rhizomes.05 fall 2002

Mixed Feelings: Notes on the Romance of the Mixed Tape
Kamal Fox

Track 1: Formats & Cultural Exhaustion

Q: What is ASCII?
A: That's what you do if you don't knowie.

[1] A fairly recent issue of the design magazine Émigré (Winter 2001) was subtitled, the "Lost Formats Preservation Society." This issue put forth several articles suggesting that the loss of certain formats of encoding would mean lost data, lost messages and perhaps lost knowledge -- hence the need for preservation. The article "Format" by Jeff Rian, in particular, explains the situation by claiming that "[t]echnology is the primary formatter of life." He also adds that "format [...] refers to any kind of arrangement of data, information, or plans , including databases, radio and television programming, such as the 'talk show format'" (7). It doesn't seem strange that a magazine concerned with typography and design would address the issues of format and obsolescence. After all, typographers, designers et al. are the ones who create and use such formats. Clearly, the motivation behind the magazine's theme is a response to the mass digitization of cultural artifacts. It begs the question: 'Where do 8-tracks go to die?'

[2] Will Straw, in the essay "Exhausted Commodities: The Material Culture of Music" suggests an answer to this question. He accomplishes this by drawing critical attention to the often neglected trajectories of vinyl LPs (an increasingly 'lost' format). Taking a page from Straw, this essay "presumes that obsolete objects do not simply disappear, give way to a future which will unfold without them, but persist and circulate throughout the commercial markets of contemporary life" (176). 'Exhaustion' is a relative term, as Straw goes on to demonstrate how "the recycling of old musical styles within a contemporary practice [can be] examined as one means of retrieving and revalorizing cultural waste" (175). Based upon my own excursions into cultural middens such as Value Village and Salvation Army stores, I've managed to identify scores of such 'exhausted' objects, but of particular interest to me are those close relatives of LPs -- audio cassettes.

[3] A certain line of inquiry appeals to me: Why are mixed tapes appealing within these "commercial markets of contemporary life"? With the growing popularity of the compact disc format, and the increasing ability of many consumers to 'burn' their own CDs, are audio cassettes approaching the purlieu of the land of lost formats? The fact that large caches of audio cassettes are making their way into that set of institutions that Straw calls "museums of failure" (181), moving from one person's discarded collection into another person's treasury of kitsch, seems to suggest otherwise.

[4] The hypothesis that artefacts never really die entails that someone finds the collected items desirable/meaningful/useful -- a collection is never just a collection. Mindful of the fact that amassing cultural artifacts is not just an indulgence in the pleasures of novelty or nostalgia, I'd like to address the changing status of the audio cassette format, from its heyday as medium of choice to its current status of relic and curio. This is an interest in the archival function of 'exhausted' cassettes: the behaviors, tastes and cultural practices that they convey (which I suspect give them much of their second-hand appeal). Of these, I am particularly interested in the mixed tape phenomenon and how the technology was employed in courtship.

[5] This project is intrigues me because, as John Storey reminds us summarizing the work of Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood,

The symbolic value of objects in the 'information system' is not inherent in the objects themselves. Value is something 'conferred by human judgements.' [...] To understand the value of one object, it is necessary to locate it in the information system as a whole" (qtd. in Storey 43).

A similar sentiment can be found in Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. In this work, Bourdieu argues "that what people consume does not simply reflect distinctions and differences embedded elsewhere, that cultural consumption makes visible." Instead, he asserts "that cultural consumption is the means by which they are produced, maintained and reproduced" (Storey 44). Michel de Certeau further problematizes the matter of consumption by avoiding the term 'consumer' in preference for the term 'secondary production.' In The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau claims that "Everyday life invents itself by poaching in countless ways on the property of others" (xi-xii). Thus, for de Certeau, consumption is not merely a case of passive absorption by consumers; instead they practice usufructuary production with cultural commodities.

[6] Perhaps the connection between secondary production, tape-culture and the collecting and sharing of music is an experiment in textuality. There are antecedents, indicating the communicative/semiotic abilities of popular music, that suggest that this is so. Popular culture is rife with examples: In Cameron Crowe's recent film, Almost Famous, [1] a harrowed, recalcitrant teenager, Anita Miller, employs Simon & Garfunkel's dulcet "America" to importune to her domineering mother why she feels that she must leave home "and become an airline stewardess." As the nitid record plays, Anita's attempt to bridge the generation gap falls on ambivalent ears. Eventually Anita leaves the family nest, and her collection of LPs becomes the inheritance of her eleven-year-old brother, William. In his possession, this hoard of rock & roll rebellion initiates William into the domain of youth counterculture, circa 1973. Likewise, in Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides, the sequestered Lisbon girls and their would-be beaux use LPs and a telephone to communicate with each other, thus overcoming the prescriptive boundaries that circumscribe their adolescent sexuality by finding a commonplace in the 'texts' of music.

