The Mix Tape, a Eulogy

Saturday, May 21st, 2011

I’ve been trying to keep my digital music collection to a manageable size.  I think I’ve done a decent job.  Right now it numbers 6, 323 songs, or 34.21 gigabytes, which, if played continuously, would span 16.8 days.  This mass is mirrored by my cd, cassette tape and (yes!) vinyl collection, which I assume is roughly the same size, though not compressed into ringtone form.  Keep this in mind as I shift topic for a few.

(By the way, let me add that I love my cache of records.  I received my first 45 at the age of one and a half, when I started expressing that my favorite part of day care was the top 40 radio our teacher kept on blast constantly.  I’ve been meticulously cataloging my favorite music since.)

I noticed something on an review of a popular Nick Hornby book that read something like this (and I paraphrase): “I can’t say I’ve ever made a mix tape in my life.  I have iTunes and can download all my music.  But the idea of a mix tape seems pretty cool.  For shizzle.”

(Ok, I blatantly added that last part.)

Upon reading the above, I sucked in a deep, shaky breath, leaned back into my IKEA chair and howled.  I babbled to the uncaring laptop screen, entreating it that I had read wrong, praying that there was some cruel typo that mistakenly informed me that today’s youth somehow functioned without the ubiquitous relationship ambassador, the mix tape.

In high school, these were the things of social currency, at least among my friends.  The exchange or gifting of a tape was anything but a simple token.  Each song was painstakingly picked to match the taste of the intended, or to introduce the recipient to new music that the tape maker loved.

I enjoyed Paradise in Me by K’s Choice when I was sixteen.  But it was the mix tape of the band’s earlier songs that Daphna Hoffman made

for me that cemented my loyalty as a fan (and I still love them at the age of 31).  And when Lanie Harmon ended her mix tape with James Taylor’s You’ve Got a Friend, I knew she meant it for me.  She even recorded her own voice on tape, telling me so.

I’ll never forget the mix tape I made for the road trip that my newly-ex-high-school-sweetheart and I took (it was an obligation that we signed up for when we were still dating, and my heart was still broken).  It was a decidedly upbeat, lovesong-devoid mix that clearly stated, I’m not here for drama, you poop. I think he got the hint.  It set a pleasant tone for the trip, even if didn’t say what I really wanted it to.

I made the most mixes among my peers.  The songs were important.  The order of songs was important.  My friends seemed to enjoy the cassettes, with the exception of what I can now see as my infuriating habit of getting bored with the fade-outs of the songs and cutting each one off early on the tape.

Anyone I counted as a confidant received a mix.  I was on the constant prowl for new songs, lurking in the aisles of record and tape stores, picking some albums at random and finding others based off recommendations of store employees.  These tunes found their way onto cassette tapes, slipped into the hands of my friends in an attempt to make them understand how UHMAZING a newly discovered track really was.  It was my way of saying I cared.  It was cheaper than a Shoebox Greetings card, and infinitely more personal.

College ushered in the noticeable domination of the cd, but I still made mix tapes, though they were mostly for me.  I still have a box of old Memorex cassettes with paper labels such as “Super Study Mix 1999,” “Geology Lab Trips 1998,” “Break Up Extravaganza 2000,” (that guy was a jerk), and “Use this on the Running Track Mix.” When I occasionally can get my hands on a Walk Man, I not only get a kick in reviewing my taste when I was 19 years old; it brings me back there, too.  I can smell my old dorm rooms.  I can almost see the craggy cliffs I cataloged in my geology field guide as I listened to a particular Tori Amos song.  Hearing a certain Guster tune brings me back to a particularly rainy day on Tufts University’s quad, and I can almost see the exact shade of grey that washed out the sky.

And now there’s iTunes.  And digital music collections.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love it .  I love it all.  But I can tell you that the mix cds that I make for my car lack soul.  I miss the slight heft of a tape in my hands.  I miss the careful craft invested after an hour and a half of playing songs recorded in real time.  I miss the witty liner notes my friends and I wrote and then dutifully tucked into plastic cases.

I hate the fact that it took me less than fifteen minutes to select cohesive content for, and burn an 80′s music cd for my nieces.  It felt cheap.

And here’s the thing.  The accessibility of digital music is a both a boon and a waste.  When I bought albums, real albums, I listened to each one  from start to finish.  The songs I liked best made it onto tapes for friends.  Now, I have complete albums I’ve barely listened to, thinking I’d get to them at another point in time, since they were only a mouse click away.  I scan through my already downsized digital collection, sometimes not even recognizing the names of some artists.  In a way, I’m more divorced from music than I was when I had to hunt it down in physical form at Sam Goody.  And there’s no way to painstakingly cobble a collection of songs for friends and family, when burning cds seems like an afterthought.

Is it a harbinger of an increasingly disconnected social age?  Are we tuning out on interaction with our peers to tune into the next Big Digital Thing?  Is the art of the mix tape, a once revered kind of social covenant, truly dead?

Sadly, I think it is.  But that doesn’t mean that I won’t wade into the murky depths of my basement to grab my old Walkman and bliss out to “Geology Lab Trips 1998.” I will do that.  And it will beat my 16.8 days worth of digital tunes in spades.

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