My first mixtape was made of 100% cheese. The low-hanging, gummish bubble stuff of the pop airwaves, some 25 years ago. School bus soundtrack, first cassettes I ever owned. Best enjoyed in countdown form, namely Jay Beau Jones’ Top 9 Tonight. (TNT!)
The Sony SoundRider Cassette-Corder had two decks, and two buttons highlighted in red: REC, and DUBBING. What else for, but to collect, and reassemble? And so I trained my trigger finger to fire at first sign of a target. Vigilantly listening, willing the DJ to telegraph what was coming, but not run his mouth over the intro, I filled hours of ribbon with tune trophies. A near-regurgitation of the hits of the day, though I did pluck some obscure gems from Katrina & the Waves, and Jive Bunny & The Mastermixers. And at year’s end, I crafted it into a glorious Top 100 set. Glorious for a short time, anyway.
Of all the things I’ve made and destroyed, and later wished I could have back, my first awesome mix is right up there. But my tastes had to evolve, and I took victims with me.
My earliest compilation first revealed itself as cringe-worthy schlock upon my entry through the secret door to “modern rock” with its harder edge, Shrieks of the Week, and world-weary detachment.
… Which I in turn jettisoned for roots rock: Earnest, homegrown, soul nourishment, served up by freeform programmers who segued from song to song to create a greater whole, the true artists of the mix, but ultimately doomed to banishment by the wheels of corporate radio.
… Which led me to seek solace in the advent of MP3’s and music blogs, the musical world at my cherry-picking fingertips. Expunging radio from the equation, I found my favorite artists and digested their whole catalogs. Personalization reached its height, even as the choices grew exponentially and bred decision fatigue.
… Which induced me to flee the modern soundscape, in favor of music of the ancients, museum pieces, revered and academic. Pure escape, gone was the need to collect, to differentiate one piece from another, or even to learn titles or composers. The momentary in and out flow sufficed, afterward it was disposable.
Somewhere along this musical evolution, my first awesome mix became a drag on my claim to musical integrity, most of its content long banished to the cultural trash heap. If I couldn’t wipe my memory, at least I could destroy the evidence. I pared down those 100 cheesy tracks to one cassette. Excised it of all punch lines. Neutered it of all cheese. But that was a phony retcon.
From time to time, those 80's relics reared their heads, and they cut through clear and true, lyrics still imprinted on my memory, the first notes begging the question, “Where’ve ya been?” A guilty pleasure. But why feel guilty?
Nostalgia lends a feel-good factor like none other. Of all the things music can make you feel, isn’t fist-pumpin’ joy the best? I know I’m not alone in that, because those exiled tunes turn up more and more, in “stunt programming” like a “Worst Of” weekend, or stations devoted to an “old school” format. Whitney, Paula, Def Leppard, it’s good to hear you again. Batdance – now there’s some cheese that can’t be denied! At the end of the day, I don’t want to enjoy my music ironically, or assert my hipster cred with it, or spout historical trivia about it. I want it to launch me into orbit. “Across the nation, around the world, everybody have fun tonight!” in the immortal words of Wang Chung.
My musical tastes have a split personality, and I’m content to keep them locked in perpetual battle for supremacy. There’s a time and a place for everything in that fight, even watered-down pop confections. To those musical elitists who would look down their noses in disparagement, I say, get over yourself. A once-awesome tune never dies, it just waits to be rediscovered. As for my long-lost first mixtape, I’ve taken up the challenge of reconstructing it from memory.
Star-Lord had it right. Hold on to your awesome mix and carry it with you. You might just find, someday, it’s your secret weapon.