How often have we turned to popular song to define love, to find out that love is like oxygen, or love is the drug, or a battlefield, or blue, or strange, or a rose? For Rolling Stone contributing editor Rob Sheffield, it's all that and more, captured on countless cassettes and in the title of his new memoir, Love Is a Mix Tape.
Over the course of 22 succinct and briskly paced chapters, each introduced by the track list from an actual cassette compilation, we range from the heady, oxygen-rich atmosphere of fanatical adoration to the breathtakingly abrupt vacuum of mortality as Sheffield journeys from geeky adolescent to bereaved widower in the remarkably short span of 23 years. That Sheffield, widely known for his Pop Life column and numerous appearances on MTV and VH1, was a self-professed social dork during his teenage years is practically a commonplace among rock critics. In fact, it might be a requirement. Like virtually all of those who make it out of their parents' basement, he encounters a female dynamo who possesses all the qualities he lacks: confidence, extroversion, fearlessness. Much as the dung beetle offers his intended a little ball of his own creation, Rob tenders Renee a poem and a mix tape, which she accepts. From there, love's roller coaster launches in earnest.
For those eight of you who have never made a mix tape (or its less work-intensive younger brother, the mix CD), you will discover that mixology is an intensely idiosyncratic business. The music selection, the sequencing, the titling, even the packaging . . . distinctive as a fingerprint. That said, so is a wedding album, and while looking through a stranger's mix tapes may bring an occasional flash of recognition, in both cases their owner is far more emotionally invested than their peruser.
Sheffield neatly sidesteps this issue by lifting the curtain behind each tape's creation, and illustrating how it has come to symbolize a rite of passage, or capture an historic moment, or serve as a poignant reminder that in an mmmbop you're gone. Though much of its narrative plays in D minor, the saddest of all keys, Sheffield's bittersweet symphony is conducted with grace, and you'll be hitting the rewind button upon its conclusion.
Thane Tierney is a former radio personality and record executive in Los Angeles.