Sympathy for the DJ

I was an 8th grader with Napster and CD burner — a Darwinistic advantage over the pubescent males crawling the hallways and lunch tables begging for girls’ AOL screen-names. I could pass along a CD — silver Maxi discs scribbled with “Alex Mann Productions” — during class and know a connection was made.

Sarah and I sat next to each other in science class. I wanted to take her to the middle school formal. I made her a mixtape with ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ by the Rolling Stones as the opening track, my way of showing off. I was the only kid in 8th grade who could make his own CDs with hand-picked tracks from different artists and eras, a collage of sound that communicated to the recipient.

“Check this out.” I slid the thin case out of my binder and placed it on Sarah’s notebook.

“Oh, cool. What’s on it?”

Never show your hand.

“I made it for you. The songs — I downloaded them.”

A few days later, I checked in with Sarah.

“Did you like the mixtape?”

“Yeah, it was really cool. Thanks.”

Without missing a beat: “Do you want to go to the formal?” No eye contact.

“The dance, oh yeah. I don’t know if I’m going to that.”

That afternoon when I got home from school, I returned to my friends — I mean, my music — and played a copy of Sarah’s mixtape (always burn two) on my stereo. Halfway through ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, right before Keith Richard’s first solo, the disc stopped playing. The stereo read: “Disc error: File corrupted.” Sarah’s copy must have done the same.

I had given Sarah a faulty mixtape. That’s why she didn’t want to go to the middle school formal with me. A failed ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ tinkered with middle school love.

* * *

I moved to New York City two years ago. I brought with me the desire to share music, and I did so by learning to DJ. DJing is the art of reproducing the way a song makes you feel…for others. A DJ must be empathetic: By choosing sounds that make him feel a certain way, he can attempt to project these emotions on an audience. Even just the other day, I tried to infiltrate the music playing at a coffee shop in the West Village:

I asked the barista: “Excuse me, but what’s playing?”

“Uh, it’s Sirius…”

I cut her off: “No, no. I’m serious. What’s playing?”

The radio DJ plays records and chats about songs. “Coming up next, we’re gonna take you back — all the way back to the U.S.S.R. — with a block of your favorite Fab Four: The Beatles!” The wedding/bar-mitzvah DJ (I’m pretty sure this is what my grandparents think I’m doing) is an MC and party host, not the guy who plays the music. “Everyone gather around Alex and raise the chair. Today is his big bar-mitzvah!” The DJ/producer mixes, scratches and blends records, using the turntables as instruments. A DJ/producer can take a rock-and-roll song like Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’, transition to a hip-hop song like Jay-Z’s ‘Hard Knock Life’ and then to a dance song like Michael Jackson’s ‘Off the Wall’ while making it sound like the song never changed. This would sound awful.

My first DJ gig. It was midnight. I had been DJing for 2 hours; 2 more hours to go. The first 2 had been uneventful: Guys, some girls, hunkered at the bar, others looking at Central Park through the window panels or sitting eating chatting. No one was paying attention to the DJ. I was okay with this – less chance of me making a lousy first impression. I continued to play and mix songs, snippets of raw audio pasted together, matched in speed.

A combination of clicks brought me to a remix of that Rolling Stones song about the devil. The one with Mick Jagger’s “woo, woos” and the African conga drums and the Spanish maracas and the late-’60s keyboard common for British rock at the time. The original I had downloaded 12 years ago on Napster and burned to a mixtape for Sarah. A broken mixtape.

One couple — twenty-somethings sitting near the DJ booth, my first two fans — got up to leave, and then stopped by the stage. Did they want to approach me, tell me I did a fantastic job? A terrible job? My anxiety, it was interrupted by tangled limbs: The couple started to dance…to the music I was playing! Half-steps in unison, shoulder bopping. Alternating between rubbing on each other, and breaking to a few inch distance so neither could be accused of groping. Grinning and flashes of eye contact were broken by glances downward to make sure their bodies were synced. Drunk, but not sloppy. Content, but not satisfied.

The couple was dancing — it meant I was doing something right. The Rolling Stones song, the one about the devil, the remix — I had to play the track. I glanced at the tangled couple while I mixed. I started fading in ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. “Woo, woo,” sang Mick Jagger. The beat didn’t match with the existing song. DJ calculations off. The songs clashed. Colliding drums pounded over Mick’s sped up and remixed “Woo, woos”. It sounded like I was changing radio stations, but stuck between two channels. A sonic mess. Ignoring the mix — the part where the DJ does his job by playing two songs at once — I slammed the cross-fader over to the Stones track. A few second mishap; a failed blend. Had anyone noticed?

I looked up from my spinning plates. People ate small bites of small appetizers, one hand feeding and the other resting on the chin to block crumbs in between sips of neon drinks. The waitresses — brunettes in black scattered around tables — swiftly transported trays of clinking drinks. The amber glow of the lights reflected against the liquid in the glasses: greens, blues and pinks polka-dotted the space. But the dancing couple, the tangled twenty-somethings — gone. The dance floor — abandoned.

I looked towards the exit; the couple was on their way to the door. The guy trailed the girl — never a good sign. The responsibility of the DJ. A failed ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ disrupted a moment of intimacy on the dance floor. The couple’s fate for those few short minutes was in my hands. The couple relied on me. The non-rhythmic dancing ceased — because of me.

It was the couple’s first date; a second date should have followed. But, no, “we didn’t quite…click” the girl will tell her girlfriend the next day. “Things felt off towards the end of the night,” the guy will tell his buddy over a beer later in the week. They knew the momentum for another date wasn’t there, both unsure why.

* * *

The DJ tinkers with fate through choice of music and how he sets the ambiance of a room: A pace of conversation shifts with an increase in tempo, talking becomes flirting, a woman leans into a man’s ear with the adjustment of volume. A failed song can sabotage the connection music makes with its recipient. I first experienced this with Sarah’s mixtape, but didn’t figure out why until I watched it happen in front of me.

My first memory of “Sympathy for the Devil” is a mixtape that failed to get me a date to the middle school formal. My second memory of “Sympathy for the Devil” is the dance floor incident; the relationship that never was; the disheartening experience resulting from a faulty mix.

But there’s always a chance that besides the twenty-something couple, some angsty guy heard “Sympathy for the Devil” that night, and it brought back a youthful memory, or gave him the confidence to approach a girl and tell her how much he was enjoying the DJ — DJ Alex Mann. And, there’s also still a chance that the couple on the dance floor just didn’t like the Rolling Stones, or “Sympathy for the Devil,” and would have preferred that awful mashup of Led Zeppelin, Jay-Z, and Michael Jackson.

Photo via Flickr

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