[7] The representative power of music -- characterized here by the combining and juxtaposing of songs -- its ability to 'speak,' or in this case, to 'speak for' is related to the phenomenon that acoustic-ecologist, Barry Truax, calls "schizophonia." Schizophonia is the challenge that faces listeners in the age of the mechanical reproduction of sound; it is the sensation that results when a sound is heard, via mechanical means, in a context other than its original one. Truax claims that "the use of the Greek 'schizo,' meaning split or separation, emphasizes the difference in context which characterizes electroacoustic manipulation" (120). He further explains that

[t]he challenge of the schizophonic situation for the listener is to make sense out of the juxtaposition of two different contexts. In many cases, the 'sense' becomes conventional acceptance. We come to expect that voices should appear from the walls and ceilings in public places such as airports and train stations to give us information" (120).

Being an ecologist of sound, Truax uses the concept of schizophonia to explain the effects of introducing displaced, recorded sounds into what one might call a 'natural' sonic environment. One of the effects of this, Truax observes, is that "electroacoustic sound imposes its character on an environment because of its ability to dominate, both acoustically and psychologically" (121). This auricular and psychological domination seems almost hyperbolic when dealing with the musical products of recording studios, notorious sites of intensive acoustic fabrication.

[8] An anecdote from media theorist Frank Zingrone illustrates this point well: an audience heard a recording of Mozart "masterfully rendered" by the pianist, Glenn Gould. However, they later discovered that the piece was composed of thirty-two splices. Zingrone comments, "We were astounded at the perfect melding of the pieces into a unity. We were then informed that each of the thirty-two pieces of the tape had been produced from thirty-two separate playings of the piece" (13).

[9] This type of listening experience, the 'willful suspension of discontinuity,' illustrates how a sonic text produced in the studio lends itself to credulous interpretations when inserted into external contexts because it is so deeply mediated from the outset. Thus, popular music is suitable for the intertextual composition of mixes because the schizophonic context can be easily co-opted, 'naturalized' and imbued with meaning(s) [2] -- a process made possible through many different means -- including the audio cassette medium.

Track 2: Mixed Tapes and Their Uses

The thing about mix tapes, and the way that they're like relationships, is that I get to put all the genuinely pretty/interesting parts at the beginning, on the surface, to draw you in, to get you to want to be closer. And once I have you interested, attracted, wanting to know all of me, I show you the more human sides, the less pretty and the more petty.
-- Jamie Schweser & Abram Shalom Himelstein, Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing

[10] If there is a productive consumption of cultural commodities (de Certeau), and this in turn generates a kind of cultural capital that affords symbolic power (Bourdieu), then the ability to record and playback audio input is crucial to the rise and proliferation of media such as audio cassette tapes within the marketplace of commodities. Writing in the early 90s, Paul Willis explains some economic reasons for the rise of what he calls "home-taping":

Home-taping of music is, in one sense, a strategy directly tailored to recession conditions. The tape cassette has proved to be a practical, flexible and cheap way of consuming and distributing music. With many young people unable to afford full-priced, new records, let alone CDs, on a regular basis, cassette tapes have become one of the principal currencies of consumption (62).

However, the popularity of this cheap audio recording format was more than just an economic imperative or an alternate means of distribution -- it supplemented a whole set of behaviors that had evolved around music and courtship (as demonstrated in The Virgin Suicides).

[11] The fact that the words 'mix' and 'promiscuous' are both derived from the Latin verb miscere illustrates how notions of blending, collecting and engendering can be applied to dating and courting. Robert Pittman, one of the architects of MTV's marketing strategy claims that "When you're dealing with a music culture -- say, of people aged 12 to 30 -- music serves as something beyond entertainment. It's really a peg they use to identify themselves. It's a representative of their values and their culture" (Lewis 143). No longer simply an appurtenance, in the hands of home-tapers, mixed music, i.e. personalized music, becomes the shibboleth by which one can separate the wheat from the chaff amidst potential partners. Presumably, like peacocks, the most fascinating plumage will win a discerning mate's attention. Indee d, here lies one advantage of mixes: one can create a 'soundtrack' for any occasion, event, or experience. In courtship, this means that the recipients of mixes can revel in their tape's unique and apt just-for-you-ness.

