The Gospel is a Mixtape

“Every Mixtape Tells a Story. Put Them Together, and They Can Add up to the Story of a Life.”

Sam Bush / 4.9.21

Rummaging through my car last week, I happened upon an ancient artifact: a mix that I had given a girl shortly after graduating college. We weren’t dating at the time, but this was clearly not my first musical offering (the title, “Maddy 2,” was chicken-scratched on the top). Clearer still was an intense desire to impress her. The tracklist ranged from early-’70s deep cuts (e.g., “Glad and Sorry” by Faces) to trendy indie gems (e.g., “For the Price of a Cup of Tea” by Belle and Sebastian). Through and through, it was a perilously vulnerable attempt to win her over.

If you are of the same age, surely you can appreciate the art of making a mixtape (or CD) for a love interest. The songs weren’t just carefully chosen. They were agonized over. Each one needed just the right lyrics for the moment. And the sequence of songs required the same attentive crafting. It was a medium not so much for self-expression, but for wooing. You chose songs you thought they’d like (not vice versa). At the same time, the bands were chosen to make you look cool and to show you had great taste in music. Niche bands were a plus. Eclecticism was also a plus. But you also couldn’t be above putting Justin Timberlake or Dolly Parton in there, to show that you weren’t a snob.

Make no mistake, the songs of a mix were never meant for someone’s entertainment. This was not a soundtrack for jogging on a treadmill. It demanded your full attention because its contents contained a message. If you wanted to tell someone how you really felt about them, a mix was the most effective form of communication. It was far more effective than direct conversation. Whereas in language, everything that must be said is nearly impossible to be said well, a mixtape has the ability to directly connect to a person’s heart. There was always a not-so-subtle message hidden between the lines of the lyrics. The lead singer was your mouthpiece. The recipient was supposed to associate the singer’s words with your own. But beware of being too explicit and scaring them off!

Even if a mix wasn’t meant for a love interest, it was the perfect medium for an intimate glimpse into someone’s psyche. The intoxicating charm of the mixtape touched the lives of so many of us for a reason. It created an experience that was simultaneously deeply personal and totally universal. Every single mixtape that was ever recorded marks a specific person, place, and time (and, most likely, relationship). The forgotten mixtape is not simply a time capsule of pop culture. Despite the popularity of the Now That’s What I Call Music series, those compilations never held a candle to the intense sincerity and intimacy of a mix handpicked by a young person in love. A forgotten mixtape is the relic of a person. It’s the snapshot of a soul.

Finding that forgotten mixtape in my car was the closest I’ve ever come to understanding the concept of abreaction. Each track dug up something that had been buried for years. It brought back a person I thought was dead but had really just been sleeping for the past twelve years. I thought I had changed. I thought I had become more mature. But, no! Suddenly, I was the same 24-year-old boy driving a black Honda Civic with peeling paint. This body of songs contained a multitude of messages that somehow depended on each other. Take one song out of the mix and you would miss a key part of who I was and how I felt at the time. My very self was, quite literally, all in the mix. I think Rob Sheffield, author of the beloved classic Love is a Mixtape, said it best:

The times you lived through, the people you shared those times with — nothing brings it all to life like an old mix tape. It does a better job of storing up memories than actual brain tissue can do. Every mixtape tells a story. Put them together, and they can add up to the story of a life.

For those of us who can relate, we owe our gratitude to Lou Ottens, the Dutch engineer who invented the first cassette tape and died at the age of 94 a few weeks ago. Before Ottens, high-quality music was recorded exclusively on expensive reel-to-reel tapes, far too large for someone’s home entertainment system. He wanted music to be portable and accessible. By allowing this new format to be licensed for free, Ottens made a way for any old Joe to record his favorite music. Needless to say, it didn’t take long before the cassette tape would be the new standard of sound. “We knew it could become big but could have never imagined it would be a revolution,” he once said. A revolution is not an overstatement. The mixtape changed courting rituals for the next four or five decades for millions of teenagers.

I wonder if the Gospel is like a mixtape. Its message is not meant to entertain, but to woo. To awaken a dead heart of stone to love its Creator. The Father rejoices over us with singing (Zeph 3:17), and his lyrics are written in the agony of our wounded Savior. This gospel mixtape is a labor of love, intimately put together and specifically made with you in mind. It speaks directly to your pains, joys, and longings. For that reason, it likely means something different to you than it would to someone else. If it connects to your heart in any way, rest assured, you are likely to keep it in your tape deck for a long while.

By the way, the Maddy whom I gave my mixtape would eventually become my wife. I was an inarticulate fool whenever she was around, but, by some miracle, the music spoke to her.