Mixtapes: How to Rewind and Unwind
Reading Time: 3 minutes
Anybody who has seen “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014) knows the universal power of the mixtape. Peter Quill’s “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” (2014) is not only the soundtrack to the movie, but also the only thing keeping him tied to his family and home. The songs featured on the soundtrack come from the ‘70s and ‘80s, creating a visceral connection for Quill and the viewers. For Quill, the mixtapes may have begun in Missouri, but the real history of the mixtape begins in New York City.
Popular New York DJs in the ‘70s like Grandmaster Flash and Kool Herc recorded their sets on a “party tape,” which they sold to anyone who would buy them. Vinyl was expensive in ‘80s; record players weren’t portable; and waiting for your favorite songs to come on the radio was a drag, yet blank cassettes were cheap and versatile, making re-recording music onto a mixtape a staple in youth culture. With the invention of the Sony Walkman in 1979, music was put into the hands of everyone who wanted it, wherever they wanted it, ushering in the golden age of the mixtape.
What defines a mixtape? In short, a mixtape is a compilation of songs curated by an individual on an audio cassette. A great mixtape though is not just a bunch of songs thrown together haphazardly. It’s an expression of oneself. It’s a gift to a friend going through a tough time. It’s an autobiography. It’s a love letter. It’s a poem set to music. It’s a party in the palm of the hand. It’s an opportunity to say “this is who I am.” Essayist Geoffrey O’Brien proclaims that mixtapes are “perhaps the most widely practiced American art form.”
Well, how does one make a great mixtape? Making a mixtape was a pretty low-tech endeavor back in the 1980s. Kids would record songs off the radio or other people’s records or tapes. But for most people, it wasn’t really about the quality of the recording—the record scratches and fuzzy noise from the radio were both included. The quality of the mixtape was determined by the statement it made. And there were rules. Nick Hornby explains in his book “High Fidelity” (1995): “To me, making a tape is like writing a letter—there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again […] a good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You’ve got to kick it off with a corker, to hold the attention […] and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch […] and… oh, there are loads of rules.” While mixtapes played a prominent role in the ‘80s and ‘90s culture, their most significant portrayal comes from the aforementioned novel, later made into a movie starring John Cusack and Jack Black and now reimagined as a Hulu TV show with Zoë Kravitz (side-note, Kravitz’s mother, Lisa Bonet, plays Cusack’s love interest in the 2000 movie). Hornby’s character Rob Fleming is so dedicated to the art of the mixtape that what starts out as Top-Five Desert Island Songs on the ultimate mixtape becomes the rest of his life, with Top-Fives becoming the mantra he lives by and most prominently, the mantra that defines the most important relationships in his life.
Why put in all that effort, though, if you’re just going to give it away? In the 1999 YA coming-of-age novel and later 2012 movie, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” author Stephen Chbosky sums it up beautifully when Charlie makes a mixtape for Patrick. “I just thought to myself that in the palm of my hand; there was this one tape that had all of these memories and feelings and great joy and sadness,” he said. “And I thought about how many people have loved these songs. And how many people enjoyed good times with these songs. And how much these songs really mean.”
Movies like “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” are popular among young people today, bringing into question the future of the mixtape: is there a place for them in 2020? I say yes. With the rise in popularity of vintage and thrift stores, along with Gen Z’s general obsession with the past, the desire to revive more lost arts makes mixtapes seem like the next returning trend. ‘80s and ‘90s fashion is back; vinyl is back; so why shouldn’t the mixtape come back? Sure, everyone could just make a Spotify playlist, and you can even listen to “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” and “Charlie’s Playlist” on Spotify, but a playlist lacks the permanence a mixtape carries.
There’s something special about the work that making a mixtape requires: the sentiment of handwriting liner notes and drawing art on the physical copy, the physical contact of handing it to a friend. It’s the difference between buying jeans from a thrift store and ordering jeans online. It’s the difference between a homemade cake and pop tart. It’s the difference between growing your own garden and getting a salad at Chopt. Making mixtapes is about creating something for yourself, to have and hold.