How a Mixtape Changed My Life

The joy of time travel through memory and song

Imagine if the songs that shaped our lives were compiled onto a one-of-a-kind mix. I'm envisioning a soundtrack along the lines of Spotify's year-end "Wrapped," but since birth. Skipping over the nursery rhymes, mine would contain music my parents played throughout my childhood, including Cruisin' Classics cassettes Vol. I-V, Billy Joel, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and '80s Broadway show tunes.

It's clear that the songs we grew up with, tied to our formative years, become rooted in our brains, and even decades later, a familiar melody can instantly take us back to the time and place we heard it, connect us to the person or people we experienced it with, and if we're lucky, we can still feel the emotions associated.

In 2014, I worked on social media strategy for Alive Inside, a documentary about the transformative power of music. During the film, you witness music's power to "awaken" elderly nursing home patients with Alzheimer's and dementia who were previously unresponsive to medical treatment. Using music as medicine, patients are able to recall lost, joyful memories from their youth.

Speaking of memories from youth, my interest in music intensified in high school, in the mid-'90s, when MTV and radio play had the undisputed power to propel artists to the top of the charts and drive fans to record stores to purchase full-length albums. It was during this time when a boy I had a crush on in 10th grade gifted me a mixtape that would change my life, and not only because his musical tastes unquestionably influenced mine. 

While listening to the gift that had been curated for me, I was awakened and empowered. I felt special and optimistic. I felt challenged and indulged in exploring the hidden, deeper meaning within the songs. If only my schoolwork could have sparked my curiosity and held my interest in the same way. I wasn't just handed a mixtape, I was administered medicine—as a means to feel good, and as a remedy to cope when I felt down. There was nothing music couldn't make better, if not fix entirely, when used as directed.

The mix, a celebration of rock, included "Ramble On" by Led Zeppelin, "Mixed Emotions" by the Rolling Stones, "The Wind Cries Mary" by Jimi Hendrix, "Bouncing Around the Room" by Phish, and the wholesome and sweet "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" by the Police. And while every song remains meaningful, "Hotel California" by the Eagles has the power to bring me to tears every time I hear it. Every note can take me back to the time when anything felt possible. I'll hold back tears for 6 minutes and 30 seconds, specifically during the guitar-solo ending, which I've restrained myself from listening to over the years, because I believe that by not overplaying it, I'll be able to preserve the emotions longer. 

I took my newfound appetite for creativity and began curating mixes for myself and others on a regular basis. I wanted to spread the joy around and make others feel special. During my junior year in high school, I got a job at a music store and used my employee discount to stock up on blank tapes and CDs. Years later, I would write about that experience for Billboard. In college, I interned at three radio stations and Sony Music Distribution. I wanted to be part of the industry and surrounded by people who create and celebrate music. I wanted to continue feeling alive inside.

Interested in discussing songs contained on a mix that you were gifted? Tweet at @MusebyClio using #FirstNote and let's start a conversation.

First Note is a Muse series about the transformative power of music and the artists, songs and albums that most influenced us. If you'd like to write for First Note, please get in touch.

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Leslie Richin
Leslie Richin is a digital media strategist and freelance writer living in New York City. She has contributed stories to Billboard, Spin, Adweek, Spotify for Artists News, ABC News and EUPHORIA. Magazine.

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