Playlists as love letters

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If I make you a playlist, just know you hold a place in my heart. Compiling tracks into one perfectly packed electronic parcel is an emotional art. It is my version of a love letter: When I sit down and move songs across Spotify, I have a specific person in mind and I express everything that my words simply cannot.

I learned from on-screen love stories, studying all the mixtapes, playlists, burned CDs and in-person serenades from my favorite cinematic characters. Charlie’s painstakingly curated disc for Patrick in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” Rob’s desert island picks on “High Fidelity” (the Zoë Kravitz adaptation) or Michael Cera’s break-up mixes in “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” — all of these prove the power behind a playlist.

While I am still awaiting the pinnacle moment where a playlist will factor into my romantic fate, I can at least prepare through more platonic playlists. Regardless of the relationship I have with my intended recipient, making playlists always inspires feelings of infatuation and yearning. 

Just like a love letter, the structure of a playlist is pertinent to what is communicated. It has a grand opening, an anticipatory lead up to a climactic point, before a conclusion seals off the message. It’s all so delicate and determined, the placing of specific songs, one track leading to another.

I like to select openings that start out small, before growing into their fullest expressions. “Onie” by The Electric Prunes, “Tezeta” by Mulatu Astatke, “Cry Baby Cry” by Ramsey Lewis or even “Mexican Dream” by Piero Piccioni have all earned their rightful places as introductions to my lyrical love letters. Each track incorporates soft strings and a mellow bass line that increases in intensity before slowing down to let the next song take over. In the exposition, the songs speak to the sensation of when you see someone for the first time, or maybe for the first time in a long time. 

From there, the tone of the playlist builds up to the peak with faster tempo tracks and more intense instrumentation. I begin to question what my love letter is trying to say. What is the temporality of this relationship — blossoming and new, or matured and developed? Do I want to detail how my skin tingles at the sight of someone, how my body fills with excited exaltations? Or perhaps should I speak to the longing, yearning wishes beckoned by absence? 

The climax falls in line with the emotion of its neighboring tracks, but offers something completely new. It acts as a surprise; this is the part of your film where the boombox is hoisted above your head in an ardent act of devotion. Reflecting on past love letters, I have often turned to Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” David Bowie’s “Modern Love” or the Equatics’ “Where Is Love?” for a heartbreaking high. 

For slower playlists, perhaps the peak is not as obvious. It sneaks up slow, with the tracks leading up to it, lulling the listener into an easy sense of euphoria. From there, the climatic song almost blends into the playlist, but still evokes an intensified and sentimental emotion. Tracks such as “Is It Any Wonder?” by Durand Jones & The Indications or even “Ladyfingers” by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass offer a softer alternative for a climatic track, while still acting as a call for affection. 

As words are woven into sentences, the instrumentation of tracks form fluid phrases that encapsulate emotions. I tend to turn to wordless songs that detail the message I am trying to convey 10 times over. Yo La Tengo’s “Green Arrow,” “Home Again” by Menahan Street Band and Alabaster DePlume’s “Whisky Story Time” all leave room for interpretation while listening. They act as reflective pauses through the playlist, creating room for the tracks to breathe between each declaration or intensified musical phrase. 

As I wind down to the final tracks of the love letter, I search for a way to wrap up everything I’ve said leading to this moment. Do I now decide to be reflective with a more soothing synthesis, or offer something new to provoke curiosity from the listener? To tenderly tie up the list, I have turned to tracks such as Brian Eno’s “Deep Blue Day” or Dorothy Ashby’s “Come Live With Me.” For more of an unanswered ending, I go for Luiz Bonfá’s “Preludio” or The Virgins’ “Love is Colder Than Death” to keep my listener on their toes. That is my final signature, the final note before signing off, only to wait for their reply. 

My love life differs entirely from John Cusack’s in “High Fidelity,” but I have to hand it to the writers for noting the potential of a playlist. Cusack’s Rob said it best: “The making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art.” 

Cusack was right — it is a delicate art to string together the love letters of other artists to form your own. Their recipients are unbeknownst to you and your life, but by selecting their tracks, you are bringing them into yours.

Contact Francesca Hodges at [email protected].