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A Sililoquy on the Cassette Tape and other Analog Wonders

Yes, I know it’s 2010 (pronounced “twenty-ten”), and I know that nostalgia for the analog age is a 30-something cliche, and I know the cassette has become a sickening node of ironic culture.  But for just a few minutes, I ask you to set aside your pernicious Family Guy-inspired liking for hackneyed 80s references to consider the cassette as it should be understood: as a lost assertion of our basic rights, a technological and social artifact,  and a symbol of friendship, grassroots culture and low-fi audiophilia.
I’m not really going to get deep into the history of the cassette but I think it’s worth noting that tapes “changed everything” as they say.  Music became smaller, more portable, cheaper (actually, freer), more contentious, more ubiquitous, and both more and less intimate.

When considering cassette media, we need to ponder the hardware that was used to play it.  The cassette gave us The Walkman and the “boombox” – two devices that couldn’t be more different.  One, the Walkman, was meant to shut out the world, to bring the music closer, to retire into the imagination and the inner world of musical sensation.  The other, the boombox, or “ghetto blaster”, was meant to bring imagination and musical sensation into the outer world.  The Walkman is an extension of the teenage bedroom, domain of the vinyl LP.  The boombox is an extension of the club, the car, the party, and perhaps the penis – a manifestation of action, performance, and bravado. 

Think Radio Raheem when you think boombox. Whatever you do, do NOT think Lloyd Dobbler,that sappy new romantic who reappropriated his boombox as a two-way Walkman.

The boombox was urban, evolving into the “system” – the window-rattling audio menaces one might encounter when stopping your car next to a ’91 Civic with gold spinner rims.  The Walkman was suburban, evolving into the iPod – a tiny, consumer-fetishized personal technological wonder.  Culturally, I think these two very conflicting devices actually worked in tandem to create an atmosphere in which divisions of youth (and sub/counter) culture  became more distinct, more visible, more confrontational and also more accessible – a commodity-identity that could be easily recognized and digested and therefore easily bought and sold.

Still, the cassette was a continuation, as were its followers.  Like a vinyl album, it retained the “flipside.”  This was an essential component of musical media that was not removed until the birth of the CD,  a small (i.e. cassette-like?) disc (i.e. album-like?) media which was capable of high fidelity sound (i.e. album-like?).  The displacement of the CD by the mp3 removed the physicality of all prior formats but combined the reproducibility, portability, and low-fi impermanence of the cassette with the single serving goodness of the 7″ vinyl single/EP.  It was not until fairly recently that mp3 recordings began to match the high fidelity of CDs and vinyl LPs, and even still the mp3 is most often consumed one song at a time (rather than by the album).  The introduction of both the cassette and the mp3 format launched the recording industry into a hissyfit panic that some people might copy content instead of buying it, and both technologies came along right at a time when mainstream record labels were putting out the kind of banal garbage that helped make that true.

But even though the early mp3 resembled earlier formats in some senses, in others it was music/youth culture’s waterloo – the end of an era in which music was an all-powerful, awe-inspiring, cultural force; a refuge that was both in plain sight and deeply underground; equally technical and nebulous.  It signaled the beginning of a new era where music became a capitalist accessory, a component of yet more shallow spectacle, an economic asset used primarily to sell physical and sensory widgets.  Sure, we can look back to the late 1960s and see similarities in the commodification of hippy/beat culture, but nobody was using The Velvet Underground to sell car tires, mainly because ad execs (not to mention the general public) didn’t know who the VU were. (Yes, that linked ad is from 1993 – roughly “the year punk broke” to name another watershed moment – yet it still illustrates the music as advertising appliance approach that has become even more common since the late nineties/early aughts.)  Now, anyone with an internet connection can find, read about, and download that Moss Icon EP I searched for across several months within a matter of seconds.  When a thing becomes too easily accessible, it loses its value.  If diamonds grew on trees, nobody would be interested, except for their industrial value.

