Did you hear? Dean Winchester made Castiel a mixtape, pass it on. We use this golden opportunity to examine the use of the mixtape as a narrative tool in fiction.
Last week’s Supernatural, a plot-heavy piece penned by a new combo of writers — season 12 new hire Meredith Glynn and veteran Robert Berens — saw the long-awaited return of Castiel. It’s been four episodes (but thanks to some mini-hiatuses, seven weeks) since the angel has appeared, causing worry both on- and off-screen about what might have happened to him on his jaunt to Heaven, a trip the Winchesters knew nothing about.
We unfortunately didn’t get to see any of what went down Upstairs — Cas is not, putting it mildly, a favorite of the other angels, so the return to his roots was quite the turning point. We follow this arc just as the Winchesters do — through Dean’s multiple unanswered calls and attempts to track him over the past weeks, through Sam’s reassurance that Cas is indestructible, through their pursuit of Kelly Kline in his absence.
When Cas comes home, he casually lets himself into the bunker, where the brothers desperately grill him about what the hell happened and where he’s been. The way Dean handles Castiel in moments of stress, particularly in contrast to the reactions and behavior between Sam and Castiel, has long caused people to speculate over the dynamic of their relationship. Those differences were stark this week. Sam genuinely welcomes Cas, whereas Dean stalks off angrily, overcome. However, because we’re talking about our feelings this season, the pair later have a more sincere conversation about the problem at hand: Dean expresses why his worry turns to aggression and Cas breaks down the reasons for his actions — that he keeps failing, and needs to prove himself with a win.
This is all very healthy and touching, but when this episode aired, the overpowering virtual sound drowning out any other aspect of the scene was a roaring hysteria of MIXTAPE – several hundred thousand Supernatural fans screaming “He made him a mixtape. He made him a mixtape. A MIXTAPE.” Which, yes. That really did happen.
The reconciliatory conversation is kicked off when Cas follows Dean to his bedroom in order to return a compilation mix that Dean had, at some point, given him off-screen, for his long solo road trip chasing the nephilim. The tape is a classic old-school hand-annotated cassette, labelled “Deans [sic] Top 13 Zepp Traxx” — always keen to educate Castiel about humanity, Dean seems to have carefully curated a mixtape of songs by his favorite band Led Zeppelin to keep the angel company on the road.
Yes, in the rest of the episode, things go to shit. Yes, Castiel later steals the Colt from under Dean’s pillow (when?) and goes after Kelly alone, hoping to kill her so that Sam and Dean don’t have to. Yes, he gets kidnapped by Kelly and corrupted by the unborn nephilim, seeming to think the son of Lucifer is the new Messiah. Yes, he gave Sam and Dean the dreaded sleep tap in order to run away from them. But you guys. The mixtape. Dean gave him a mixtape, and when he thinks Dean is deal-breaker angry with him, he tries to return it as an apology, which Dean refuses to allow.
Look, let’s not front — the whole concept of giving back a symbolic object at the assumed break-down of a relationship (“It’s a gift. You keep those.”) reads like the returning of an engagement ring. The implication of this exchange — especially for a character like Dean, whose battle with toxic masculinity and what he allows himself to express despite it is a huge feature of the show — is eyebrow-raising.
Yes, shippers are delighted, and it’s a very understandable read: one of the most personal, domestic, off-hand moments that fans have ever seen between the pair. But while a mix isn’t always a declaration of romance, it is always an intimate declaration of care, whether that’s for yourself or for someone else. A mixtape is, for anyone who loses themselves in music the way that Dean does, a symbol of love: whether that’s passionate, platonic, parental, to make a statement, to share your moods, or to show support.
These guys are bad at emotions when they’re not about to die. Earlier this season, Cas told the Winchesters he loved them. Sam’s pretty good at openly expressing his uncomplicated appreciation for Cas on a day to day basis – his feelings are stable. In contrast, Dean’s hot-headed, volatile reactions often seem to have the angel on the back foot. However, with that tape, Dean, in his own language, said it back.
