Making mixtapes at the end of the world

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Bridging distance in the secret language of playlists. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — I’ve been making playlists since the iTunes logo was green. Just as the formative Gen X hobby was recording songs from the radio onto cassettes and sending them like lo-fi love letters (recording of a broadcast of a recording), mine was figuring out how many songs I could squeeze into the roughly 74 minutes you were allowed to burn on a CD.

The rituals of sharing music in my teens feel so cumbersome today. If I really liked an album, I’d lend you my CD with a little sticky note listing my favorite tracks. If I thought you needed to hear this song right now, I’d spend 10 minutes uploading the mp3 in our chatbox on Yahoo! Messenger. If I really thought you were worth the trouble, I’d burn a playlist onto a CD-R and tell you I’d made you a mixtape.

Adolescence is holding on to emotional signposts in anticipation for a life yet unlived. Before you first fell in love, there was music that taught you what butterflies felt like. Before you ever lost a loved one, someone else had threaded a path for you through the labyrinth of grief. Before life hit you with the gut punch of structural violence, of social injustice, of survival in a broken world, you’d been shadowboxing in song.

Playlists were my way of showing someone else my signposts, to play them the soundtrack without showing them the film. In this way, a playlist becomes a coded message waiting to be deciphered. In our formative years, we spill over with secrets we often don’t have the words for, but, to quote Fall Out Boy, you could be lucky enough to find someone who can “write it better than you ever felt it.”

In the years since, I’ve kept a few rules to playlists:

1. Have a theme that you can sum up in a sentence. Make this your sieve and see what songs it catches.
2. No two songs by the same artist.
3. Kill all your darlings. Sentimentality gets in the way of good editing.
4. Corollary to 2 and 3: If a song needs to be there, it needs to be there. Gut feel supersedes all rules.
5. Workshop track order to death. Loop the whole thing over and over for yourself and experiment with different arrangements before you let anyone hear it.

Some of this I picked up from “The Pocket DJ,” a mid-aughts attempt by DJ and music writer Sarah Lewitinn (AKA Ultragrrrl) to recommend her own essential genres and artists, but also to grapple with what DJing and music sharing would become in the advent of mp3 players. Her book serves as a time capsule of a huge turning point in the way we consumed music. In 2005, the conversation had begun to make a clear shift from albums to individual songs (thanks in part to the iTunes Store, but more importantly, I think, Napster and Limewire). If you didn’t need to buy CDs, you could build a library from fragmented discographies, with nearly every possible version of a song (official, remixed, or bootlegged) at your disposal.

In her introduction, she says her book is “for people who have digital music players and want to have the best fucking songs at their fingertips, without boundaries. It’s for people who want to be able to create a soundtrack to their days.” Lewitinn’s book, while it presented what was frankly a limited musical canon (she admits as much in her introduction), was helpful in exposing me to the work of a few key artists and getting me to start practicing on my own playlists. More importantly, though, it was foundational to developing my ethos of maintaining a music library quite literally like you’re its librarian — every day collecting, curating, classifying — in the hopes of having a song to pull from the catalogue for any possible emotion or event.

If a song speaks of a moment, then what is a playlist but a house of stories you build then hand someone the keys to?

Fifteen years after “The Pocket DJ,” even more has changed about how we consume music. The Verge reported in 2018 that streaming accounted for 75% of US music industry revenue barring live shows. Lewitinn raved about being able to DJ from a CD deck or an iPod dock, but today fewer people hold on to audio files at all (I honestly think you should; songs get pulled off Spotify all the time with no warning). But with a streaming service subscription on your phone, the possibility of having the best fucking songs at your fingertips, without boundaries feels all the more tenable today.

We don’t think about it enough, but consider also how much more public our personal listening habits have become: How we can see what all our friends are listening to on Spotify at any given time; how we share our current rotation of tracks in cute Instagram stories (that our friends will ignore, but still); how you can post a playlist you’ve made and a stranger can walk in on this world you’ve built.

What’s thrilling to see as well is how everyone uses the medium differently. Earlier this year, poet and music writer Hanif Abdurraqib launched 68to05, where he’s begun to build a “family tree” of music that’s been influential in his life with playlists of songs released every year from 1968 to 2005. Writer Ocean Vuong has a working playlist called “new book” which gives a fascinating, almost voyeuristic look into his real-time writing process. A public playlist by artist Poignant entitled “lasing na tita sa videoke,” a four-hour camp masterpiece straight out of a karaoke clearbook, went viral last week and now has nearly 7,500 followers.