[12] Just as there are clubs for wine-bibbers and numismatists, so too are there groups for mixers. One of such assemblies, called "Art of the Mix", is a website created by a group of mixed tape enthusiasts with a desire to fully explore the possibilities of mixed tapes. The site's participants focus on the creation and distribution of mixes. In the site's FAQ file, they describe their motivations:

Mixed tapes are a kind of creative act as well as a record of a series of decisions at a particular moment in time. It is an expression, a pastiche in which a person juxtaposes songs and sounds. The completed tape has a tone and makes a statement. Moreover, the variation between different mixed tapes is tremendous. They refract and reflect a period of time, a sense of place, emotional states, aesthetic sensibilities, etc. There is great joy in making a mix. If you have ever killed a Saturday afternoon obsessing over what song should go next, you know we mean (Januszewski writings.asp).

"Art of the Mix" also chronicles the sundry genres of mixes. Some of these are "The Dance Mix", "The Hangover Mix", "The Workout Mix", "The Ambient Mix", as well as several others. But of particular interest to this investigation is the category that "Art of the Mix" calls

The Romantic Mix
This mix is made for either a potential partner or an existing significant other. There is definitely a kind of communication that is relayed on a mix to such a person. Songs with nostalgic importance are stand-bys on this kind of mix. This kind of mix, when dating, can be a tricky mix to make. You could either be very successful or else quickly end the relationship (Januszewski writings.asp).

As artifacts, this type of mix begins to demonstrate how a number of courtship rituals and conventions were reconfigured into practices that could be encoded in and/or around the audio cassette format. The mixed tape phenomenon, which, as noted above, was already being used for other purposes, was adapted for and integrated into courtship practices -- however it can also be seen as part of a larger communicational trend.

Track 3: Tokens of Esteem

To the unrefined and underbred, the visiting card is but a trifling bit of paper; but to the cultured disciple of social law, it conveys a subtle and unmistakable intelligence. Its texture, style of engraving, and even the hour of its leaving combine to place the stranger, whose name it bears, in a pleasant or a disagreeable attitude.

-- Our Deportment, 1883

[13] There are a number of antecedents and analogues that set the scene for the popularization of romantic mixed tapes. For example, a recent report, by two researchers from the Center for Economic Learning and Social Evolution, entitled "Mobile Phones as Lekking Devices Among Human Males", claims that a group of pub-goers in Liverpool use their cellular phones much in the same way a peacock displays his feathers to a peahen. [3] This practice, the researchers claim, is akin to what in the animal kingdom is known as 'lekking.' A New York Times reporter explains the analogy:

In nature, a lek is a communal mating area where males gather to engage in flamboyant courtship displays, and females stroll by to judge the performers and presumably choose the fittest, most resourceful or most amusing of the lot. Hammer-head bats, sage grouse, bowerbirds, walruses, Ugandan kob and fallow deer are among the species that engage in a lekking-style courtship system. (Angier PHON.html).

Of course, cellular phones are not the only example of human lekking devices. From the Victorian era to the early twentieth century, conventional courtship occurred through the practice of 'calling.' Young men were expected, after an invitation, to come and visit a young woman and her family. Among the wealthy, a young gentleman would present a carte de visite -- the mark of his social status as a gentleman. The reaction to the presentation of his card, admittance or rejection, would indicate to the young man how favorably the girl and her parents thought of him (Bailey 15).

[14] There are still other lekking sign systems. In the nineteenth century, a bouquet of flowers could not simply be enjoyed, as it is today; it required decoding:

How charmingly a young gentleman can speak to a young lady, and with what eloquent silence in this delightful language. How delicately she can respond, the beautiful little flowers telling her tale in perfumed words; what a delicate story the myrtle or the rose tells! How unhappy that which basil, or yellow rose reveals, while ivy is the most faithful of all (Robinson 636).

As well, by the 1970s, [4] the material had changed but the habit remained the same. Romancers would tote LPs to the homes of their would-be love objects in order to play selected tracks for these potential lovers.

