As the commercial juggernaut that is Valentine’s Day hurtles towards us like space debris, it is with wistful yearning that I recall the most romantic of gifts, a memory now receding in the rear view mirror of my mind’s eye.
The gift that aroused the greatest frisson of excitement in me cost all but nothing in dollar terms yet displayed more meaning and beauty than just about anything else I received.
It could also have the same intoxicating effect on any other day of the year too.
That American poet, film critic and essayist Geoffrey O’Brien referred to this highly visible pastime of 1980s youth culture as ‘the most widely practiced art form in America’ is all the more appealing given so many were creating for so few; in fact for the most part, for an audience of just one person.
Behold, the humble yet glorious romantic pursuit that was the mixtape.
There was no greater labour of love than a compilation of songs conceived for a party of one. Sometimes the selections were overt in intent. Other times, particularly amongst shy types, oblique and tentative layers of meaning might unfold.
Each was unique but all of course reflected the compiler’s musical tastes and their considered selection could become an artistic statement in its own right. To that end, the mixtape required a theme or mood to evoke an experience shared, a simmering feeling, an unexpressed emotion. It was never just a random selection of songs thrown together.
And the ordering was just as important. Would it be a musical journey with each track acting as a layer in the aural brick road? Or a surprise package with alternating genres and tempos that delivered a mercurial experience as you seesawed your way through the audio hurdy gurdy?
As Nick Hornby wrote in the mid-90s classic, High Fidelity: “Making a tape is like writing a letter … a good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You’ve got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention (I started with ‘Got to Get You Off My Mind’ but then realised that she might not get any further than track one, side one if I delivered what she wanted straightaway, so I buried it in the middle of side two), and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can’t have white music with black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you’ve done the whole thing in pairs and … oh, there are loads of rules.”
Yes Mr Hornby, there were loads of rules and not just creative ones. Like ensuring the last track on Side A wasn’t cut off. Better still that you’d mathematically engineered the playlist to leave as little blank tape at the end as possible so as not to interrupt the flow when it automatically switched to track one on Side B.
Likewise it was imperative to have the precision of an orchestral conductor with the Pause button so there were no audible clicks between songs. And then there was the cassette case artwork and liner notes to consider, a whole other artistic pursuit in itself.
I made quite a few mixtapes of my own in the 80s and as they used to say at the Streets’ factory, you never share ice cream with someone you don’t like. Similarly, you never made a mixtape for someone you didn’t like.
Whether they were for friends or more, I still thought of them as a romantic exercise in musical self-expression and shared experience that spoke of great affection and appreciation for the recipient.
And if you happened to be creating a mixtape for someone you fancied, were falling for or were actually in love with, they could be all-consuming, ambitious projects of epic, heroic, Herculean proportions.
Sure, CD compilations and MP3 playlists became faster and more convenient methods by which to deliver the goods but like the romance of rail travel in the 1920s, a mixtape was as much about the journey as it was the destination.
Which is why I fully appreciated the magnitude of the gesture when I was on the receiving end. More so, the singular sensation when receiving a mixtape from someone I was enamored of, which could set off an involuntary flush of pink to the cheeks and a palpable 128 beats per minute from beneath my shirt.
And that was before I even hit Play.
Postscript: For those desperate to relive the halcyon days via a 3D printer and flash drive try MakerBot Mixtape. A quick look at MakerBot Mixtape