Part of what changed my mind was a long essay on the Web site Pitchfork. In that essay, Marc Hogan noted the cassette’s stunning fall from prominence (8.6 million sold in 2004), but only as a preamble to declaring that a “netroots resurgence” is fueling a cassette “comeback.” The essay pointed to examples of indie labels that are now releasing tapes, sometimes exclusively, and noted a variety of aesthetic and cultural rationales for what could certainly be construed as a willfully perverse stance in favor of a format that hardly anybody seemed excited about during its actual heyday. Perhaps because of Pitchfork’s distinctly music-crit worldview (“One sound that helped was chillwave a k a glo-fi a k a hypnagogic pop,” etc.), I wasn’t fully convinced. But I was interested.
Another essay, on the Web site PopMatters, argued flatly against a nostalgia-driven cassette revival. “As a canvas, the cassette just didn’t have the majesty of records” and is thus dying unmourned, Sean McCarthy wrote. It’s true that “the record” (or “the album”) retained its status as the core artistic form. Nobody ever looked forward to Prince’s “next cassette” or drew up a list of the “greatest cassettes of all time.” People go to (or miss) record stores, not cassette stores; the store in Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity” is called Championship Vinyl, not Championship Plastic. And so on.
Still, what struck me as I looked into the status of the tape in 2010 wasn’t so much examples of music still being released on cassette; it was the surprising number of representations of cassettes. Prints and paintings of cassettes; pouches, belt buckles and notebooks made to look like cassettes; buttons with little cassette images on them; envelopes, a watch, even a soap dispenser decorated with the familiar cassette shape. Many artists and designers — too many to name them all here — have chosen cassettes as raw material. Brian Dettmer has fashioned cassettes into a skull, among other forms. An artist identified on Flickr as iri5 has made astonishing portraits of rock musicians from tape carefully extracted from cassettes. Alyce Santoro has created “sonic fabric” neckties that incorporate recycled tape. Designers at Transparent House make impressive lamps with repurposed cassettes (in a direct “tribute to an object of their ’80s youth”). Marc Jacobs and Urban Outfitters have both created U.S.B. drives in the shape of a cassette; a British firm called Suck UK makes a sort of container for a U.S.B. drive that’s not only cassette-shaped but has an old-school foldout cover so you can write out the names of songs collected on the drive.
It’s worth noting here that one thing Hornby’s characters did with their records was . . . make tapes. The medium, crummy as it was, gave listeners a modicum of control. Some of that control had to do with portability — you could obsessively listen to your favorite artists without being yoked to a record player. The PopMatters essay noted that the Walkman let music fans escape into a mobile and private listening world; I would say the boombox and the car cassette deck were just as important in creating mobile and social ones. But using these tools to hear a custom-built musical sequence meant even more.
Sure, we have practically unlimited control at our fingertips now — a few clicks and drags make it easy to whip together a batch of songs and make it available to the world at large if you want to. But that’s just the point. When I floated this topic on the Consumed Facebook page and my Web site, Murketing, my correspondents reminisced about the cassette version of making and sharing as a “ritual”; the process “involved a level of engagement for both the maker and recipient” that can’t be matched by more convenient computer-enabled methods. “To receive a mixtape from a lover . . . ,” one wrote, not quite completing the thought or needing to. It seems the romance of the cassette is strongest in its connection to actual romance: the carefully picked batch of songs transformed a sorry piece of plastic into a precious object. A recent collection of writing about mixtapes is called “Cassette From My Ex,” but the music writer Rob Sheffield’s memoir of courtship, marriage and loss sums it up best: “Love Is a Mix Tape.”
Maybe this is why cassette imagery seems to be a good bit more durable than the medium itself. Tapes are an ex, and this romance isn’t really about wanting the past to come back; it’s about wanting to keep remembering it, fondly.
This essay was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, April 23, 2010.