I have no way of knowing how many mix tapes I’ve made.
I would say that I’ve been making tapes for just under a decade. However, one of my closest friends is certain that I began giving her mixes as far back as 1996. A lot of my time has gone into carefully conceiving themes, compiling songs onto audio cassettes, transcribing the track listings by hand, and giving the mixes away to acquaintances, friends and lovers. The tapes I’ve made scatter the land. I know there is one in Vancouver, and some in Toronto, California and Virginia. There may be some in Connecticut. The majority of the tapes I’ve created are here in Montreal. Some people have shoeboxes filled with cassettes from me, while acquaintances may have only ever received one mix. I’ve had relationships that were filled with mix tapes, which have ended in decay and silence. Only recently have I begun to accept that not everyone has a tape player anymore, so I’ve turned to making mix CDs. Yet, even the mix CD is beginning to feel like a relic, with the overload of iPods, MP3s and digital file sharing. In the face of this technological shift, the mix tape feels somewhat queer.
The body has always played a pivotal role in many facets of queer life. Our bodies have been sites of resistance, resilience, purpose and pleasure. To me, the mix tape symbolizes the physical, because it is a document that says: a body made this. The key element to mix tape culture is that the producer must make the product in real-time, listening as each song becomes part of something new. Unlike a mix CD, where songs can be dragged into a particular order and burned to disc in a couple of minutes, the mix tape maker must sit there as the songs play from beginning to end, and be certain that the cuts between songs are relatively seamless. This doesn’t take into account the time it takes to come up with an appropriate or creative mix theme. The mix maker produces a composition that’s played in an intimate setting rather than in a concert hall. The mix cassette is a musical score, a patchwork, spliced together with whatever recording technology is available.
Whether you’re popping it into your home stereo or car cassette deck, and pressing play to let the magnetic ribbon move like a conveyor belt, you can be certain that a body made that mix tape. Someone invested a lot of time into turning that blank cassette into an aural collage. Maybe you made it. Perhaps a friend or a lover gave it to you. There’s a chance that you found it in a thrift shop, sitting amid the rubble of other forgotten or unwanted cassettes. Regardless of its origin, hands and ears put it together, fingers alternating between pressing record and pause, ears listening as each song becomes engraved onto the tape.
As cassette decks become obsolete, this romantic vision of the mix tape begins to recede into history. If the mix tape is just as fleeting as its musical content, so too are the technologies that made cassette culture possible. Of course, the drive to create and share mixes remains the same, while the tools involved change from analogue to digital, away from tape to CD, and beyond that to MP3s. Yet, this is where I feel old fashioned. I’ve created many a mix tape for men I was interested in, the cassette being an object that reveals something personal, a symbol of desire, a flirtatious gift that says “I want to get to know you.” However, I just can’t envision an MP3 playlist having the same impact.
Without question, a large quantity of music is produced and consumed in a very vacant manner. It functions as a commodity that can easily be replaced with a designer bag, a tall no-whip 140-degree soy toffee nut latté, or any other identity badge that has no personal locus whatsoever. On the other hand, for those of us who cradle music like an oxygen mask paramount for survival, songs become laden with memory. The mix tape makes this intimacy all the more acute. It is tactile, marked by use, a sonic calling card, an audible love letter. The cassette that wears out is stained with fingerprints. Likewise, the tape that has been erased and re-recorded often brings with it the whisper of its past, as we can hear faint remnants of previous recordings bleeding through the new one. The ribbon offers secrets that an MP3 would only conceal. At the same time, the mix tape is a bittersweet reminder of the inevitable: everything ends. The very act of listening to a tape leads to its eventual demise.
If you still have the means to make a mix tape to give away, do so. Rummage around underneath your bed to locate the remnants of your old cassette collection and listen to a mix that someone made for you. Celebrate this artifact that will ultimately disappear.