[15] Certainly, these systems of signs (calling cards, bouquets and LPs) are predecessors of the mixed tape. As Julia Kristeva observes, "every text is from the outset under the jurisdiction of other discourses which impose a universe on it" (qtd. Culler 105). Therefore an analysis of amatory mixed tapes must be understood within the context of these other media. Raymond Williams' analysis of cultural activity, in which he proposes the categories dominant, residual and emergent, seems appropriate in charting the nuances of this context. [5]

[16] Combating the idea that cultural processes spontaneously appear, reach their epoch and then fade away, Williams postulates that the "dominant culture" is usually composed of, in varying proportions, a mixture of three elements. These elements are: the archaic: "an element of the past, to be observed, to be examined, or even on occasion to be consciously 'revived', in a deliberately specializing way"; the residual: an element "formed in the past, but [...] still active in the cultural process [...] as an effective element of the present"; and the emergent: "new meanings and values, new practices, new relationships" (122-23). The mixed tape and its lekking relatives demonstrate well the interplay, recycling and borrowing within cultural processes. Each emergent technology is affiliated with archaic and residual practices. For instance, a mixed tape is more like the calling card or the bouquet, which 'stand-in' for their senders. Whereas the cellular phone and the playing of records require the sender's presence to be significant.

[17] I am reluctant, however, to use the term lekking with all of its rigid implications regarding gender to discuss mixed tapes. No doubt, they have several things in common: their semiotic functions, their communication of social status and refinement -- what one might call virtuosity -- and their ability to transmit a message to an intended recipient, etc. But the activities of mixed-tapers do not necessarily correspond neatly to gender roles. In other words, males are not always the mixers; females are not always the recipients. For this reason, the remainder of this paper is concerned more with the characteristics mixed tapes themselves, as they apply to amatory mixed tapes, than with the interplay of gender roles. [6]

Track 4: The Stories of the Virtuous

If music be the food of love, play on;

-- William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

[18] In many ways, the romantic mixed tape is an apparatus for storytelling, the transmission of narrative. Narratologists often characterize narrative as "the representation of at least two real or fictive events or situations in a time sequence, neither of which presupposes or entails the other" (Prince Narratology 4). However, what is truly notable about narrative is its ubiquity. Roland Barthes famously states, "narrative is international, transhistorical, transcultural: it is simply there, like life itself" ("Structural Analysis of Narratives" 251-252). de Certeau puts a functional spin on Barthes' observation when he states,

Social life multiplies the gestures and modes of behavior (im)printed by narrative models; it [...] reproduces and accumulates "copies" of stories. Our society has become a recited society, in three senses: it is defined by stories (recits, the fables constituted by our advertising and informational media), by citations of stories, and by the interminable recitation of stories (186).

The stories, citations and recitations that de Certeau speaks of are all present in the making and distribution of mixed tapes. As artifacts, or accumulations of "copies" (as de Certeau might call it) mixed tapes conform to the constraints of the audio cassette format. This format demands certain narrative features, viz. linearity, contiguous 'tracks', an A-side and a B-side, etc. Even the labels and liner notes can be employed as ancillaries in relaying the story. But even with all of these options, the narrative of an amatory mixed tape operates (more or less) at two levels.

[19] The most immediate signification is paradigmatic and comes part-and-parcel with each song. A mixed tape's two levels of signification operate by means of metaphor and metonymy. The paradigmatic operations of the songs are highly metaphorical, i.e. the emphasis is on how they are distinguished from each other.

[20] For instance, one might 'read' a mix as simply a random collection of music. For example, listening to a tape with Van Morrison's "And It Stoned Me," a listener can parse this ballad as a meaningful unit unto itself, even when it's followed by another ballad such as the Beatles' "The Ballad of John & Yoko." But this is a very simplistic mode of listening, and hardly anyone would listen in this manner exclusively. More often than not, the mixed tape is an invi tation to play a game. When loosely connected songs are set side-by side, it is easy to understand the riddle being asked of the listener: "What's the theme of this tape?" or more to the point, "What does all this mean?"

[21] This riddle's appearance exposes the second level of signification, the syntagmatic, which is metonymic. Susan Stewart writes that narrative is "a structure of desire" (On Longing ix) and also asserts that

[...] we can see the many narratives that dream of the inanimate-made-animate as symptomatic of all narrative's desire to invent a realizable world, a world which "works." In this sense, every narrative is a miniature and every book a microcosm, for such forms always seek to finalize, to bring closure to a totality or model (xi-xii).

A mixed tape too is a kind of miniature. It's often used as a proxy that stands in the place of a more timid originator.

