It’s known as the cassette tape, or simply, the tape. It’s rectangular, maybe an ugly beige or plain white or clear plastic, with ribbon inside it. Tapes feel chunky; they make little sounds when you shake them. Sometimes you hated them, other times you loved them; either way, it mattered, to most any music lover in the 80s.
Lloyd Dobler‘s “In Your Eyes” tape was safely encased in his boombox as he hoisted it high above his shoulders in “Say Anything.” The tape spilled its guts in the aftermath of the party scene from “Sixteen Candles.” And of course there was the mix tape Lafawnduh gave “Napoleon Dynamite,” which changed everything.
Tapes turn 50
The tape has been having a bit of a revival lately. Cassette Store Day was Sept. 7, and a slew of artists released tracks on plastic to celebrate. Musicians on the tape include The Flaming Lips, Suicidal Tendencies, Deerhunter, Animal Collective and Guided By Voices. Parquet Courts’ latest EP, ‘Tally All The Things That You Broke,’ is set to come out with a mix tape of various artists.
As long as you kept your old stereo, it’s still easy to throw your songs on tape (no computer necessary). Bands still do that these days to get their music out.
The tape turned 50 recently, and its birthday certainly deserves a footnote in music history. For all its faults, it got many of us through the “me” decade.
These days the CD rules. But in the 80s, CDs weren’t readily available. You could go buy your tape at the local Sam Goody, or maybe have a BMG tape-club membership — I thought that was all the rage. (It wasn’t.)
While CDs are miles ahead technically, tapes will always have that little extra something CDs can never erase or duplicate.
I was always felt an excitement unwrapping the slick cellophane wrapper and first opening the tape. It made a slight creak at the hinges, which told you it was brand-spankin’ new.
At that point the plastic was all clear and smooth and pristine. If you were lucky, your choice of tape came with a little colorful booklet lovingly tucked into its case, showcasing lyrics or a bunch of cool photos. If you were not lucky, you only had the cover art on the front and the little spine, and nothing else. That was more common on tapes in the early to mid-80s.
A lot of tapes when they were first opened had a smell to them I likened to candy. The Police’s “Synchronicity” tape smelled like that; probably still does. It’s still in the basement.
The clear plastic on my Synchronicity tape smelled like candy.
There’s not that much excitement when trying to open a CD wrapper — it’s more like —- “Oh great — now I have to go get a knife and hack at the plastic until it finally bows to my pressure.” Shrink wrap is the devil.
Tapes could live almost their entire life span on the bottom of your kids’ closet, underneath grit and broken toy parts. If you were somewhat careless with your cassettes and the ribbon gets pulled out, just take a pencil and wrap it back in– maybe you’d get some sound distortion at that point in the ribbon (which you would always remember from then on, sadly.)
CDs easily get scratched, bent, or just shatter. There’s no coming back from that.
Songs on tape are either on Side A or Side B. The musician had to have a big closer for the end of Side A. This was supposed to entice you to press the eject button to flip the tape over for Side B, unless you were one of those fancy folks who had the kind of tape player that did that for you. Elitist.
CDs have one side, so there really isn’t a big send-off in the middle, or anticipation, such as when the tape is flipped. Press one little button on your CD player and you’re on to the song you want– no sitting, head in hand, pressing fast-forward….. stop, play, — that’s not the right song—- fast-forward…… stop, play….. rewind……. play, give up and listen to whatever comes out.
Which brings us to the biggest difference between tapes and CDs: The Mix Tape. For the road, for vacation, from one best friend to another, to your lover, your boyfriend, your girlfriend. As a thank-you when you’re not floating in dough.
Half the fun is decorating the cover and coming up with a title, but the biggest draw was playing DJ. It’s like putting a little kiss on each song you picked- hoping the person likes what you chose and how you put the tape together. It was so personal, trying to create that mystery.
Yes, you can do a mix tape with either tapes or CDs, but you could “tape over” some songs if you hated them in your mix tape. CDs are burned, and that’s it, so you’d better get it right. Hopefully you didn’t already put your blood and tears into decorating the damn thing.
This is what the floor of my bedroom would have looked like in 1987.
But technology waits for no one, and bands need to keep up with whatever format is hot right then to stay relevant. So yes, CDs and mp3s are here now, but maybe Cassette Store Day and mixtapes prove the medium still has some life to it. Maybe musicians these days are looking back on those old tapes, and rethinking them a bit.
(Side B side note: Unfortunately, the tape has the dubious distinction of being the ugly stepsister– it’s the third wheel in the life cycle of how we listen to music. Records came first and were refined over the decades. They are already enjoying a robust resurgence. The 8-track made a very special footnote in the 70s while records still dominated. Cassettes were the transition from records to CDs.
These transitions are clearly getting smaller and smaller. CDs don’t show any sign of stopping, although now we are moving toward the mostly invisible MP3s. Music creates such an emotional connection for people, that having a strictly electronic medium for the song that got you through that breakup somehow seems wrong.)