Artist: Anne Alavi
Title: Mix Tape Collection
Provenance: Gifted to EAH by the artist
Before we had digital playlists and Spotify and Apple Music, we had the mix tape. I recall making mix tapes for myself for special road trips or parties and also making them for other people as a gesture of friendship. It was fun to consider the transitions between songs, as you still might with a digital playlist. But it was even more fun to then have this palm-sized object you could hold in your hand. Something for which you made your own cover art. I can still hear the sound of the plastic cases clinking against each other as I rummaged through the center console in my old car looking for just the right tape.
My older sister made me a series of mix tapes, which she called “Smelly’s Mix,” and I still have those mixes, even though I no longer have a cassette player. (I am “Smelly,” for the record.) My sister was always cooler than me, so her mix tapes were an important way of keeping my head above water—of keeping me from sinking into the miasma of pop culture that surrounded me during my adolescence.
You see, Anne and I found ourselves living in a small town in Illinois when I was in middle school. Our mom was a newly single mom in grad school living on a limited income. She was busy and stressed. Our eldest sister had just entered the real world of adulthood. Our dad lived on the East Coast. So Anne and I became a bit of a unit. Nobody else could quite understand what it was like. . . . to be living in a small town in Illinois after years of living abroad. To spend the day-to-day with our overextended mother, living in a modest house, ensconced in middle-class Midwestern culture, but also to fly once a month to visit our dad in DC, and stay to in his more upscale neighborhood, and do urbane, sophisticated things. At twelve or fourteen this just isn’t something you can explain to your peers. And so Anne and I shared something ineffable.
She and I would often take weekend road trips to the town next door where most of our family and friends lived. We ate junk food (corn nuts were a favorite) and blared music. New Order (on cassette, of course) is what I remember the most. 10,000 Maniacs, the Smiths, and Peter Gabriel were in frequent rotation as well. These moments were therapeutic for me. I was an anxious kid and had trouble making friends. I spent a lot of time playing the violin and baking. I tagged along with my mom and aunt to go to brunch and antique stores on the weekends. Not many spin-the-bottle preteen parties for me. And so Anne, I think, felt the need to make sure I didn’t let my anxiety swallow me up. She kept me aware of cool movies and music and books and clothes, which helped.
And so when she went off to college on the East Coast the same year I started high school, it was a bummer. I called her every day. Thank God I came into my own a bit that year. I made lots of friends. I stopped playing the violin so much (which I regret now, of course). I flirted with boys and went to parties and drove around in cars with older kids. I did let myself get submerged in pop culture, but Anne always kept me aware of the cooler stuff that was out there.
It was in these early years of high school that Anne started sending me her mix tapes. “Smelly’s Mix” and later my “Sweet Sixteen” mix for my sixteenth birthday. She kept me connected to music that was cooler than what you’d hear on the local radio station, which gave me a leg up with the high school set. And these tapes were what I listened to the majority of the time. I remember dance parties with my BFFs to “My Sharona,” which had recently been popularized in the 1994 movie Reality Bites. I recall sitting around swooning over a boy I had a crush on while Blondie’s The Tide is High played in the background. I remember looking out my bedroom window and thinking “profound” teenage thoughts as the Indigo Girls’ Closer to Fine played.
This was the soundtrack of me coming into my own. It felt long overdue. Anne wasn’t there, but she really helped. Thank God for sisters. And thank god for these mix tapes to remind me of all of this.