Mix Tape Nostalgia

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Just the other day I was visiting an ex whom I still count as a good friend, and she showed me a tiny artifact of our relationship, in the form of a mix tape I made for her nearly 10 years ago. I immediately became both embarrassed and wistful as I studied its faded magazine-cutout cover art and hastily typed-up track listing, a veritable time capsule of indie rock and electronica circa 1998–and, more importantly, a catalog of the songs we listened to regularly when we began dating: Elliott Smith, Yo La Tengo, Cornershop, Daft Punk.

Chances are, if you came of age in the ’90s and have an even glancing relationship to music, you made your fair share of mix tapes (and, later, mix CDs) for various friends and lovers. If those parties reciprocated, and if you are a pack rat, their lovingly curated compilations are probably still in storage somewhere in your home. Go dig one up. Maybe play it once or twice, if you’re feeling nostalgic (and if you still have a tape deck somewhere), and let the aforementioned wistfulness wash over you.

Then shake it off, you big sap, and submit it to Cassette From My Ex, where several contributors have already shared their musical mementos of past relationships, along with track listings, liner notes, accompanying essays, and even sound clips. “Because we met during the fleeting moment at millennium’s end when analog and digital media coexisted,” writes one contributor, “we could sign out of our Hotmail accounts and then step over to our stereos to express to our affections through mixed tapes.”

Indeed, those of us who still have actual mix tapes–who remember when they were the de facto album format; who occasionally betray our ages in conversations about our cherished cassette copy of Thriller, purchased at Sam Goody, shortly after its release; who once felt that distinctions like Dolby NR and High Bias and Type IV were important considerationsmay find that by revisiting this obsolete format now, in the age of mp3s, our sentimentality is triggered almost as much by the form (that little plastic cartridge) as by its content (erstwhile love songs). In fact, a sort of eulogy for the cassette format was delivered in this space not long ago: “By giving listeners the ability to copy and share music,” Brian Joseph Davis wrote in Utne, “tape not only entered a copyright debate that still rages, but also became a way for an entire generation to express friendship, cultural affinity, and even love.” Davis’ piece speaks not only to the cassette’s versatile function as a musical love letter, but its role as an arguably populist mediuma convenient and controversial way for people to redistribute music; a sort of precursor to the file-sharing revolution of the late ’90s. 

Cassette From My Ex is a natural outgrowth of our culture’s burgeoning need to document experience using various media–in this case, the lost art of charmingly cobbled-together, obsolete cassette tapes–and the proliferation of personal narrative, a formula employed to great effect by Rolling Stone writer Rob Sheffield in his 2006 memoir Love Is a Mix Tape, which expands Cassette From My Ex’s mission into a moving personal narrative as carefully crafted as the mixes he and his late wife assembled for each other. Cassette From My Ex continues in the spirit of Sheffield’s book, with prose contributions that range from irreverently funny to oddly touching, often within the same piece.

Image by kumar303, licensed under Creative Commons

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