Black Tape For A Blue Geek: The (D)evolution of Mixtapes

This entry is cross-posted on my friend Chris’ site Geek Force Five. It’s a veritable cornucopia of high geekery, and just about the only place I can get published chock full of obsessive fun.  Go and have a look around!

maxell_ur90_2There are a lot of ways to get to know people that take time, involve boundaries and labor, and generally allow for each participant to set their own pace. Pfft, I say! I’m a twentieth-century digital boy (which means, as we’ll see, that I’m using an analog-digital converter and have set my channel to 3). If I like you, for whatever reason, then I’m not going to wait. I have a great gut, and it tells me everything I need to know. So, chances are that when I’ve met someone new that I feel I’d like to know better, I’m going to ask: “Hey, do you want me to make you a tape?” It’s a reflex that – despite changes in time and social norms – I will never lose. And it’s also the quickest way to see whether you’re going to be taking any long car trips in the near future. Shallow? Maybe. Ephemeral? Absolutely. Practical? Quite possibly. Now, granted, I am most likely going to deliver that “tape” in CD format or on one of these adorable things. Still, for reasons that I’ll try and lay out for you, I just can’t bring myself to shake the habit of calling it a “tape,” or relying on its Magic-8-ball-esque utility.

As Chris was talking about earlier this week, there’s something about a mix tape (1) that seems to capture the imagination in the way that other formats simply don’t. Granted, I’ve used some online services to make playlists, and I do pass around the occasional mix via CD, but I tend to think of these as functional, ultimately disposable objects. The mix tapes that I made in years past – they are forever. I loved each one that I got (even if only for the notes or the handwriting), and I loved pouring over the ones I made in order to get them “just right.” (2)

Now, let’s be clear. This isn’t just a nostalgia thing. Sure, there are lots of people out there that look at cassettes as heralding a more romantic time. And for the most part, I would be happy to be counted in that number. However, the problem I have in getting the same emotional satisfaction out of a CD runs deeper. This is really about longing for something personal. Something that suggests that the project (and, I suppose, its recipient) was worth the time it takes to sit down and think. CDs are too easy to throw together, and so their emotion and personality is too easily synthesized (I’m looking at you iTunes’ Genius). Let’s take a look at how one of these tapes would come together, and see if we can’t find out why, yeah?

For the sake of grammatical purposes, let’s assume that I’ve just met you. We hit it off, and discussed our mutual love of Cure B-sides, fries with cheese and bacon, and that feeling you get when you drive down a hill really fast. Great. I’ve asked if you wanted to trade tapes, and you said yes. You may, or may not, have pointed out that you don’t own a tape player (Hi, Nora). If it happened, you’re probably under-25 (Hi, again). But no mind, I’m going home to make that “tape.” So, I’ll need to start thinking about who you seem to be to me – I want the tape to make you happy – and I’ll need to figure out what stands for me (this week), as I want to make me happy.

All right, I’ve done that. I’ve got myself some Was Not Was, Oingo Boingo, Duran Duran, and Pat Boone (it’s a weird week, ok?). Now, operating under the assumption that this is the cassette version that we’re looking for, I have to start thinking about “flow.” Many of you will have seen the film “High Fidelity,” and Hornby’s advice on the assemblage of mix tapes, given to us in the form of Rob Gordon, is absolutely dead on. You need to grab attention, build excitement, maintain energy, and take people on a journey for however long your tape lasts. Whether you think of this in terms of using other people’s poetry to convey an emotional (or other) message, or defining the scope of your interest, or just turning someone on to new stuff, the choices are crucial. We’re dealing with a ninety-minute audition, right? You have to be witty, charming, and entertaining without, inadvertently, doing the Macarena. Life is tough.music_to_please_071201

