"The mixtape," says Geoffrey O'Brien, "is the most widely practiced American artform." We have to assume he said it awhile ago -- before say, the death of the audio cassette -- but it's hard to say for sure because almost all Google-generated rabbit holes for the phrase lead to the quotation as it appear in other writing about mixtapes rather than the source itself. But whenever he said it, he's right -- even now. Especially now.
The Internet, by and large, disagrees. A rather fascinating micro-genre of essay laments the "lost art" of the mixtape. To be sure, it's part of a larger trend in which the audio cassette itself has become a peculiar vector of generational nostalgia. Try the Google search yourself. You'll find a real consistency to the results. The essay (or more often, blog post) might begin with the O'Brien quotation. In my casual sample of the author is usually male, usually focused on the earnestly intimate act of making a mixtape rather than on the experience of receiving or even listening to one. Personal anecdotes are an optional but common feature. And then, in this longtail genre's most essential feature, the author laments, explicitly or not, whatever it is he thinks it means that we no longer make mixtapes for each other. One recent example tellingly comes to us from The Federalist, a venue for some of the right's smarter culture warriors. The underlying gesture is the same as always but unusually clear in this instance: a lack of mixtapes is part of a larger cultural decline that may or may not also involve Obamacare and/or socialism.
This is ridiculous. The mixtape isn't gone. It's practically everything these days.
As a young man I was much like these nostalgists, at many points armed with no better way to tell a girl of my affections than to spend a few hours alone with my proud, meticulous notions of best practice and most of my music collection strewn out on the rug of my bedroom. Love me for my taste, the mixtaper says to the world.
The most important 90 minutes of my aesthetic youth is the mix my older sister made me in 1991, introducing me to the Lemonheads, the Pixies, Frank Black and Nirvana (and ruining Jesus Jones, EMF, and the Scorpions) all at once. That tape blueprinted my taste for the next decade and set my own course as a player in bands of my own. Better, this was a few months before Smells Like Teen Spirit hit the national airwaves, making me the first eighth grader in some doubtlessly impressive radius to be shocked to see Kurt Cobain (in particular) on MTV a few months later. It felt both like the world was taking something private from me and that I should be proud of myself. It's a strange high, that, one we make fun of now with a droll automation.
Then there was the Manic Panic punk rock girl in heavy eyeliner who made me a mix and handed it to me wedged inside a roll of toilet paper. She gave me Otis Redding and The Cure. I starting ditching driver's ed to spend more time with her.
Years later, when I was still without my license, the woman who drove me to the grocery store every week had this tape in the deck of her car that was truly precious; each song began with the same word the last one ended with -- all the way through the loop of sides A and B. As I recall, they were all topically concerned with evil. This was my first exposure to not only to Robert Johnson and Slayer but also to the realization that there was no particular reason not to love both (hey, I was young). I never even met the guy who made the tape; he was somewhere in that quantum parallel of a different Big Ten college town my friend had come to us from (via interdimensional portal, no doubt). I don't know his name but still, I admire that guy.
Finally, there is my continued suspicion that my wife married me because early in our courtship I introduced her to The Dictators -- where else? -- on a mixtape. Or at least saw something in me that fueled us forward.
So I know from mixtapes. But here's the thing: the mixtape isn't gone, the form has just become so ubiquitous that it's completely transcended the obsolescence of the audio cassette. Those of us who made mixtapes aren't special anymore. Everyone -- at least everyone on the internet -- is asking to be loved for their taste these days. We are all curators now and so are the robots. We post to social media, we send emails. We tumble and we pin. Each of us has our audience: small, maybe distracted, but also captive and thoroughly quantified. Call these the tradeoffs of progress. You don't have to pay Woolworth's for the blank tapes anymore, your mix might carry advertisements, but here we are in 2014, unbundling and rebundling music and other content for ourselves and our friends. Mixtapers weren't an old guard. We were the vanguard of something very contemporary.
Nothing has been lost here but scarcity and friction. These are not small things. I would lament them if I thought we could have them back. But instead I struggle to accept the future for what it appears to be: an inertial trip across a plane made of everything, already well underway.