All Mixed Up:
A Cultural Exploration of Mixed Tapes and CDs
University of Oregon
This article examines the mixed tape/CD phenomenon in the socio-historical context of lyrical play to show how it functions in our society as an important conduit for the free exchange of information and culture. Mixes are viewed as a form of “Do It Yourself” (DIY) material culture to show how they serve as ideological playgrounds where the players encounter an infinite number of worldviews and develop the skills needed to construct and express their own worldviews and cultural models. Interviews with mix-makers and numerous examples of mix cover artwork are used to explore the folkloric process of mix-making, focusing on individual content, style, and production techniques while discussing cultural aspects of mixes in relation to ever-changing technologies and the copyright debate.
I have this mixed tape that was given to me by this girl fourteen years ago, and it still speaks to me. It still makes me—I can still smell the incense in her room when I listen to this thing, you know? It’s so strange, you know; this tape’s affected me in so many ways throughout my adult life, that I don’t know if I would be the same person if I didn’t have it! (Klaus)1
These thoughts, spoken to me during an interview for All Mixed Up,2 a recently released documentary about mixes,3 are shared by other Americans, including me, who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. As noted by another tape maker, “[Mixes] represent places I’ve been and people I’ve been…and you can give your opinion about other kinds of worldviews through mixes” (Geegs). Mixes function as much more than just a means of acquiring free music. They serve as a medium for self-expression, social commentary, and the free exchange of culture. A mix is an extremely personalized form of communication as well as a sort of playground for the formation and expression of worldviews. When researching and writing this article, I was unable to find any academic sources about mixed tapes/CDs aside from the references to music piracy found in publications regarding the current copyright debate in film and music. I found this rather odd, considering the significance of mixes in Do-It-Yourself (DIY) culture and the plethora of popular commentary about mixes to be found in personal journals, blogs, and popular books (or the movies based on them) such as Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity and Thurston Moore’s Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture.
In this paper, I will examine the mixed tape/CD phenomenon in the socio-historical context of lyrical play to show how it functions in our society as an important conduit for the free exchange of information and culture. This examination will include a look at how mixes serve as ideological playgrounds where the players encounter an infinite number of worldviews and develop the skills needed to construct and express their own worldviews and cultural models.
The Cultural Importance of Lyrical Play
In Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga defines play as “a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy, and the consciousness that it is ‘different’ from ‘ordinary life’” (Huizinga 28). Play functions in several important ways to help create culture in society. Ruth Hartley, Lawrence Frank, and Robert Goldenson have proposed the following list of the functions of play in society:
1) To imitate adults
2) To play out real roles in an intense way
3) To reflect relationships and experiences
4) To express pressing needs
5) To release unacceptable impulses
6) To reverse roles usually taken
7) To mirror growth
8) To work out problems and experiment with solutions
(Beyer qtd. in Jackson 141)
Although I disagree with Huizinga’s notion that the rules of play are “absolutely binding” as this seems to be contradicted by the existence of variant rule sets in most forms of play (including the notion of ‘house rules’), his comments on play as they relate to culture are particularly relevant to my purpose in discussing mixes. He notes that “we find play as a given magnitude existing before culture itself existed, accompanying it and pervading it from the earliest beginnings right up to the phase of civilization we are now living in” (Huizinga 4).
