The Art of the Mixtape
waxing nostalgic about a lost art
[Welcome to all the new subscribers who came by way of the Cup Of Coffee newsletter by Craig Calcaterra. For those unfamiliar, cup of coffee is a great newsletter about baseball, politics, parenting, and life, and you should check it out]
I spend a lot of time wishing that the cassette tape would make a comeback. There was a lot to love about cassettes, not the least of which was making mixtapes. While the phrase “mixtape” is still around, it’s come to mean something different, something other than the long lost tradition of meticulously recording song after song off of albums and the radio in order to make a perfect musical love letter.
The art — and make no mistake about it, it is an art — of making a mixtape is lost on a generation that only has to drag and drop to complete a mix. There’s no love or passion involved in moving digital songs from one folder to another, or dragging songs on Spotify into the sidebar. Those “mixes” are just playlists held prisoner inside a device. There’s no blood, sweat and tears involved in making them.
There was a certain 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 — “I hate you and hope you die” was as common a theme as was “please don’t let my love be unrequited” — it wasn’t good enough to just take a bunch of love songs and throw them on a tape.
It was about so much more than grouping some tunes together. They had to segue. They had to flow into one another. 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 guy who sits in front of you in English class.
There would be albums strewn about the room. There would be painful minutes spent starting and stopping and restarting a song in an attempt to hit the record button at just the right time so as to eliminate the clunks and hisses. But even if you didn’t time it so perfectly as to not have even a millisecond of space between “Don’t Cry” and “Jamie’s Crying” it was OK. That 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; the two seconds of dead air was a metaphor for the silence in your relationship.
When the mix was completed, you’d sit back and admire your handiwork. You’d play it a couple of times, making sure the theme stayed intact, the segues were perfect, the message came through loud and clear. Then you’d painstakingly write the track list on the card provided with the cassette, squeezing in the long titles, making sure you got the artist’s name spelled right, obsessively checking over and over again that the track listing was correct. The next two hours would consist of you sitting on your bedroom floor staring at the tape while you tried to come up with a brilliant title, one that at once spoke of both the awesome music contained in the cassette and the feeling you were trying to convey. It didn’t matter if the cassette was a subtle gift to a would-be lover, an offering of empathy to a newly single friend or a morose reminder to yourself of the dark abyss that was your life — you had to have the right title.
Will the youth of today ever know the pain and anguish of finishing a mixtape only to realize that the first song skipped and to record it over would ruin the entire tape? Will they ever know the fear and anxiety that comes when you slip a mixtape into a crush’s desk? Or the thrill when your phone rings later that night and it’s her saying something like “Wow, I had no idea you even owned any Kraftwerk albums. That’s totally cool.” They’ll never understand what it’s 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 segues into a song about friends falling in love and then dying a little bit of embarrassment when the last song is the crush himself singing Toto’s “Hold the Line” to you.
For the beauty of the mixtape alone, I’d love to see the cassette make a comeback, for everyone to have a chance to learn the art of the mix. I know, they can easily do that on a computer. But there’s something about the finished product, the feel of the cassette in your hand, the handwritten tracklist, that fine string of tape you can pull out of the cassette in a fit of emotion when the relationship sours and your boyfriend returns the tape with all your other stuff, that makes this artifact of another era so much more than just a playlist.
I still have a couple of mixtapes collecting dust in my parents’ attic. I no longer have a cassette player to listen to them on, but I take them out every once in awhile just to touch base with my youth and to obsessively wonder once again if following Ism’s hardcore remake of “I Think I Love You” with “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” was where I went wrong.
And then making the "cover" art! I used to spend time searching magazines for the perfect photo or artwork. And then taking an x-acto knife and cutting images out...That was just as important (to me). I still have my cassettes somewhere. I just don't have a tape deck to play them all.
I never made a mixtape for somebody else. Mine was always just for me.