A tape is a gesture that involves effort — particularly in the traditional format, on cassette, where the manual re-recording of songs is a delicate art. As technology changed, mix CDs fulfilled the same purpose, but of course that process is a little more automated. Nowadays, anyone can curate a playlist in minutes on Spotify, and while the heart of the gesture may be the same, the time and energy is just not the same as putting together a cassette. Dean’s a bit of a Luddite, sure, and Cas’ truck is old as balls, but fact of the matter is: it’s 2017, and he still made him a freakin’ tape.
We don’t know the tracklist, but we do know that Led Zeppelin are an immensely significant part of Dean’s life. Despite the music itself never being featured in the show (presumably they can’t get the rights) he mentions them all the time, once citing “Ramble On” and “Traveling Riverside Blues” as two of his favorites, so Cas’ tape likely includes those. Both his parents loved the band — Mary first gave John her number because he knew the words to every Led Zeppelin song — so the need he feels to introduce Castiel to this music as well can be easily interpreted as a further move to bring Cas into the family fold, just in case the season hasn’t shouted that particular sentiment through a megaphone enough. After all, once we all stop screaming MIXTAPE! MIXTAPE! MIXTAPE!, what’s really important about that scene is the loud and proud declaration from Dean that Team Free Will — Sam, Dean, and Cas — are always better as a unit than any other option.
But back to the mixtape. A curated playlist can be used to say so many things — to introduce, to inspire, to reveal, to memorialize. Music as a form of expression, both from the creator and to the listener, has always been a core element of human society, and no matter what new inventions change our way of listening, we’ll always keep giving the gift of ourselves to one another via our music.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, who, as we all know, is a chronic overachiever who always needs a side hustle, not only curated The Hamilton Mixtape (released, by his request, on cassette) but is also currently burning off the restless energy that he used to put into organizing his Ham4Ham events by making themed Spotify mixes for his Twitter followers, often referencing the tape and CD mixes he used to make in the past, for his friends and wife, and explaining the constraints of the craft, particularly when he’s stuck using shuffle-happy Spotify in order to share. “The art is in the arrangement,” he insists, and he even personally assisted a fan in making a crush-revealing mix. His rules are pretty similar to those laid out by Rob Fleming, the protagonist of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity:
“Making a tape is like writing a letter — there’s a lot of erasing, rethinking and starting again. A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You’ve got to kick off with a corker to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch. But you don’t want to blow your wad, so then you’ve got to cool it off a notch. And you can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you’ve done the whole thing in pairs and… oh, there are loads of rules.”
Rob Sheffield, the greatest music journalist (actually, the most validating writer for any reader who’s ever been a fan of anything) alive even named his first memoir Love Is A Mix Tape, and it’s structured around the mixes he’s made or been given. As he puts it, “The times you lived through, the people you shared those times with—nothing brings it all to life like an old mixtape. It does a better job of storing up memories than actual brain tissue can do. Every mixtape tells a story. Put them together, and they add up to the story of a life.”
“There are all kinds of mixtapes. There is always a reason to make one.” That’s Sheffield again, and it’s what this article is actually about – Dean’s gift to Castiel is just one of many, many examples in media where a mix has been used, subtly or overtly, as a symbolic tool. They don’t just pop into being by accident, they’re a tangible expression of the effort you’re willing to put in for someone. In honor of Dean’s unknown top “traxx,” here are 13 other mixes which have represented or defined relationships in fiction.
Mixtapes in media
“I think music can make things a bit more real, sometimes.” Truer words were never spoken than these, albeit extremely awkwardly, by a father attempting to bond with his son in Richard Ayoade’s adaptation of Submarine. Based on the 2008 novel by Joe Dunthorne and set in 1986 (so the cassette format here is standard, not retro) Submarine is a British slice of life coming of age drama about Oliver Tate, a 15 year old boy desperate to lose his virginity and stop his parents from splitting up.
Oliver’s father, who’s suffering from depression, makes him this compilation when he learns that Oliver has a girlfriend, explaining that it includes songs he used to listen to during his early “formative” relationships, including some break-up songs, “just in case things don’t work out.” He’s labelled Side A “Celebratory” and Side B “Despondency,” and like most good mixes, it’s a well-meaning gift aimed to educate and equip someone you love emotionally. He’s saying to his son: here. You’re new to this. This is how we cope with things. This is what I once felt.