[22] These two levels of meaning are akin to Barthes' "second-order semiological system", composed of an S1 and S2. Barthes explains in Mythologies: "That which is a sign (namely the associative total of a concept and its image) in the first system, becomes a mere signifier in the second" (114). In the case of mixed tapes, each song (S1 or denotation) contributes to the overall arrangement of songs itself, which is a narrative (S2 or connotation). Illustrating the significance of this, I add that 'narrative' and 'narrator' are derived from the Latin word narratus, meaning "made known" (Berger 7). Through the juxtaposition and ordering of songs, the narrator seeks to 'make known' an anecdote such as 'the story of the summer we spent together in 1996...' In this type of signification situation, the narrator is aware that "[m]usic is symbolic communication. When we hear a 'golden oldie' it can easily evoke a whole time and place, distant feelings and emotions, and memories of where we were, and with whom, the first time we heard the song" (Lewis 135). Or the narrator wishes to express, 'the tale about how I'm a really cool person...' picking up on music's role as "a badge of identity -- a means of showing others (and ourselves) to what cultural group, or groups, we belong or aspire to belong" (Lewis 135). Or a narrator may postulate 'a hypothesis about these songs I think you'll like...' thus emphasizing "[t]hat we pretty much listen to, and enjoy, the same music that is listened to by other people we like or with whom we identify"(Lewis 137). A narrator may assert any combination of these.

[23] These supra-narratives, or syntagms, underscore the ludic properties of this kind of mixed tape. The game is a lure that's meant to drawn the auditor into the narrator's ken. These alluring denotations and connotations are dependent upon a quadrumvirate of agents: a narrator, a persona, a narratee and also an auditor. What follows is a deployment of the narrative theories of Gerald Prince that attempts to characterizes these four narratological roles.

[24] Prince observes that narration is privy to the categories of formal grammar, viz. person and number. "[W]e can say," he explains, "that the narrator is a first person, the narratee a second person and the being or object narrated about a third person" (7). The inexplicit "I" of a mixed tape's narrative is complex because it has two referents: i.e., the narrator, the person who actually composes the tape, often a music aficionado, someone who understands -- whether through intuition or heuristics -- the rudiments of schizophonic rhetoric, and a persona -- whom I shall discuss at length subsequently. The ideal narrator is a virtuous [7] person. In compiling mixes, especially amatory ones, there are definitely those who strive to display their virtuosity. Rob, the protagonist of High Fidelity, recounts his angst-ridden and assiduous mixed taping practice:

I spent hours putting that cassette together. To me making a tape is like writing a letter -- there's a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again, and I wanted it to be a good one, because...to be honest, because I hadn't met anyone as promising as Laura since I started the DJ-ing (Hornby 89).

The confession reveals not only motivation but also process. Like the bowerbird fastidiously forming his bower, the savvy DJ is preoccupied by constructing an architectural marvel, of sorts: encoding/narrativizing his emotions and desires in song. The bird, at least, has instinct to guide it. Mixers aren't so fortunate; they 'inscribe' themselves into the text, sometimes inadvertently. As stated earlier, "Mixed tapes are a kind of creative act as well as a record of a series of decisions at a particular moment in time." Tapes are often 'marked' by unclean cuts, overlaps of songs, etc. (CDs are 'clean' in this respect and are not as revealing of process).

[25] So although the composing process seems quite transparent, it is actually grueling. (Marking attests to this.) The obvious method: assembling favorite tunes, recording them and delivering the whole thing to the recipient, is how most unsuccessful mixes are made. The purpose of an amatory mix is not to give the recipient what they know and love, nor is it just a peddling of one's own proclivities. As one informant told me, a good mix must have "songs I (1) like, (2) haven't heard before, and (3) get the right amount of sentiment from." To which she adds, "They always feel specifically engineered for me, instead of just a bunch of random tunes." A mixed tape announces the worth of its composer, not unlike the nineteenth-century visiting card. But it is also a strange tightrope walk, entailed by delivering "the right amount of sentiment." Too much of the narrator's 'self' in the narrative often seems arrogant or vain, too little seems cold and indifferent, and too much focus on the recipient's tastes seems sycophantic, or worse, it blatantly suggests ulterior motives. In other words, the cassette is not meant to 'describe' the narrator; it 'represents' the narrator -- e.g. a visitation card in lieu of a visitor. Therefore narrators strive to create compilations that can be readily interpreted by auditors as both entertainment and solicitation. However, this representation is polysemous, making the task formidable. This is one reason why narrators often create personae to act as buffers between vulnerability and consummation.

