Good riddance to the cassette mixtape: on the ironies of aura in mechanical reproduction

In a recent Forbes article, Michele Catalano waxes nostalgic – or should that be rewinds nostalgic? – for “the lost art of the mixtape.”

The art – and make no mistake about it, it is an art – of making a mix tape is one lost on a generation that only has to drag and drop to complete a mix. There’s no love or passion involved in moving digital songs from one folder to another. Those “mixes” are just playlists held prison inside a device. There’s no blood, sweat and tears involved in making them.

I come not to praise mixtapes, but to bury them.

I come not to praise mixtapes, but to bury them.

Where to start a critique of such nostalgia for days of storage media yore? A statement like this, in the first place, is simply ironic: arguing that one recording medium is more authentic or immediate than another is more than a little absurd (although not without precedent: it’s part of what Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin call “remediation,” or how new media are understood relative to old). A statement like this antagonizes both new media and its users – “kids these days” – in a manner that is at once as current as claims that the Internet rots your brain and as ancient as Plato’s criticism of writing itself (which, given in writing, was also ironic). Lastly, in a manner reminiscent of the dangers in writing of which Plato warned, a statement like this forgets as much about the “art” of the mixtape as it claims to recollect. Like, for instance, how crappy cassette technology was.

Today’s mediascape is so supersaturated with so many different and competing apparatuses, techniques, and systems that it has become not just plausible but commonplace to argue that some media are more authentic – less technological, and more “live,” if you will – than others. The German cultural theorist Walter Benjamin coined the term aura to describe the effects of reverence and awe that accompany the traditional, unique work of art – the painting, the chamber music performance – and yet these effects only make sense after the advent of recording technologies for mass copying art, as you will know if you’ve ever lined up at the Louvre to see the original Mona Lisa. The performance scholar Philip Auslander has coined a related term: “liveness.” The very idea of liveness, he argues, does not precede but can only be defined in contrast to recording. Reversing conventional wisdom, Auslander argues rock & roll is a genre the live performance of which always strives to sound as much as it can like its prior studio recording; he also shows how entrenched the value of liveness is in popular culture, with reference for instance to the case of dance act Milli Vanilli, disgraced for having their Grammy revoked on the grounds they had lip-synched their work.

Arguments for “liveness” and against mediation are in some ways a reprise of the ancient hostility to new media as media, which is to say hostility to techne – to art – as mythologized by Plato’s Phaedrus (circa 370 BCE), which recounts the encounter between the Egyptian king Thamus and the god Theuth, inventor of writing: a technology that Thamus argues does not aid memory, as Theuth claims, but rather destroys it.

this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them.

In the context of music, the hostility to media has been modulated by a Romantic ideology of creativity as spontaneous, individual expression and by musicians’ organized campaigns against recording media. Ironically, since the 1980s, the DJ sector itself has been reproducing this tradition, in campaigns against the CD, campaigns to “keep vinyl alive.” Last summer, Toronto producer and DJ Deadmau5 reignited the “liveness” debate in the domain of DJing specifically by claiming >many top dance DJs like himself just “hit play” (instead of mixing and beatmatching tracks). His comments drew fierce and defensive criticism from other top DJs, who went on to justify their work and the outrageous sums that overcompensate it in terms of romanticized “blood, sweat and tears.” As though some ways to press play are less technological, or more work, than others.

Catalano’s article, then, is a very recent variation on a very ancient theme. It is invested in Romanticism, in authenticity, in the notion that making a mixtape is work that can’t be matched by whatever it is the kids today are doing with their phones (clicking and dragging, shuffling, sodcasting, and so on). Unlike sorting mp3s, making a mixtape is an “art,” Catalano insists, repeatedly, perhaps protesting too much. Moreover, it’s an “art” that is driven by “love and passion” and that demands “blood, sweat and tears” – it demands real work, that is, unlike pointing, clicking, and dragging. Which are also apparently acts devoid of love and passion.

These claims – about old media being better quality, or more authentic, or more engaging, and – conversely – about new media being lower quality, or artificial and superficial, or dissociative and antisocial – will not stand. They rehearse assumptions about culture and technology that are not only ancient but pernicious and regressive: they’re the same kinds of assumptions that Big Content exploits to pursue its copyright maximalist agenda, thwarting cultural innovation and growth (but that’s another story). They valorize kinds of DIY cultural labour as though they havedisappeared, rather than transformed. And these claims are also more than a little ironic, for appearing in blog form.

