All mixed up: the life, death, & life of the cassette mixtape

Cassette tape in the grass by the road

The times you lived through, the people you shared those times with — nothing brings it all to life like an old mixtape.

Rob Sheffield, from Love Is a Mixtape (Three Rivers Press, 2007)

by Helen Meyers

What weight an object has that it can in an instant bring back a memory, a moment long passed. Two cassette tapes have moved from place to place with me for 3 decades. They have hand-written labels and hand-picked songs and can instantly transport me back in time and place and remind me of love. And loss.

Does something virtual carry that same gravity? As we continue to replace actual objects with digital bits, are we losing the power of objects to be the physical waypoints of our life?

As a child of the 1980s I listened to music in multiple formats: vinyl, 8-track tape, cassette tape, and compact disc. 8-tracks were my sister’s music — Diana Ross, Jim Croce, the Beatles. Vinyl was my dad’s Sunday morning blast of Russian composers like Sergei Prokofiev. CDs were the domain of teenage parties in some rich kid’s basement. Cassette tapes were the soundtrack of my teen angst and unrequited love. And the best cassette tape was the one someone made just for you, the mixtape.

Photo of the recording artist Nina by Matthias Wehnert
photo of Nena Kerner by Matthias Wehnert / (used by permission)

My first mixtape arrived in the mail from Belgium in 10th grade, a musical letter from a homesick friend. She’d been sent abroad because her parents couldn’t deal with her anymore. European music was an apocalyptic revelation, one she wanted to share with me. She diligently created a mixtape of her two favorite groups. Side A was a Dutch Ska band, Doe Maar. And Side B was a then unknown German singer, Nena.

The 1980s were still deep in the cold war mentality, with schools doing nuclear drills in anticipation of Russian bombs. Doe Maar’s song “De Bom” seemed to ask, “why bother learning, when the bomb could fall at any minute.” And Nena’s song “99 Luftballons” was a fantasy of what would happen if 99 red balloons floated over the Berlin Wall to the Soviet Sector. “99 Jahre Krieg / Liessen keinen Platz für Sieger” Nena sings like a lullaby. If your lullaby ends in 99 years of cataclysmic war.

Alas, the Russians do love their children, too. So, instead of nuclear holocaust, the 1980s ended with a different sort of bang. The Berlin Wall coming down opened both the physical and musical borders between East and West Germany. By then, Doe Maar had broken up (though they’re reforming in 2020 for a few shows), and Nena was an international success. She performed at “The Concert for Berlin” in November, 1989, in front of a crowd of unified Germans. And my friend was a divorced teen mom.

Doe Maar Band LP "Skunk"

Getting a mixtape from a friend was nice. But what every teenager wanted was one from the boy/girl they were crushing on. There was a risk, though, of getting an “I love you” mixtape from someone you just considered a friend, or even more horrific, taking the time and trouble to create an “I love you” mixtape for someone who just considered you their friend.

By college I hadn’t given or received either kind of “I love you” mixtape. My senior year I went home for Christmas break, desolate that I’d be away from my boyfriend for a whole month. It was a very happy surprise when I unwrapped his Christmas gift and it was a cassette tape… with a handwritten label.

He and his friend were DJs for our college radio station, and the tape he sent me was formatted like a radio show, with their comedy routine interspersed with songs. The songs they selected told the story of our relationship and led to a final song that finally spoke the words of love I’d been waiting to hear. “Every day, it’s getting’ closer / Goin’ faster than a roller coaster / Love like yours will surely come my way, (hey, hey, hey).”

Photo of "Buddy Holly" street sign by Grossinger /
photo of Buddy Holly street sign by Grossinger / (used by permission)

The jokes still make me laugh. And Buddy Holly’s song “Everyday” is now a bittersweet reminder of the boy who loved me. My boyfriend and I married, had a child, and then divorced. But the mixtape still moves with me from house to house.

Physical mixtapes are now mostly a thing of the past. We can send people playlists via any number of streaming services or send them YouTube videos of the songs that make us think of them. The music version of a 144-character Tweet.

There’s an effort and intention in the creation of a mixtape that we lose when it becomes a virtual experience. The underlying sentiment is “I cared about you enough to invest my time putting this thing together.”

To me, making a tape is like writing a letter — there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again… You’ve got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention… Oh, there are loads of rules.

Nick Hornby, from High Fidelity (Riverhead Books, 1996)

Because you’re limited to the length of the cassette tape (usually slightly less than 30 minutes per side) the music must be arranged “just so” because you don’t want to end up with too much dead air at the end of a side. You get really good at hitting the pause button, so one song flows into another without a jarring clicking noise in between.

And the songs do need to flow, they’re telling a story. Of friendship. Of love. And eventually, even of loss.

Clear cassette tape body

photo credits (where not otherwise credited)

“Tape in the grass” / photograph by Roberto Sorin on Shutterstock
“Clear tape” / photograph by Maxim “Max” Bolshakov on Shutterstock