Tale of the tape

Let us now praise the mix tape, a fuzzy-sounding byproduct of hours of misplaced energy and a pure enthusiasm for music.

Topics: Music,

Tale of the tape

The stories are endless. There is the guy who in college used the same mix tape to impress three different girls — his girlfriend, a fling and a prospective second fling — simultaneously and got away with it. There is the 13-year-old whose musical existence was shaken out of a Sex Pistols-Beatles bipolarity by mix tapes from cooler, older friends. There is the guy who made a romantic tape called “You Best Believe I’m in Love” with nothing on it but New York Dolls songs.

In retrospect, the era of the mix tape — which began not long after Philips unveiled the audiocassette in 1963, crescendoed throughout the ’80s and probably peaked in the early ’90s — looks like a vast, unintentional folk art movement. Nearly every music-loving teenager in the country participated. Think of it this way: If every kid who spent a Saturday afternoon making a mix tape over the past 25 years had instead spent that time painting, sculpting or writing poetry, the ’80s and ’90s would be known as a period of unbridled renaissance in American outsider art. Now that era is over, the hours of tape-deck labor replaced by the drop-and-click production of the iPod playlist.

At least that’s the sense one gets from “Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture.” Edited by Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore, “Mix Tape” claims to be the first book wholly devoted to mix-tape culture. “Not only is [the era of the mix tape] over, but there are so many people who don’t even know what it is,” Moore said in a long phone interview. “Think of people born in the ’80s.”

He may be right. I was last given a mix tape maybe five years ago. Every mix I’ve made or received since then has been on CD, which, depending on whom you ask, is either completely different or exactly the same thing.

“Mix-tape culture” is a simple but sprawling subject.

“I have so many mix-tape stories it’s hard to know where to begin,” writes the filmmaker Allison Anders in “Mix Tape.” So do a lot of people. That’s why Moore decided to make the book a relationship study rather than an academic exploration of mix-tape culture. His approach was simple. “Basically the book was me just sort of filling in my email address book, and asking everybody: Do you still have any mix tapes around?” he says.

The result is a parade of mix-tape anecdotes from 80-plus alpha hipsters — noise rockers, punk artists, radical feminist writers, avant-garde video artists and the like. “I didn’t want it to be a ‘celebrities and their cats’ kind of book,” Moore says, “which it easily could have been. I could have gone after, like, Sofia Coppola, people that I am somewhat friendly with and who have high profiles in Hollywood. But I didn’t want to go that route with it.”

What do the mix tapes of the super-hip sound like? The mixes range from the arty-eclectic (Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Renaldo made a mix for his wife, the artist Leah Singer, that juxtaposes Nick Cave and Buddy Holly with dialogue from Godard’s “Une Femme est une femme”), to the subversive (the album-jacket artist Pushead’s tapes are — what else? — barrages of early ’80s punk) to the ironic-redneck (Ahmet Zappa’s ’80s cock-rock mix comes with the following warning: “Sensitive pussies should not listen to this awesome set of ditties. This mix is filled with the power of rock and is fueled by Satan himself”). Designer Kate Spade’s entry is by far the most mainstream. Like your older sister, in high school she would drive around and smoke cigarettes to a soundtrack of David Bowie’s “Changes,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.”

All these tapes, whether compilations of avant-punk or classic rock standards, have a common purpose: to communicate an emotion or idea — to a new friend, a potential lover, or even to oneself. The mix tape, Moore says, is “sort of a safe-sex thing: It’s sharing music instead of sharing germs.” The romance comes not only from the emotion expressed by a series of songs, but also from the sheer effort that it takes to plan and execute a mix. “The time spent implies an emotional connection with the recipient,” writes Dean Wareham of Luna. “It might be a desire to go to bed, or to share ideas. The message of the tape might be: I love you. I think about you all the time. Listen to how I feel about you. Or, maybe: I love me. I am a tasteful person who listens to tasty things. This tape tells you all about me.”

“Mix tapes are like matchmaker forms,” Moore writes. For budding couples they can test compatibility. Welcome to my world, the mix tape says. If you end up sleeping over on a regular basis, this is the music you’ll have to listen to. Why don’t you make me a tape, too, so I know you’re not into Simply Red? Phrased negatively, making a mix tape for someone other than your girlfriend is a form of cheating. In the film version of Nick Hornby‘s book “High Fidelity,” probably the mix tape’s cultural zenith, John Cusack’s character, Rob Gordon, nearly wrecks a relationship by making a mix for another girl. He might as well have been caught with panties in his messenger bag. It doesn’t matter that he never gets further than flirting. Making a mix tape for another girl is only a notch below actual infidelity.