Let me be clear: I too made my fair share of analogue cassette mixtapes when I was young. I still own, and even play, several of these pause-button productions, soundtracks to youthful desire and mystery. But would I trade the mobile device I can pocket for a double-deck boom box, a shoe box full of cassettes, a milk crate full of vinyl, and an antennae-borne FM signal? Hell no.

Let me also be clear that I’m not refuting the idea that making a mixtape is a creative practice. (I wouldn’t call it an “art,” actually, but that’s a different argument to make elsewhere.) Making a music mix – whether as “live” set, mixtape, mashup, playlist, or podcast – is an eminently, critically creative practice. What I am refuting is the idea that this art depends on a specific medium – and in this case a rightly dead one that nobody should feel like they miss, or missed out on. I’m not even refuting the idea that a cassette mixtape takes a lot of work – I’m just saying it’s work not worth missing, and that goes on anyway, in different forms.

So let me count the ways I don’t miss the mixtape, and bid it good riddance.

1) Sound quality: analogue cassettes start degrading as soon as you play them, and the more you play one back, the faster it goes. (As a kid I even bought commercially made tapes, before a school friend pointed out I should buy vinyl and blank tapes instead, a more robust solution.) Depending on the tape and the recording-playback unit, a tape could all too often end up sounding warbly. To fix that, you’d have to do it again, or risk a new tape. In contrast, the fix for a warbly-sounding mp3 is simply finding or forking out for a high-quality one instead. I sure don’t miss warbly-sounding tapes – whether they got dubbed that way or just inevitably got that way with repeated play.
Then there were levels, too: tape decks had better and worse EQs for sound-checking a mix, and EQing this detail, making sure the levels just touched the reds from song to song, could get hugely time-consuming. It’s work I don’t miss. (Not that iTunes does anything like an ideal job with its own sound check, but it’s an improvement.)

2) Research: finding music new or old, sourcing the right songs for a certain mix, trying to decide what gear to buy, what records, what kinds of blank tapes (what quality, how long) … the sourcing and selecting of music did take a lot of work before the Internet, and it’s work I don’t miss for a second. Then, as now, to not only find the right music but to develop your own distinctive tastes, you relied on your friends, social circles, and your own idiosyncratic navigation of the social fabric and cultural media of the day.
The Internet increasingly allows you to source and select songs from more and more of the whole history of recorded sound (as long as the copyright lobbies don’t ultimately get their way – by using the same romantic rhetoric on display in articles like that under discussion). Would I, as a teen, have had access to Edison’s recordings? Wouldn’t even occur to me to have tried.
As the Internet has magnified the opportunities for developing musical taste – allowing for both global diversification and micro-genre specialization equally – so do digital playback apps and systems enhance possibilities for honing the craft of the perfect mix. If you made a mixtape and, after repeated playback, one or more songs started to seem out of place, you’d have to put a fair bit of work into redoing or perfecting it. Not so with digital playback. And what’s more, digital playback allows for what I consider a welcome element of chance: the shuffle function often yields sequences and juxtapositions that have an uncanny serendipity about them, like a ghost in the machine. Such chance combinations have a valuable role to play in the conscious composition of a playlist or mix.

3) Sharing: You know what was maybe kind of special about mixtapes? Not being invited or pressured to share them with the world. Or being auto-prompted to check out similar music “you might like.” Privacy is a scarce resource these days. And I will concede that the surveillance mechanisms and privacy policies those algorithms represent are deeply spooky, even dystopian.
And you know what is kind of special about digital mixes? BEING INVITED TO SHARE THEM WITH THE WORLD. Similarly, being advised by algorithms to check out music you might like is certainly creepy, but we are living some science fiction shit when robots can suggest what music we might sample.
In addition, the aura of a given mixtape – its uniqueness – reflects its fragility, its vulnerability to vicissitudes of sharing and distribution. Lend a tape and there’d be no telling what shape you’d get it back in. You could make a backup, but that too was time-consuming and costly (and risked the warbly issue I mentioned above, too).

4) Democratized mixing, DJing and sound engineering: It’s true that the whole genre of hip hop started with pause-button boombox tape edits and vinyl hackers like Herc and Flash rebuilding the relation between needle and groove from the ground up. But it’s also true that today’s digital milieu has even more dramatically further democratized music mixing and music-making. For one thing, digital files are much more portable and manipulable. For another, audio tools for doing so are available in abundance and relatively easy to learn – Audacity is a great example of free, high-quality, and easily learned sound editing and podcasting software for anyone who wants a mix to be more than an iTunes playlist. Not that theres anything wrong with an iTunes playlist. Similarly, streaming music services engage listeners more interactively in selecting and customizing the sound stream.

