Mix Tape Playlists

I wrote this in response to this delightful piece on mix tape anatomy.

In the 90s, Casey Kasem had a countdown of the top music of the year, and it seemed to last all day though I now know it was really just the Top 40. There were no mp3s, and CDs were a thing you bought, not a thing you burned. Mix tapes were a labor of love that usually required sitting in front of a double tape deck in a quiet room and listening attentively for the perfect moment to simultaneously press Record and Play on one deck until the moment you needed to press Stop on both.

I created my first mix tapes from these radio shows, marking out where to stop rewinding on the clear plastic window that protected the film with the Sharpie my mother handed me and supervised my use of meticulously. I played them in our living room while I lay on the floor and forced myself to read books I didn’t want to read for school, lamented the Dorothy Hamill my mother made me maintain until I was far too old, and stared at the ceiling as all preteen girls in suburban Ohio do. They were for my own personal enjoyment and would be crunched below the heels of brotherly shoes if discovered. The only songs I remember all the words to twenty years later are “The Greatest Love of All” and “Everything That Glitters” (by Dan Seals; not from Shrek).

The first mixes I set to CD were deftly burned by a classmate’s father’s fancy CD burner. To this day, I could not tell you where she found the tracks I gave her on a piece of notebook paper because my internet was dial-up, and I was still playing with screen names that would live on to haunt my adult life. I’m sure it was completely legal* though. Included on that first high school mix** was “Eye of the Tiger” because I missed the public school I had transferred from and it was painted on my memory of every pep rally until forever. I have no memory of any other tracks but I remember the warm glow when I handed the list over to the lucky girl with the burner, and she pronounced it “really good” to the room at large. I was not a popular girl. It was the highest praise.

College came and I killed three consecutive computers with Audiogalaxy before I swore off illegal downloading forever to the continued amusement of my closest friends.*** One of these mixes lives on and is the oldest playlist to survive my laptop transitions for the last thirteen years. It is named “Mix January 2003” and not a single track has a name, but every time I listen to it again, I am 20 years old and serving as reluctant DD to my friends on road trips to Canada for disco bowling and poutine. There are a few tracks from A Goofy Movie on there, and if you laugh at that statement, I know you’re a liar because that is a good movie with excellent, addictive music.

Mix tapes rose from the ashes of the technology boom as playlists you could drag and drop to players of all shapes and sizes, and we stopped carrying around hard cases that protected the hard plastic that encased the magnetic tape that held onto our memories. Now we have thin metal shells that provide the physical protection for the digital data that can’t die so long as no one ever seeds the cloud where it lives. It the end of an era. A short era in the grander scheme of history, but an era nonetheless.

I was given my last mix that existed solely on a CD until I uploaded it to my laptop in 2011. You can see a picture of the list above. I would receive a sequel to it a year later when I saw Brett again for what would be, as of today, the last time. There are times in our lives when we meet the people who help us learn about ourselves in an intimate way that has nothing to do with sex or longevity and simply exists in an intensity from which a part of you never recovers. The year I lived in Syracuse with those people helped me become the person I am now and some of that person is based in dancing in foyers to Whitney Houston holding beer bottles high above our heads. Other parts of me came from standing over pool tables with a Cosmo in one hand while a bartender flirted with my friend. All are tied inextricably to the songs on the CD Brett pressed into my hand the night before I drove to Ohio for a summer of waiting tables before grad school.

The mix tapes of 2016 live on cellphones and in music players. You cannot feel them crinkle between your fingers as I did tonight when I yanked a folded sheet of notebook paper from one of my CD binders**** and spread it out to snap a picture with the phone that has replaced my walkman, my bounce-resistant CD walkman, my Nike mp3 player, and iPods generation 2 through iPhone 6.

Now, at 33, I have lost the skill to find new music in the ways that I did in high school, before that, and since. I rely on algorithms regardless of how much I rage against them and the occasional plea to my followers on Twitter to please give me a little inspiration. Nothing I have found short of Hamilton has inspired me as much as remixes of tunes from the 60s through the 90s. I still hold out hope that I’ll get another mix tape or playlist or whatever the next iteration of such an idea is from someone amazing in my life. What is music and memory if we’re not passing them back and forth and babbling about lyrics with more excitement than is necessary?

Here’s to your next playlist. Maybe you will name it Mix Tape.

*It most assuredly was not.

*Note the language changes. It physically hurt to type some of these.

***Seriously I had to ask someone to Torrent something for me recently because I just do not understand that entire community.

****I have 3 large ones and 2 smaller ones, and I plan to never let them go.