In order to further explore this concept, I will refer to those forms of play involving poetry (including song lyrics) and/or music as lyrical play or lyrical forms of play. The basis for this terminology can be found in Huizinga’s comments on the creative importance of the connections between play and poetry:
In fact, the definition we have just given of play might serve as a definition of poetry. The rhythmical or symmetrical arrangement of language, the hitting of the mark by rhyme or assonance, the deliberate disguising of the sense, the artificial and artful construction of phrases—all might be so many utterances of the play spirit…. The affinity between poetry and play is not external only; it is also apparent in the structure of creative imagination itself. In the turning of a poetic phrase, the development of a motif, the expression of a mood, there is always a play-element at work…. [Poetry] puts ritual into words, it is the arbiter of social relationships, the vehicle of wisdom, justice and morality. All this it does without prejudice to its play-character, for the setting of archaic culture itself is the play-circle…. (Huizinga 132-134)
One should not discount the relevance or importance of music to many forms of lyrical play (e.g., children’s jump rope rhymes or mixed tapes and CDs) as the music not only functions as a possible mode of transmission, but also expresses ideas, emotions and even physical sensations for which words alone may be inadequate:
Furthermore, musical forms are determined by values which transcend logical ideas, which even transcend our ideas of the visible and the tangible. These musical values can only be understood in terms of the designations we use for them, specific names like rhythm and harmony which are equally applicable to play or poetry. Indeed, rhythm and harmony are factors of all three—poetry, music, and play—in an absolutely equal sense. (Huizinga 158)
While serving many of the functions of play put forward by Hartley, Frank, and Goldenson, lyrical forms of play have had an integral role in the development of Western culture as we know it today. An example of this phenomenon can be found in the troubadours of the Middle Ages. These courtly poets of Southern France, Northern Spain, and Italy utilized poetry and song to challenge medieval Catholic notions of marriage as a strictly political or social affair and develop the idea of ‘true love’ and desire for its own sake. Joseph Campbell notes in The Power of Myth that this phenomenon “was important in that it gave the West this accent on the individual, that one should have faith in his experience and not simply mouth terms handed down to him by others. It stresses the validity of the individual’s experience of what humanity is, what life is, what values are, against the monolithic system” (Campbell 187).
In the early seventeenth century, the metaphysical poets subtly juxtaposed lyrical images to create paradoxes, which might only be resolved through the use of a new perspective. These poets questioned the accepted views of love, law and religion. For example, John Donne argued “that English Catholics could pledge an oath of allegiance to James I, King of England, without compromising their religious loyalty to the Pope” (Jokinen 2). Of course, the only solution to this paradox involved perceiving a separation of Church and State.
The far-reaching effects of the lyrical play of the troubadours and metaphysical poets can be seen in the nineteenth-century American Reform Movement. Reformists such as Walt Whitman “and his major contemporaries ‘recognized the immense cultural influence of reform movements, and as part of their effort to create culturally representative texts, they repeatedly used reform images’” (Whitman website, qtd. from Reynolds 92). Whitman used lyrical play in works such as Song of Myself (1882) to idealize and spiritualize the working class. He used free verse to question literary form while exploring notions of national and sexual identity. Whitman’s use of lyrical play to discuss homosexuality was seminal when one takes into account that, in his time, homosexuality was considered a sin against God and Nature (e.g., In 1895, Oscar Wilde was prosecuted and thrown into prison in England for violating the Criminal Law Amendment Act which forbade homosexuality).
Again in the 1960s, one can see the significant impact of lyrical play in the United States as music, words, and images were juxtaposed and used to challenge dominant U.S. paradigms by giving voice to many marginalized groups and perspectives. Pete Seger and many others used the song, “We Shall Overcome,” as a rally for the Civil Rights Movement, and Aretha Franklin moved Americans to consider issues of race and gender with her rendition of “RESPECT.” Likewise, many artists used lyrical play to challenge ideas of personal experience, politics and religion. Some of the best known examples of this include Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind” and, of course, the images of John Lennon leading mass demonstrations in New York City as he used a bullhorn to scream out the lyrics to songs like “Power to the People,” “Gimme Some Truth,” and “Give Peace A Chance.” These forms of lyrical play not only questioned the issues of the time, but they also opened the minds of the youth to new ways of being and thinking about others.
By the late 1970s, Generation X had arrived with new forms of lyrical play such as punk and new wave music. These forms of lyrical play were being used by such groups as The Sex Pistols and DEVO (a.k.a. the De-Evolutionary Band) to criticize ‘the big sell-out’ of corporate commercial culture, technological fears of the time, and the stagnation of Western consumer culture. Corporate control of the media and the marketing of nostalgia were quashing the individual’s freedom to express culturally innovative ways of thinking and being. At this critical point in time, technology had advanced to the point that for the first time, the public could gain access to affordable modes of electronic production (e.g., photocopiers and stereos with recorders) that would allow them to be direct participants in the electronic creation and exchange of culture. Although these new forms of technology were first used to simply make whole copies of works (e.g., photocopied memos or an 8-track copy of the newest Cream album), it was only a matter of time before the youth would combine the technological toys of the time with their fight against corporate control and cultural stagnation.