5) Footprint: See what I said above, about the double-deck boom box, shoe box full of cassettes, and milk crate full of vinyl. That’s a lot of mass, for one thing. On this front, at least, I feel like the science fiction future I was promised as a youth (in part by the new wave and Afro-Futurist sounds of my ’80s mixtapes) has come to pass: the shit that used to fill my bedroom now fits IN MY POCKET. I do not miss packing for trips or moving house that involved hauling so much bulky tech luggage.
That said, it isn’t at all clear or straightforward that today’s pocket jukebox puts down a smaller environmental footprint than yesterday’s shelves full of boxes did, especially when we consider: offshore manufacture environment policies and shipping; the “planned obsolescence” business model for consumer technology, which yields a new crop of flat glass rectangles every fall; electronic waste; the “rare earth” that goes into microprocessing and, arguably, some geopolitical coflicts.

Like I said, I agree that making a mixtape is a creative practice, and that, in their day, mixtapes held momentous cultural importance: they helped to found hip hop, and they helped to build rave scenes, for instance. And for those who still have and can play them, they remain important cultural-historical artifacts. But I disagree with claims that making mixtapes is more creative than manipulating iTunes, that dead media are inherently of more value or better quality than current media, or that mixing music is anything like a “lost art.” If anything, it’s booming now more than ever. As numerous music critics, historians, and DJs themselves point out, the art of the mix is – at its aesthetic core – the art of selecting and sequencing. Composition is compilation. And this is a creative process that long predates cassette tapes, and has thrived in their wake.

I also like to think that the automation of one creative process makes possible new kinds of hands-on creative opportunities;for instance, automated beat-matching frees up more time for thoughtful selecting, or for effects and EQing. We also see this transformation of creative work in the wider proliferation of not just new mechanisms for consuming music but also new modes of producing it – some of which themselves mix and match, in the ever-changing realm of consumption-as-production, or “prosumption.”

In closing, it’s interesting to note that Catalano’s article is itself something of a mix of the kinds of deep-seated premises I’ve outlined, a mix that resonates strongly with more recent and specific statements on the cassette mixtape in particular. Carl Wilson wrote a similar column in 2005, when iPods first burst into the consumer tech sector. His “Ode to the yearning, churning mixtape” was composed as an annotated playlist – the article is “a mix tape in memory of mix tapes,” organized as reflections on twenty selections from Billie Holiday to Sonic Youth (and for further recursivity, some of the tracks are themselves musical odes to mixtapes). Here’s a sample entry:

19. Mixtape=Love (Viva Voce, 2004): The mix CD may permit laziness, but it doesn’t require it. I spent as many hours on a mix for my wife while she was away this winter as I ever have, sifting hundreds of tracks for strands on separation and return, on time’s conveyances. Her response was as tender as to any cassette. (But handwrite the track listing: Modernity has its limits.)

So I’m tempted (perhaps unfairly) to suggest there’s no blood, sweat and tears involved in the Forbes article. In its unexamined, problematic assumptions, nostalgic affectation, and played-out tropes, this article suggests that the art of lamenting the lost art of the mixtape is itself in danger of being lost on a generation of writers that can so easily pastiche premises and arguments from the whole history of writing on media – premises and arguments that demand critical scrutiny. Such arguments short-change and dismiss the diverse and vital practices of music sharing and music-making practiced by kids today – who are still alright, as The Who sang, and whom you can’t fool, as Peter Tosh did. Maybe download those two to start your next playlist.

Works Cited

Auslander, Philip. “Liveness, Mediatization, and Intermedial Performance.” Degrés: Revue de synthèse à orientation sémiologique 101 (2000). http://lmc.gatech.edu/~auslander/publications/liveness.pdf

Benjamin, Walter. “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” (1936). Rpt. in Marxists Archive.

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York: WW Norton, 2010.

Catalano, Michele. “The lost art of the mixtape.” Forbes 23 Dec. 2012.

Deadmau5 [Joel Zimmerman]. “we all hit play.” United We Fail 23 Jun. 2012.

Plato. Phaedrus. Plato in Twelve Volumes. Vol. 9. Trans. Harold N. Fowler. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1925. Rpt. in “The first critique of writing: Plato’s Phaedrus.” U of Illinois.

Tosh, Peter. “Can’t blame the youth.” Intel-Diplo, 1973.

The Who. “The kids are alright.” My Generation. Brunswick, 1965.

Wilson, Carl. “Ode to the yearning, churning mix tape.” Globe and Mail 4 Jun. 2005: R6.

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