The Mix Tape

I had a brief conversation yesterday on App.net about mix tapes and their unique place in music culture. Some people seem to think that an iTunes playlist or a CD full of .mp3s is the digital counterpart, but from my point of view, they couldn't be more wrong.

I need to preface this argument by making it clear that I was born into a world where 8-Track cassettes were new, record players graced the living room of every home in the neighborhood, and cassette tapes were still climbing in popularity. But in the early days of grade school, with the help of Sony's Walkman portable tape players, the cassette tape fully came into its own. It was one of the defining objects of my childhood.

Cassettes were an exercise in limitations. There were two sides to each tape, and in order to listen to one of those sides you were required to rewind the flat plastic magnetic tape. These tapes, being physical mechanisms, could be tossed in a drawer for months or years, placed back into your tape player, and would pick up at the exact point of the song you left off at previously. This allowed them to be time capsules, in a sense, preserving your place in a song until the next time you play it.

These tapes had a limited amount of time available. In their height of prevalence, I recall buying blank tapes that crossed the 100 minute mark, but that number was a stretch. Most of us worked with 60 minute cassettes, and the lesser-used and more expensive 90 minute version. Divide the tape's length by two and you have the time limit for each side.

A limit. That's the key. Of course, music CDs have a limit too, unlike a playlist in iTunes. But the cassette tape limit was small and confining. As is true in so many disciplines, limitations can cause creativity to thrive. When you only have space for six or seven songs per side, you have to make decisions that refine and define the final product.

A good mix tape was never simply a collection of a dozen songs tossed randomly together. No, a good mix tape took the listener on a journey. Producers understood this, placing fast-paced songs at the beginning of a side, winding down to slower, more reflective songs at the end. The slow song at the end of Side A was rarely slower or more emotional than the last song of the collection, at the end of Side B.

Take Pearl Jam's debut album, Ten. The album opens with the rocker Once, grinds through even more powerful tunes, and then slows down to wrap up Side A with the slower Jeremy. Side B eases us back in with the slower Oceans, and the rips our faces off with Porch. The side finally ends the experience with the drifting, ethereal Release. It's the perfect example of a playlist designed to take the listener on an emotional journey akin to Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey while using its limitations as a vehicle for creative exploration.

Building a mix tape was like playing amateur record producer. Instead of a music professional building a limited track list from one artist's material, mix tapes allowed the creator to mix artists, styles and genres. Thus the "mix" in "mix tape".

Some people argue that building a mix CD (the 90 minute music CD, not the 700MB .mp3 data disc) is the same process and experience, but they are wrong. The CD does share a lesser version of the limitations found in a cassette tape, but the lack of division into two sides gives the creator too much freedom to build track lists without deliberate care. Mix CDs are good, but they are the Volkswagen to the mix tape's Audi. They come close to the perfect creation that a mix tape can be, but they always fall short.

Digital playlists, in contrast to both the cassette tape and CD, lack all of the limitations of the mix tape while bringing no redeeming quality of their own to the table. When you can pour a limitless amount of songs into a folder called "Dance Mix", the art of ordering those tracks for maximum emotional impact becomes impossible. Sure, you can fit all of your favorite songs in there, but if all 200 are your favorite, is any of them really your top choice? Playlists aren't mix tapes, they are collections. There's a difference.

That's the beauty of the mix tape: it required you to sort and rank and chose. Songs that you enjoyed and loved did not make the cut in favor of songs you loved more. You were building a "desert island" collection each time you built a new tape; only the best of the best made it onto that thin magnetic plastic.

An iTunes playlist removes the limitations present in a mix tape, and in doing so they remove the emotions. They are the musical equivalent of the lobotomy, a surgical procedure from the 1940's and early 1950's that was designed to treat mental illness by literally removing a portion of the brain. In almost all cases, the symptoms were treated at the expense of the patient's humanity and physical health. Patients lost the capacity for emotion, becoming shadows of their former selves, and a digital, limitless playlist does the same thing to the listening experience. It's music, but it's missing something special.

I know there are those who will profess how wrong I am, but I stand by the metaphor I posted yesterday on App.net, as it sums up my thoughts perfectly: "The mix tape was a gourmet meal; the digital playlist is a vending machine sandwich." Both can put food in our bellies and music in our ears, but only one can provide an experience that nourishes our emotions.