Track 5: The Rules of Engagement

I want to tell you,
my head is filled with things I want to say,
when you're here,
all those words they seem to slip away.

-- The Beatles, "I Want to Tell You", Revolver, 1966

[26] If the signifying powers of mixed tapes are so precarious, why not write a love letter instead? This is where the non-committal nature of mixes is paramount. As demonstrated by High Fidelity, creating a mix is a deeply personal and arduous experience -- the mix-maker is putting him- or herself on the line. Hence, it is easy to see that while narrators want their mixed tapes to be expressive, revealing, etc. -- they also employ them as a sort of mask, self-constructive guise or 'persona'. This persona reveals without being personal, it's a buffer that protects the narrator's ego. Therefore, it is always possible to say, "They're just songs, I didn't mean anything by it." Presumably, it's much safer to quote from cultural products than to speak for oneself or, as one music enthusiast reported to me, "someone has always said it better."

[27] The character Rob in High Fidelity is a useful touchstone for a discussion of mixed tape personae, especially as it concerns DJ-ing. "The fun thing about a mixed tape," one DJ reflects, "was that you didn't need to be a DJ to create one, and yet you became a DJ when you made one" (Paoletta 24). To both be and not be a DJ -- this is the position from which most mixed-tapers create their texts. [8] Rob is a DJ, but as well he uses a DJ persona to "get chicks", as it were. However, other tapers don't necessarily use that tack. To say that DJs "court" their audiences is to employ a convenient metaphor. [9] There is a difference between the one-to-one, "personal" communication that occurs with an amatory mixed tape and the one-to-many, "impersonal" communication that occurs within a night club. To cite some anecdotal evidence: a home-taper told me a story about how he dumped his former girlfriend because she played a mixed tape that he had made for her to one of her friends. He felt that she had somehow betrayed him. A DJ would never act like this.

[28] The metaphoric themes of betrayal and fidelity, which seem to keep appearing in this work, point to another motivation for the use of personae. It has much to do with 'love culture' in our age as well as the relationship between cliché and sincerity. The mixed tape is an eximious embodiment of the tensions of these dilemmas. It's a way of expressing oneself without pretending that there is some honest, unmediated 'self' to express. It is yet another way of saying "I think you are really neat" without being cliché or falling into the whole trap of sincerity. It is a cultural product made up of cultural products, a referencing system that references other such systems. Since all musical practices are based on this borrowing and quoting and this wish to build social bonds through cultural commodities, mixed tapes, in turn, are not about the disclosure of the 'self', they are instead about creating a sense of availability.

[29] So how does one create a sense of availability while minimizing the chance of misinterpretation? Once again, High Fidelity has some suggestions:

A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You've got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention (I started with "Got to Get You off My Mind," But then realized that she might not get any further than track one, side one if I delivered what she wanted straightaway, so I buried it in the middle of side two), and then you've got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can't hav e white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can't have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you've done the whole thing in pairs, and...oh, there are loads of rules (Hornby 89).

There are other opinions on the matter. In her how-to article, "Mix it Up," Barbara Kligman engages and enhances Nick Horby's conception of the ars miscendi:

try and start the tape with something amazing. Whether it's a Billie Holiday song or something off of the new Blonde Redhead record, or just a great instrumental, you should keep your audience in mind. If the person doesn't like heavy metal, stay away from it. I know this is hard, because even when someone tells me that they don't like Tricky, I try to find the one Tricky song that I think they will like. And there's nothing wrong with sliding that in. Just don't let the whole tape be about what you like over what you think the person you are making the tape will like.

She also adds: "It's been my experience that people like a little of the familiar -- no one likes to feel that they are totally out of it musically. Like a good cocktail, mix well" (index.html).

[30] These prescriptions, which make reference to the "loads of rules" involved in mixed tape composition, bring to mind the elaborate taxonomy of Propp's Morphology of the Folktale (1928). However, employing a framework like Propp's would belie the workings of mixes. There is a need to make a distinction between the operations of the 'rules' -- syntactic features of the narrative, the sine qua non made of the musical syntagmata -- and the 'conventions' of mixed tape composition -- the presentation of preferred readings. The significance of this distinction has much to do with the two agents that I have yet to discuss: the narratee and the auditor.

