For rock fans of a certain age — roughly 30 to 50, say — the homemade cassette compilation was a rite of passage, a folk art medium, an outlet for thwarted expression, and perhaps most important, a romantic device more potent and totemic than any love letter. I made mix tapes — God, I made them. Everyone I know made them. Everyone you know made them.
So did Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore and lots of his artist, musician, and filmmaker friends. Mixtape: The Art of Cassette Culture is a tidy slab of high-gloss eulogy for what is now, sadly, a lost art form, and a peerless document of the sprawling, idiosyncratic music at the margins of 80s rock. There are no U2 songs on these mixes, but plenty of Spacemen 3, Super Furry Animals, Black Flag, and the like. The collection features page after page of exquisitely reproduced cassettes — some with colorful collaged covers, some simply scrawled lists — which offer an affectionate, intensely evocative look back.
Part of the retro-cool elegiac tone of the collection is that the concept of the mixtape does not seem to transfer to the digital age with the same allure; in Moore’s delightfully gnostic formulation, "analog has the mystery arc where cosmos exist, which digital has not yet reigned in… a cassette rocking at normal bias will bring healing analog tones to the ear-heart." It’s a point made elsewhere by others — Chuck Klosterman, for example, who has written comically of the danger of running off two copies of the same CD for different would-be girlfriends — but the essential idea is that making a mixtape was so time-consuming as to make each one sui generis. Part of the masochistic, hapless-romantic appeal of making a mix for someone was the time and effort expended in the production, particularly since the object of the crush in question, one always suspected, invariably took the tape off halfway side two and never listened to it again. Dean Wareham puts it best: "The time spent implies an emotional connection with the recipient… the message of the tape might be: ‘I love you. I think about you all the time. Listen to how I feel about you.’" No wonder these kids today just drift in and out of each others’ lives like a bunch of gerbils; they never had to decide which was the exact right Mötley Crüe song to start side B.
On this level, Mixtape is a celebration of the personal and the democratic. As Los Angeles writer Matias Viegener points out, "mixtapes mark the moment of consumer culture in which listeners attained control over what they heard, in what order and at what cost." On another level, because the book inevitably summons one’s memories of this most universal and accessible of media, the reader becomes akin to a participant. The romantic mixtape subgenre, for guys like me, is just about as agonizing and exhilarating a rite of passage as adolescence offered. Take the mix I made for a girl I pined for, painfully, when I was 17: I was certain that the songs on the tape spoke powerfully and eloquently of emotions that I was not articulate enough to convey. My conception of that tape as being unique in its power to communicate my lovestruck feelings, this book makes clear, was the least unique thing imaginable: it was an experience and a feeling precisely duplicated by millions of teenage boys everywhere. I still remember that mix, with its Del Fuegos and Pretenders and Springsteen’s great cruising-with-the-top down instrumental ‘Paradise By the C’. The girl is long gone, but I wish I still had that tape; there’s a click of connection when artist Sue de Beer expresses the exact same sentiment regarding one of her recklessly dispensed, long-lost mixes. Romantics under the skin.
The sense of connection in Mixtape is offset by a whiff of insular self-absorption: maybe it’s just that I’m not familiar with most of the contributors but suspect that I should be, or maybe it’s that the mix tapes in the book feature songs by Tom Waits and the Velvet Underground, whereas mine were full of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Seger. There’s something either charmingly postmodern or faintly ridiculous, depending on one’s point of view, in making such a crude, low-tech artifact — dozens of 79-cent hunks of C-60 plastic — the object of such a lushly photographed and meticulously assembled volume. The book comes to us from Rizzoli, best know for their extravagant art books, and has the disorienting feel of a catalogue for a gallery exhibit that never existed. Its true value, however, is not as an exercise in hipster nostalgia, nor as a document of faux-outsider art, but as an incantation of a peculiar and highly idiosyncratic conjunction of media and packaging. The mixtape had a brief window of time, prompted by a peculiar intersection of technology and economics — from 1985, when cassettes and recorders became widely and suddenly inexpensive, along with $7.99 LPs and the Sony Walkman, to 1995 or thereabouts, when CDs and iPods displaced them — that will never again exist. Mixtape knows that, lovingly, and will not forget.•