So, I’ve got out some scratch paper, and I’m trying to find just the right songs. I need to know how they inform each other, how the end of one sets up the opening of the next, and a million other variables. Questions of “Is this too obvious,” and “Can that be taken the wrong way?” abound. But assuming I’ve made it past this phase, and chosen 98 minutes of music (oh, like you didn’t overrun your sides), I now have to do the actual recording. (3)

So, I’m sitting on the floor with my stereo, and I’m dubbing the songs. In the meantime, I’m working on a name for that mix. The first mix I was ever given was called the Econo Mix. That name was based on a shared experience and a personal reference point. A perfectly normal set of criteria. Other mixes I have received were the “Welcome Back to England” mix (from my friend Charles when I began study at Cambridge), “Parallelograms” from a friend in Geometry class, and the overtly-titled “I think you’re awesome and we should go out sometime.” For the most part, these titles connote shared experience. Mixes for new people? Well, if you want to follow this pattern, you’re probably going to end up with the “Bus Stop Is For Lovers” mix. Or, similar.

While wallowing in the agony of searching for a title, the track list needs to be written and any liner notes must be provided. These are fairly straightforward opportunities to worry about your handwriting, and are largely irrelevant to the whole. But one thing that I remember being absolutely wonderful is that moment when the tape is ready, rewound, and secured snugly in a prepared tape case. There’s something about this moment that calls to mind the feeling of having written a long letter, or a great poem, or a perfect explanation for the reason that you just didn’t want to go home until it was well past bedtime.

And really, that’s what we’re talking about. For nerds like me who lack a certain amount of what you might call “talent” or “intellect,” this is my art. I like to think that the one thing I can do is provide just the right music to make (or break) a mood, regardless of the situation. I like using this talent to elicit unexpected aspects of my friends’ personalities, as well as to enhance the feeling of a great party of environment. I suppose, in a sense, this makes me a meta-artist, or a life-hacker. *shrug* I’m not sure what those mean, but they sound way better than “nerd.” Anyway…

It’s an involved process. While elements of this process survive in the CD format, there’s no real work involved. The process of selection is similar, but the expectations are lowered by the common knowledge that this format is both easy and ubiquitous. CDs are cheap, and the computer does all the work, and a bad CD can easily be replaced by another.

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Honestly, that’s the beginning and ending of my disappointment with mix CDs. I’ve had a couple of thoughtful ones that have stuck with me, but there really haven’t been that many – and most of these are from people who think of them as tapes, too.

Not too long ago, I had the opportunity to put together the music for a friend’s wedding. I thought that trying to please these varying tastes and interests would be something befitting my stature as both music nerd and tape aficionado. CDs were my medium, but they were all tapes. In the process of assembling those mixes, I realized that the thing that draws me to this format is the collaboration. By this I mean that you get feedback from the tape, and that there’s the promise of people either giving you music or telling you some stories about what happened while they were listening (hence, really, the hope that people will contribute to my site: Songs That Saved Your Life). Fortunately, I got to be there for the entirety of the shared experience, and the responses were overwhelmingly positive.

What I wonder, and you can shed light on this, is this: Do you ever get a feeling of satisfaction from using either online music sharing services like favtape? How about mix CDs? And if you do feel that a certain romance has been lost in the transition away from predominantly hand-crafted tapes, do you think there are ways to get that back? I’d love to hear your ideas (and your mixes), and I hope you’ll share some below. Here’s one of mine: Breezy Day Mix Have a listen, and give it some thought. I’m really sorry about the handwriting, but my teacher told me not to write in cursive, even though I’d already taught myself, and now it’s all messed up….

You know what, just listen. (4)


  1. There’s a lot of interesting bits about mixtapes in this Wikipedia entry. [Back]
  2. On the subject of the lasting impact of mixes, you really should read Rob Sheffield’s amazing Love is a Mix Tape. I bet you’d like it. [Back]
  3. I know we’re in the middle of things, but here’s a really useful set of instructions on constructing a tape from modern tools. [Back]
  4. Images courtesy of this site. [Back]

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