One among the musically challenged

When it came time for Caitlin’s birthday, I remembered something she’d mentioned on Twitter (I think) about the inherent romance to be found in making someone a mixed tape.

I, of course, fancy myself a romantic and have a goal of being the best boyfriend ever, and thus immediately set about making such a tape.

I stared taking notes as I listened to my iPod, cataloguing songs I thought would be great for a compilation that could explain how I feel and pretty much be an amazing gift. I got together a pretty decent list over the next two or three months, then went about figuring out just how the tape would be laid out.

Not long before I got close to thinking about the final product (and procuring the many implements necessary for recording  a cassette tape in the age of the mp3), Caitlin and I had a conversation about music. More than one of the songs I’d chosen for the list (of which Caitlin was completely unaware) came up in the conversation. And of course, it was a conversation about crappy music.

Music comes up as a topic of conversation a lot in our relationship. This is something I really like. Caitlin is incredibly well-educated when it comes to Rock and Roll, specifically classic rock, and she can speak intelligently about all manner of bands, topics, songs, movements and genres. She knows a ton and we talk about it a lot.

Comparatively, I know almost nothing about music. Where Caitlin’s upbringing included tons of music – the movements of the ’90s coupled with extensive time spent listening to classic rock in the cars of  her parents, afternoons in front of record players and digging through vinyl collections belonging to her parents and the parents of her friends – I was subjected to bad late-’80s, early ’90s pop.

My musical education was as such: Top 40 hits that sucked on the easy listening stations that populate Detroit, thrust upon me in my mom’s car. When I was with my dad, despite his being a musician, I had little exposure to anything noteworthy. I remember a lot of Van Halen – not much else.

I spent a long time struggling with music in my youth. I was late to the party on bands, radio stations, MTV, and owning and operating CDs, to the point of it actually affecting my identity. After all, I didn’t do well as a kid as far as self-esteem, and here was yet another way in which I was inadequate, uneducated, and completely uncool.

People would ask me things like “What do you listen to?” and “What’s your favorite band?” and I had no answer to give them. In a lot of ways, that was really tough. When you struggle to interact with other people your age and can’t even connect on ground so common as music (and for a seriously long time – I was probably 12 or 13 before I bought my first CD and by then it was a survival necessity), every time someone asks you something stupid and simple like that, you wince.

When I was really young, I owned a total of maybe three cassettes. One was “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Coming Out of Their Shells,” one was Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” (which my dad had a copy of by coincidence and gave to me), and one was “Dookie” by Green Day, which I lost or otherwise destroyed. Green Day would later become one of my favorite all-time bands, but there was a long gap between those first tapes and figuring out a musical identity.

It’s worth noting that you get this impression of being a freak if you don’t know anything about music. It wasn’t that I’d never listened to music – it’s that I spent so much of my life hating the music to which I was forced to listen. I spent so much time reading and watching movies and playing video games that the music I really liked was stuff by John Williams and, later, Japanese composers responsible for game soundtracks. I found myself hating Billy Idol and Paula Abdul and similar pop garbage.

So whenever anyone brought up music, I had nothing to say, and worse, when I was directly questioned I had no answers.

Ever known anyone who can’t say, “Yes, this is the kind of music I like?” Or who didn’t even know what the kinds of music were?

I started to grab hold of and hold tightly to whatever bands I could. This way I had: 1. Something to listen to and become familiar with, which meant being able to speak in a (somewhat) educated way about at least something, and 2. Something to point to in order to prove I wasn’t some kind of freak/diminish my status as a nerd-dork.

When I found a copy of Aerosmith’s greatest hits CD, “Big Ones,” among my parents’ albums, I grabbed it. I listened to it like crazy. Aerosmith was a respectable band, right? They had a fairly modern sound, one which people wouldn’t fault me for liking, right? It wasn’t about what the music sounded like – it was hitting a mark so that I could survive socially. Later, I saw Bush play “Swallow” on “Saturday Night Live,” and thusly picked up “Razorblade Suitcase” and started telling people how Bush was now my favorite band. Again – modern sound, cool guys that other people knew, who filled a social need and not much else.

It wasn’t until much later that I actually started to learn something about music. It was considered “cool” to watch MTV in the middle school era, and I tried that for a while, but I really found the station irritating. So eventually I stopped playing that game. I got further into the pop punk movement from friends, and before long I was just keeping up with them. In sixth grade I snagged a CD of “Dookie,” I stole from my dad’s CD collection, and I started burning CDs from other people.

About that time I got heavily into video game music and instrumental/classical type stuff. I still knew absolutely nothing about rock, but I was finding that I wasn’t really into the music available to me on the radio. At least I was finally starting to pay attention: By high school, I was building what I thought was a diverse, eclectic music collection that spanned genres and periods, leaning more and more heavily on classic rock.

