Cassette tapes: they broke, they melted, they got dirty, they unspooled and they they sounded terrible. Other than that they were awesome! It’s hard to imagine anyone could feel nostalgic for an audio format as completely inferior, unstable, and unattractive as the cassette, but nostalgia is about being young, not being an audiophile (which explains everything from transistor radios to the Bay City Rollers). I was at a friends for dinner and an eighteen-year-old girl had an iPhone cover that looked like a cassette, which was very funny because she wasn’t old enough to remember cassettes in the first place, but there it was: a facsimile of a cassette made out of rubber and protecting hundreds of digital song files. It’s struck me as ironic, but then again, I am the kind of person who enjoys referring to my “iPod” as my “walkman.”
While I never had the spiritual connection to cassettes that I had to vinyl, I did appreciate the potential for personal expression of the D.I.Y. mixed cassette tapes — an analog precursor to iPod playlists and like many people, I put a great deal of time into my cassette creations. Unlike many people, I have saved the J-cards (the industry lingo for the cardboard inserts). Being somewhat “crafty,” I often gussied up these J-cards with little visual motifs and bits of color. My finished cassette tapes were used for many different occasions: the birthday gift tape, the “thanks for being you” tape, the sound bed to accompany a road trip tape, the “sorry I hurt your feelings” tape, and, best of all, the “if you listen to this tape you will want to have sex with me tape.” This was my least successful kind of mixed tape, perhaps owing to my obsession with and frequent inclusion of Sarah McLachlan’s Possession, whose somewhat sinister, creepy lyrics say “snuff film” more than “Hallmark” and certainly did not advance my cause.
Looking back at my collection, my mixed tapes bear witness as a sort of aural journal: I can tell where I was, what I was into and what I was going through at the time I made each one. For example, the tape above was made while I was working at Arista Records in 1988. Owing as much to me being a team player as much as to the label’s market dominance at that time, my can-do company spirit is reflected in the inclusion of no less than five Arista songs, including Hall & Oates’ “Downtown Life.” (At the time, Arista issued a company-wide survey of all employees—everyone from department heads down to lowly interns like myself—to vote on what was to be the second single from their Arista album Ooh Yeah. Although I voted for “Downtown Life,” I was outvoted in favor of “Missed Opportunity,” whose title proved to be prophetic when the song peaked at a dismal #29 on the charts. The label higher-ups tried to double back to my original suggestion and released “Downtown Life” as the third single, but by then it was too late to turn the album around). In a related point, I am proud to say that this was also the period when Arista was trying to brand the “cassette single” as the “cassingle” and I believe, had exclusive rights to that word. A historic moment’s futile attempt at being born.
Not much love was lost when the reign of the cassette tape ended quickly with the advent of the internet and song files. Now all that’s left are nostalgic iPod holders and boxes of worthless tapes at garage sales. Speaking of boxes of worthless tapes at garage sales, there is a website I love is called Tape Findings which disseminates all kinds of incredibly odd and twisted found cassettes that are found—you guessed it—primarily at garage sales. My favorite collection on their site is a cache of cassettes of the dying Como carousel’s music, which includes a very unusual interpretation of Sammy Davis Jr.’s “The Candy Man.” If you notice on my ballads tape above, I snuck one of my own songs from the period. This dates the tape to 1992 which was about the time I stopped writing my own songs and began working with other writers as a manager and creative director in publishing. This song, “Words Of Love,” wasn’t typical of my output, way more poetic and trance-like than my usual full-on pop fare. You can tell I was heavily in the thrall of Madonna in her Erotica period as “Words of Love” sounds a little like “Rain” but with shitty production. Like something you’d find on an old cassette.
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