It’s practically worn out in musical discourse to bemoan the “three-and-a-half-minute pop song,” usually in comparison (as a strawman) to a more complicated, underrated work. That concision and formalism are, in and of themselves, seen as worthy of disdain should seem strange to anyone who regularly listens to popular music — Irving Berlin’s acknowledged mastery was generally constricted to an almost formulaic 32-bar structure, as were many of George Gershwin’s songs that later became jazz standards. Concision is the rule in songcraft, not the exception, and for good reason. A song is a perfect vessel for clear and concise expression that still retains the ability to accommodate complex emotions and a wide variety of styles. It makes sense that this form has endured to the present day much more than the intricate (and often opaque to first-time listeners) European symphonic forms.
Songs are also useful in that people rarely want to hear just one at a time. Some of the earliest examples of short-form composition are the 19th century “song cycles” by composers who also worked in the symphonic mode. Franz Schubert wrote two evening-length cycles for a vocalist with piano accompaniment parsed into small songs ranging from under a minute to around six minutes. Trying to tell a story with what is essentially a set of miniatures is an interesting musical problem — there’s a dialectic between continuity and subtlety. The song cycle contains many-faceted impressions rather than a continuous arc. Schubert’s songs are little snapshots of the main character’s emotional state, and some of the most poignant songs cut away from the narrative arc to focus on nature — the wind through the trees, a creaking weathervane.
This approach to songs — a narrative told through small elements — didn’t survive entirely intact in the emergence of the album a century later, but a lot of music criticism acknowledges that albums need some kind of flow that both acknowledges the separateness of the elements and links them together. This discontinuous continuity is hard to locate in any particular aspect of the music, a certain je ne sais quoi. To pick an example at random, a review of LCD Soundsystem’s “Sound Of Silver”: “We’re besieged and stupefied enough by downloads and mixes and remixes and mashups and collections of songs masquerading as albums that an album that feels like an album strikes me as positively ideal right now.”
It’s interesting that the reviewer mentions mixes and mashups — the mix, whether done in a continuous flow by a DJ or simply ripped onto a cassette or a CD, is somewhere between album and mashup. The mix splits albums at their weakest components and collages their component parts, creating a new large-scale form out of pre-existing parts.
The creator of the mixtape, in essence, is performing a “reading” of their particular musical landscape. Their task is to maximize a particular quality of music that they value independent of the artists’ original intentions — the creation of a personal genre that brings what they value in music to the forefront. A mixtape can be a sonic memory palace, a record not only of listening but listening in a particular way and with specific priorities. The role of the listener becomes active — it’s a process approaching that of the composer or the record producer, who draws on their store of auditory knowledge to create new things.
The “playlist” of the 2010s takes this logic of maximization as its lowest strata, but functions in a different way. Playlists, in their scale (it’s very easy to make playlists that are hours long) and ability to be updated and edited over time, have acquired something like a furnishing or decorative function, that of a lamp you can turn on and off. Playlists are created, in part, to fulfill some function: opening Spotify’s front page presents the listener with playlists that are tailored to a specific activity, like “deep focus” or “brain food.” The writer Liz Pelly writes on Spotify’s Muzak-esque attitude toward music in general. Playlists are curated according to genre and, increasingly, according to mood, “chill” prefacing a multitude of playlists. Pelly writes: “Spotify loves “chill” playlists: they’re the purest distillation of its ambition to turn all music into emotional wallpaper.” Pelly has similar misgivings about the “discovery” playlists Spotify offers, writing that streaming “creates passive environments where listeners stream what they like, and more of what they like, and more of what they like — ad nauseam.” This is the afterlife of the mixtape: The ability to create specific pathways through music culture as a whole is turned into a way to maximize the passive aspects of music listening.
Curation retains its creative potential, even as it threatens to pull the listener into an effective undertow. Is it possible that we could have seen this coming? Isn’t art made from other art one with an already essentially narcissistic relationship to the work of other artists? Mixtape culture was initially lauded as lifting the listener out of passivity and into a small act of creation. The question then becomes whether or not a society where everyone is encouraged to have a passively creative (and corporate-mediated, in Spotify’s case) relationship with other art is desirable. Mixtapes were never meant to be the default way to engage with music, and a world where everyone exists in a lonely sea of their own taste was never the intention.