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Sir Nix-A-Lot

Why friends don't let friends mix CDs. Joel Stein's request: Keep whatever's on your hit parade to yourself

CD-AARGH! Your ''special mix'' is the gift that keeps on grating
Image credit: Birthday Boy Illustration by Eric Palma
CD-AARGH! Your ''special mix'' is the gift that keeps on grating

Why friends don't let friends mix CDs

Music mixes were never supposed to be an adult activity. They were meant solely for 14-year-old girls who could only communicate their conflicted sexual desires by putting Chicago's ''You're the Inspiration'' right before Duran Duran's ''Wild Boys'' -- conflicted sexual desires that it may not have been wise for me to indulge by returning a mix of ''Muskrat Love'' and ''Cherry Pie.''

These days, people hand me homemade mix CDs as if they are actual gifts. They're used for faux birthday presents, wedding favors, and to commemorate other occasions at which I'm supposed to get real food items. Sure, Nick Hornby says in ''High Fidelity'' that one of life's greatest joys is to know a person well enough to create the perfect mixtape, but, after reading the book, do you really want to get that close to Nick Hornby? CD mixes are not even gifts in that second-grade Popsicle-stick-castle way because, unlike our easily fooled parents, we know that dragging MP3s from column A to column B takes neither effort nor time. Burning CDs is a background activity, something you do during the nine minutes it takes to write your EW column.

But now, after a stretch of mix-free peace (after the CD killed the cassette and before disc-burning became a pastime), the mix is back -- and is increasingly the preoccupation of grown-ups. Apple has introduced a 99-cents-per-song online store designed for yuppies who want to download music without being branded as Napster-style thieves. Convinced that they're DJ Minivan, people over 30 are now sitting at home shuffling Wilco and Thunderclap Newman tracks, thinking their special skills will enrich the culture. Even if your grandfather had access to some kind of vinyl-smelting kit, do you think he'd have thought it acceptable to give his boss a mash-up of ''Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy'' and ''Mr. Bojangles''? I'm not sure what kind of music our grandparents listened to either, but I'm sure it was some kind of crap.

And I'm starting to get the feeling people expect me to thank them for their gift mixes. What am I supposed to say: ''I never thought about Neil Young in quite the same way since you so cleverly rearranged the tracks on 'Decade'''? It's like being given a self-help book -- the gift-giver doesn't care about you; he just wants someone to talk to about how his cheese was moved. Giving a mix CD is far less about trying to make someone else happy than about desperately trying to let them know that you're cool: You know who Flaming Lips are and you're down with Eminem's misogyny in a partially ironic way.

Even the rare good mix is inherently evil. Thanks to a self-concocted junior high mixtape, every time I hear ''Should I Stay or Should I Go?'' I expect ''Karma Chameleon'' to follow. It never does. And it takes a little piece of my soul each time.

I'm happy that technology is democratizing the arts and that you can K-tel all you want with your free time. Go ahead and make that stuttering mix (''My Sharona,'' ''Foolin','' ''My Generation,'' ''You Ain't Seen Nothin Yet'') and that masturbation mix (''Pictures of Lily,'' ''She Bop,'' ''I Touch Myself,'' ''Rosie'') and give them to anyone who asks for it. But before you hand friends mix CDs like they were poems you wrote specifically for them (and despite the lessons learned from ''The Bachelorette,'' you should NEVER write anyone a poem), realize that by now we all have the computing power to delude ourselves into thinking we can create better entertainment. We're entering an age of endless vacation-picture slide shows, only with more arty pretense. It's an era when self-restraint will be more appreciated than self-expression. That's why I'm trying to get paid for as many of these columns as I can.

Originally posted Jun 06, 2003 Published in issue #713 Jun 06, 2003 Order article reprints