[31] My understanding of the narratee of a mixed tape is derived partly from the work of Gerald Prince. Prince's vision of the narrate -- the 'You' of a text -- is a listener who is encoded within the text itself, such as Marlow's audience in Heart of Darkness (Narratology 20-21, "Introduction" 197-98). As narratives, mixed tapes also have internal listeners -- it is necessary to the composition process to assume that these listeners exist, especially at the syntagmatic level of signification. Narratees must be created in order to have a 'known' audience, even if that 'person' is entirely conjectural. The narrator circumscribes the narratee, but the auditor -- who is external to the text -- must be exhorted, beguiled by the narrative. The mixed tape is a projection of narrator's desire and the narratee is the personification of that desire. The success of the mix depends upon how much the auditor identifies with the narratee. In order for the auditor to make sense of this polysemous and heavily encoded narrative, a perspicacious narrator will employ conventions as anchorages to ensure that the preferred reading is understood by the auditor.

[32] After listening to the whole cassette, the auditor performs a number of operations: s/he must reconstruct syntagms and consider how each song contributes to a larger message. As well, the auditor must think about whether or not s/he identifies with the narratee entailed within the narration. Also, because the tape is also a proxy for its sender, the auditor must also form an opinion about the narrator, based upon the merits of the mix. To effect favorable responses, the narrator must include the what Prince calls "signs of the 'You'" (Narratology 17) in order to guide the auditor in his or her listening. The auditor, in turn, must be capable of identifying these signals and deciphering them. This in effect means that the narrator must sustain the interest of the auditor by creating a compelling narrative and narratee. Prince, using the example of A Thousand and One Nights reminds us that Scheherazade "will die if her narratee [the caliph] decides not to listen to her any more, just as other characters in the narrative die because he will not listen to them; ultimately, any narrative is impossible without a narratee" ("Introduction" 199). This is certainly true of mixed tapes.

[33] Prince asserts that "From the very beginning, the narrator tries to anticipate his narratee's objections, to dominate him, and to convince him" ("Introduction" 200). For this reason, many mixed tape narratives contain very obvious clues and hints: songs with the narratee/auditor's name in them, songs about a shared experience, songs by the narratee/auditor's favorite artist, etc. The whole thing is an exercise in antimony -- it must be familiar, yet novel, pellucid yet abstruse, friendly yet cloistered. If the antimony is resourceful, then more than likely the cassette will be well received (e.g. the auditor may respond, "I really liked the tape you made me, do you want to go for coffee sometime?").

Track 6: States & Rates of Decay

As CDs and digital media became prevalent, the art of the mix tape became lost as fewer and fewer people had the ability or the inclination to make mixes. Many folks have only CD players and no tape player -- or even any means by which to record music. Or people simply decided to buy CDs and did not bother buying tapes to make mixes. Many people listen to music mainly in their cars, and cars began to come with CD players only. So over the past decade the mix tape concept became diluted at best, and at worst, dead.

-- "Resurrecting the Art of Mix Tapes in the Digital Realm" Nebulae: New Media News, 2001

[34] This discussion has now come full circle as we return to the issue of the disappearance of cassettes as common media. In many ways, these notes are part of a larger project concerning the circulation of exhausted commodities and the archiving of their erstwhile operations. As one writer observes, there was once a time when cassettes were the medium of choice for do-it-yourself audio projects. But "[f]ast forward 10 years, and suddenly, CD-R burners are ubiquitous and the term MP3 is as much a part of pop culture as Madonna" ("Resurrecting" 0107_mixtape.php). But does the advent of digital recording technologies really undermine the mixed tape? Is the mixed tape concept truly "dead" or, at best, "diluted"?

[35] The problem is that romantic mixes still exist, even in the era of music-on-demand. Clearly, the 'lost formats preservation' thesis -- and its hypothesis regarding lost knowledge -- does not adequately characterize the situation. However, this perspective does take into account one very important facet of audio cassettes: deterioration. Everyone knows that the more you play cassettes, the more worn out they become -- the more garbled the content -- the more likely it is that the magnetic tape will tear on the next playing. It's ironic that the old worn-out tape is more loved than the one that has never been heard and will always sound pristine. Decay is usually rhetorically treated as a sort of anti-technology, so mixed tapes are in some way an anti-technological technology, very different from the digital accuracy of mp3 files, which can be replicated ad infinitum.

