Many of my most formative moments took place on the John Jay High School Swim & Dive team bus. I was a slow and techniqueless swimmer and could barely pull off a sit-dive, but the team didn’t cut anyone who showed up to practice, so there I was. I didn’t even go to John Jay, but my tiny public high school sent kids who wanted to play the less-popular sports to the bigger nearby school. It was a perfect place for me to meet new people.
When I joined, almost everyone was a stranger: The team consisted of about 30 John Jay girls and a handful from my school, so I began swimming for the team as a sophomore. My junior year, a second person from my grade and school joined: My friend Abby. She was the younger sister of the team’s captain—but more importantly, Abby was the only girl who was in my same friend group, but who I wasn’t technically friends with. She gave off super-badass vibes, wore lots of band t-shirts, and generally did not give a fuck, so I thought she was way too cool for me. (I was right.)
Despite those odds, Abby and I became very fast friends on the lengthy bus rides from northern Westchester down 684 to Port Chester. We had so much to talk about. I was immediately impressed by her knowledge of pop culture, past and present. She knew so much more about movies and TV and especially about music than I did.
For context, I was just getting over a half-decade obsession with Broadway musicals; I loved singer-songwriter girls from legends like Joni Mitchell to contemporary ukulele strummers like Ingrid Michaelson, and all the alt/classic rock my parents did. Basically, I had a lot to learn.
Abby loved all kinds of music, and knew an insane amount of trivia to boot. Her own middle and high school phases had led to way-cooler obsessions with the Beatles and Janis Joplin and Billie Holliday. Our lives intersected at a seminal moment: Her passion at the time was the ‘90s, fueled by her massive crush on Kurt Cobain. When she discovered that I thought Nirvana was just that greasy-looking blond guy screaming, she took action. She said she’d make me a mix CD.
“Sure!” I said. Honestly, I had never even heard of a mix CD. The baller Barbie cassette player of my youth evidenced that I had grown up on the tail end of the mixtape era, but by middle school, I had a shiny 2GB iPod Nano. I knew that sometimes when I put songs into playlists in my family’s iTunes account, they sounded better in a certain order; sometimes I’d do that for my dad, who claimed to love Ingrid Michaelson as much as I did. But I was totally open to these so-called mix CDs—the YouTube links she was sending me and the CDs I was feverishly checking out of the library weren’t enough. In November 2011, we exchanged our first pair of CDs in our high school hallway.
Looking back, my first mix for Abby was shit, but Abby’s was still a masterpiece. Regardless, I learned from my mistakes, and we decided that mix-making would be a monthly endeavor.
Abby exposed me to the magic of ’90s rock gently, by first only placing the iconic MTV Unplugged versions of Nirvana songs on my mixes so I could get used to the grungey sound. Yet Abby knew what I really would love were female artists. At the time, as a staunch Kurt defender, Abby wasn’t so sure how she felt about Courtney Love, but she still put “Celebrity Skin” on an early CD. My interest in the 1990s focused on Third Wave feminism, and I was immediately hooked on Courtney. Abby came around soon after, as we became obsessed with Courtney Love as an artist, especially Hole’s early albums. She was one of the women the media loved to hate, making us conscious of the other times the media twisted a woman’s representation. (Yes, we too briefly hated Kristen Stewart post-Twilight, but soon recognized her incredible talent.) Hole led us to L7 and Veruca Salt and Tori Amos and then all the West Coast riot grrrl legends (Kathleen Hanna=perfection).
Who knew that we’d still be exchanging these CDs 44 months—almost four years— later?
The mixes we’ve made define so much about who we were and are, were thinking and feeling, and the people we’d become. Sometimes we’d base a mix on how the other person was feeling, and sometimes it would be shamelessly about ourselves. It could be a stress-reliever before the school play, inspirational if someone was struggling emotionally, and a full-on victory dance for the end of each school year. When we fell into a rut, we’d create a theme; right now, for July 2015/mix #45, we decided to theme it on the supernatural. (Abby: aliens; Alexa: mermaids.)
Abby's beautiful alien mix
Yet the mix making wasn’t always easy. We had a fight the last month of high school and stopped speaking for a few days— but we still exchanged CDs that week. We left for college September 2013, and decided that since we were only going to school three hours apart, we would continue to mail the CDs back and forth. Over that time, our friendship naturally underwent big changes, and sometimes making a CD was hard because I just didn’t know what to say anymore. But of course I still tried. How could I not? We were in too deep.
Our distance also made us realize that the tangibility of the CD-ROM was vital. I’m not a Luddite, but this just would not work on Spotify. The note you write on the sleeve, how you decorate it, how you can put it with all its sibling CDs and see them all archived together: It matters. You can put it your car, in your backpack, carry it with you. It is real. It takes effort to send. If you’re like me, you stock up on iTunes gift cards and schedule your library CD checkouts to buy the perfect song for the perfect interval; Abby might have found more creative ways of acquiring the tunes she needs.
Discovering music became joint activity, and we found so many awesome bands together. Right now we’re both loving Nicki Minaj, who, I’m realizing just now, has more in common with the riot grrrls than you’d think. It’s a part of our musical journey.
A mix CD allows you to tell a story you could never tell in words. Each single song, and its emotional significance, has vital weight. Everyone knows “Tiny Dancer,” but it’s on my mix #3 because we had just watched Almost Famous for the first time. “Call Me Maybe” will always be ridiculous, but it was on the 11th grade retrospective (my #9) because it had played in the limo on the way to junior prom three separate times. “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” illuminated struggles with body image (my #20). The fact that Abby put “Breakdown,” “The Middle,” “Don’t Worry Baby,” and “Three Little Birds” altogether clearly meant I was going through some shit (her #16). “In Bloom” on a birthday mix meant we were both growing up (her #19). She reached a whole new level when she peppered our grad mix with movie clips from the classics, most importantly from that football-field scene in Dazed & Confused (her #21). When we moved on to college, our mixes self-defined our different experiences instead of providing two alternative soundtracks for our shared ones, though we were both certainly “California Dreamin’” in our frigid rural New York winters by November (her #26). She assured me that length didn’t matter so much, since mine often lacked in that department. What really mattered was the flow. And that’s 100 percent true. The flow is what creates the narrative, gives the emotional impact, and tells the whole story.
I think my own story would be very different if that first CD ever didn’t open up with Janis Joplin wailing that “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” It was changed, individually and collectively, and I’m so glad.
Images via the author; Video via Columbia Records