My own uses for playlists have expanded past my initial coded signposting in ways I couldn’t have imagined either. When I first met my boyfriend Anton, I documented those budding feelings in a selection of 17 songs. I curate an annual playlist with my best friend June where we meticulously select and tracklist our top 100 songs of the year. In other playlists, I limn my own lineages, trying to recapture the angsty sonic spaces of my youth then bookending them with more recent tracks to draw the throughline. Others offer an opportunity to collaborate with friends on a theme that resonates with all of you, like this one where three friends and I soundtracked our imagined “final girl” film moments. Collaborative playlists make for an unexpectedly potent substitute for coming together in person — a plane where certain modes of communion are possible in distance. When my friend Lyka died in June and no one could meet in person to mourn her, all her friends added songs to a mañanita playlist to send her off. It was the loud, exuberant farewell party she would have wanted.

All this is to say that you have a blank canvas to create pretty much anything with the music you love as long as it’s up on streaming platforms. You can invent conversations between artists who’ve never met, draw histories across eras and genres, and tie aural and thematic threads to build the narrative structure that serves your needs. It’s autofiction and fanfiction by way of sonic collage.


Necessary social distancing measures this year have left us bereft of intimacy in many ways. Playlists are just one language we’re repurposing to be intimate with each other again, to share our secrets with one or a hundred people. Part of the appeal of making playlists is that you need not say a word, but your song selection will lay you bare for anyone who’ll listen. There is room for an entire spectrum of intimacy, from the secret language between lovers to the voyeuristic speculation of strangers. “How did you get here? Nobody’s supposed to be here?”

To fill idle time in the world’s longest COVID-19 lockdown, I’ve been making new playlists obsessively. One day I took prompts for mini playlists and ended up making 22 for a combination of friends, Twitter mutuals and complete strangers. The prompts ranged from the tragic (last look before leaving someone’s apartment) to the ridiculous (songs for simping and a rat pop star reconsidering fame), to the transcendental (the perfect shade of sky). Each was this electric exercise in collaborative flash fiction — me telling their stories back to them in seven to ten songs.

As I dealt with the isolation and lack of emotional intimacy I felt in the first few months of lockdown, I focused my efforts on a playlist to process those feelings, choosing songs that hinted at a deranged inner life beneath the surface (St. Vincent’s “What Me Worry” or Solange’s “Things I Imagined”), songs that rattled with a panic room claustrophobia (Sheena Ringo’s “宗教” or Mitski’s “Blue Light”) and some songs that were just really fucking sad (Moses Sumney’s “Me In 20 Years”). It was an attempt to fresco my feelings and bookmark this period that felt like a boomerang returning in and out and in and out and in and out of madness. I closed the playlist with Charli XCX’s “forever,” a song she wrote and released in quarantine, because I felt like she’d achieved something with it that many writers and artists only dream of — building critical distance in real time and writing about this moment with such lucidity that we’ll look back on this song and see it as a living document of our shared lives in 2020. “We say promises and we gave up the lies. Front of my mind, in the front of my mind, you stay right in front of my mind.”

Apart from the immense structural injustices COVID-19 has exposed in the world, we’re just starting to see the vast mental health repercussions this has had on those rendered most vulnerable by the pandemic (not to mention the government policy failures that have prolonged and aggravated this crisis). A tweet I saw half-joked that we all need therapy after this. We do. Until then, there are few salves we can offer one another: collective action, mutual aid, finding small things for ourselves that heal. There is value in sharing art that speaks to our mounting grief, that echoes our longing for a more just world, that galvanizes our conviction to work towards that future. We’ve only begun to make sense of how this all feels but it helps to hear it in the words of others, to form a vocabulary for our trauma in the hope that we can begin to heal from it. I could write it better than you ever felt it.


If a song speaks of a moment, then what is a playlist but a house of stories you build then hand someone the keys to? Something you construct for another person to wander into on their own.

Björk wrote the song “Headphones” about receiving a mixtape from a friend in the mail. In a 1995 interview in Interview Magazine, she explained, “It’s a very personal thing. You’re pissed off with things generally. You save it until the evening, and after you’ve had your bath and brushed your teeth, you go to bed and take your Walkman and put your headphones on and you fall asleep. The lyric is a letter to that person.”

Over fuzzy, intimate synth textures simulating the comfort of headphones tuning the world out, she sings:

“My headphones,
they saved, saved my life.
Your tape,
it lulled me to sleep, to sleep, to sleep.

This is something we’ve always known how to do. If our only moments together for now will be spent listening to the same music miles apart, then consider making someone a playlist today. Whether it hurts or heals, helps them remember or forget, if there’s a small thing we can offer each other in this time, perhaps it can be song.


P.S. I’ve made a companion playlist for this essay that you can listen to here: