Armed with stacks of blank CDs and the original outlaw Napster, I spent my college years giving and receiving mixes. As a member of the post-mixtape pre-playlist generation, I’d like to say a word in defence of the mix CD.
Everyone has a story about some favourite mixtape they had. Books have been devoted to elegiac tales of romance spooled onto Maxell cassettes – there are countless stories in this world about how each tape told tales of moondances and Lucy in the sky or coloured girls who went doo-dee-doo-dee-doo. They were decorated with Lisa Frank stickers or drawings of Debbie Harry; the songs were grouped in themes, or started out slow and then picked up the beat, or they were about love without ever actually mentioning the word “love”. Wasn’t it so cute the way you had to use a pencil to wind the tape whenever it got tangled? Or you used scotch tape to fix a break. You have that story, don’t you. Well, screw you. I’m sitting over here with an old compilation CD, and he’s about had it with all the cassette adulation.
The year 2000 was a low period for mixtapes. Today cassettes have become a kind of pop-art symbol. You can’t throw a stone on Etsy without finding a tape-inspired iPhone cosy or ring or soap. Earlier in the decade, however, cassettes just seemed old and silly. Why oh why would you want to make a mixtape when you could fit so many more songs on a CD? What’s more, you could add songs using Napster.
Oh, Napster. My boyfriend found 30 versions of “Happy Birthday”, burned them onto a disc and gave them to me when I turned 20. He had splurged and bought a computer that could burn discs. I then listened to them using the CD player in my PC! I had a stereo, but putting it in the computer made it feel extra special. The multi-functionality of it all! What could possibly happen next? The coffee maker would probably start making cereal.
Today, we expect that each of our gadgets can pinch hit for every other gadget, but back then this kind of versatility actually meant something. Oh, what is that you’re saying, mix CD? If you broke, you could be replaced unlike your cassette brethren? And you could carry how many songs? And no one had to constantly jump up to press “stop” on the radio when a song ended. You didn’t even need to use Napster – you could rip your own CDs to MP3s and then put hundreds songs on a single disc. Hallelujah.
In 2000, my friend Daisy made me a mix CD. She was junior at Mount Holyoke. It was mostly filled with Indigo Girls songs, but still. She’s not the most technologically savvy person in the world, so I was impressed. Not only had she curated a set of several dozen songs, but she actually went to the computer lab! Just for me. Now that’s friendship.
My old cassettes are caked with dust on a shelf in a closet. And the mix CD, you ask? The music is in my iPod and the disc itself? It’s right here under my coffee mug, working to keep my tabletop unmarred. Like I said: it’s all about the multi-functionality.
Anna Jane Grossman will be with us for the next few weeks, documenting life in the early aughts, and how it differs from today. The author of Obsolete: An Encyclopedia of Once-Common Things Passing Us By (Abrams Image) and the creator of ObsoleteTheBook.com, she has also written for dozens of publications, including the New York Times, Salon.com, the Associated Press, Elle and the Huffington Post, as well as Gizmodo. She has a complicated relationship with technology, but she does have an eponymous website: AnnaJane.net. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnaJane.
Top CC shot from smohundro on Flickr