Mix Tape, the Art of Cassette Culture: A Review

Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture
edited by Thurston Moore
Universal Publishing HBK, USD $22.50

Cassettes are the new vinyl. Well, not quite, but from Aki Onda’s remarkable improvisations with multiple cassette recorders and archival street recordings in his Cassette Memories series, to Sublime Frequencies’ compilations of Cambodian cassette pop found in suburban Californian libraries, to Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture, an elegant meditation on all things magnetophonique edited by Thurston Moore, the cassette is being resurrected, and today, in the age of the mp3 and digital recording, revealed in all its glory as a fully formed fetish object.

Not coincidentally, this happens to be the very moment where most of us are throwing away our collections of those fragile, user-unfriendly plastic boxes with their hand made labels and cheap packaging. German philosopher Walter Benjamin talked of the way that the newly obsolescent object reveals its history precisely at the moment it is abandoned by the market. Vinyl junkiedom grew up casting a backward glance to the end of the nineteenth century with industrial processed black petroleum disks inscribed with sounds. The cassette tape (for those of us unlucky enough not to have owned a reel to reel, like Tony Conrad who contributes a 1960 r to r mix!), first produced by Philips in 1962, marked the jump of music into the post-World War II information age, where sound slowly mutates into data, to be read off a strip by a machine, disembodied even from the tactility of the needle on the groove. Moore here delivers a delightfully goofy song of praise to the sound coming off these strips of magnetized plastic, with their “healing analog tones” placed in opposition to the “cold heart” of digitized sound.

Moore – who was a guest curator for New York gallery Exit Art’s 2001 “LP Show”, a vast and fabulous exhibition of LP covers – is fascinated by the cassette, and in particular the mix tape – as a DIY production. He dates his fascination to reading a Robert Christgau review in 1978 in which Christgau talks about his favorite Clash album being a mix tape of non-LP B-sides that he has made for his friends – a hand crafted reconfiguration of consumer culture, given away as a gift. These themes resonate throughout the rest of the book – the mix-tape as art work, as mating call (or in other cases, break up laments) and gift economy, or as narcissistic reflection of the compiler’s tastes and obsessions.

Mix Tape consists of a sequence of reproductions of favorite mix tapes – inserts and the actual cassettes – from a series of Moore’s friends and colleagues, along with short notes and reminiscences about the circumstances or qualities of each tape. Included are contributions from John Zorn, Jim O’Rourke, film-maker Richard Kern, poet Dodie Bellamy and writer Mary Gaitskell. Not all of the stories (or mix tapes) are equally interesting. And at least one of the mixes (square, one sided) looks like a CD, not a cassette, which kinda ruins the uh cultural specificity here. Perhaps predictably, most of tape making is done by boys, while most of the women in the book write as recipients of cassettes from guys, raising the question as to whether cassette culture is mainly another technologically mediated way for geeky boys to express their passion or egos. Having said that, this book, like the best mix tapes, is charmingly idiosyncratic and soulful – a collage of a bunch of collages, a copy of some copies, another sign that the acts of appropriation in the news today in downloading scandals have their origin in “the true love and ego involved in sharing music with friends and lovers.” What is left is not the image of people breaking copyright law, not even the musical content of the tapes themselves, which, decade by decade, decay, but the passion, for music, for another person, for whatever, inscribed in hand-written lists, xeroxed montage covers, and names written in felt tip over mass-produced plastic media.

Originally published in The Wire, 2005.

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