Cassette Culture Untangled

TDK, BASF, Maxell, Denon, and Sony: Once, these were among the most important words in the teenage lexicon.

For those who couldn’t strum a guitar, a mix tape was the ultimate expression of youthful (self-)obsession.

That era of post-punk, during which cassette culture flourished, presaged today’s music scene. It was an age of garage bands and DIY recordings, and as young fans started to copy and share each other’s music collections, it didn’t take long before somebody claimed that –Home TakingThe advent of the iPod, downloads and peer-to-peer networks seemed certain to consign the old analogue cassette tape to cultural oblivion, but in music, it seems, that what goes around doesn’t just come around again; it’s simply rewound!

Thanks to a growing band of online fans, the homemade tape is refusing to die. Each month, for example, the members of the (fee-based) International Mix Tape Project put a homemade cassette in a Jiffy bag and send it to one of their 1,200 fellow participants, in 30 countries on six continents.

The genres of mix-tape are many and varied, though the most common is the courtship tape and its corollary, the break-up tape. There’s the “tape you thought was a courtship tape until she mentioned her boyfriend” tape. Then there’s the walking tape, the summer tape, the dance party tape. And there’s the good old showing-off-your-collection-to-a-new-mate tape. Driving tapes, now almost defunct owing to the lack of cassette players in new cars, had a series of sub-genres, including the road-trip tape and the commuting tape.

Perhaps your favourite tape was just the one you kept in the ghetto blaster to record the best of the Top 40 each weekend, which may have been peppered with snippets of Mark Goodier, John Peel, Casey Kasem, or Martin Bailie thrown in by accidental measure. It’s the flaws that make a mix tape unique — the song accidentally curtailed, the DJ’s intro on a track recorded from radio, and the felt-tip smudges on the sleeve.

You don’t get that with an iPod playlist. Digital is perfect every time. Digital is dull.

For one thing, a well-conceived mix-tape takes hours of care and attention, says Rob — played by John Cusack in the film adaptation of the book “High Fidelity“:

“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. You’ve got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention … and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can’t have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you’ve done the whole thing in pairs and … oh, there are loads of rules.”

Then there’s the cover art. Some choose the easy path: a hastily scrawled tracklist with no frills, which plays it cool and says, “Hey, this is a tape I happened to make.”

Some, on the other hand, take the honest approach: calligraphy honed to perfection with the aid of a four-colour Biro, which says, “I love you. Please love me. And if you can’t, at least acknowledge my impeccable taste in music.”

“The times you lived through, the people you shared those times with — nothing brings it all to life like an old mix tape,” writes Rolling Stone journalist Rob Sheffield. “It does a better job of storing memories than actual brain tissue can do.”

In a world where iTunes rules, it’s nice to know that the old cassette still plays its own tune.

Edited from an original article by IOL Technology.

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