In the dim and distant past- half a lifetime ago - my CD collection was a treasured possession, proudly on display and carefully organised on a regular basis (sorted by a mixture of thematic links, chronology, and the confines of whatever shelving system happened to hold them at the time), but a big chunk of my actual listening was still tapes.
The thing about tapes is they force you to spend time on putting them together, which in turn forces you to put thought into it. In principle, it’s the same as a playlist in Spotify or iTunes, but the fact that you have to stop and start the tape before and after each song means listening to it in real time. Choosing what song should come next while you're listening to the song that comes before encourages you to build a sequence of tracks - rather than throw a semi-random collection into a playlist in the order that they happened to accur to you.
The fixed length of each side (which varies from tape to tape) means you have another choice about how to handle the empty space at the end (fill the tape but have a song cut off half way through? Finish the song on the next side, or start again from the beginning? Find another song that is the right length, but also fits with the general theme?)
The physical nature means you can label the tape, the inlay card, (hand) write the tracklisting, decorate with your own artwork, dedicate it to someone - all of which you’re given the time to do by the fact that you’re sitting around actually listening to the music as you go along and immersing yourself in the music collection you're making. (I guess today we'd probably call it "curating"...)
For a while, after MP3s took over from tapes as my way of listening on the go, I liked iTunes Smart Playlists. The idea is that you build a set of rules - for example, a random collection of tracks in my collection that I’d rated at least 4 stars, but hadn’t played within the last three months, or tracks that had been in my collection the shortest amount of time but not yet listened to, or a selection of tracks from a bigger playlist, ordered by some other criteria- encouraged a more systematic approach to organising my collection. Not necessarily listening, but curating, rating and generally managing metadata and algorithms. Sadly, over the years, iTunes’ changed the way it worked, play counts stopped working as well, 5-star rating were replaced by “like” and “dislike”, but probably more importantly the opening up of the Apple Music library and recommendation system meant the availability of a whole new world of music (that I hadn’t personally curated).
This progression from "hand-made" tapes to burning CDs to the total flexibility of a playlist has been a shift away from actually experiencing the thing that you're making- the emotional involvement with the music.
But of the dozens - probably hundreds - of playlists I’ve made in the 15 or so years of using ‘players’ like iTunes, one of them has stood out from the others.
I can’t remember exactly what kicked it off, but the idea was a simple one. Every time a piece of music gave me a tangible, physical response - goosebumps - I would add it to the playlist. Just that one simple rule - no exceptions, no accounting for context (if I didn’t like the song, or the artist, or if the reaction was because of something I associated with the song rather than the song itself, it still gets added to the list.)
It feels like it should be older, but it must have been 2012 when I started putting it together because the title of the playlist is gersberms- a reference to a meme that knowyourmeme.com tells me didn’t exist before then. (In my head, I was living in a flat that I moved out of in about 2007, which tells you something about the reliability of my memory.)
It would have been impossible - or at least impractical - before smartphones, because pretty much wherever I am, however I'm listening to the music, I can always pull out my phone, find the song and add it to the playlist. (Obviously, if I'm listening on my phone or through iTunes on my computer - which must me 98% of the music I listen to - then its just a click or two away.)
So, I currently have a collection of 20 songs that have proven to provoke a tangible emotional reaction- obviously, goosebumps don’t happen every time I listen to them, but that means 1 hour and 25 minutes of music that resonates with me personally in some way or other.
Some of them I understand. Espresso Love by Dire Straits (the live version on the Alchemy album) is deeply connected to childhood memories - it always makes me think of being curled up on the back seat of my dad’s car next to my little sister (who turns 40 next year, but will always be my little sister), driving through the night (on the M6 or M40), on the way home from Bolton, where we would go a few times a year to visit family, my head against the window, either watching the world go by or trying to read a book either by the flashing streetlights or the headlights of the car behind. Or Cherub Rock by Smashing Pumpkins - I like the song well enough, but it’s the rising and crashing of the guitar solo that makes the hairs on my arms stand on end.
But I couldn’t tell you exactly what it is about Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman that tickles my nervous system into a tangible reaction. Or why Don Henley’s Boys of Summer makes the list. (I misheard the title lyric for years as “after the poison/ summer has gone”, so was never quite sure what the song actually was until it popped up on an Apple Music playlist.) I think it might have been in the soundtrack to a film from the ‘80s or something, but whatever subconscious switch the chorus is flipping is buried too deeply for me to quite get a grip on it. (Again, the evidence is that it was never in an ‘80s film and my memory is playing tricks on me, but at least I know I’m not alone…
Even though its an intensely personal collection, it definitely isn't a playlist that I would put together any other way. Some of my favourite artists are conspicuously absent, there's definitely more music from the '80s than I would consciously choose to put in there, and there's no obvious "theme" to tie it together (which is usually how my tapes and playlists work).
I have on rare occasions taken songs off- although I can only think of one. (The first dance at our wedding was Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”, which made the list - but after setting it as my phone’s ringtone back in the days when it seemed to make sense to not have my phone set to silent/vibrate, the intro bars just make me think my phone is ringing, which tends to elicit a less positive emotional reaction.)
1 hour and 25 minutes happens to just about the right amount of time for a C90 mixtape, but I don’t actually have a tape player any more to either record it onto or play it back, so committing to cassette isn’t an option. A CD can only hold 80 minutes, so that's almost possible - maybe I’ll take off a song so I can fit it onto a CD and give a copy to each of my kids. (I guess it would probably the Spiritualized one with the line about “just me, the spike in my arm and my spoon”… it is quite a long song after all…)
Maybe some day I’ll share the playlist itself and go through it track-by-track, but this is supposed to be a write-and-post-in-a-day post, and I’ve got a busy day ahead of me…