Reading Rob Sheffield's Love is a Mix Tape - Book Week


Cover of Love Is A Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield – Random House

It’s one of those books that’s so short, you can finish it in a bus ride. Not that it’s a novella– rather, a memoir. And, as memoirs go, this one should be particularly painful: the story of a widower who lost his fellow music critic wife to a sudden heart-attack. This is what mainstream reviews will have you believe is it’s main appeal but that’s hardly the case.

You may have seen Rob Sheffield, contributing editor at Rolling Stone and author of Love is a Mix Tape, on VH1 tape shows that aren’t too-decades based, and his profile certainly qualifies in that exclusive category of television talking heads better akin to ESPN sportscasters for the pleasure of pop, in terms of recognition. He’s come up at more than one BTR staff meeting, that’s for sure. It’s because his text pervades a new kind of subgenre in pop culture lit. How the music that Sheffield and his wife Renee  shared becomes so entwined in the story of their romance tends to be the root of the People magazine recommendation of the book, but it’s a different experience reading this from another angle of loss.

I was twenty years old and moving to New York City for the first time. It was the summer of LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” and Amy Winehouse’s cover of the Zuton’s “Valarie”.  My mom was undergoing chemo treatment after having stage four ovarian cancer removed and we had just buried my uncle, who had died of cancer a few months prior. I somehow scored a summer internship at EMI, which funnily enough, is only a few blocks away from where I work now. When I went to the interview, the prospective Associate in the Publicity Department who I’d be working for, made up for the long bus drive with a short interview and lots of gushing about Pavement (which might make the rest of the story obvious).

The supervisor humblebragged that he used to work in the ad department at SPIN and DJ’d Anthony DeCurtis’s wedding.

So I immediately ask, “Oh, so you must know Rob Sheffield?”

“Yes! He’s putting out a book this year.”

“That’s fantastic, I’d buy it immediately. What’s the subject matter?”

Fast forward four months later, I’m on a Greyhound back to Providence flipping through its pages with the anxiousness of a 15-year-old virgin viewing of The Notebook.

Yeah, yeah, yeah–the much talked about tragedy-angle aside– what really sells me on multiple reads with this pop culture essay collection is it’s subtle, unpreachy discussion on the state of feminism. Which of course, boils back unto the last time the word ‘feminism’ meant anything to the mainstream public: the ’90s. Sigh–it’s hard not to miss an age when a movie like Clueless could still be released and be considered satire, not tribute (note the difference between it and Mean Girls). It’s admirable that Sheffield only gushes on—not mocks or punishes–the pop princesses we’ve seen since.

In his latest book, Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, the feminism returns but again all within the context of finding romance in a decade of fashion and fads. There are more stories to tell than just one romance and a few episodes at Catholic Camp. Which reminds me, I’ve met a few readers who bemoan that chapter in Mix Tape, where Sheffield goes on extended fantasies about being a synth pop icon, or Jackie Kennedy (or sometimes both at once). But what that reveals is an underlying current present in all Rob’s writing about music—which is that, when it is indeed at its best, it provides the genuine magic and glare behind all of pop. Further, that pop stars with bad songs are just pop stars, where as the others are something more. They infiltrate our daily lives to the point where we eagerly re-listen to genre-tired heroes like Kurt Cobain and Notorious B.I.G. when their lyrics are read to us from the vantage point of frightened husbandry.

Since Chuck Klosterman more-or-less pioneered this genre, it’s easy to throw Sheffield under a small rug of great authors, but there certainly are a small and gentle few who can call themselves genuine “Sheffield readers.” And I’m proud to say they’re usually people you wouldn’t mind having a drink with.