The Annotated Mixtape by Joshua Harmon

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Joshua Harmon’s The Annotated Mixtape is an essay collection on the nature of obsession. Early in the book, Harmon says he owns more than 4,000 records, and that his collection continues to grow. Reflecting back on a particularly costly record-buying binge, Harmon writes, “I was buying music at such a rate—I continue buying it at such a rate—that I didn’t have time to listen to it all, or to get well acquainted with what I did listen to.”

The nature of collecting music—rather than, say, books, visual art, or PEZ dispensers—is importantly distinct in this way. Harmon quotes the French writer Jacques Attali, who says, “Music remains a very unique commodity; to take on meaning, it requires an incompressible lapse of time, that of its own duration… People buy more records than they can listen to. They stockpile what they want to find time to hear.” In this way, Harmon collects records and neurotically tracks labels, bands, and songs oftentimes as a proxy for actual experience, and The Annotated Mixtape traces the tension between the ways this doesn’t work, and the ways that it does. Harmon writes about the time he listened to “Outdoor Miner” on Walkman as he strolled down a snow-packed South Flagg Street in Worcester, Massachusetts. He remembers being twelve years old, getting hot chocolate in a college student center as “Baba O’Riley” played from the speakers in the rafters. Harmon writes, “All of this music seems inseparable from these recollections, or at least from certain moments; the records themselves seem almost the physical forms of memories, accessible by dropping a stylus onto grooved vinyl… when I replay certain songs, my unconscious mind summons these constellations of associations.”

Throughout the collection, Harmon conveys the deep connection between music and memory. With each chapter—typically framed by an artist, song, label, and release year—he takes vivid snapshots of personal and historical moments in time. Harmon is much more than a music connoisseur; he’s a fanatic, and there’s a thrilling texture to each reflection and recollection.

Early in the book, he describes how, as a teenager, he pressed his cassette recorder to the speaker of a portable radio to record the songs the DJ played. He did this so he could use those songs on mixtapes. “Fidelity was irrelevant given the fuzziness of the FM signal and the cheapness of my recording devices,” Harmon writes. “What mattered to me as I taped music from the airwaves was what I might learn from these songs I preserved—about music as a pop-cultural entry point and schoolyard currency, and about myself as auditor.”

Joshua Harmon

Joshua Harmon

Built like a mixtape, The Annotated Mixtape is incredibly specific to the passions and particularities of its creator. The chapter “A Certain Ratio: ‘All Night Party” is largely about Harmon’s somewhat reckless move to live in an apartment with his friends while still in high school. “Movietone: ‘Late July’” is a short reflection on accumulating multiple copies of the same record in anticipation of vinyl degradability. In “The Minders: ‘Hand-Me-Downs’”, Harmon reflects on Reagonomics and his father’s unemployment in the early 80’s. In one chapter, Harmon’s friend remarks to him that the song playing on the tape deck of his car is “soundtrack music.” Harmon writes, “though I don’t realize it then, my friend is right: here is another song in the soundtrack to all the incidental memories that measure my life.”

Harmon details with a curator’s eye the relevance of his library to his life. Sometimes he recalls stretches of angst: “Listening to vague, insipid lyrics like those in New Order’s “Temptation” allowed me to fill that dumb lyrical template with all the dumb drama of being fifteen.” Sometimes he remembers moments of self-conscious elitism: “[She] told me that Codeine and Galaxy 500 and the Pale Saints and the Swirlies—or whoever else I mentioned listening to—were pretentious.” In a chapter framed by “Love Will Keep Us Together” by The Captain and Tennille, Harmon writes, “I unwittingly consumed the pop music of the early and mid 1970s. These songs became the soundtrack to my primordial memories not because I liked them, not because my parents necessarily liked them, but simply because one of my parents had turned on the radio while we drove.”

Harmon is sensitive to the tic in his brain that makes him process the world in this music-based way, particularly in regard to his obsession with owning records. He writes, “My binge record-buying may suggest my insecurity about the size of my own collection, my anxieties about losing touch with my own past, the pathetic comfort I find in material things, a frequent desire to escape ‘boredom,’ or all of the above.” Harmon traces the beauty and complications of the human compulsion to catalog life—whether it is through music, movies, books, photography, travel, or even social media—in an attempt to make sense of how we fit into the world. Some feeling of drawing closer to an understanding keeps us going, as does the failure to ever arrive at a definitive point.

As the Italian writer Umberto Eco said, “The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the story of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible.” Infinity, though, is inherently incomprehensible, and so we keep creating and consuming. In the case of Joshua Harmon, his record collection continues to grow.

Nathan Scott McNamara teaches at Johns Hopkins University. His fiction and nonfiction has been published with The Carolina Quarterly, The Hopkins Review, Electric Literature, and The Millions. More from this author →