Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Is it Love, or is it Memorex?

A conversation on Facebook yesterday reminded me of a Gen X mainstay of teenage emotional angst: the mix tape. In the intervening decades since my high school days, 21st century technological advances have relegated cassette tapes to packed boxes in the backs of closets, and even a mention of the words “mix tape” to anyone under the age of 20 induces perplexed reactions. A friend said, “You know, our word “mix” is gone, it is very sad. Now I guess it is a playlist? I liked mix better.” Today’s young’uns probably think “mix tape” is an assortment of sticky substances of masking, duct, and scotch.

But I fondly remember the forethought, effort, and emotion that went into creating the masterpiece of the mix tape, seemingly unrelated songs brought together to express secret crushes, unrequited love, or remembrance of crazy times. Hours were spent coming up with the list of songs, getting the sequence of tunes just right to configure the most perfect segues, and in the process of finding all the songs on your albums or borrowing them from your friends. Sometimes it even required the biggest time waster of all…waiting for hours for a song to come on the radio with tape recorder in hand so you could record it from speaker to tape player. That was some quality remixing there!

The final product felt like you had poured your soul into this little plastic container of magnetic ribbon. All the words you could not compose yourself were now neatly packaged for your beloved. The only thing lacking was a title for the tape. “Good Stuff” was common, or “My Faves.” You didn’t want to be too committal on the title, it was crucial to leave an air of mystery as to what was inside. Once named, all that was left to decide was the mode of delivery. Would you sneak it into their school locker? Trust a friend to give it to them? Leave it on the windshield of their car for them to find on the drive home? It was imperative that no one other than the intended recipient got their hands on your masterpiece. The embarrassment of someone else learning your true feelings was to be avoided at all costs!

And when somebody made a mix tape for you--especially someone of the other sex--it was as if Casey Kasem was sending out a long-distance dedication just to you. That meant undeniably that not only did they LIKE you, but that they THOUGHT about you, a lot, or at least for an hour or two it took them to make the tape. Yes, the mix tape was tangible proof you could show your friends to prove that somebody liked you.

But occasionally there was that uncomfortable moment where you reached a song on the mix that seemed questionable, even inappropriate. “Ohmygod, why did he put that on there? What does that mean? Is he kidding? Is he mad at me now? Should I ask him about it?” Mix tapes often ignited more questions than they answered, thereby not only sustaining teen angst, but firmly securing it into a long-term seat on the emotional rollercoaster.

The worst mix tape to receive was the I Like You But Only As A Friend mix. I got one of those once and it only had, like, 3 songs on it. See, he didn’t even want to put effort into the breakup, just 3 songs and then 33 minutes of dead air. I still can’t hear Nelson’s “After the Rain” without thinking of that jerk. Don’t be afraid to lose what was never meant to be. This from the same guy who once made me a tape that included Journey’s “Open Arms.” Where’d the love go? I guess we sailed on together, but drifted apart.


To return to the days of my double tape deck with double-speed dubbing, to bust out my Journey, Wham!, and Jack Wagner records, to once again play the role of teenage deejay in the nightclub of junior high life…would be to once again remember how tortuous young love was. Rock on, friends.


  1. Mix tapes were great! They gave us all a chance to express ourselves creatively through music, even if we weren't all that musically talented. It's sort of a shame that sharing your music with friends that way can now be criminally prosecuted. I discovered some of my favorite bands through mix tapes other people made for me.

  2. Lets not forget the art of creating the cover. I loved to make a collage that tried to represent the feel of the music. No one could ever read my handwriting so I also remember typing out the songs and bands.

    This week I have been listening to two recent mix tape finds. One is called "Always Autumn" and was given to me by a friend when I moved away. The other was a birthday present with songs as well as bits from TV shows and movies we loved. I know the tape recorder was pressed to the speaker to get those.

    I guess mix CD's can still be made but it's just not the same.

  3. that friend who recognizes the sadness over the loss of the word mix is a keeper. you can send her my way for anything she might need. ha!

    i loved the mixed tape. i remember buying packages of as many as 10 tapes for 10 bucks. when my car only had a radio, i'd buy batteries for my jam box and play my tapes - wearing out the ribbon by playing over my fave parts.

    i had a mix tape that included echo and the bunnymen, pretenders, springsteen and chicago. i loved that tape. even if the recording was dreadful.

  4. Never in my life did I put much thought into making a mix tape, let alone a special cover for one. Nor did I ever receive one that wasn't just a "mix" for no other reason than the music was cool. I feel gypped!

  5. From the movie "High Fidelity" we have this gem: "To me, making a tape is like writing a letter. There's a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again. A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do."

  6. Watched 'Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist' the other day and it brought this whole topic up for me. Of course, they're using CDs. But the 'this is how I feel about you even though we're broken up' aspect came through loud and clear. And, though I never made special covers for my tapes, I did letter the titles ;)

  7. The best description of a mix tape imaginable.