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  • Writer's pictureKristin Woodward

throwback Thursday: the art of the mix tape

wow. what an unexpected walk down memory lane i took this past weekend. i spent a good part of it re-arranging furniture, making room for new, finding room for books that have been in boxes since we moved in an generally trying to unclutter every inch of this house i possibly can.

we have a corner shelf in our bedroom that hides behind the door when it’s open, which is most of the time. in addition to the stash of books i’ve read over the past couple years that i haven’t known where else to put, some of Spy’s cuff links and odd boxes of foreign money and international electrical adapters, it holds a random assortment of music players — one for an iPod and an old one for everything else except vinyl. i have no idea why, considering we rarely-to-never listen to music in the bedroom. maybe we should.

apparently, when unpacking the house 6 years ago, i also thought this was a great place for one basket woven box half full of old cassette tapes. (the other 4 or so boxes reside downstairs in a cabinet in the living room far from any device that could actually play them. would love to be able to remember the rationale that sparked that.) i still had books to order and stuff to think through, so i popped in one of the most epic work tapes ever and started digging through the stash. not only did i start to remember some of the times to which these tapes served as soundtracks. i also remembered what went into crafting them.

sure, today, you create an iTunes or Spotify playlist, love it and share it. but back then, there was no shuffle function. no skipping around. the flow of the tape meant everything and there was definitely an art to creating it. you had to consider the mood you were trying to create and really ensure that one song led smoothly into the next. there had to be a logic of style or rhythm or lyrics. you had to make sure there were ebbs and flows — you couldn’t run too many high energy songs together without a break for something a little more mellow. and timing it all to really punctuate the end of a side without too much hang time on the end that had to play through before an auto-flip (in later days) was a work of utter mathematical genius. over about 10 years of doing it, i think i got pretty good. i listened to just a few this weekend — actually none of them my own creations — but could absolutely have gotten lost for hours in them.

in addition to a few tapes literally labeled things like “party — winter ’96” (and OMG, i do remember that party with housemates — the only time i had them — in DC), there were some other memorable types of tapes:

1. best. mix. ever. these started in 1990. i couldn’t find the case for Part 1 (certainly it’s in one of the downstairs boxes). and none of the tapes for the rest were there. again, must search downstairs. as i recall, that first one was created in the spring of 1990. i am dying to know what’s on it. the others followed every spring i was at Rollins. they served as a soundtrack for that semester and summer, for sure, ranging from U2, David Bowie and Lloyd Cole to Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails and Lenny Kravitz. not sure if there ever was a Part 5, but guessing that would have been a jumping the shark moment and i was cool enough to know better.

2. the Benetton soundtracks my best friend and i worked at Benetton junior (?) year? who can remember? that would’ve been 1987. and i can hardly think of anything more 80s than working at Benetton! to this day, i can still fold a sweater like a mofo. life skills, y’all. anyway, unlike most other chain retailers who at the time had soundtracks approved by corporate and pumped in over some fancy system (actually, still do), at Springfield Benetton, we had a dual cassette player wired to speakers throughout the store. it was up to us — a bunch of high school juniors and seniors — to dictate the playlists. in retrospect, it was actually fucking brilliant. who else is on top of the hottest music and can set the mood for shoppers the same age.

of course we celebrated Duran Duran members’ birthdays by playing all DD all the time on those days. on other days, we had a series of the most awesome mixes of really random dance music that ranged from Erasure, Madonna, Depeche Mode and New Order to international tracks and other stuff i had never heard of. the inserts are long-since water-stained and the track lists illegible, but they still play. a few were inherited from an exotic Persian friend of a couple of the exotic Persian girls who worked with us. i don’t remember a thing about Bobbe except that his name was always pronounced in a very certain, clipped way BOBbay. and i always got the impression he literally lived at Bank or Fifth Column. Bobbe’s Blend was one of the legendary mixes that passed through the store that year, and included classics like “Bam, Bam, Bam (I Came Here to Jam).” it still lives up to the hype.

3. tapes for boys’ phone numbers i love this one. i dated this Swiss guy for a hot minute in the early ’90s. even all these years later, when i saw this scrawl on Sunday, i knew exactly who Yves was. i honestly can’t remember how we met, but can totally envision him walking me to my car and me grabbing a cassette case out of the glove box and writing down his phone number before heading home with an “i’ll totally call you.” yes, kids, that’s how we did it in the old days before everyone had cell phones. i can only imagine how many guys’ numbers and random notes i had written on various cassette inserts. like Yves, i’m sure the tapes lasted longer than all of the boys involved. wah-wah.

4. tapes they made for me i didn’t get a lot of tapes from boys. though one of these is definitely from a guy i dated, who is now, still a really dear friend — i think before we actually dated, or maybe after when we were dialing it back to friendship. and now looking at the tracks for a pretty neutral “New Year’s 1999 — What to Listen to When You’re Not Listening to Prince” tape, i wondered how hard he had been trying to tell me something i totally missed at the time. story of my life. but there were also girlfriend tapes, road trip tapes, mountain cabin weekend tapes and college pass-alongs that my friends at other schools knew i would love. the cool thing about all of these is obviously the care taken in making them and the respect for the art of it all that i described above.

5. tapes i made for them yes, i made tapes for boys! i admit it. not sure how many were actually ever given to them and how many were my little inside reminders of them. 2 i came across were the one i made for my high school boyfriend when we went our separate ways to college, literally titled Never Tear Us Apart (as in INXS)/Wish You Were Here (as in Bananarama), and 1 entitled Songs for A Long Lunch that was created at a time in the mid-90s when i was dating someone i worked with and we seemed to be able to sneak out of the office for a lot of lingering lunches together . . . it’s amazing how just looking at the track lists on these can so clearly bring back so many feelings and memories after 20+ odd years.

okay. holycrap, now i feel old. and still kind of wonderful.

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