Which brings me back to the point of this little rant.  I am deeply sad, forlorn even, that music is meaning less to me these days.  Perhaps it is age, but I think it has even more to do with the ritual, culture, and physicality of the cassette, as contrasted with modern equivalents, which are far more casual, and it is on that theme that I shall continue to opine without further asides.

The mixtape, an icon of 80s and 90s culture, was (and is for some purists still) a deep symbol of friendship and even love, representing a ridiculously large commitment of time and energy.  I have given and received mixtapes that went through so may edits and overdubs that in the quiet between songs you could hear layer upon layer of other songs, some that didn’t fit the mix, some that made the cut but were moved elsewhere in the order, and others that were simply taped over for lack of a new and truly blank cassette.  Labels and covers were almost always handmade, with evidence of their own revision and improvisation.  I once received a mixtape recorded over a factory-issue Best of Chicago album that belonged to my friend’s father.  She just popped the overwrite-protection tab and taped right over “Saturday in the Park”, confirming that all was well in the world.  Unlike the burned CD, a sterile object of disinvestment only Stanley Kubrick could love, a great mixtape was a palimpsest of aural, cultural and emotional information.

Although the dubbed cassette was not as personalized as the mixtape, it could still be deeply personal.  The dubbed cassette was the lo-fi copy you got from your friend who had an album you didn’t own yet, or maybe had never even heard of before. My first dub was Appetite for Destruction (side A) and Eazy Duz It (side B).  The height of my dubbing excess came about a decade later, when I spent roughly a week digging through a new friend’s collection of obscure oi!, streetpunk, and viking rock, dubbing each album and transcribing the songs onto little pieces of notebook paper that I folded into the tape cases to serve as makeshift liner notes.  I honestly cannot imagine listening to any of that music on any other physical format and even though I would have loved to find my own original copies of some of that stuff (for bragging rights), part of me was always okay with just having the scammed copy.  A few years ago, my tape deck (a wood paneled top loader with 4 level sliders on the top) broke for the last time.  I put those tapes, and dozens more, out on the street in my densely populated urban neighborhood, hoping someone would find and cherish them.  Without my noticing, it rained heavily that day, soaking the box, the labels, and the covers.  Nobody, save for the garbage man, ever came for them.  A shameful moment indeed, but instructive.  The dubbed cassette was both a second class citizen and an object of desire and affection, the Sally Hemmings of your record collection.  It represented the inferior but also the exotic.  It was special and prized but also kept to the side,  segregated from your more conventionally desirable items, except for those moments when you were alone, when you traveled, or when you wanted to impress your savvier friends with your more obscure tastes.  In the end, unceremoniously abandoned.

I could go on some more about the importance of the cassette to DIY and punk culture, but I’ll leave that alone.  I could also talk about taping crappy pop songs off the radio so I could lip sync to them in my childhood living room, or how I once faced two single-deck boomboxes at each other in order to make a copy of Licensed to Ill, but I don’t want to spread the schlock too thick here.  Instead of grasping at the sky in agony over my lost passion for music, I’ve decided to reinvest myself in vinyl and try to set aside times to just listen to music – not on my phone, not while I’m walking down the street or in the elevator, but listening to music while I’m… listening to music (okay, I might read a magazine, but an analog one for sure).

As Steve Albini put it back in the day, “The future belongs to the analog loyalists. Fuck digital.”

Note: I “dubbed” the above image from the Internet and photoshopped in what may well be the real title of a real tape I may or may not have made for or received from a friend circa 1989.

  • jim

    The night I read this, I also read Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking my Library” from Illuminations. You really need to read it. I bet you can get it at CSU’s library. Its only like 8 pages long (“Unpacking my Library”, not Illuminations), and while Benjamin is talking about books, this work totally sums up why record collecting isn’t as fun in the digital age. In fact, the whole essay sums up some of the negative consequences of “digitality” for me. Anyways, nice article.