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Close, but no cigar, Starbucks

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I have a mix tape from every guy I ever dated. That should tell you something about my dating era, which was the 1990s, smack in the middle of the mix-tape heyday. It might also explain why last week, while queuing for coffee, I fell hard for a Starbucks CD -- you know, one of those cutesy compilations they place right next to the cash register, waiting for impulse-buying suckers like me.

Called My Last Mix Tape, the music is mostly wistful alt-pop from the '90s, with lots of shimmery, happy-sad songs from groups like Belle and Sebastian and Stereolab and Mazzy Star.

Of course, My Last Mix Tape is not a mix tape at all. It's the exact opposite of a mix tape, which in its original, homemade incarnation was an intimate and individual thing. The Starbucks "mix tape" is a commercial product that has been created through an algorithm calculated to maximize revenue.

Still, Starbucks hasn't become the overlord of overpriced java without having an astute understanding of human needs and desires. This time they had my number.

There I was in the middle of a particularly middle-class, middle-aged week, with work piling up, bills coming in and some truly depressing dental procedures. And along comes My Last Mix Tape, a CD that could have been specifically designed to transport an average 40-something woman back to a time, circa 1996, when she was dating a Yo La Tengo-loving indie record store clerk. You remember, the guy who was funny and sensitive and good in bed but maybe a little feckless? Yeah, that guy. Or some version of that guy.

The CD packaging plays on these associations, with its pre-millennial photos of faces, many having that overexposed Polaroid look, and its picture of old cassette tapes. The playlist, cunningly conveyed through fake handwriting, is arbitrarily divided into an A and a B side. This is precisely programmed nostalgia, the kind at which our self-referencing, retro-loving culture excels.

The title admits that this Gen X dating rite -- generally, though not always, boys giving mix tapes to girls -- is already gone. At the same time, it turns this passing into a melancholy Wes Anderson-style tribute to anachronistic analogue technology and lost youth.

And this CD knows its history, quickly kicking off with Dry the Rain, a song by The Beta Band that references a scene in the film High Fidelity (2000). Song lists and compilation tapes loom large in High Fidelity, which is based on Nick Hornby's 1995 novel and which includes elaborate disquisitions on the theory and practice of the perfect mix tape.

"The making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art. Many dos and don'ts," explains record store owner Rob (played by John Cusack). "First of all, you're using someone else's poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing."

The mix tape was an incredibly delicate thing, often examined and analyzed more than the romantic relationship it was meant to encapsulate. Creating a mix tape could be extremely labour-intensive, especially for those purists who didn't like to leave any blank space at the end of a side. Songs were selected, positioned and agonized over, as the maker searched for the perfect mixology of hard and soft, downbeat and up-tempo. The mix tape could express moods or even specific messages. As the Victorians used the language of flowers to represent states of love, the '90s generation used bands like The Smiths (which meant you were adoring but mopey) and early Liz Phair (frank and sexy).

After the maker made the tape, it was the recipient's turn to analyze it. First there was the content, which could be ambiguous. (What if he put Love Will Tear Us Apart on the tape? What the hell did that mean?) Then there were clues in the packaging. If he didn't bother to write out the band and song names, that probably pointed to problems down the line. On the other hand, if he got all caught up in scrawled liner notes about obscure German bootlegs and 17-minute extended versions, that might indicate issues of another kind. Most girls gave bonus marks for any guy who made a little photo-collage art cover to fit into the plastic case. Ditto for shared jokes in the title.

When my last cassette tape player runs down, my old mix tapes will become archeological relics. I guess that's where Starbucks' My Last Mix Tape CD comes in.

It's a fun and listenable little simulacrum, but it's not real. My real last mix tape came from the man who's now my husband.

It's a keeper. So is he.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 16, 2013 E2

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