Mourning the Mix Tape

I’ve written about the Death of the Record Album in the Age of the iPod®. Indeed, I’ve also written about questions of art in the crowd-sourcing age, but much like video killed the radio star, iPod slaughtered the album and then served its dismembered corpse as dinner.

Maxell XL II 90 Cassette Tape
All of those old mix tapes are in landfills now, and will be for hundreds of years. Future archaeologists will find us to be a conflicted people with poor musical taste. We will be unable to defend ourselves.

And with summer looming my thoughts turn to another artistic victim of our technological advancements. Something that was a staple of the season.

The Mix Tape, with all of its attendant limitations and time-consuming work, is a lost art. I remember laboring for a long time to get the dead spaces between songs just right; plotting how much time I could get on each side; making sure that the music ‘built’ and ‘ebbed’ properly.

And there was an art to it. Everyone had a method for their tapes, but the truly good ones had an art to them. Like an actual record album, there was a cohesiveness, a theme that was easy to visualize but took time to construct. At least, on any of the tapes that were worth having in your deck.

Rules of Structure, Codes of Conduct

My personal methodology was to start big, back off into something more mellow for the end of Side 1, keep the mellow for the start of side 2 and then close with bombast.

Even though I am a huge Doors fan, I also restricted myself to no more than two on a tape (four if I could span their entire studio collection within the theme of the tape itself). No band was allowed to follow itself; the breaking of this rule was often at the hands of Van Halen, since Eddie’s solo pieces functioned as thematic introductions to a song, this was permitted on the mix tape as well.

And then when For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge came out, it provided the perfect conclusion to some tapes. A mellow prelude (316), which then launches into an upbeat song (Top of the World) that only Hitler could hate.

And then, of course, were the meaningful mix tapes. The ones that were meant to send a message. The ones that signified something were special.

And the ones meant to woo that special someone…now those were the most special.

Somewhere between soundtracks for John Hughes movies and self-important musicians believing they were the mouthpiece of the communal soul (who came to your mind when I wrote that?), we all became convinced that if we made the perfect musical accompaniment to our feelings, then we too could have that iconic moment where the girl we “loved” realized how awesome we were.

Oh, I just got a little sick to my stomach. That was what I was doing. Wasn’t it what everyone else was doing? Please tell me it was what everyone else was doing.

Of course, it would have been a lot easier not to build it up, stop buying into the hype that girls were superhuman and simply ask her out on a date. But where’s the fun in that?

I have to lie down for a little bit.

Ars Gratia Artis

Sony Walkman
This was high tech! This was high tech? Well, now it's also sitting a landfill for a few centuries. Awesome.

Of course, sometimes tapes were just made for fun. In particular, during the first trip to Canada (and second), we made “Froth Tapes” and the challenge was to find obscure, bizarre and funny songs and/or sound clips to put on there. I think Joey had a double-tape set, and he was a master at the mix tape. The guy could take a record player, tape deck and equalizer and put out better mixing efforts than some studio albums I’ve heard.

I also remember making a mix tape for a prom that Mike and I attended the year after we left high school. There was going to be a tape player in the limo, so I was the tape-master. I spent weeks making it just right. The pacing, the music and the gaps between songs were timed exactly as they needed to be. I was very proud of it.

So of course, I forgot the damned thing.

There’s another memory, and I don’t remember all the specifics; Mike was there again. I had a mix tape that was going to be given to a girl I was nuts about, and then something happened that collapsed the whole thing. Probably a mix of my own insecurities and social ineptitude, but either way it was over. So Mike bore witness to me tearing the tape out of the casing and burning it.

I just didn’t want to listen to the thing ever again, even by accident. I remember that. It would have stained those songs for all time.

And of course, every girl on whom I had even a passing crush, got a tape. I sincerely hope they’ve all burned those too. Please.

CDs Weren’t the Same

When CDs came along, it was possible to make mixes, but it was more effort. You needed programs and computers, as opposed to a tape deck and sh**load of free time. So we made them, but there was far less love put into them. After all, those spinning plastic discs were sold at bulk prices. Who cares what the product was if it was so cheap to make another?

While not sounding the lame refrain of despair about a world that moves quickly, it’s plainly amazing how quickly this all changed and became different. Playlists just aren’t the same; it’s too easy. I kind of miss the fact that a mix tape was something so labor-intensive that you spent time making sure it was just right. And when you hit that sweet spot, it was magic. There were mix tapes that I carried around with me for years because they had just that right balance of awesomeness.

Hollow Experiences

Is there something hollow now about how we listen to music? Yeah, there is. Playlists are also intensely personalized, whereas a mix tape was something you shared, gave or played with someone else. When it met their approval, it was like getting a merit badge.

I think that there’s something we lose with all of the technology we have. The loss of the mix tape, while not a cause, is certainly a symptom of the greater disconnectedness we have, ironically in the age of social networking. We’re not looking to make something that’s enjoyed by everyone, we want everyone to accept what we like or we’ll cast them out. The mix tape was a symbol of compromise and soulful communication that we just don’t seem to have anymore.

So fare thee well, Maxell. Sayonara, Sony cassettes. Thank you for the years you gave us, the miles of magnetic tape now decomposing ever so slowly across the wide stretches of the world. We are less for your loss.

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2 thoughts on “Mourning the Mix Tape

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