"Isn't this cool?" I said to him, holding up the t-shirt. It had come as part of singer/songwriter Martin Sexton's pre-order bundle for his new CD, Mixtape Of The Open Road. A list of tour dates skated down the backside. On the front was a cassette tape rendered in retro-distressed style. He stared at it for a couple of seconds and made a snuffling sound.
"That doesn't make you feel old?"
"Concert tees never go out of style, baby!"
"No," he said, nodding to the front. "Tapes. Mixtapes. A certain generation has no clue what those things are."
I considered this and first thought I refuse to allow the term "certain generation" in this house. THAT makes me feel old. But, then I realized he was right. The mixtape is a rarefied artifact, and I miss it mightily.
Once upon a time, the mixtape was the audio valentine of choice. It was the preferred method of telling a guy or girl you wanted to hold their sweaty palm in yours and pretend to watch a movie. The quickest and most devastating litmus test of relationship material is the conversation you have about music. I subscribe whole heartedly to that great line spoken by John Cusack's character in High Fidelity: "What really matters is what you like, not what you are like. Books, records, films -- these things matter. Call me shallow, but it's the fuckin' truth."
In days of yore (aka the '70s), it was relatively easy to suss out a person's musical interests. Vinyl was impossible to escape. If a record collection wasn't arrogantly displayed like the rhino heads and cheetah pelts of big game hunters, that meant: A. The person had something nasty and shameful to hide, like The Best of Bread or Tito Puente Does Motown, or B. Music was not part of their social vernacular. In both cases, your chances of getting laid plummeted. I've never had a date, let alone a relationship, last where his musical tastes did not surpass, compliment, or challenge my own. I remember sitting across from the table on a date with a perfectly nice boy human who told me that music was not really something he "noticed." Check please. That's why the mixtape is such high stakes territory; it's a lyrical Cyrano de Bergerac saying something important to someone that you're too shy or repressed or straight up chicken-shit to say yourself.
Because you're offering up more than what speaks to you musically, you're carving out a piece of your soul and giving it to this person. I know that sounds uber-dramatic, but so isn't adolescence. It's a trail of aural breadcrumbs you're leaving for the person to follow. Will they pick up what you're throwing down and decode your secret message, the one that says I love you or please don't break my heart or are you the one who finally gets me? Will they hear you saying: "I want to show you my brain," or "Can we please get super funky naked together? Like, a lot? Like, as much as humanly possible?" Sidenote: That's the Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Prince mixtape. Potent. You get one of those and manage to keep your panties from dropping, then you belong in a museum next to the statue of Michelangelo's David.
As soon as I knew I liked a boy, I would start mentally building the mixtape. For better or for worse -- usually for worse, in my case, a prematurely-given mixtape is the same as texting someone sitting in front of you who has just given you their digits; it's very bad form -- that kid knew who he was agreeing to sit with on the school bus. The mixtape is as vulnerable as it gets, and that includes the angry, bitter mixtape of tunes that seem to be the only things to adequately convey your roiling angst and searing pain over the one who has done you wrong. I am sure I have a shoebox molding in the back of a closet somewhere with a mixtape or two given to me by boys who ultimately stomped my heart into the dirt. I know if I found them, I would turn the plastic cases over in my hands, study the fading ink of handwriting, suddenly familiar, but also foreign, and without even putting it in a player (a device that no longer exists) would be able to hear each tune and feel the way I did the first time I listened.
I know we don't listen, make, consume or share music today the same way we did even ten years ago. I see the potential in a lot of innovation sweeping across the art space, from books and music to film and graphic design and video games. But there's a part of me that feels the pull to preserve ritual and rite of passage. The shared playlist (the one that could go on in perpetuity. How many Bare Naked Ladies songs can you stand?), the "I burned this for you," just don't hold the same gravitas. They just don't.
I popped Martin Sexton's disc onto the digital turntable spinning inside my laptop and settled in to listen and marvel a little bit over a "certain generation" who will never know what it is to bare your soul in the magnetic spools of a mixtape.