Copying for Friends

The Mixtape Era

Only someone truly perverse would make a mixtape today. There are so many better ways of spending one’s time. But convenience comes at a price.

Peak cassette culture. Hip-hop mixtape, United States.

Making a playlist on a streaming platform like Spotify or YouTube is a painless process.

If you know what songs you want to include, it takes far less time to finish one than to listen to those songs in their entirety. Even if you haven’t made your selections in advance, just following your train of thought will do.

It doesn’t need to be a long train, either, since the algorithm suggests ways of filling out a playlist if you pick a few starting points.

Or you can let your listening history provide the data for generating one automatically, which has the added virtue of making you hear songs you already knew in a different light or sometimes learning about music you would otherwise have missed.

Who would want to go back to the old way, in which you were limited by the physical media to which you had access?

I certainly wouldn’t.

But when I stumbled across a box of cassettes the other day, some made by me and some made for me, I remembered that the difficulty of making them had imbued them with a singularity that is getting hard to achieve in our relentlessly digital age.

When I was an exchange student in Germany in the 1980s, much of the music I wanted to hear was unavailable on compact disc. I would buy vinyl albums and give them to a friend to record.

He didn’t just press record, though. Each recording he made for me came with the titles, not only of the albums but of every song on them, typed out neatly on the insert that came with blank cassettes. Only now do I recognise what a labour of love that was.

Or how about the cassette my father made for me while I was overseas, which has the BoDeans debut Love & Sex & Hope & Dreams on one side and the Violent Femmes’ Hallowed Ground on the other?

In a letter, I had asked him to buy the albums and record them for me because they weren’t available at any of the stores in Bremen that my friends frequented.

Although that might not seem too remarkable, my opera-loving father had long insisted that playing rock and roll records with a heavy beat on his turntable was bad for his needle.

I vividly remember playing Prince and Led Zeppelin after school, then rushing to put them away and turn off the stereo when his car pulled into the driveway.

During my first year of graduate school, my musician friend Florence Dore gave me a demo tape that she no longer owns. I still have it, as well as the recording she made of the Girly-Sound demos that Liz Phair circulated before she signed a contract to release her first album, Exile in Guyville.

Now Phair has reissued those early songs so that everyone who wants to hear them can, usually without paying more than the price of a streaming subscription. But for decades, I treasured the fact that I had privileged access to that music, which felt special for someone who came to popular music late and was never much of an insider.

Some of the tapes in my box gave me mixed feelings, such as the ones made for me by friends with whom I’ve lost touch or ones from people who have passed away.

I don’t need the two cassettes onto which my father squeezed a recording of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca anymore to hear it since I have the CDs and multiple ways of streaming the opera.

But when I see the block capitals of his handwriting, so similar to mine and yet distinct, I can’t help but remember playing him the aria “Vissi d’arte” on my mobile phone in the emergency room right before his heart stopped beating.

I could find a way to print the titles on one of my friend’s Spotify playlists and burn it onto a compact disc or two. And then I might remember it better than I otherwise would, simply because of the effort I expended.

In the end, though, the odds of even an archivally minded person like me doing this more than once or twice are remote.

A cassette has a solidity that gives it meaning, even when it’s blank.

My first girlfriend in college once gave me a Maxell tape that she had pre-labelled so I could record albums by The Cure for her, The Top on one side and The Head on the Door on the other, wanting to recreate a cassette that had stopped working.

We broke up before I could make the recording. And even though we remained friends, something inside me resisted doing the work afterwards. But I now treasure the melancholy that courses through my fingers when I hold that music-free tape in my hands.

Maybe the most important thing about a mixtape is that it is necessarily a fixed tape, a document of a particular place and time.

The playlists I make today are always subject to revision. I move songs around and add and subtract. But even though the end result might make for better listening, the time of creation becomes harder and harder to pin down.

I’ve created a Spotify playlist that recreates one of my own mixtapes to accompany this piece. Although there is no date on the cassette, I can tell from its contents and the neat-and-tidy print listing each song and its running time that it dates from the heyday of the alternative rock explosion of the early 1990s.

Listening to the tracks in order now is awkward.

Not because I dislike any of them, mind you, but because the pleasure I get from hearing them again makes me question whether I’ve made as much progress as I like to believe.

My selections exemplify the “rockism” of that era. Even though I came to popular music through soul and disco and loved the synthesiser-based Europop hits of my teenage years, I felt the need to segregate my listening by then.

Although I played rap records regularly, listened to Prince as much as ever, enjoyed my girlfriend’s favourite soul records and was regularly intrigued by the out-there electronica that my friend would share with me, I clearly didn’t feel comfortable combining them on the same playlist with the alternative rock songs and their classic rock forebears that comprised this particular playlist.

These days, when making playlists is easy and doesn’t cost anything, I wouldn’t feel so sheepish about confining them to a particular genre or mood.

Back in the early 1990s, though, when making a mixtape meant spending a few hours parked in front of my Yamaha, the fact that I made ones devoted purely to rock confirmed a latent ideological backwardness.

Still, I stand by the songs.

Reviewing the track list, I recalled something I had forgotten.

Back then, I struggled to perceive as many continuities as possible between the alternative rock to which I devoted most of my listening hours and the classic rock I had heard in high school before I understood that there was such a thing as college radio.

That’s why Jimi Hendrix and Sonic Youth are on my mixtape.

I was also keen to demonstrate the connection between the 1980s alternative bands I’d become familiar with during my year in Germany and the more American fare that dominated my listening in the early 1990s.

So New Order and The Cure go hand in hand with the Afghan Whigs and Dinosaur Jr.

I was trying too hard to bridge the gaps in my musical development but not hard enough to overcome the discontinuities between my white, suburban taste and the music that had moved me to resist my father’s classical-music-only mindset in the first place.

Even though I find this embarrassing now, it’s better to have evidence of my failure to integrate than to pretend that I was more open-minded than I was.

I’m lucky to still have this way of confronting my past. And I wonder whether my daughter’s generation will ever have the chance to do something similar.

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Photograph courtesy of Mike B In Colorado. Published under a Creative Commons license.