Years from now, when historians discover a time capsule from the 1980s or 1990s, they will inevitably find a homemade mix tape. Last weekend, I went to see The Perks of Being a Wallflower. What a nostalgia trip! It was pretty much a spot-on snapshot of a suburban Pennsylvania high school in 1991— from hanging out after a football game at a local pizza joint and going to the midnight showings of Rocky Horror, to of course, making tons of mix tapes.
It’s a Gen X thing.
I loved to make mix tapes. Instead of studying for final exams, I procrastinated and made mix tapes. It was kind of a problem. But, boy, did I have great mix tapes!
Early Mix Tapes
The kids in TPOBAW had much cooler musical taste than I did in high school. In the mid-80s, when I had a single-deck boombox, I would make mix tapes by recording songs from the radio— mostly from Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 show on Sunday mornings. I would sit with my finger at the ready to hit the record button whenever a song I had been trying to get would come on. This was very low-tech and the mix tape quality wasn’t so great.
Mix Tape Golden Age
I got a double cassette boombox for my 14th birthday. With a Discman (portable CD player) plugged in, I was in total mix-tape heaven. In college, belonging to a mail-order music club, like BMG or Columbia House, was hugely popular since you could order oodles of CDs for a cheap price. In the dorms, we’d trade CDs for the day so we could dub mix tapes. If you had a great mix tape, you would record copies for your friends. You could make tapes for different moods, tapes that captured a moment in time (like in the TPOBAW) and tapes with different themes.
There was definitely an art to it, like deejaying. The book, and later the movie, High Fidelity, nailed it. You had to start with a big song that would set the mood for the whole tape. My best mix tape, by far, was one I called, “British Invasion.” The first song was The Beatles’, “Yellow Submarine” —fun and upbeat. For the second song, you wanted something that was also part of the mood (“Hungry Like the Wolf”), but after that track, ideally, you would ease in ballads or slower jams (“West End Girls”). Then, towards the tape’s conclusion, you would reintroduce more energetic songs, building to the big finale (“Just Like Heaven”).
For the tape art, some people would just write the songs on the front of the tape case, but I would cut out magazine pictures and create collages for my covers. Obsessed, much?
I took the most pride and care with the tapes I made for my little sister. Ten years younger, she was too young to fully appreciate the ’80s. So, I made it my mission to educate her on the great songs of the ’80s and early ’90s—through mix tapes. Her friends might not of known Duran Duran’s “Come Undone”—but she did.
The Twilight of the Mix Tape
When I bought a computer with a CD burner, I made mix CDs and designed the covers, but it wasn’t the same. I did have some good CDs that I’d make for long car trips, like an “’80s Hair Band” CD and a “Guilty Pleasures” CD (songs that you are embarrassed to admit you like). Those were fun.
But alas, I had to downsize and ditch my collection of mix tapes when I moved in with my then boyfriend (now husband) four years ago. Of course, now, my iPod has completely replaced tapes and CDs. I have various playlists that kind of mimic mix tapes, but it’s not the same. It’s just a song name scrolling across the screen and maybe a shot of the album cover. It’s not like a good ‘ol mix tape.
Sigh. I’m such an old fogey.
So, if this post were a mix tape, I’d close with this song.
P.S. For more mix tape nostalgia, check out the site, Everyone’s Mixtape— it’s a modern, online-interpretation of a mix tape. Genius!