Still, I struggled to talk to people about music. A friend of mine on CMU’s Ultimate Frisbee team was driving us to a tournament my freshman year. He asked me what music I liked, fumbling and stuttering I said “punk,” and then immediately afterward realized I didn’t mean punk, but the shitty modern iteration pop punk, and this kid was a real punk guy and knew what he was talking about. He asked about The Clash. I responded sheepishly about Green Day and The Offspring. We didn’t talk about music again.

But by the end of college I’d created what I thought was a decent musical identity, and I had a distinctive taste, and I knew what sounded good even if I didn’t know the history of it, and I could say definitively what was bad.

Then I met Caitlin M. Foyt. Then I started trying to make a mix tape that would both be a physical manifestation of my feelings for her and a tape to which she’d actually want to listen.

I started panicking.

My list sucked, I decided, and it was extremely obvious that Caitlin’s taste far outpaced my own. Often when we drive together, listening to my iPod, she blasts past numerous songs on which I would have lingered, finding more obscure things, or songs from genres I’m not used to and bands with which I’m less familiar. She’s usually, if not always, right when it comes to musical taste – but I’m painfully aware that what I might choose is stuff she’s been into, listened to extensively, learned about, and subsequently moved beyond.

Four or five nights I stared at the list for four or five hours each. I spent two whole nights going through all 4,600 or so songs in my iTunes arsenal, trying to decide what should go on the list. I ended up with a vat of more than 100 songs from which to choose.

Next I polled people I knew. Musically, Nick Hurwitch for a long time has been my touchstone, so I went to him. Courtney, Caitlin’s sister, knows her better than anyone, so I asked what she thought. Both sent me in directions that really helped.

But what changed the project and made it work was realigning my perception. There were some things I had to consider: First, that I’d likely never come up with a decent enough list to really impress Caitlin, because I simply didn’t know what I was doing; Second, that the tape could still be a success if it became more than just a simple mix.

The tape needed to tell a story.

It made a lot of sense. I’m worthless as a musician or music critic – but as a writer, I could potentially create something Caitlin could appreciate on a level beyond the weakness of my taste and understanding.

Suddenly I wasn’t picking songs based on how good they were, but whether I thought she would like them, and more importantly, on how well they interacted with one another.

The story I came up with is sort of strange. The tools at my disposal – other people’s creative work cobbled together in a short list of 17 songs – are blunt as hell. And it’s not our story (although that’s what I’d originally hoped for), because, again, I just didn’t have the tools.

But it’s a story close to our story. It’s similar to ours, it hits a lot of the right notes (so to speak), and that’s definitely the inspiration. It’s more fiction than not, unfortunately, but it’s a love story, and I think it’s a powerful one.

I haven’t given Caitlin the tape yet. I’m writing this the  morning of her big surprise birthday celebration, planning to post it Sunday, so I don’t know how she’ll react. But I feel good about it.

The whole experience opened my eyes to some things that I’d never really thought consciously about (now documented at length, as you’ve just read): Basically, how little an impact music has had on me as a person – a case that seems to be really at odds with most people my age, and most people in general. While I was reading and extensively watching movies and television shows, all of which had extensive impact on crafting my personality, other people were being angstily shaped by the things they were hearing.

I never got there, and I’ve come to realize – that’s weird. Which is why I like the conversations Caitlin and I have together, even though she often gets self-conscious because she feels like she’s talking at me. Really, it’s because I sit quietly and take in everything she has to say, and not because I don’t like the topic.

It feels like I’ve come a long way in musical development in the last nine months: further, likely, than in the last nine years. It’s one of the many bonuses of dating Caitlin. The test, I guess, will be her reaction to the mix tape. Regardless, her passion for music (and a lot of other things) is rubbing off. I love being in a relationship in which I’m always learning.

For anyone interested, here’s the playlist. Some of it’s a little weird, as it’s kind of a big inside joke, with much of it pertaining to us only.

“Chosen Carefully,” Caitlin’s birthday mix tape
1. “Who Will Comfort Me,” Melody Gardot
2. “Scattered,” Green Day
3. “Wish You Were Here,” Pink Floyd
4. “Molina,” Creedence Clearwater Revival
5. “Lips Like Sugar,” Echo & The Bunnymen
6. “Magic Dance,” David Bowie
7. “Anti-Gravity Love Song,” Incubus
8. “Stuck In the Middle With You,” Stealers Wheel
9. “Bad Things,” Jace Everett
10. “Just Like Heaven,” The Cure
11. “In Your Honor,” Foo Fighters
12. “The Perfect Drug,” Nine Inch Nails
13. “Please Read the Letter,” Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
14. “The Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough,” Cyndi Lauper
15. “Love You Madly,” Cake
16. “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” Death Cab for Cutie
17. “Sure As Shit,” Kathleen Edwards

Published by Phil

He's like, you know, the guy.

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