‘The Raven Cycle’
In Blue Lily, Lily Blue, the penultimate volume of Maggie Stiefvater’s acclaimed urban fantasy series The Raven Cycle (recently announced as being developed for television!) the gift of a mixtape from one character to another is revealed incidentally. The tapedeck in Adam Parrish’s patchwork junker of a car, known as the Hondayota, contains, much to everyne’s suprise, a dual-sided mix created by one Ronan Lynch — by hand or by Ronan’s unique power of dreaming, we’re unsure.
Despite its aggressive and comedic nature (Side A: Parrish’s Hondayota Alone Time; Side B: A Shitbox Sing-Along) this is a gentle romantic gesture – Ronan, after coming to terms with his sexuality and feelings for Adam, spends the book offhandedly courting the other boy, including several gifts and other intimacies. His interest bears fruit: in the final volume, Adam, who was assumed straight upon his introduction, carefully turns over the potential of Ronan in his mind and ultimately goes for it.
‘Bring It On’
Romance is not the primary plot of the iconic cheerleading classic Bring It On, but it does compliment the film’s more crucial themes (of competition, creativity, race and socioeconomic boundaries within a competitive sport) as a tasty little side dish. The new captain of the Rancho Carne Toros, Torrance Shipman, begins to bond with Cliff, the grungy, Clash-loving twin brother of her team’s new recruit. The pair are flirtatious and supportive of one another’s endeavours, while Torrance’s boyfriend, away at college, encourages her to step away from her passions.
Cliff, unaware of her long-distance relationship, shows up at her place with a tape for Torrance and witnesses the couple together. He angrily gives her the tape anyway, feeling led-on, and Torrance listens to it. Cliff’s tape features voice-recorded commentary from himself — a nice touch, in the world of the mixtape – and at least one of his own songs, about Torrance. (“Oh, Torrance//Can’t stand your cheerleading squad//But I love your pom-poms//I’d feed you bonbons all night…”) Presumably it also includes other, better, songs, because Torrance loves it, finds her inspiration, and breaks up with her boyfriend.
‘Guardians of the Galaxy’
One of the most famous mixtape references of the 21st century, Awesome Mix Vol. 1 was a cassette tape made by Meredith Quill for her son Peter, so he could appreciate all the music that she’d loved when she was a teenager. Her final gift to him when dying of cancer was a second tape, and Peter had both of these tapes on him back in 1988 when he was abducted from Earth by aliens. Peter listens to the first tape constantly, and it serves as a security blanket, a grounding connection to his mother — he even jeopardizes his own escape recover the tapes and Walkman from a prison guard.
The official soundtrack of Guardians of the Galaxy (a version of the album was actually released for sale on cassette) was comprised of the songs on Awesome Mix Vol. 1 including “Moonage Daydream,” “Cherry Bomb” and of course, “Hooked on a Feeling.” The cherished and still-wrapped gift from his mother, a second tape, goes unopened by Peter until the end of the movie, and will feature as the soundtrack for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
‘No Strings Attached’
In this charming, naturalistic rom-com penned by New Girl showrunner Elizabeth Meriweather, Ashton Kutcher’s Adam, a TV production assistant and Natalie Portman’s Emma, a doctor, are friends who decide to start a casual sexual relationship without falling in love. Spoiler alert: strings very much become attached. Midway through the movie, Adam visits Emma’s apartment when she and her friends are synced up mid-menses, and brings them a “period mix” — a specially curated CD to make their time of the month more amusing.
Emma finds this delightful – and kudos to Meriweather for normalizing menstrual cycle talk between men and women — but takes this gesture as an emergency sign of too much romantic investment, and calls off their hook-up relationship for a time. Sample songs: Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love,” Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got the World on a String,” and U2’s “Sunday, Bloody Sunday.” What a guy, though.
High Fidelity, both the British Nick Hornby novel and the American film adaptation starring John Cusack, are absolutely brimming with mixtapes. The story follows the relationship dramas of record-store owner Rob, and though the page-to-screen shift in setting between London and Chicago changes something of the tone of the story, along with some of the featured music, the heart remains the same, as Rob tracks down his five worst break-ups of all time to see what went wrong. Rob and his morose music-elitist employees constantly discuss their tastes, plying each other with compilations to introduce each other to artists or set a certain mood (a peppy Monday Morning mix goes down badly.)
