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Mixed Tapes, CDs, and Playlists: The Last of A Dying Breed?

by: Jessie Harris

Growing up in a family heavily influenced by music led me to understand the importance of physical copies of music from a young age. I remember countless afternoons and evenings spent in front of my dad’s elaborate stereo speaker system, sprawled out on my living room carpet floor. I’d open and close cassette tape after cassette tape, looking up the lyrics to the songs playing through my oversized headphones and flipping through the accordion-style liners just to get a glance at the band or artist in their element. This was my all-time favorite past time and something that only grew to become a passion in the coming years.

Tapes were cool for many reasons, like their small size and the fact that I could rewind them on my own with just a twist of one of my small fingers. But what I found most intriguing was that you could get blank tapes and record over them. Radio began to play a big part in my life around age 7 and 8, and I would record my favorite songs on my tape recorder, put them in an order suitable to my liking, and then replay them over and over again at night as I fell asleep.  

My best friend growing up and I went so far as to use our tape recorder to record our own personal songs. We made a mixed tape with choir hymns, Christmas carols, and random songs that we made up, which I’m sure were painful for our parents to listen to ultimately. A mixed tape was what was going to launch us into fame and kick-start our professional singing careers. Those dreams quickly fizzled out when we lost the 4th grade talent show singing the incredibly difficult “My Heart Will Go On” by musical goddess and diva Celine Dion. I’m sure those tapes are still floating around out there and I pray every day that they never come to the surface.

In middle school, with the rise of compact discs, my whole perspective on music changed yet again. I was heavy into music and rock-n-roll at this point, listening to obscure little bands I found through online music radio, websites, and at sketchy clubs on the weekend that my parents dropped me off at with the promise to abstain from drugs and alcohol. I still don’t know how I convinced them to let me go to these venues, but I’m eternally grateful. Every moment of freedom was spent listening to a new record and multitasking. Like with blank cassette tapes, the rise of blank CDs took over my young adolescent life. I would beg and plead for my mother to take me to Best Buy and buy 25-50 blanks CDs at a time, just so I could go home and create a mix to share with my friends. None of my other friends were that involved with music, but they could always count on me to provide them with my latest findings and their new favorite tune. I’d burn CDs with songs put into specific orders, usually starting out upbeat and fast-paced and ending with slow and thoughtful ballads. Later on in high school, I’d exchange CDs with my girlfriends back and forth. Turning 16 meant that we could finally rock out in our cars, at volumes that would make our parents cringe, but this was our time of freedom. Music provided an outlet for our unwarranted teenage melancholy and we lived it up one CD at a time.

It was somewhere around that tender age of 16, when boys began to catch my eye. I am pretty sure I had a crush on every single guy I knew that played an instrument. Whether that was in a church praise band, a terrible punk band at my friend’s high school, or just a local DJ on my hometown’s college radio station, I was absolutely in love with these boys who had a passion for music also. This puppy love took making mix CDs to an all new level. I began to receive mixes from my crushes, with cleverly drawn pictures on the front or simply a couple of hearts and a cheesy line like, “To Jessie, With Love.” This was a game changer. I felt on top of the world. To know that a boy out there took thirty minutes of his precious time to put ten songs on a blank CD, specifically for me, made me the happiest girl in the world. This is how music began to heavily influence my romantic perspective on life.

Fast forward to present day and hundreds of terrible but wonderful mixed CDs later, we find ourselves in yet another new musical era; the age of digital music. With music at our fingertips and online subscription music services like Spotify at a cost less than $10 a month, music can be a part of every step one takes. But with these changes, a few losses, such as the timeless gift of giving a crush a physical mix CD or tape, have occurred. However, the time of the digital playlists has just begun its reign.

A couple years back, one of the boys I had a crush on when I was 18, reached out to me on Spotify, and told me he had made me a playlist to listen to when I had the chance. I was so moved and I remember thinking to myself, “Now this is really something.” And so, began my love for making playlists digitally and receiving them in return. The thing about playlists that makes them so enjoyable is that they are quick and simple to make. No longer is there a need to draw fancy designs with a Sharpie on the front of a blank CD, or fill out a tracklist in the liner section of a cassette tape. It takes seconds to make and only seconds to send. Playlists can be added to or edited to remove songs not enjoyed with one click. The possibilities are truly endless. The possibility of a CD getting scratched or a tape unwinding is completely removed in the digital spectrum and the nostalgia is still there.

The older I get, the more I am finding my friends have phased out of the music scene of our youths and all that it entailed, but every once in awhile, life has a sense of humor and reminds me that I am not alone in my appreciation for music and sharing it with others. Recently, I was gifted with such a playlist. Having fully thought that my age of receiving digital “mixtapes” was over, I was shocked to say the least. Not only was the playlist huge (like two hours of music), it also had a wonderful and creative title that made me laugh instantly; an inside joke, casually made and sure to be forgotten. A couple days later came the physical CD mix. I could’ve melted right then and there. This timeless artform was alive and well and still as wonderful to receive as I had remembered. As Andrew McMahon of Jack’s Mannequin and Something Corporate fame says in his song “The Mixed Tape”, “It’s like I wrote every note with my own fingers.” Mixes are so personal and so endearing. There’s something special to be said about creating a mix for someone. It’s a small glance into one’s mind and it’s a rare, vulnerable and genuine gesture in a day and age filled with shallowness. I even appreciated the Sharpie artwork on the CD, which included a “to” and “from”.

Who knows? Maybe playlists, mix CDs, and tapes will never die out. Maybe we are on the verge of a new musical dawn? History has a way of repeating itself and in my opinion, this is what makes life so much fun and unexpected. So maybe spend a little time this week and make someone special a mix of your current favorite songs. You never know who’s day you will make and you’ll do your small part in keeping this age-old tradition alive and new.

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