For rock snobs like the fictional Rob Gordon and record-store geeks everywhere, the mix tape has an additional purpose: to brainwash someone, to alter their musical taste. Like most people, I would imagine, I got my biggest share of these in college, when I had indie-rocker friends with enough spare time to make me grungy compilations of abrasive screamo, the covers scrawled with obscure, vulgar band names and bizarre symbols. I was brainwashed into an affection for Robyn Hitchcock by an indoctrination tape that my friends and I repeatedly stole from one another over the years, a tape I still have in my desk drawer.

In a way, “Mix Tape” is a book-length elegy that rests on the idea that the mix tape can exist only on the black-and-gold Maxell. The mix CD, now standard fare at wedding receptions and in my Brooklyn neighborhood’s hipper jukeboxes, doesn’t have the same allure. “In the future, when social scientists study the mix tape phenomenon, they will conclude — in fancy language — that the mix tape was a form of ‘speech’ particular to the late 20th century, soon replaced by the ‘play list,’” writes Dean Wareham. That the book was published at all argues that the era of the mix tape is over. If it weren’t, then why put out a book about it?

This kind of cassette fetishism is part nostalgia and part technical snobbery. For Moore, only analog tape can please what he calls the “ear-heart.” Digital technology “doesn’t have the physicality of analog tape — the friction on the head like that,” he says.

But does format really matter? Some say a digital mix isn’t as special because it doesn’t carry the weight of hours of labor that a well-done mix cassette does. With a laptop, there’s no mapping out the ebb and flow of your song list to make sure you don’t run out of tape in the middle of the last song. Digital technology, detractors say, is too slick, too easy. But even Moore, a self-professed cassette junkie who still uses cheap tape decks onstage, admits that the mix CD is an acceptable successor.

“Maybe it doesn’t take the same amount of physical effort,” he says, “but that’s not the point. I think it takes the same amount of psychological effort, or romantic effort.” Indeed, the true challenge of the mix tape — selecting the right music and arranging it in a thoughtful manner — is at least as tricky and probably even more difficult with a laptop and CD burner as it was with a boom box. In both cases, the mix is governed by the same compositional considerations: You need a narrative structure, an internal logic, a strong opening, an appropriate and preferably surprising ending.

The challenge these days is that with a world of file sharing at your fingertips, the choices are endless. Time was you only had your own record collection to choose from when making a mix tape. Now you have millions of people’s MP3 collections — truly millions, possibly billions, of songs to choose from, not to mention snippets from movies, jingles, bits of famous speeches or bits of “dialogue” from the Paris Hilton video. It can all be a bit paralyzing. In the age of file-sharing communities such as Soulseek, making a mix CD is like trying to make a professional-grade audio collage — your own personal Beck album.

All this raises the question: Is the mix tape really an art form? Literary critic Matias Viegener, writing in “Mix Tape,” offers the most convincing case that it is. “The mix tape is a list of quotations, a poetic form, in fact: The cento is a poem made up of lines pulled from other poems,” he argues. There are differences, of course. You can’t perform a formalist analysis on a mix tape; unlike with, say, a poem, not every word is there intentionally. In fact, one of the most vexing problems the mix maker faces is that rarely does an entire song express what you’re trying to say; most often you choose a song because of one particular element — a chorus, a verse or a mood — but another part of the song often betrays you. Still, the mix taper faces the same choices as the writer: what to include, what to exclude, where to start, where to end, what to emphasize and what to hide between the lines.

Besides, for a large part of an entire generation, a good mix tape carries more emotion and potential for transport than any book, film or individual song. People never tire of mix tapes. They keep them until they lose them; they never throw them out. Instead, they wear them out or spill bong water all over them and still refuse to get rid of them, despite the urgings of girlfriends, boyfriends, fiancées, wives and husbands. No matter what kind of satellite-linked, GPS-enabled iPod mutation kids of the future will carry, a good number of them will still grow up and fall in and out of love to the sound of the mix, however it’s delivered.

But clearly there is something special about the mix tape, a physicality that digital technology can’t replicate, something significant enough that Moore was able to fill a book just by e-mailing everyone in his Rolodex. The difference between analog and digital mixes isn’t as dramatic as cassette junkies would argue. But the difference is real enough that when someone puts together “Playlist: The Art of iPod Culture,” those of us who came of age in the ’80s and ’90s probably won’t be reading.

Seth Fletcher is an editorial assistant at Men's Journal.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>