Thus, Do-It-Yourself (DIY) culture was born. The significance of DIY culture to lyrical play cannot be emphasized enough. From its inception, DIY culture has represented the cultural reclamation of individual access and expression. In a very physical sense, it returned the means and control of production and distribution to the individual, which before had been limited to those who could afford the more expensive technologies (e.g., printing presses, recording studios, and production/distribution equipment). This, in turn, led to the reclamation of media and culture itself in America. New syncretic forms of lyrical play, including zines and mixed tapes, arose giving individuals the ability to pick and choose what they would express and how those expressions would take form. One mix maker I interviewed commented on this process:
There’s a whole creative process that happens when someone puts together something of their own making. It’s not just a regurgitation of something they’ve heard somewhere else. People who make mixed tapes and CDs fit into DIY culture because you’re taking something that the music industry has produced or that someone else has produced and putting it in a new context that has meaning for you. If you always listen to music that someone else has put together or never make it yourself, you aren’t going to fully know what you appreciate, because you haven’t embarked on that experience of trying to put together a message or a feeling. You’re always relying on someone else to do that for you! So I think making a mix helps you better communicate parts of yourself that you wouldn’t normally express. (Geegs)
With the development of technology and DIY culture, individuals were once again free to ignore the passive, spoon-fed corporate view of culture or even to excorporate and recontextualize aspects of popular and corporate culture in order to criticize it or to construct and share their own unique visions and worldviews. The reaction of the corporate world to DIY art forms like zines and mixes is exemplified by the following statement found on the website of the National Music Publisher’s Association (NMPA):
At no time in history has it been more important for the public to recognize the value of copyright protection than in the Information Age. The threat of piracy—the use of someone else’s creative work without permission or compensation—has grown with the Internet. The Net has given every person on earth with access to a computer and a modem the ability to engage in the unauthorized, mass distribution of any type of creative work. Since the power of the Internet can, with the mere push of a button, easily destroy the global monetary value of a work to its author, copyright protections may be even more important in the virtual world than in the physical one. (National Music Publisher’s Association website February 25, 2005)
While the opinions of those musicians, such as the members of Metallica, who adamantly oppose the corporately unauthorized sharing of music via mixes and the internet are clearly represented by the NMPA’s statement, the opinions of many other musicians, such as the members of many jam, punk, and DIY bands, are not:
Well, I’m not really a big fan of copyrights, and I say that as a person who makes music. I believe that music should be shared among people. And if somebody likes this music enough to want to go out and spend money on it after they’ve heard me put it on a mix tape, well then I’ve just performed a service for that artist. It’s kind of a Darwinistic approach to survival in the music industry. (Klaus)
Many artists feel that they actually benefit from the transmission of their work via mixes and bootlegs. In his recently released book, Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture, Thurston Moore (from the band Sonic Youth) spotlights the playlists, artwork, and stories surrounding many mix tapes that have affected the work and lives of artists such as Lasse Marhaug, Ahmet Zappa, Dean Wareham, Naomi Yang, Matias Viegner, Jim O’Rourke, Leah Singer, Allison Anders, Christian Marclay, and John Sinclair. In the introduction Moore notes, “Trying to control sharing through music is like trying to control an affair of the heart—nothing will stop it” (Moore 13). As we focus on the decisions that will determine our society’s future cultural course, we need to be aware of issues of information access. Who is controlling access, and is it being unduly limited? We also need to focus on issues of freedom of speech, expression, and cultural creativity as they relate to current forms of lyrical play. The current copyright debate surrounding mixes and the discussion of whether mixes represent “media piracy” or “syncretic forms of self-expression and lyrical play” highlights the issues of this cultural debate.
