Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Video killed the radio star ... Did Spotify kill the mixed tape?
There’s a cracked leather box of cassettes I just can’t seem to part with, a random artifact that’s traveled with me to several states over the years.
A chronicled soundtrack of failed relationships or boyfriends who just drifted away before I could make sense of what we were supposed to be, all smudged black or blue ink valentined in between those steady lines on those folded white paper edges. Side A or Side B. Maxell, JVC. Homemade and heartmade.
Listening to these old grey and black plastic pastimes can take me back to high school, when this guy stopped me mid-sentence with a kiss in the middle of a crowded party on a balmy summer evening, a kiss the didn’t stop until we had eased ourselves away from everyone and found our own ledge on the front door step, behind the hedges, where we proceeded to make out with abandon. And other boyfriend stuff; driving around in cars, getting ready to go out to shows of bands we loved, writing really bad poetry in battered composition notebooks after we were over, always listening to that careful mishmash of just the right sentiments and genres, blended together. Indie rock, with some intelligent hip-hop mixed in, some Beastie Boys for smart-ass irony, some shoegazer rock. This music, in this order. An art, a science, an obsession we all shared, over the years, my fellow Gen Xers and I and the hipster youngsters who followed us and had cool older siblings who tutored them on the art of the mixed tape.
Those cassettes gave way to CDs, which eventually were eclipsed by Napster and iTunes, with some streaming Internet radio stations for variety and discovery of new bands along the way. It got less and less tangible, and more mix-and-match instant gratification, buffet syle. Gone was that afternoon you spent carefully studying your music collection like an archaeologist, unearthing the perfect songs for what you wanted to say, an act that lingered with the CD, but eventually went the way of the dinosaurs as the world dissolved into all things digital. That commitment of couples sealing their fate with their own soundtrack, crafted just so, was gone and no longer needed. Or so it seemed.
Like the rest of the music geeks, I was over-the-moon excited about Spotify, when I first heard about it. I netted an invite from a friend soon after it was available in the States. And it was daunting at first. Any song, any album I could think of, suddenly available, to build and take apart in an endless series of mixes, whenever and wherever I had Internet access? Where were the Napster-like lawsuits? How was this possible? At first I was giddy, snatching songs left and right, patching them together in a crazy quilt of audio bliss that was too chaotic and greedy to be artful. Then one night, I went to the drawer where those old mixed tapes were, pulled them out, and proceeded to capture my ex-boyfriend mixes as much as I could. It felt close to right.
In September, just a few months after Spotify came to the U.S., I was riding on MARTA, my first trip back home to Atlanta in what felt like forever. Two teenagers took the seat in front of me, their heads close together. The girl took out an iPod, her thumb skimming round the song lists in such a familiar way it was practically a reflex. She found what she was looking for and then took her headphones out and put one extension in her boyfriend’s ear. They leaned into each other, smiling, occasionally whispering, joined at the hip as much as the earbud. And it occurred to me that that heartfelt, electric moment of existing in song, together, was still very much alive and kicking. Not lost to all things digital, but suddenly mobile, happening in the moment in a way that mixed tapes could never be. Transitory, but still touching and very real.
Now I take my sweet time with Spotify and my playlists are a little more carefully woven together. I understand how those Millennials are milling around at shows, sharing songs, seducing each other through music, same as I did years ago. And I fall in love with music all over again and course through my time and theirs, feeling their energy and youth and savoring my own, rescripted in a whole new way.