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Mixtapes, Remembered

15 March 2010 Stories and Appreciations 5,422 views 2 CommentsPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

“To me, making a (mixtape) is like writing a letter — there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again,” wrote Nick Hornby in his 1995 novel “High Fidelity.” “You can’t have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you’ve done the whole thing in pairs and … oh, there are loads of rules.” In memory of the now-defunct art of recording a perfect batch of favorite songs to cassette tape, B. James, Krysztof Nemeth and Gregory Crosby write about the mixtape rules they personally followed … and the rules they happily broke.

Mixtape Romantic

I was thirteen the first time I made a mixtape for a boy I liked. I blushed when I put “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” by the Ramones on it (even though I was a girl), wondering if that song was too intense a betrayal of my secret crush. “I don’t like the Ramones,” he told me, after listening to it. That was the end of that.

A year later I sneaked out of my parent’s house at 11pm on a school night to deliver a mixtape (if it could be called that — it was a few Devo songs recorded over one of those three-song cassette samplers they gave away for free at record stores) to the mailbox of a boy who lived around the corner. This overture proved far more effective, and not long after we were making out to Joy Division and sharing the same pair of fishnet stockings. When his parents sent him off to Wavy Gravy’s circus gulag “Camp Winnarainbow” for the summer, I sent him care packages of black nail polish and Bauhaus tapes in protest, the liner notes penned in black ink on blood red paper before being wrapped in black lace and fastened with a safety pin.

Now that I’m almost thirty, I don’t make mixtapes for the boys I like anymore. True, I did make an 8tracks playlist of makeout music to share with a paramour, but that’s not the same as the adolescent mixtape. The cassette format meant you had to carefully cue and listen to each song in its entirety, where sometimes half of a song was cut off or missing the intro because you’d recorded it off the radio; each song was imbued with a special secret meaning.

Mix CDs just can’t replace that. They’re impersonal and disposable in a way that cassettes never were. And there’s always the risk that if you make a mix for the wrong person, too soon, that you’ll scare them off with the intensity of the romantic overture, like accidentally blurting “I love you” or calling too often. The worst example of this was an ex who brought me the mixtape he’d been working on for me after I’d dumped him- as if it were a pair of earrings I’d forgotten at his house. As if his choice of songs could breathe new life into our failed romance. As if a mixtape could determine the fate of an entire relationship. Maybe it can. - B. James

The Eternal Blue Cassette

Back in the 1980s, I had this one cassette tape that I used over and over to make mixes of songs I’d recorded off of Southern California radio stations KROQ and 91X. I’d listen to the radio in my room after doing my homework (I was a good boy) and I’d just sit there waiting for the good songs to come on. I’d hit “record” a few seconds into a track, and “pause” a few seconds into the next song (or deejay’s voice) that got mixed into its dying strains.

The cassette had a blue shell and was sturdier than most of the other cassettes I had. I’d figured out that I could just slap a new piece of masking tape with a new completion date every time I made a new mix. It was the one tape I took with me every time I left the house, whether I used it in my crappy knock-off Walkman (it only had “play,” “stop” and “fast-forward” buttons), or in the boom box in the back seat of the Toyota Celica my parents would let me borrow; the car that didn’t have its own working tape deck. The cassette was, in fact, the soundtrack to my life.

The final version of this tape was done sometime near the end of my sophomore year, maybe in April 1984. It was magnificent. Peter Gabriel’s “I Don’t Remember” awkwardly bumping into Gang of Four’s “What We All Want.” Specimen’s “Returning from a Journey” misaligned with Duran Duran’s “Secret Oktober.” Adam and the Ants’ “Prince Charming” smooshed gleefully against Depeche Mode’s “Told You So.” Somehow, it all worked. I think there were also bits of Talk Talk, Reflex, Blancmange and others, all clamoring against each other with no end and no beginning … but in constant rotation.

The very last song on the tape was “Mickey Mouse” by Sparks. The tape didn’t make it through the end of the song — a mistake I usually never made, since a master mix-taper knows his limits. I was so amped up on the song in its gleeful refrains that I didn’t pay attention to the tape machine going “ker-CHUNK” when the tension on the tape-motors made the mechanical decision to stop recording.

I can never hear “Mickey Mouse” today without anticipating the inevitable and unceremonious hook it gets near the end of its performance. But the brilliance of that old cassette was that the player would always just start up again on the other side. Before the sadness could set in, we were off again … a few seconds into the dance remix of “Love Action” by the Human League. - Krysztof Nemeth

A Mixtape for the End of the World

New Year’s Eve once meant a great deal to me, and not because it represented yet another opportunity to make resolutions that would invariably be put off until the Chinese New Year, forgotten by Fat Tuesday, and then dimly, sheepishly recalled to mind sometime around Rosh Hashanah. New Year’s Eve was important because I used to host an annual party that became semi-legendary in my social circle (if the number of people who claim to have had sex in the master bath is any indication). But there was only one year, 1995, that warranted a mixtape especially for that party, and to this day the eclectic list of songs on that tape now sound strangely out of context whenever I chance to hear them—as if their inclusion on that mix meant that they now floated entirely free of not just their origins but of their future contexts as well. 1995 was a year where the proportion of heartbreak and nostalgia reached the apogee that only one’s late twenties can provide: the false but overwhelming sense that she (whoever she was) was the one that got away, and that your youth will soon be as dead and trapped as a wasp in amber.

To this day, The Clash’s “Train in Vain” wears only one face, even though it did duty for other romantic betrayals in the years that followed; The Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979” might as well be re-titled “1995,” as it instantly invokes drives around the city in that long autumn; and David Bowie and Queens’ “Under Pressure,” timeless as it is, speaks to the particular stresses and strains of my friends that year, a year in which more was ultimately forged than was broken.

That mixtape ended with R.E.M. singing “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” at full blast as someone turned on Dick Clark so we could drunkenly watch the ball drop. But it was the first song on the tape that resonated most then and most resonates today, whenever I happen to hear it: Natalie Merchant’s “Carnival.” I haven’t followed Merchant’s career much—in fact, I was never much of a fan to begin with—but “Carnival” occupies an outsized place in my mind whenever I review times past, its insistent question tugging at the edge of all my judgments and regrets: Have I been blind have I been lost/Inside myself and my own mind/Hypnotized, mesmerized by what my eyes have seen? Popping in that old tape now, that song instantly makes it seem as if the ever-present, ever-absent Now could be any year, any time, even though I still see nineteen-hundred and ninety-five swimming before me as Merchant’s voice fills the air. - Gregory Crosby


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  1. […] EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second installment in a series of pieces relating the entire history of human creativity through an examination of that nearly extinct artistic medium, the mixtape. Read part one here. […]

  2. […] NOTE: Our series on the history of the mixtape continues. In part one, B. James, Gregory Crosby and Krysztof Nemeth talk about the whys and hows of making mixtapes; in […]

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