits on paper like I’m solving a quadratic equation. It’s not entirely the same thing, though, because my trigger-happy record button finger that couldn’t help but add Sponge one more time
to Mix #3 wasn’t just acting out of geekiness. Being twelvish is being totally subservient to misplaced intensity. Unless you had someone to make out with (which some of you did, I’m sure, but I think the majority of our twelve year old selves were gawky and just figuring out the whole crush thing) you had to channel a stream of brand new passion into something else, whether it be soccer, or hating your brother, or your best best best, WORST, I HATE HER, BITCH, best friend, or dying your hair.
Or making mix tapes of songs you will, much later in life, remember the lyrics to even though you can’t remember your goddamn extension at work.