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Cassette Players Were A Pain, But There Was Nothing More Romantic Than A Mixtape

Back in the day, all my music was on cassette. All through high school, I proudly toted around an army surplus backpack filled with a dozen tapes, their plastic cases dully clicking against each other as I ran for the subway. My Walkman was high-end, water-resistant and bright yellow. It automatically flipped sides, so you could listen to your favourite album on a loop until the batteries ran out.

This is what it looked like.

Wikimedia Commons

The viral video "Kids React to Walkmans" featuring children trying to make sense of the portable personal cassette player? It's cute. And yes, we get that when compared to the tiny, weightless touch screens boasting thousands of songs at your fingertips, the older technology is absurd. But these kids? They're missing the romance.

Now sit back and let mama tell you a story about music on cassette tapes. They were a pain in the ass. But we liked them.

When I was 11 years old on family vacation, we had only brought one album due to poor kid-packing. And there wasn't a whole lot to do but sit by the pool and listen to that darn tape, over and over. But ask me if I know the lyrics to any of the Pointer Sisters songs on their phenomenal "Break Out" album and I will not only provide you with the accurate lyrics, but possibly a choreographed poolside dance.

Cassettes made you understand time. If the DJ on the radio station was about to play your favourite song, you would scramble for a blank tape, slide it in, press record and sit by the ghetto blaster until it was over. Yes, the audio was horrible. Really — it warbled and hissed.  Whenever you hit fast forward or rewind you had to GUESS when the song was going to start/end based on your perception of its length.This required intuition and skill. You had to work for your music.

And then there was the art of the mixtape. The greatest mixes were educational/aspirational playlists you'd borrow from a cool older sibling -- samplings on which you'd base a whole new musical journey. Once you had a good collection of your own tunes, it was a music nerd's delight to craft the perfect mix for a party, a road trip, or as an introduction to new friend.   

The mixed tape was your totem, your cultural signal. It was also the perfect way to tell your high school crush you liked him. My friend Cory is firm in the belief that without mixed tapes, he never would have lost his virginity.

Of course there were bad concept mixes. Like the time I tried to create a mix of all the songs I knew that mentioned the colour blue. Not strong. Or the time I created a mix with angry hardcore punk on Side A (labelled HELL) and blissed-out folk on Side B (labelled HEAVEN). It was jarring. And silly.

Often there was a heart-stopping the moment when you pulled the tape out of its player and a cassette ribbon would unravel with it. And  you knew you had to perform delicate surgery with a ballpoint pen, clear tape, and an exacto-knife. But when you popped it in, pressed play, and heard that affirmative robotic 'loo-loo-LOO' you'd get excited all over again. You still had your tape, thankfully. It was the only copy you had.

From summer 2014, originally pub on

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Cassette Players Were A Pain, But There Was Nothing More Romantic Than A Mixtape

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