In the museums of the future, there had better be a place reserved for the mix tape. As any music obsessive who came of age in the 1970s or ’80s can testify, the homemade compilation is a pop artifact par excellence. With proper care, the successful tape could tutor a sibling, impress a friend, seduce a lover.
Three years ago, writing in his book, Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture, the American noise-rocker Thurston Moore described the euphoria of creating one for the first time.
It was 1981, in New York City. Moore (Sonic Youth, To Live and Shave in L.A.) used hardcore punk songs that he’d copied from a neighbour’s record collection. When the cassette was done, he played it in bed, careful not to rouse his sleeping girlfriend:
“[I] listened to the tape at ultra-low thrash volume. I was in a state of humming bliss. This music had every cell and fiber in my body on heavy sizzle mode. It was sweet.”
There were unwritten rules to making mix tapes (see Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity). To begin, you had to have a theme (like love songs), and a devastating cut to open Side A (Nina Simone, “Lilac Wine”). Only amateurs would include something too obvious in the lineup, but veterans knew to pick at least one all-time classic (Frank Sinatra, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”). Of course, there would have to be surprises along the way (Death From Above 1979, “Romantic Rights”; Method Man and Mary J. Blige, “I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need to Get By”). Last and most important, you had to save a stone-cold killer for the close (the Patti Smith Group, “Because the Night”).
The mix tape won despite itself. Audiocassettes are lo-fi and faulty, a hissing half step between vinyl’s warmth and digital audio’s robot clean. Compact discs, MP3s, and podcasts have made music infinitely portable, but we’ve lost the religion that happened when a world-class mix tape passed from one hand to another. It looked better than a burned CD. It meant more than a hyperlink.
“Here, I made this for you.”
Matthew McKinnon (@matthewmckinnon) is an editor, writer, and designer.