We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the aluminum-siding pamphlets disguised as jury summons is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, a blistering rebuttal of last week’s column.
Last week’s installment of The Good Listener offered up a bit of advice on mix-tape etiquette; the letter writer wondered how the recipient of a mix should respond to the gift he or she has received. (A simple thank-you? A track-by-track analysis? Nothing at all?) In a nutshell, my position is that a mix is a gift, not a homework assignment, and that we don’t get to control how others respond to our efforts to express ourselves creatively. In the lively comments section that followed, NPR Music’s Robin Hilton offered some thoughts of his own.
Robin Hilton writes: “A mixtape isn’t a toaster or a tennis racquet or any other inanimate gift you might receive. It’s weighted by a unique and vast world of emotions, thoughts and feelings, memories or shared memories, hopes and dreams. There are (very often) romantic intentions or a sea of otherwise hidden messages you hope to convey. Even if you manage to strip out all the weighty stuff and make a tape with ‘just some songs’ on it, it’s still a living, breathing thing with some kind of narrative behind it. And, because of that, the people who give and receive mixtapes possess and inherit more responsibilities than those who get a salad shooter or appliance as a gift. All of which is to say if someone makes you one, you owe them one back. If you give a mixtape to someone and get nothing in return, the unique exchange of our mysterious human experience dies. Basic Mixtape Etiquette 101.”
To be fair, Robin was being facetiously melodramatic here — as he was when he told me, “Everyone knows you’re far more emotionally broken and needy than you let on in the post” — but I do think his comments highlight the legitimate idea that not all mixes are created equal. I put together a two-disc Best Songs Of The Year set every December, and it’s not personalized to anyone in particular; it certainly doesn’t shred the fabric of human experience any time a recipient neglects to give me something in return. It happens all the time and I don’t even notice, let alone object.
What Robin’s talking about, and what’s worth at least considering, are mixes for which the recipient is expected to hear “a sea of otherwise hidden messages” — often, but not always, romantic in nature. I can see where receiving no response would trigger bruised feelings and feel like rejection; I get that.
Where I think Robin oversimplifies — and where I think he basically gets everything wrong, every minute of every day, for his entire life — is in assuming that we all listen to music in the same way. I can’t stand the thought of applying pressure on someone to match me song selection for song selection, emotion for emotion, nuance for nuance; among other things, what if she doesn’t want to? What if she doesn’t feel the way I feel? The thought of people feeling obligated to do something they don’t want to do on my behalf is not my idea of gift-giving. If I were dating a portrait artist, and she somehow found a way to draw a flattering picture of me, the thought of being expected to return the favor would horrify me! Robin’s solution — the way he intends to avoid shredding the fabric of human experience — instead destroys the essence of why it’s nice to give and receive gifts.
The fact that different people communicate in different ways presents the defining challenge of navigating relationships; some incorporate romantic expression into music, or food, or sports, or art, or movies, or crafts involving spray-painted macaroni. Obviously, it would be lovely for those in our lives to relate to our mixes in such a way that they’re touched by (or even aware of!) the intent that went into each selection. But the more we manage our expectations and empathize with a gift’s recipient, the happier we’ll all be — and the more it’ll mean when we receive the validation we seek.