[36] At first glance, the audio practices that we have witnessed post Napster, seem of a different order of counter-cultural plundering practice. Romantic mixed-tapers hardly seem on par with these web-saavy, aural pirates and pundits. As well, the new generations of portable mp3 pods and the emerging taste cultures surrounding them [10] don't particularly resemble persnickety tape recorders and home-tapers. But, contrary to the rhetoric, the "concept" of mixing is not medium-specific. The record was set straight for me by a digital mixer (and former 'tape-head'): "What makes a mix 'work' is the consideration put into the content, not the medium its recorded on. As long as there is obvious love and time put into the final result, that's what's going to have an impact."

[37] This is not to say that mixers don't have medium-specific preferences. Some mixers feel that tapes allow for more personalization than CDs. One author, advancing this point-of-view, confirms his nostalgic fetishism: "Computerized mix CDs suck all the creativity and charm out of the process. [...] A neatly stacked pile of small plastic boxes [CDs] just doesn't have the same warm feeling as a heavy stack of big vinyl albums" (Michael 45). But recent CD burners and software allow for the incorporation of 'personal' elements: voice bites, etc. However, the purist's inability to negotiate Williams' residual, archaic and emergent is circumscribed by this techno-fetishism.

[38] Emergent digital technologies offer the added bonus of burning mp3 files, painstakingly hunted down on-line with P2P software. It is interesting to note that the challenges to copyright, enflamed by the introduction of Napster to consumers, are the next logical steps in the intertextual practice of mixing music, a process that problematizes the status of authorship. [11] The blatant 'plagiarizing' of musical works, and using them as a part of another unsanctioned production, invokes Barthes' "death of the author" (Image-Music-Text 148) and erodes an artist's claim to the works and how they should by distributed. As well, these on-line music conglomerates, replacing the vinyl record collection, provide easy access to bootlegs, b-sides, and other rare tracks, which are the crème de la crème when it comes to personalized mixes. While finding a rare live version of a potential lover's favorite song would undoubtedly make a favorable impression, it also disrupts the authorial illusion that there are 'official' versions of songs, as the bastard children -- bootlegs and rare tracks -- prance about the Internet in plain view.

[39] So digital technologies maintain the textual experiment of mixed tapes (as well as calling cards, bouquets and piles of records); they are not so disparate after all. However, it is true that digital poaching doesn't necessitate endless rewinds and fast-forwards or contain the delicious frustration of finding songs in fragments, or the palimpsest gushes at the end of short songs that were recorded on top of longer ones, or tapes running out too early, so that final choruses are cut off right in the middle of a



[1] One film critic remarks, "Consider [Almost Famous] a Cameron Crowe mix tape" (Tyrangiel 133).

[2] Perhaps this is the same process that gives 'sampling' its communicative potency.

[3] The study found that the men who visited the pub studied by the researchers were prone to superfluous displays of their cellular phones in the presence of prospective mates, which caused the researchers to postulate that cell phones may indeed be used as lekking devices.

[4] The period depicted in Almost Famous and The Virgin Suicides.

[5] For Williams, the dominant, residual and emergent are part of his "cultural process" thesis, a method for understanding hegemony, but these categories are certainly not limited to this function alone.

[6] This is not to say that a gender analysis of mixed-tapers is a fruitless effort; it would simply require more subtlety than is possible within the confines of these cursory notes.

[7] I use the word 'virtuous' not simply to denote 'piety', but also to imply its etymological antecedent: virtus, meaning "courageous, spirited"; what might today be called 'virtuosity'.

[8] Much of the technology used for composing mixes allows mixers to be like DJs. E.g., CD players and mp3 software have 'program' functions, many cassette recorders have counters that facilitate seeking and cueing, as well there are double-loading record players with armatures that drop a second record onto the turntable when the first one has reached its final revolution.

[9] Traditionally, DJs circulated their compositions on mixed tapes, resembling calling or business cards, meant to show off the DJ's credentials. But, once again, the motives for doing so are entirely commercial.

[10] Napster and its peer-to-peer (P2P) ilk come to mind right away. But there are other examples internationally. In Japan, for instance, where Sony Minidisc recorders are popular, "A.T.M.-style 'Music PODS' are sprouting across the city, allowing kids to pick out the songs and burn their own minidiscs, like mixed tapes" (Webster 6.87).

[11] In Canada, this debate began with audio cassettes. The Canadian government proposed a tax on audio cassettes, which would be used to subsidize artists. This went over like a lead balloon as angry consumers inveighed the government for what they called the 'criminalization' of home-taping (tapetaxreport.htm).


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