I am going to be explicit, firstly, when I say that this is in no way the definitive history of the mixtape, I have done almost zero research into it, and am using only anecdotal evidence, my own drug-influenced memory, and the memory of others with similar life experiences in which to write this article. In other words, if you try to cite me as a secondary source in your dissertation on the musicological significance of the mixtape, then I am afraid you may have trouble defending it to the panel of experts. Outside of a literature review in a peer-review journal about musical history and pop culture (if such a thing exists) you can however consider this a pretty good source of information on its definition and casual history.
An eleven year old version of myself stood motionless, pointer finger positioned stealthily over the top of a small black radio, waiting anxiously for the radio DJ to shut the fuck up about the crawfish boil/mattress sale happening at Gallery Furniture this Sunday, because he has promised to play, and I am anxiously waiting to capture on cassette, “Just Like Heaven” by the Cure. My music budget as an eleven year old in 1992 was nonexistent. I often recorded songs from the radio in order to play them on my counterfeit walkman I purchased from the Korean Grocery Store by my house.
In the nineties, the worse offense in musical history to my knowledge, was when an overzealous DJ would talk over the beginning or ending of a song, making it impossible to record. On this day, as I waited patiently for Robert Smith to sing the last ‘Just Like Heaven’ of the final chorus which was to be followed by the abrupt ending of the track, I heard instead the obnoxious DJ “Cubby” Bryant’s nasal rendition of the line singing along with Robert, and I had never wanted to murder someone so badly until that moment of my young life. To this day, I could probably punch him in the face with very little remorse.
Outside of angry youthful murder fantasies, I was a happy radio listener, and an avid one, since it was my only avenue for new music at the time. On Houston’s northeast side there was a 5:1 liquor store to grocery store ratio and zero record stores. The closest record store was Vinyl Edge on 1960, which might as well have been on the moon. I could however take the 77 MLK line to downtown, and catch the 86 Westheimer to the many record stores in Montrose if I had babysitting money, and two hours to spare on the bus each way. Coincidentally, my tenacious pursuit of new music, would eventually lead me to my now community of like-minded friends, but in my early adolescence, taking the bus downtown was a rare adventure.
When I began junior high, I started volunteering at the public library after school each day. I discovered that our local librarian had excellent taste in music and would acquire lots of new and old albums on cassette and cd to be checked out by impoverished little music nerds like myself.
What did I do with these albums? I made bootleg copies of course! I soon accumulated a pile of bootleg cassettes. Do I feel bad about stealing all this music, now that I am older, and more aware of how the music industry exploits the artists and their music in the name of capitalism? I do feel a little bad about it, but mostly no. Simply because over the years, I have purchased countless records, band merchandise, and concert tickets which by my calculations has more than made up for my adolescent plundering. However, the real reason there is no cause for shame, is because from those bootleg tapes, I have shared many an overdubbed mixtape of the bands that I loved with others. Thus creating a chain of music nerds who all would go on to buy countless records, band merchandise, and concert tickets as well. This is how we made friends, lovers, partnerships, and if the tape were really terrible maybe a few enemies… A mixtape was the currency of my youth.
I learned how to create a mixtape from my older brother Paul. I watched him go through the same agonising dance with obnoxious DJ’s and favourite songs from the radio. I also used his double tape stereo to dub his tapes, and create mixtapes. I watched him skilfully and quietly record The White Album on cassette using a tape recorder placed strategically in front of our parents’ Hi Fi as the record played through the speaker. I also got yelled at by him for ruining said recording session by “breathing too loudly” as I watched.
At age eleven, I sadly lacked the self awareness and empathy I should have gained from my role reversal, when I snapped at my baby sister EmilyAnn to get out of the living room, for ruining my recording session of Stevie Nick’s Belladonna with her incessant questions. I listened to my version of that album for so many years, that even now, I expect to hear Emily’s voice asking me to play Barbies with her over the intro to After the Glitter Fades.
As an adult, I can appreciate the manner in which I crafted a mixtape, and liken it to my current work as an artist. I took great care, as many did, in the creation of the tape. Creating a mixtape is sort of like collage. You are assembling a work of art, using the works of found materials, in this case the musical work of other artists. Perhaps that’s where my interest in art history began… I think I just learned something about myself you guys!
Curating a mixtape is just like curating an exhibition. First, I begin with an idea. The idea is usually inspired by a life event, memory, experience, or interaction. For example, I had a crush on a boy in the 9th grade, one day he smiled at me in the hallway, I immediately set out to create a mixtape for him. That small interaction planted a seed, the seed grew into an idea, in this instance it was the idea that maybe just maybe, this fool might actually like me back. From the idea, I created a theme. The theme of this tape was, “unrequited love” of course. The key to creating a good mixtape, and specifically one that might make someone fall in love with you is to treat each song like a section of an overall story that you want to tell.