The mixtape is also Rob’s go-to as a romantic tool, and he spends some of the narrative addressing the audience — I’ve quoted the novel above — about how to make a great mix. As he finally repairs his relationship with his long-term girlfriend Laura, he catches himself making a tape for a young reporter he’s just met, and calls himself on his bullshit. The story closes as Rob finally stops allowing himself to be distracted and impulsive and appreciate Laura, and he muses on the tape he how wants to make for her, a metaphor for putting effort into making her happy.
‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’
Charlie, the first-person protagonist in Stephen Chbosky’s epistolary novel, is a deeply introverted and poorly socialized teen who, as a high school freshman, is befriended by two seniors, step-siblings Patrick and Sam. Through this group of friends he begins to get involved in normal teenage activities and experimentation, often not processing or understanding them in an appropriate way. Thoughts on Charlie’s behavior are divisive – some see his lack of social development as a marker of Asperger’s Syndrome, others as PTSD after his childhood sexual abuse, but that’s a conversation for another day. Charlie’s love for his new friends is very real and very pure, as is his love for the literature and music that he discovers.
There are a few mixes on this list that were given as a gesture of conscious or subconscious intimacy but did not directly declare romance — with the couple resulting in romance regardless. This is the only one that’s a gift of genuine platonic friendship. The movie glosses over this, but when Charlie draws Patrick in their group’s Secret Santa, he makes him a mixtape with great care, pondering over how it feels to have crafted this collection, how it might help his friend (“I hope it’s the kind of second side that he can listen to whenever he drives alone and feel like he belongs to something whenever he’s sad. I hope it can be that for him.”) and how the artists who wrote the songs may feel, to have emotionally affected so many people. It’s titled One Winter.
‘One Tree Hill’
Anyone who watched WB-to-CW transfer One Tree Hill will remember Peyton Sawyer’s undying love of music and the arc of her Friends With Benefit compilation album. Both a fictional device and a real physical soundtrack, the mix was born as a way for Peyton to both connect to her biological mother Ellie and support her friend Hayley in her music career. As Peyton and Ellie get closer, it’s revealed that Ellie has been diagnosed with breast cancer and is terminally ill, and the Friends With Benefit album turns into a full blown charity project with proceeds going toward the National Breast Cancer Foundation.
Various artists who contributed to the record actually appear on the show — Gavin DeGraw, Audioslave, Tyler Hilton, Jack’s Mannequin, Fall Out Boy – hey, remember when she banged Pete Wentz? Sadly, Peyton’s mother passes away before she could see final product come together. But what took the story to another level is the fact that the Friends With Benefit was made into a real-life soundtrack for One Tree Hill, and a portion of the funds went to the National Breast Cancer Foundation when people purchased a copy. This unique interweaving of plot and fourth-wall breaking merchandise was, at the time, a newer concept for post-Y2K kids to grasp.
‘Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist’
Given that the actual title of this story incorporates a reference to the modern-day mixtape, it’s unsurprising that both the movie and the book of this YA romance feature the concept of mixes. In this instance, high schooler Norah feels a connection to Nick via the break-up mixes (CDs, not tapes, but this is an extremely Gen Y setting) he made for his ex-girlfriend Tris – when Tris immediately threw the gifts in the trash, Norah would scavenge them, telling her BFF that whoever he is, he makes the best mixes in the world.
We don’t get to learn the actual tracklist, but in the film we see her examining with a hand-drawn case, entitled “Road to Closure Vol. 12” and the book sees Norah gushing thusly: “Cesaria Evora to Wilco to Ani [DeFranco, presumably] followed by Rancid, capped off with Patsy Cline blending into a Fugazi finale.” When Norah accidentally meets Nick and realizes who he is, the pair spend the night running around New York City trying to find a secret gig, and discover that they are musical soulmates. Somewhere in the world of unwritten fiction, they’re presumably making each other mixes to this very day.
