I miss mixtapes. I mean I really miss them. If you were one of those kids with a pencil at the ready to spool a cassette after the tape came loose, I imagine you pine for the days of the mixtape, too.
The art — and make no mistake about it, it was an art — of making a mixtape is lost on a generation that needs only to drag and drop digital files to complete a playlist. The meticulous recording of song after song — from records, other cassettes, the radio, and perhaps the occasional 8-track — to make the perfect musical love letter is a forgotten pastime. The “mixes” we create today on iTunes or Spotify are just playlists held hostage inside a device. There is no blood, sweat, or tears involved in the making of them.
There was once a ritual to making a perfect mixtape, one that could take hours to finish, maybe even days, depending on how much you wanted to impress the recipient. While the songs had to have a common theme, it was forbidden to simply take a bunch of love songs and throw them on a tape. It was about so much more than grouping some songs together. They had to segue. They had to flow into one another organically. Each song needed to be a continuation of the one before it, as if all these disparate bands got together and recorded a concept album based solely on your feelings for the girl who sat in front of you on the bus ride home.
How vividly I remember my albums strewn about my bedroom in preparation. (Clean up would sometimes require an hour or more to match record to sleeve and sleeve to cover. ) The process was neither simple nor smooth. There were inputs and outputs and levels to be adjusted. I had to make sure the cables were all in the right sockets. Then came time to press RECORD and PLAY and then PAUSE to ready the cassette. How many hours were lost to the trial and error of recording the next song? How many recordings were fraught with false-starts? Painfully, I had to stop, then restart each song to hit the pause button at just the right time. And that process was nowhere near as difficult as painstakingly timing the drop of the needle to the vinyl below. Too often I miscalculated — leaving an uncomfortable moment of space between two songs — only to find solace when the unintentional hiss became part of the mix. Upon the third listen, that sound would no longer be a piece of imperfection, but part of the flow of the tape — six seconds of dead air turned metaphor for the silence in my relationship. Yes, even after years of practice my mixtapes were sometimes full of bumpy starts, abrupt endings and the thunk of buttons being pressed.
When the mixtape was finished, I’d sit back and admire my handiwork. I would listen to the mixtape again. And again. Then, I’d play it a couple of times more, each time making sure the theme remained unbroken. I would play the mixtape until I was certain that the message was clear and concise, that the segues were perfect, Then I’d diligently write the track list on the card provided with the cassette, squeezing in the long titles, making sure I spelled the artist’s name correctly, obsessively checking over and over again that the track listing was correct. Then, for the next two hours I would lie back on my bed staring at the cassette while I tried to come up with a brilliant title. Titles were imperative; they had to speak for the incredible music contained in the cassette and the torch I carried. It didn’t matter if the cassette was a a sampling of my favorite songs for a good friend, a subtle gift for a new crush, a reprimand for the ex who broke my heart, or a morose acknowledgment of the void in my life — I had to have the right title.
Kids today will never know the pain and anguish of finishing a mixtape only to realize that the first song skipped, thus forcing you to scrap the finished product and start all over again (true story — it happened one time only, but lesson learned — I never again left the room while recording from vinyl). They will never know the fear and anxiety you felt when slipping that mixtape into a crush’s desk the next day at school. They will never know the thrill of your crush calling that night to say, “Wow, I had no idea you were a Beatles fan. That’s really cool.” They’ll never know what it was like to be on the receiving end of a mixtape, to run home and listen to it on your headphones trying to find the message within, anticipating the next track, swooning when a song about friendship segued into a song about friends falling in love.
There is no question that the mixtape defined my adolescence. It was the ultimate gift of self-expression to a friend or loved one. The process was designed for someone who loved music, who wanted another person to love the same music, and, by extension, to love him or her. A mixtape said “This is who I am and what I know and what I can show you.” At the same time, the mixtape signaled to the recipient, “ I know who you are and what you like and I have thought deeply about that.”
It is true that mixtapes took thought, time, and an intimate knowledge of the person for whom the mixtape was made. But in this way, within the confines of two short sides of a cassette, and from my own assemblage of albums and the frequencies on my FM dial, I curated a one-of-a-kind soundtrack to express my thoughts and feelings about friends and lovers, and I did it in a way that often allowed me to introduce them to music they did not know but that I loved. And let's not forget the mixtapes I made for myself.
There were mixtapes that I played to destruction but which define the memory of a time and place. Once, when my life abruptly changed, I propelled myself through it all on a mixtape of pounding hair band anthems that I have not wanted to listen to since: Poison, Warrant, Motley Crue. There was a mixtape I made for driving to work 22 years ago that even now, whenever I drive through the old neighborhood, I can hear Wilson Pickett followed by The Staple Singers then Prince. That particular constellation is fixed in my memory because of that mixtape.
There remains a certain intimacy in making a mixtape. It says, "I care about you enough to carefully select some songs that speak to the specifics of our relationship." It says, "I'm happy to buy some blank tapes and spend an evening methodically recording songs onto them via a two-slot cassette player" or "You are worth the effort involved in illegally downloading MP3s, risking viruses, and recording them via USB." They take time and consideration. Which, in this economy, means something.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not nostalgic for the difficulty I had in finding and hearing music in the 1980s. It’s wonderful to be able to think of a song and then listen to it just like that. But the mixtape is a form of communication that is constrained and individual. It reconstructs an experience that has been diluted. I’d love to see the cassette make a comeback. I would love for everyone to have the chance to learn the art of the mixtape. Yes, we can easily do the same on a computer, but let’s be real. Do kids today put such loving care into making a Spotify playlist? Of course not.
I wish today’s youth could know the joy of the finished product, the feel of the cassette in their hands, the hand-written tracklist, that fine string of tape they could pull out of the cassette in fits of emotion when their relationships sour. Memories such as these make this artifact of another era so much more than just a playlist.