Cassette Tapes and Heartbreak

A rock critic mourns his wife and celebrates the music of the scene they shared

Love is a Mix Tape
Rob Sheffield
Crown Publishers

Renee Crist, age 31, died suddenly, in the arms of her husband, Rob Sheffield, of an unforeseen pulmonary embolism, on Mother's Day, 1997. The '90s passed away much more slowly, as decades will do, cause of death unknown (though Fred Durst was almost certainly involved). In his new memoir, Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time, Sheffield eulogizes his wife and his epoch. And, as a bonus gift to music nerds everywhere, he rehabilitates our tarnished image.

Granted, there's only so much one can do to counteract Nick Hornby—no one will ever again survey our prized crates of musty vinyl without automatic echoes of High Fidelity pinballing idly around their brains. But though that rollicking DSM-IV of a novel diagnosed the outward trappings of music-instigated OCD to a T, the essence of the obsession eluded its grasp. Its tale unfolded like an intricate description of the arcane practices of an old Catholic woman, painstakingly detailing how she fingers her rosary and crosses herself at specific intervals, but never penetrates the surface to examine what she believes. It's not just that Hornby didn't peel away the layers of meaning with which we habitually encode music—as his slovenly music criticism later revealed, he just couldn't.

But Rob Sheffield can, oh, Lordy can he, and he's been wielding Wildean epigram (Oscar and Kim) as the nattiest form of pop communiqué since that other Bush was president. First at Spin, the Village Voice, and Details (yes, Details—those were different times, friends), now as senior editor at Rolling Stone, Sheffield's dazzling surfaces of pop reference and punny pith have encapsulated depths of insight that other critics sweat and strive to render with grim didacticism. In Love Is a Mix Tape, as Sheffield and Crist drive back from their first Pavement show in awe, Renee decides, "I don't think the Feelies are ever gonna be good enough again," and that's something like how I felt about the bland encomiums of fin-de-'80s Rolling Stone after I first read Sheffield in the early '90s.

Where Hornby haunted record collections—the solitary mausoleums where our treasures are archived like so many jars of accumulated pee—Sheffield rhapsodizes the mix tape, with each chapter introduced by a track list from a tape he's given or received. And there's the rub—mix tapes are exchanged; they have a purpose, occasionally (read: often) sexual. Sheffield's carefully curated list of topical mix types includes "I Want You," "We're Doing It? Awesome!" and "You Like Music, I Like Music, I Can Tell We're Going to Be Friends"—"frequently confused with the 'I Want You' tape by the giving or receiving party, resulting in hijinks and hilarity all around." s

Sheffield celebrates the love of music as a natural human drive, implying that those who don't share it are the weirdos. And they are. Music isn't just our refuge from the world—it's part of our world. It's how we interpret it, and how we communicate with one another. And it's what initially brought him together with Crist, a sharp rock crit in her own right. After some fun teen reminiscences, Sheffield's real story begins in 1991 as a lanky, diffident kid from the Boston suburbs and a wild Appalachian gal meet at UVa, bond over Big Star, fall for Pavement together, marry at 25, buy a dog, and write lots of record reviews. "In the Planet of the Apes movies, it was the year of the ape revolution," Sheffield writes, "but I'll settle for the 1991 we got."

Sheffield is careful to make this the story of a woman who was once alive, not a woman who died. And it's a balanced one—for all the examples gathered of Renee's vivacity, it's her carefully concealed insecurities that stick with you, like the index card she carries, on which she's written, "Lots of people like me." "She crossed out 'lots of,'" Sheffield adds, "and wrote, 'Enough.'" And he has a pitch-perfect ear for the intimacy of squabbling couples, constructing a taxonomy of his arguments with Renee much in the same way he categorizes mix tapes. (One concerns the Cure's "Let's Go to Bed": "When she gets depressed and asks, 'Honey, is this song about us,' the strategic answer is, 'Yes, but so is "Just Like Heaven."'")

On his blog, New Yorker pop music critic Sasha Frere-Jones has wondered when someone will title a review of Love Is a Mix Tape "The Year of Musical Thinking." And true, as with Joan Didion's compressed tour of Stygian dementia, Sheffield analyzes how death alters your consciousness, though with much deeper insight into the mystery of Missy Elliott's "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)." And death lurks throughout Sheffield's '90s, as indicated by his brilliant reading of Nirvana's Unplugged—"Contrary to what people said at the time, [Kurt Cobain] didn't sound dead, or about to die, or anything like that. As far as I could tell, his voice was not just alive, but raging to stay that way." (Just as pertinent is an aside that Renee thought "Heart-Shaped Box" ripped off Blondie's "Call Me." It did. Never thought of that.)

Of course the Nirvana chapter begins with the goofball announcement, "The spring of 1994 was marked by two key events in rock history: The death of Kurt Cobain and the birth of Zima." As with Pavement's Steven Malkmus, Sheffield's quick quips have long been mistaken by dumb people for straight-up glibness. Make no mistake—those people are our enemies. They would have us deny that there was a time sincerity and irony were not mutually exclusive options, before the gaping chasm between snark and emo swallowed up any ambiguity of emotion. That time was the '90s, a decade whose flimsy promises were always already broken. We could only afford to approach our future with such irreverence, after all, because our dreams were so pathetically limited. Adequate health care, listenable radio, a modicum of gender parity—who would deny us these crumbs?

It's tempting to moan that our decade holds a funhouse mirror up to the '90s, minus the fun. Irony, once a strategy for surviving mass culture, has soured into a cheap tic, as the knowing slacker repartee of MST3K devolves the inane rat-a-tat of Best Week Ever. And the self-proclaimed sluts who grind for the webcam mouth the same language of empowerment that made sense in riot grrrl. But Sheffield refuses to settle for that cheap comparison, and we should too—that way lies the sins of Boomerdom. True, Love Is a Mix Tape makes me wish I'd loved the '90s more at the time, but it also reminds me that if I had, they wouldn't have been the '90s. The feeling it generates is the opposite of nostalgia, a swelling sense of the importance of basking in the present, and being grateful that I still have a chance to love the '00s as much as they deserve.

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