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The Joy of Mix Tapes

When I wasn’t in choir rehearsals over the weekend, I continued my ongoing organization project, and I’ve found another big stash of things I hadn’t thought about: cassette tapes.

I’m old enough to have had a fairly big music collection from before the CD era, and even after I got a CD player, I had a car with a cassette player until 2008, so I have a collection that includes things I bought on cassette, a bunch of recordings of CDs (so I could listen to them in the car or on my Walkman), and then tons of mix tapes.

For those too young for the pre-digital music era, a mix tape was basically a playlist in physical form. It was a way of putting together a variety of music for listening to in the car, a way of sharing a sampling of things you liked with your friends, or a way of showing someone you were getting to know just who you were musically. I have playlists curated specifically for certain drives or moods or events. There’s the tape I used to play in when I was driving home from Austin when I was in college. I put it in at a certain point on the trip, and just hearing the first song takes me to a particular time and place. There’s a mix tape of movie love themes that I used when I was sick and having trouble falling asleep because of coughing fits. Somehow, listening to the music distracted me from the coughing reflex, and the tape would cut off on its own after I was asleep. There were tapes I made when I was depressed after a breakup, full of angry songs, and tapes I made when I had a crush, full of love songs.

It’s funny how much music on the go has evolved. At one time, a big part of packing for a road trip involved carefully selecting (and finding) the tapes that would go in my carrying case. Then I got the current car, which has a CD player that plays MP3 CDs, and I started burning playlists to CDs. It was kind of like making a mix tape, but I could fit about 11 hours of music on it instead of about 90 minutes. Now, I just bring my iPhone, and it has far more than ever would have fit in my case. I estimate that my packing time for road trips has decreased by at least half an hour, an hour if I don’t make a new playlist for the trip.

I still have some cassette players and do use them occasionally. I’m narrowing down what I’m keeping to things I only have on cassette — especially things that don’t exist on CD — and some mix tapes. I have a few cassette carrying cases that I got when a writing organization I was in got rid of their library of workshop tapes, so I’m only keeping what fits in those cases. Now begins the process of narrowing them down, which is turning into quite the nostalgia fest. I’m going to end up just sitting there, listening to 80s music, at some point, I’m sure. It doesn’t help that there are a lot of “orphaned” tapes separated from their cases, and many of them are unlabeled. It’s like playing a game of Concentration to match tapes with their cases.