Mix tapes are dead.
Among the many dead technologies, I miss the mix tape. The death of a technology and its associated objects and habits can bring regret or relief.
Think of letter writing. Often, the only clues to women’s history or the only insights into a previous generation’s thoughts and emotions are found in letters. Writing letters was a habitus, a way of being and doing. Today, our digital documentation is excessive, often thin, and shallow. A constant stream of 140 characters fails to capture the nuances of a traditional letter. Perhaps 19th century upper-class women writing about their tea service (see Veblen on spoons; there is no spoon?) could be considered shallow too. Both Twitter and high tea are reflections in “taste” in its fullest sense of the word.
The mix tape should be missed. The easy availability of cassette tapes and the invention of the Sony Walkman in the 80s gave birth to the practice of making personal, portable song compilations. Mix tapes were a quintessential part of my college experience. We were a “cassette culture.” We created soundtracks to our lives. Road trips, drinking mixes, and all night study sessions were especially popular mix tape occasions.
Mix tapes became musical memory albums that would remind us of the particular experience that we made the tape for. I could periodize my life by taped archives, from the days of new wave music starring Bronski Beat and New Order, to the emergence of popular women musicians such as the Indigo Girls and Melissa Etheridge in the late 80s. In junior high school, I got my very first mix tape from my mother, which she made for a camping trip. It was rudimentary, and we played it on an old Panasonic. It included Dinah Washington, Thelonious Monk, and Sarah Vaughn, my first exposure to jazz.
Then there were those meaningful moments where you bestowed upon your friends a tape you made for them. That gift took thought, it showed someone you spent time considering the other person — musical selections communicated something about your relationship, how you saw them, what you knew of them, how you wanted them to see you. A tape took hours to make, which meant that you held that other person in your mind for a long time as you built a “narrative arc” filled with “webs of emotional associations” (those phrases actually come from Wikipedia’s entry on mix tapes). Mix tapes in these instances were highly relational.
The habitus of writing letters applies to mix tapes. Making a mix tape is a bodily experience. Just review how Joel Keller describes it in the opening of his Salon article, “PCs killed the mix tape star“:
I miss the way I used to make mixes. I’d sit in front of my tape deck, with a stack of CDs or records on one side of me, and a beverage (adult or otherwise) on the other, and spend a couple of hours or more finding just the right combination of songs to put on the tape. The levels would all match; loud songs got softened and soft songs got a boost. I would attempt to take the mix right to the end of the tape; I’d spend over an hour finding that perfect minute-and-a-half song or snippet that would fit musically with the rest of the mix.
All the while, I would be swigging the beverage, and listening to each song as if it was the first time I’d heard it, usually with head down and some appendage keeping time. After a side was done, I’d rewind, punch out the tab, put on a custom-made label, and go to bed knowing that I’ve made something that I or my friends were going to enjoy for years to come.
The easy click and drag of making a playlist does not compare. The difference between mix tapes and play lists, which is what we do today, mirrors the difference between digital and analog music. Playlists lack analog warmth. Some people do burn CD compilations for their friends. Some do put thought and care into their playlists, perhaps holding to an earlier aesthetic. But this is rare.
Yes, there are fun, new things to do with making personal compilations. There’s MixTape.me and also Mixtape.com, two websites devoted to making and sharing playlists. And then there’s the cassette tape repurposed as Transformers. Still, I miss the old school.
On the upside, I just made a playlist at MixTape and I didn’t have to worry about finding a song to fill the last 2:38 of the tape. Enjoy: