Two blocks from my house I met my soulmate at a Goodwill Outlet.
Which is how I would start this essay if I actually had found my soulmate at a Goodwill. But instead of a person, I found a cassette tape that was simply labeled “Mixed Bag”. Normally these custom cassettes contain garbage like bootleg self-help recordings or classical music. But the flowery script of of the label peaked my interest. There were no identifiers, no track listings, and no custom art work on the cover. Absolutely nothing outside of that small round bright green sticker with the words “Mixed Bag”. So of course I couldn’t buy it and jam it into my cassette deck fast enough. Side A began with Cracker’s “Get Off This” a so-so track that I never really warmed up to. The next three songs were classics from Supertramp, which is always a positive. But then things turned Avant Garde. After Supertramp there was a metal cover of R.E.M.’s “Losing my Religion” whose name I still can’t figure out. This was followed by three or four songs by a weird (and I mean weird) alt rock band named King Missile. Side B could be boiled down to essentially all Morrissey all the time, not that I’m complaining. As the second side of “Mixed Bag” finished it was pretty clear who had made this mixtape. A fifteen year old girl from the mid 90’s, who more than likely was just another faceless outcast. This nebulous fifteen year old girl would have, and probably did, had the same experiences I did. Live the same life that I did. And more importantly, listened to the same music I would have (and I did).
Cassette tapes have always sort of been a garbage portable music medium. They warp way faster in the heat than records ever did and CDs never would. Tapes could (and probably would) get stretched to all hell, thus making the music unlistenable as a result. If your prized cassette somehow gets eaten badly enough by the cassette deck, you better have some extra cash my friend because it’s over. Yet there is still some charm to these outmoded little rectangles of suck in the form of the mixtape. Sharing music between your groups of friends has always been a major part of the music nerd bonding experience. Cassettes just made the distribution of it all the more easier. It’s how underground bands got their name and music in the ether without breaking the bank. And nothing is more satisfying than taking the time to carefully construct your playlist, and creating the artwork to go onto the j-card. Or better yet, just lo-fi that sucker and write non-descript labeling for that extra touch of confusing mystery (see: “Mixed Bag”). There can be an instant connection you can make with a person when you share a mixtape with them. But that feeling is sort of gone now. If there is one thing the pure digital age has destroyed in regards to music it’s the art of the perfect playlist (and its result, the perfect mixtape). For example, at its best an iTunes playlist can get close to what mixtapes were, a general theme put together with songs. But at its worst, it ends up being nothing more than a bunch of songs haphazardly thrown together. Don’t get me wrong, there are (or rather were) mixtapes that did that exact same thing. But regardless of quality there was a little more effort that has to be put into making the tapes to give to your friends. Again I am not a saint when it comes to this (kind of the opposite actually). I don’t worship at the altar of “perfect mixtape music making”. It’s a practice that I never really participated in, and now I probably never will. But what I can do is appreciate it’s long lost art.
Full disclosure, I’m a millennial. As such it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that things were better “back in the day”. A notion that is both simultaneously pretentious and unimpressive at the same time. That and I realize just how stupid it is to feel nostalgic for an era of music I was never apart of to begin with. But it is something that I tended to begin to miss while making a couple tapes for other people on a whim. My point is this, twenty years later I picked up a cassette called “Mixed Bag” out of a mess of wires and polka tapes. A mixtape that had I not been, you know five years old at the time, was filled with music that I would have loved and made by a person who I probably would have been friends with. Twenty or so years later, there is a connection to a person who I will never meet and has to be at least thirty by now. There is something deeply powerful about that experience. An experience that would have been impossible without cassette tapes. And probably will never happen again.