Mixing It Up

"This is the first song for your mixtape. It's short just like your temper, but somewhat golden like the afternoons we use to spend before you got too cool." ~Brand New


I am nearly forty years old, which in some ways is old and in others simply means that I've spent nearly 40 years on this earth. It means I remember 9/11 as clearly as if it were yesterday, that I recognize Madonna's cone bra, and that I can legitimately say the phrase, "Remember 30 years ago?" I am a product of my age, but the world won't let me live in a vacuum. Every day I learn something new, and while some things are easier for me to grasp than others, they all remind me that I'm not 20 anymore. Probably the single biggest thing that tests my ability to shift and change is music.


When I was a kid we listened to audio tapes. I remember one of my first trips to Sam Goody, checking out Michael Jackson's Thriller, amazed that something so priceless could be contained in such a finite container. I understood how tapes worked, the process of recording on a ribbon that saved the impression of the music. It fascinated me in a way that few things did back then. I would take apart blank tapes just to see the inner mechanisms, my jaw on the floor as the tape unspooled.


I fell in love with the idea, not just of huge artists like Lionel Richie recording on tapes for me to purchase, but of putting together tapes of my own. Now, don't get me wrong. I had an okay voice, but I knew even back then that I wasn't the next George Michael. By making tapes of my own I meant catching songs I liked on the radio, taping them, and fashioning  a rudimentary mixed tape in that unskilled way. I saved up my money, bought a package of blank tapes, and got to work. 


Those first few mixed tapes were labors of love. I would set the tape to record my favorite stations (either Power 99 or Q 102), mute the volume, and go to sleep, or go to school, or whatever. Forty-five minutes later the magic would have happened. The tape would be full of a lot of music I would later have to weed through to get the priceless gems I wanted on my mixed tape. Then I would use the dual deck function and record from tape to tape the songs I wanted to save for posterity, or at least to listen to for a couple weeks or so. Nothing could have ever been better. I was living the dream.


But then CDs came along and changed the whole dynamic. No longer was it good enough to make simplistic mixed tapes from stitched together radio songs. I was amazed by a little site called CDNow, which promised to make me a mixed CD for the low price of  $12.99. I put in the songs I wanted (from their surprisingly small song lists) and Voila! I had a mixed CD. Something was missing, though, some part of the adventure yanked out like wisdom teeth -- my own involvement. I liked sorting through the songs to find the ones I wanted. I preferred having every song in the world (or on the radio, at least) at my disposal. Simply put, CDNow had made it all impersonal. I needed another option. 


Then along came digital music, the age of iTunes, and the radical change in the way we viewed the medium, in the way we reshuffled  our thinking to accommodate this new wave. Mixed tapes, and mixed CDs both quickly became irrelevant in the wake of mp3 players, iPods, and the like. They were replaced in short order by something called the playlist, which I didn't really understand at first. It wasn't something physical I could manipulate. I didn't have to start it and stop it. It was simply a list that I could order and reorder to my heart's content, but it couldn't be unleashed on the world until I uploaded it to my device. My device, that was smaller than the tapes I used to record on. Except that this device could hold thousands of songs, more than 48 hours worth of straight music, rather than the 45 minutes I had been so awed by a mere 20 years before. 


Sometimes I wish I could go back to that time. Nostalgia is a curious itch I so long to scratch from time to time. But there's a reason it's called progress, this move from simple caveman tools to a whole world of possibilities. As we progress in our knowledge the capacity of our innovations increases. It's inevitable. And as much as I miss recording songs from the radio (and getting some DJ repartee in the process), I wouldn't bring it back. Not really. Because having access to so much music now outweighs the nostalgia. Being able to listen to digital radio stations playing obscure artists I never would have heard back in the day is worth it. Having access to a million playlists on Spotify is a good tradeoff. 


But man, I do still love to dig out some of my old mixed tapes from the 90s sometimes, then search for something to play them on.