In my work as an artist and curator, I try to stay true to an overall narrative. My goal is tell you a story, to take the viewer or in this case, listener on a journey. While crafting a mixtape, each song is a piece of a puzzle that will eventually reflect the ideas that you want to come across. It’s a collaboration between curator and songwriter.
Much like the way artwork is displayed in a gallery, the distribution of songs on a tape create an atmosphere that can help or hinder the story you want to tell. Transitions are particularly of high importance to me in a mixtape. I love a good transition. A great transition can be a magical experience. For example, my ex-husband once challenged me to create a good mixtape using only ubiquitous, totally over-played songs. I accepted this challenge and created a Spotify playlist called “Just All bangers: Ubiquitous AF”. One of my favourite transitions is contained on this mix, it’s the end of You Oughta Know by Alanis Morrissette paired with the beginning of Tom Sawyer by Rush. It’s hard to form into words why I love that particular transition, but when you hear it, you just know that it was somehow meant to be.
Another terrible offence in musical history is the invention of the shuffle feature. I hate the shuffle feature. Firstly, because how dare you? Do you realise how much time we have spent creating these transitions? Listening to a mix on shuffle is like walking into an art gallery and rearranging all of the works on the wall into a random order. These songs were placed here intentionally, why would you do that?
Sadly, it is a mark of our modern era, I once made a playlist for a guy, and I asked him how far he got into it, and he told me he had listened to four songs, and I said earnestly, “oh so “Fireworks” what did you think?” and he said he had not heard that one yet as he was listening on shuffle…so I immediately broke up with him.
Not really…but it was certainly the beginning of the end for us, I was highly disappointed because he was so dismissive of the importance of listening in order, that it was obvious to me that he didn’t value music in the same way, and to be honest it made me feel a little disgusted. He also had this hang up about pop music which I found dumb and lazy. I think people who shut themselves off to one genre of music are childish and ignorant. There is an entire world to explore, and you just want to stare at these same four walls? Boring.
In addition to shuffle, another musical offence is the people who just throw random songs without concern for order, cohesion, and transition on to a playlist and have the audacity to refer to it as a mix. That’s like throwing a pile of paintings in the middle of the room and calling it an exhibition. It is not a mix, what you have done here is added songs to a pile. You have curated nothing, therefore it is not a mix, I have even heard these people say, “well you just play it on shuffle and it will mix it for you”, and then I fall out of my chair dead at that horrifying suggestion.
Perhaps I am being too harsh, but I told you that I would help to define what a mixtape is and its history, and I cannot do that without talking about what it explicitly isn’t. A mixtape began in the 80s as a cassette assemblage of music to be shared. By the 90s, the mixtape had evolved into a work of art that was crafted with concern for a theme, cohesion, transitions, overall mood, and last but not least narrative arch.
Just like when crafting a story, I believe that a good mixtape has exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. These parts of the narrative arch should capture the listener’s attention and be consistent with the theme of the mix.
The narrative arch of a mixtape is divided by the overall number of songs. The exposition are the first few songs that hook the listener in and enlighten them to the theme and mood of the narrative. It is important to then switch the tone and create rising action, this can include, but is not limited by; a shift in tempo, mood, lyrical rhythms, genre, or lyrical content. Rising Action is followed by the Climax of the narrative theme, this is your absolute banger moment. The song that the Rising Action has been building towards. This is the gratification moment. If the tape’s goal is to be a declaration of love, “Lovesong” by the Cure, or “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton (or Whitney’s amazing version) would go here. This would then be followed by the Falling Action of the narrative, these are the songs that bring you closer to your resolution, it will once again be a definitive shift in tone, tempo, genre or lyrics to create the illusion of an approaching resolution.
Resolution is your final statement on the matter. The conclusion. The reiteration of your thesis statement for this mixtape. This is a song that will bring it all home, wrap it up in a nice bow, or not. Sometimes there is no resolution. Sometimes it’s anti-climactic, it fully depends on the theme of the narrative. Perhaps the narrative is one of tension or ongoing disconnection or complication of the main idea. In which case, you have the anti-resolution, the song that leaves them with a question in their mind, or a call to action.
From the humble dollar store cassette, to the Spotify playlist, a mixtape is still quintessentially a tool for communication as much as it is a work of art. My generation used the mixtape to share our interests, ideals, and as secret messages to high school crushes. Now we use the Spotify list to make a new version of the mixtape. Our old mixtapes are like time capsules into our adolescent psyches and I am hopeful that these platforms can exist in some tangible way for future generations to reminisce in a similar fashion. I am filled with hope and love for all the nerdy girls (and similarly minded boys) with social anxiety, and vulnerability issues, who can still utilise the mixtape as a device of emotional expression via the playlist. However, there is a part of me that is slightly saddened that the skill and timing required to hit a button faster than a DJ can speak has been lost to history.