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Artwork for Every Breathe You Take: The Singles by The Police. (Courtesy of the artist)

The Good Listener: How To Make A Mixtape Without Looking Like A Creeper

Nov 7, 2012

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Sting singing in the video for "Every Breath You Take."

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As any beleaguered All Songs Considered intern will tell you, we get a ton of mail, from bushels of CDs and press releases to the occasional care package from listeners. A guy once sent us a shoebox diorama of himself playing the Tiny Desk, while others have shipped sleigh bells and other noisemakers to Bob Boilen, thus securing themselves a place on the Enemies List I maintain on the whiteboard next to my desk.

But we also get a lot of simple, mostly music-related queries. How is the music on All Songs Considered chosen? Could someone help pick an election-night playlist? What's the deal with Robin, anyway? The guys asked me to jump in and help out, so I solicited more questions over on the Facebook page of Pop Culture Happy Hour, the NPR roundtable podcast on which I appear each week. Here's one of the choicest queries.

All Mixed Up asks: "I want to make a mixtape for a special someone. What would you suggest that shows I am deep but not a potential stalker?"

Okay, first of all, a million-dollar idea: Some enterprising app developer should come up with a database that rates songs based on their appropriateness for mixtapes and weddings — and when you type in "Every Breath You Take," klaxons blare and you can't turn them off until you click the button that reads, "Okay, okay, I won't."

Until such a service exists, however, I can tell you that many embarrassing mixtape mishaps can be avoided by simply reading each song's lyrics. I once put together a wedding mixtape for a relative, and even after months of fretting over every oddly bittersweet selection, I still wound up including Matthew Sweet's "I've Been Waiting," a wonderfully sparkly and glorious pop song that, if you listen closely, is about falling in love with an underage girl. [Editor's note: That's only one interpretation. In an interview, Sweet says he wrote it for the woman — not girl — who would become his wife.]

As for songs you should choose, the variables are endless. Try to capture your own tastes — songs you love that you most want other people to know you love. For music nerds like me (and, let's face it, anyone reading this), there's always an air of attempted taste-making when you're putting together a mixtape: A crush mix may say "I like you," but what people like me really want it to say is, "I like you, and after you find your new favorite band on this mix, I bet you'll be really grateful." There's nothing wrong with that: Whether you're pitching woo or simply trying to impress someone, the last thing you want is to send a bunch of songs the person has already heard.

Beyond that, the best advice — both in mixtape-making and in life — is to be truthful and passionate. You don't want to pledge your eternal love to someone you just met (seriously, you don't), but don't be too timid to put yourself out there a little bit; mixtapes are romantic gestures, and romantic gestures are about risking rejection and embarrassment and just going for it. There's a reason they make a soap opera called The Bold and the Beautiful, you know? Provided you keep the gesture within the bounds of the law and basic human decency, the worst thing that's likely to happen is that someone who isn't dating you is going to continue not dating you.

Finally, when making any mix, look for a mission statement — the thing you most want the music to say. To me, the perfect crush-mix song is Too Much Joy's "Crush Story," which expresses the exact right sentiment for the occasion: "This is much better than love." Find a phrase or lyric you like, make it your mix's title, and build the other songs you choose around that sentiment.

And remember: If it doesn't work, statistics show that just about everyone requires a True Love Is A Lie mix sooner or later. Here's hoping you won't need it this time around.

Got a music-related question you want answered? Leave it in the comments, drop us an email at allsongs@npr.org or Tweet @allsongs.

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