Harriet Walker: You can't beat being in charge of the music


I have been making a lot of playlists recently. It's the modern equivalent of making a mixtape for someone, only much less hassle and doesn't have to be done in real time. It also doesn't require the reflexes of a ninja, should you be on the other side of the room as a song comes to its end. Nor do you need the calloused digits of a guitar player to avoid getting blisters from pressing that record button down.

I used to love making compilation tapes, in theory. In reality, I'd become bored after about three tracks; bored of listening, pressing, planning ahead and keeping my handwriting small enough to fit on the sleeve. Making compilations was also so often utterly thankless, either because you'd realise after all that effort that you'd become fed up with the contents even before you'd survived the drudgery of creating it, or because there always seemed to be some kind of technical calamity.

I once recorded an entire "best of" Madonna (my reimagining of The Immaculate Collection according to the songs I personally felt should have been on there – I've always preferred an album track over a crowd-pleaser) before realising I'd had the mic on the whole time, and over Ms Ciccone's soaring tones you could also hear me singing along; me pretending to have a chat with Madonna; me telling my dad I wasn't hungry for my tea just yet. Sigh.

Making a playlist, on the other hand, is as simple as breathing. It takes no time, even when you're thinking really hard about it. Then, not only is it done, it's also malleable; not cast in stone or in celluloid to haunt you in later years or when someone cooler than you comes to visit.

Playlists are musical nose-picking: something that's easy enough and pleasurable to do in private, but that you feel a certain embarrassment about in public. Playlists lay you bare. One I made recently had a Boz Scaggs tune on it and I felt a sense of shame usually reserved for those instances when you've been having a good old nostril clear-out in front of other people without even realising.

Recently a magazine asked me to come up with a playlist of summer tunes for its website – hard enough to do when the sun is shining, let alone when you're staring out the window at sleet pummelling the trees trying to blossom and a cat that's frozen solid on top of the garden wall below.

The second playlist I made this month was for my friend's wedding, requested despite the fact that I had only half-an-hour earlier regaled her with the story of how I singlehandedly cleared the dancefloor on New Year's Eve by playing Grace Jones's "Pull up to the Bumper". I know – I'm still baffled by that.

"It's just supposed to be some guidelines for the DJ," she explained. "So he knows what we like. You won't have to actually be on the decks or anything." I can't pretend I wasn't disappointed by that. There's nothing I like better than a) being in charge of the music and b) being in charge of the music. And c) looking like I'm in charge of the music.

But to have the tastes of the happy couple thrust upon my shoulders – well, I can't pretend I wasn't incredibly smug. It's validation, isn't it, despite the fact that my piss-poor taste would make real aural aesthetes vomit through their ears. Still, my playlist was to be the voice of a generation – a generation who are happy just as long as they get to belt out Take That's "Never Forget" at the end of a night – and that made me feel important.

What made me even happier was that I had been chosen to do this special task, rather than our other friend with whom I often end up competitively wrestling over an iPod at parties, while everyone else shrugs in a way I like to think is affectionate but is probably shot through with undiluted contempt.

The other playlist I made this month was because my brain was tired from listening to the same old stuff every day – and I don't just mean my own needy inner monologue of self-loathing and have-I-left-the-heating-on. I created a roster of some of the worst songs ever made by humans in the 1970s and 1980s, a genre now being re-embraced by the children of the yuppies who once nodded along to them.

I peppered it with some of the more decent stuff my own parents played when I was little (they weren't yuppies; we ate lentils). Songs that have memories attached – not meaningful ones like first kisses or walking out of the school gates for the last time, but the ones I used to listen to on repeat while revising for my A-levels or while ardently anticipating being a grown-up.

And now I am one, theoretically, what do I find myself doing? Nodding along, flicking my hair and pretending to be a grown-up at the exact same moments, of course. No amount of playlist manicuring can hide the true you, after all.