Why should a story need a playlist, anyway?
I’ve talked about the soundtracks [aka mixtapes] to my books a couple of times here, and how the music is part and parcel of the atmosphere and story — integral, if you ask me. You could read the stories and never listen to the tracks I chose to go with each chapter, but you’d be missing out on some of the nuance and thematic references. I mean…it’s up to you, I guess…
Seriously though, the concept of a soundtrack for my stories comes in part from the longstanding tradition in visual media, sure, but even more so from my longstanding tradition to make mixtapes for people I care about, or who I want to care about. I’ve been making mixtapes since I was about ten years old; at first, I used one of those old cassette recorders with a condenser mic and buttons that would make a loud CLUNK every time I would stop the player. My very first foray into learning how to make a proper mix was figuring out how to eradicate that CLUNK from the recording.
[The secret sauce was using a pencil to roll back the tape just enough to start the next recording over the bit of tape where the terrible noise had been. That trick served me well for years of making mix tapes without a fancy mixer!]
Mixtapes are my love language. Even though I make them these days using CDs or Spotify, the general aesthetic and motivation is still the same. I make them for people I care about, or that I’m really into. Often they’ll have a theme or mood, and I choose every song carefully to match that. The songs build and ebb and flow, creating a journey that needs to be followed from beginning to end in order to get the overall effect properly. It’s funny, because I approach DJing in the same way, and it’s served me well. There’s a real art to building the energy of a dancefloor, and the same with a weekly show, though the energies are generally different between them.
The same applies to my book soundtracks, and it makes sense, because the plot of a book has that same sort of organization: rise and fall, ebb and flow, with an overall theme and direction. And the best mixtapes I’ve made, like my favorite novels, have covers that I can’t forget. I am a firm believer in making cool covers for my mixes. That’s part of the aesthetic, too.
When I started dating my partner, I gave him a mix CD on our very first date. [We’re coming up on six years together, and I would put money on the mix being part of that.] One of my friends digitized a mixtape that I made for him back in 1986, and it’s just as good now. The music isn’t new but it feels fresh. It’s a testimony to the power of mix tapes that he’s kept it for 36 years and cared enough to rip it to newer formats.
Want to win me over? Make me a mixtape. Bare a little of your soul with it. Create a cover that says something about the mix — it can be a drawing, a collage, something digitally manipulated. Whatever feels most honest.
That’s what I did for all of you with my books. I put together a couple of mixtapes and gave you stories to go with them, and pretty covers that reflect what’s inside. The mixes are as important as the novels. The stories are as important as the music. It’s all full of love.
BTW, if you want to read more about the philosophy of making mixtapes, you can’t do much better than going to one of the masters of talking about music and its importance, Nick Hornby. High Fidelity, of course, but Songbook not only goes into great detail but has its own mixtape to listen to.