While we’re talking about falling in love in New York City, we must also include Avenue Q’s “Mix Tape,” which, though comedic and taking place between two Sesame Street-style puppets, is actually the only scenario on this list which involves analysis of the tracklist from the receiver – the quintessential “but what does this mean?” that many an uncertain crush has struggled over. Is it just a tape? Or is it something more? Was it given with the same emotional intent that I am now applying to it? In this circumstance, the protagonist Princeton gives his friend Kate Monster (the show also includes some human-monster prejudice, so the crush situation here is even more tentative) a tape he made, apparently incidentally, while going through some old CDs.
Kate’s at first disheartened, with songs including “You’ve Got A Friend” and the theme from Friends, but becomes more hopeful as the mix becomes more romantic. Kate and Princeton seem to express their feelings in song titles, including Princeton pointing out “I Have To Say I Love You In A Song,” the true meaning of a mix is left up in the air, as Princeton exclaims how excited he is to make similar tapes for all their friends. The couple does organize a date, but honestly, it’s very unclear if the mix was an intentionally romantic or just an oblivious gesture – a frustration that many such recipients can empathize with, I’m sure.
This one is such a tugger of heartstrings. In the universally lauded Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s ambitious project spanning eleven years of filming that shows the aging of a family in real time, Ethan Hawke’s character Mason Evans presents his son Mason Jr with a very special gift, The Black Album, on his fifteenth birthday. The Black Album, a 3-disc edition, is his father’s curation of what The Beatles would have been like if they’d stayed together — the best solo work of John, Paul, George and Ringo from their various projects, with an extensive explanation of how the work, mixed together, elevates it all – that too much Lennon becomes too self-involved; too much McCartney, too sentimental, and so on.
It’s a genius concept, indicative of so much genuine passion both for the music itself and for creating a connection with your loved-one listener, but what makes it even better is that The Black Album originated in real life. Ethan Hawke created this for his own child – the idea, the tracklist, and the extensive, opinionated liner notes (which Hawke published on Buzzfeed) were all initially intended for Hawke’s daughter Maya, and the actor allowed the mix to be included in the deeply personal film.
‘Eleanor & Park’
Another 80s-set story when cassettes were a way of life when to came to sharing music, a mixtape is the catalyst for the relationship between the titular characters, Eleanor Douglas and Park Sheridan. Both are outsiders. Park is a mixed race teen with feelings of inadequacy in many aspects of his life, but Eleanor’s situation is deeply dark — the novel is primarily about the physical and emotional abuse that she, her mother and siblings suffer from her stepfather, and her attempts to hide or escape from it. Park, and music, become crucial to her coping mechanisms.
When a bullying incident forces Eleanor to sit by Park on her first day at her new school, he notices a Smiths lyric on her notebook, and does a snobby little bit of gatekeeping when he discovers she hasn’t actually heard the band. However, when she explains that it’s music that she fantasizes about being able to love (seeing stories in magazines, but having no access to a music player besides mainstream radio) he impulsively makes her a tape of all his favorite Smiths songs, with some other bands thrown in as well. He also lends her his Walkman to listen, and when she gushes over how she could listen to “Love Will Tear Us Apart” forever, he makes her another tape with just that song on repeat.
When I think “mixtape” I don’t necessarily immediately jump to “Kirsten Dunst,” and yet, this is the second entry on this list to feature her as a party in the gifting of a mix. In Bring It On, she’s the recipient, but this time she’s the giver — and what a mix it is. Fun fact – Dunst’s role here has the dubious honor of being the character that inspired the “manic pixie dream girl” label (eccentric, adorable, whimsical creatures who do not pursue their own happiness except to encourage a male protagonist to embrace life) and though she’s by no means the worst offender of the trope (can anyone say Garden State?) it was a review of this movie that coined the phrase.
Elizabethtown, described by Roger Ebert as “the most unrelenting meet-cute in movie history,” is the story of Orlando Bloom’s Drew Baylor, who’s suicidal after a billion-dollar career failure. Right as he attempts to kill himself, he receives news that his father has died suddenly and has to travel to his family’s hometown to deal with the body and the funeral. On his flight, he meets Claire, a quirky and forward flight attendant, and continues to contact and meet up with her on his visit. After some ups and downs, Claire encourages Drew to take a road trip across America with his father’s ashes, and gives him not just a single CD, a hand-picked soundtrack for every minute of his 32 hour journey encased in an entire scrapbook album, with directions and advice of places to visit- which leads him, of course, to find her waiting for him in a special location.