A Lament for the Mix Tape
A few weeks back, I retired my last functioning cassette player. For years it sat in the living room gathering dust. During my last annual cleaning spree, it finally got the axe – banished to the junk room until some future wave of nostalgia brings it out of the stereo component nursing home I’ve been cultivating over the past few years. This action marked a bit of a milestone in my life. I’ve had a cassette player at the ready since I was eight or nine and probably made my first mix tape a few years after that. I feel like an important chapter in my life’s story has come to an end. Even though it’s been years since I last complied a collection of my favourite songs onto a cassette, it’s still a bit unsettling to think that it will probably never happen again.
I remember my first mix tapes, curated from hours of recorded episodes of CBC’s Brave New Waves and featuring the strangest mix of music, new to my impressionable ears. Each newly discovered song seemed like a life-changing experience, which I guess they really were at the time.
I would comb through hours of songs and whittle my picks down to 90 minutes of what I considered to be the best-of-the-best, before investing hours plotting the order in which the songs should best be presented to my ears and those I deemed worthy to share in my great discoveries. The time, commitment and dedication I invested in each mix played an important role in shaping my future tastes and preferences. Which songs would stand the test of time? You can fit a lot of music onto a 90 minute TDK.
But the music was only a portion of the mix tape experience. Each mix needed a name and required some degree of clever artwork to truly represent the audio gold contained within. After all, if I was going to share these with anyone, I wanted to be sure the message was clear from the get-go. These songs really matter to me. You’re going to love them. That was pretty much the message behind each mix tape I made, even though each new tape felt like the mix that mattered most.
As my tastes became more focused and refined (like identifying tracks on previous mixes that became triggers to fast-forward for the next 7 seconds), so did the cover designs and the titles given to each creation. From my early mixes with names like Cool Tunes Volume 1 or Awesome! Awesome! Awesome!, to later versions with names like All Night Coffee Tunes and Fuck Yes!, creating these mixes became a vital contribution to the culture of music that was taking shape around me.
All through junior high and high school, trading mix tapes among my friends became our own special way to communicate likes and dislikes without having to attempt to express our feelings like adults. The best friends got the best mixes while a friendly face in math class simply got a tape containing “some good songs in no particular order”. It was an unspoken reality of our mix tape culture. From a creative standpoint, there was always a certain emotion attached to each mix and you had to be part of the inner-circle to reap the benefits.
In no other situation was the emotion of mix tape making more prevalent than in those mixes created for swooning purposes. The music, the artwork and the name took on a whole new level of importance. Sometimes a good mix would lead to a good conversation on the phone or a kiss behind the gym doors, but if you were ignored the next time you passed in the hallway, it was an obvious sign you weren’t right for each other. I remember thinking girls would love Dinosaur Jr, and then I remember learning most girls don’t love Dinosaur Jr.
When mix tapes became mix CDs, I can’t help but feel like a bit of the experience was lost. While I was nearing the end of my mix taping stage around this time, I continued to make mixes (in digital format) for friends and for road trips, but things were different. CDs changed the game. With the ability to skip songs at the touch of a button or even worse, challenge the order of things all together by selecting songs to play at random, my faith in the power of the mix had all but ended completely. All of the sudden, the deliberate and meticulously crafted experience a mix tape was designed to convey no longer mattered.
I still enjoy a good mix and the odd times I receive one, I always give it a first listen – front to back without skipping a single song. That’s the way it started and that’s the way it’s supposed to happen.
I don’t run into many friends from high school these days, but the few I keep in touch with are all friends I bonded with through sharing music. Five or six years ago I met a guy from math class who I had made a mix for and he thanked me again for turning him on to some band that he still loves now. But the best mix tape story of all – I finally met a girl who loves Dinosaur Jr. That was the last mix I made.