“Anyway, I’ve started to make a tape, in my head, for Laura. Full of stuff she’d like. Full of stuff that’d make her happy. For the first time I can sorta see how that’s done.” High Fidelity
“Remembering you falling into my arms / crying for the death of your heart…” The Cure, “Pictures of You”
In 2000’s High Fidelity (based on Nick Hornby’s novel) John Cusack’s love-challenged, musical snob Rob Gordon is a mix tape-ologist. His advice for making mix tapes functions as a plot device for the movie—each new bit of information structures the plot by acting as transition or anticipating climactic moments. The variety and pertinence he achieves with mix tapes, however, contrasts with his paralysis in real life. Throughout the movie, Gordon makes tapes filled with songs that express who he is or represent some final judgment on music; it is only when he decides to fill the movie’s final tape with music that his estranged love actually likes that he makes the transition from stilted adolescence to adulthood.
Well, that’s one way you could put it.
This is not a post about High Fidelity. This is not about the creation of mix tapes (there are plenty of “how to” articles on Google on that topic). This post is a lament. You see, even in 2000, Rob Gordon’s obsession with the mix tape marked him as an anachronism. The movie came out a few years after burning CDs on home computers became cheap and easy; in the same year, Napster dominated online music sharing.
A year after the movie’s release, Apple began to transform the way we listen to, move, purchase and categorize music with the release of the first iPod. So, even during its release, High Fidelity’s presentation of the man who communicates through the mix tape was a nostalgic lark for the internet generation, a fateful nod to those older, and a paean to an analog dream.
This is a lament for a lost art. The very fact that the internet presents so many mix tape how-to posts indicates a dying form. And, with some certainty, it was technological change that both made the mix tape possible and brought its era to an end. The digital era has made the making of mixes so easy that no one I know takes it seriously any more. We live in the era of the Shuffle. We don’t listen to albums; we always have the song we think we want for the moment whenever we want it.
Even in the construction of “playlists” we are reckless because we are not limited. The 90 minute audio cassette gave us boundaries. Recording each song from record, tape or CD was so labor intensive and consuming as to constitute a type of worship. Even before the Shuffle and the Playlist, music streaming, digital downloads, and album uploading made making mixes easy. People don’t make good mixes anymore because mixing songs is too quick. With ease comes carelessness. The sacred becomes commonplace. The art form dies.