A while ago, the members of one of the mailing lists that I'm on decided to set up a 'tape circle': everyone on the list had to put together a compilation tape, which they then sent to the person next to them on the list. After a few weeks the tapes would get passed around again, and the process would continue until everybody had heard each other's tape, and everybody had got their own tape back. In theory, it was a brilliant idea - an excellent chance to discover some new music, and find out a little bit about our friends, as very often one's personality is strongly reflected in the music he or she listens to.
In practice, it failed. People were generally not motivated enough to keep sending the tapes on, and very soon people started asking for their own tapes back. They realised that none of the other tapes could possibly be as good as their own, which featured the very best music available - the only music that could provide any sort of a remedy to depression, loneliness or simply boredom.
In one respect, this result is perfectly understandable - making a tape for somebody else is an incredibly difficult task, as you can never accurately predict what they will or will not like. Hence, the tape is usually imperfect - even if the person likes some or most of the tracks, there will nearly always be one or two that he simply cannot get his head around, so the tape as a whole fails to be as brilliant as any compilation that he has made for himself.
On another level, however, it is interesting to observe that music which has a positive effect on one person can affect somebody else in an entirely different way, or may even have no effect at all. It often confuses me when people dismiss my favourite music as "crap" or "boring", yet if I am completely honest, I have attacked other people's music in exactly the same way. It is observations like these which sometimes make the concept of reviewing records seem entirely pointless - what is it to me that one music journalist hates the new Radiohead album? - what matters to me is whether or not I like it, and that I must decide for myself.
Equally, musical tastes change. Just the other day, I found a tape that I made about three years ago. When I looked at the track listing, I could hardly believe that once upon a time, this music was everything to me. When I actually played the tape, however, the result was bizarrely frightening. It seemed that I was being transported back to a different time, a different life, where my surroundings were the same, but I was a completely different person. The music brough to mind people that I never see any more, and familiar sensations which can only be associated with events that I hardly even remember. Such is the power of music - the sounds themselves are inextricably bound up with human experience: with people, places, memories.
Sound on its own means nothing - it is the context which matters. Compilation tapes present us with borrowed sounds which we are to make our own. However alien these sounds seem to us at first, it is always possible to incorporate them, somehow, into our experience. On one level, our ears simply become more accustomed to the sounds, and the music gradually makes more sense; on another, more personal level, the music becomes important because of the meaning that we attribute it. That's why, whenever I listen to Rancid's Life Won't Wait album, I am immediately transported back to a window-ledge in a University in Canada, staring at the gloomy, rainy streets of Kingston, aware that my chances of happiness are slipping through my fingers. That's why, whenever I hear Gary Numan, I am once again lying awake whispering sleepy comments to a like-minded listener, watching the morning arrive and feeling that the whole world is being re-created. These are borrowed sounds that I have made my own, and only I can interpret them in this way. Everybody creates their own contexts, and when they do, the bland, superficial perception of music as good or bad, as this name or that name, as anything else which tries to break it all down into some short-sighted meaning for the masses, all of that dissolves in the face of the personal response to music. This will always be the only level of musical interpretation which has any real, long-term significance.