A Taxonomy of the Mixed Tape/CD
Mixed tapes and CDs are much more than just simple collections of pirated music; they are one of the technological toys of our time. As such, mixed tapes and CDs are modern forms of lyrical play that facilitate the formation and expression of individual worldviews as well as the development of skills for living in a globalized world community. Matias Viegner describes
[t]he mix tape as a form of American folk art: predigested cultural artifacts combined with homespun technology and magic markers turn the mix tape to a message in a bottle. I am no mere consumer of pop culture, it says, but also a producer of it. Mix tapes mark the moment of consumer culture in which listeners attained control over what they heard, in what order and at what cost. It liberated us from music stores and radios in the same way radios and recordings liberated generations earlier from the need to be present at the performance of live music. The mix tape is a list of quotations, a poetic form in fact: the cento is a poem made up of lines pulled from other poems. The new poet collects and remixes… A mix tape can never be perfect. My taste as a mixer tells you even more about me than my taste as a consumer already does. No mix tape is accidental. (Viegener qtd. in Moore 35)
~ Talk Tapes: Adolescent Explorations and Self-Expression ~
Like many American adolescents, I first encountered mixed tapes in high school (where I also began to solidify and express my adolescent worldviews). These ‘talk tapes,’ as we referred to them, were passed amongst the ‘outcasts’ of our high school who listened to groups like DEVO, A Flock of Seagulls, and They Might Be Giants rather than AC/DC, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Hank Williams, Jr. (the typical Eighties fair in Arkansas). To be sure, we were different from most of our classmates. We were the kids who felt like outsiders in a community where the nearest ‘cultural center’ was the Wal-Mart in Fayetteville, Arkansas (only thirty miles away, when you could get someone to drive you there). A typical talk tape would be a 60-90 minute program consisting of ‘new’ music, skits, and ad-hoc ‘commercials.’ The talk tape’s music often came from “someone you have never heard of before,” but could just as easily have been from Mozart or Stevie Wonder as from Madness (at 15, most things still fell into the category of “Someone I Have Never Heard of Before…”). While discussing American toys, Kathy Jackson notes that:
Through toys, children express who they are; they construct an identity of their current and future selves. Many toys still have to do with role playing, enabling children to gain confidence as they try out and practice their roles, often gender-based, in society. Classic toys trained children to weave their own narratives and control their environment through play. (Jackson 143)
Jackson’s comment on toys describes many of the functions of a talk tape. The songs were presented within a framework with a narrator such as “Jack Noland” or “The Psycho Killer.” The narrator always spoke first to introduce the tape and would then regularly appear throughout the tape to read passages, comment on ‘The News and Weather,’ and interact with other characters in skits and commercials. The News and Weather included commentary as diverse as “Reagan—What’s He Doing Now?” and “The Weather here at home is crappy with a 40% chance of me escaping.” Advice was given as a ‘Newsflash’ (e.g., “Newsflash: Sandra is never going to go out with you; so stop yer whining!”). These talk tapes were more than maps of our psyches; they were pieces of ourselves that represented possibilities for our future selves. When my best friend, Devon, joined the Navy, talk tapes became our personal letters. Now they still serve as audio snapshots of that time of my life. In fact, some talk tape segments are intentionally constructed to serve that function.
A good example of this type of construction occurs at the beginning of side B of Trips Through My Wires, a talk tape that I received in college from one of my best friends in high
Now Don, before you listen to this next song, I want you to think of me, and you, and Devon, and a little red Volkswagen going round and round and round in a circle, backwards….You popping your head up from behind the front seat, Don, thinking that you’re drunk—drunk out of your mind. You’ve never been so drunk before in your life….Me and Devon are sittin’ up front, screaming this song, singing off-tune. It’s turned up real loud, Don. Turn it up real loud now, and think of those good times. Think of that cold night, all those stars, that moon, that uncomfortable seat, and that reverse 360. (MD)
The esoteric nature of mixes is immediately revealed in this excerpt since much of the humor of this reference comes from the fact that I awoke thinking that I was extremely drunk (due to the fact that my friend was doing a reverse 360 on the high school baseball diamond) although we had not been drinking at all that night. This intro to side B (appropriately titled, “Reverse 360”) is followed by “What Am I Supposed to Do?” (a song, from A Flock of Seagulls, about missing someone) which is the song that my friends were singing “off-tune” when I awoke. The intro and song were included in the mix because my friend wanted to remind me “of those good times” and let me know how much he missed me. Although many people have heard this clip and smiled, only those of us who were in the car know the whole story and will understand the true import of the introduction and its connection to the song. It has been 22 years since I sat in that car (and 20 years since I received that tape), but hearing “Reverse 360” always takes me right back to that moment as a youth, reminds me of old friends, and brings a smile to my face and tears to my eyes. Since that time, I have met many mix makers, most of whom have similar stories about their early encounters with mixes and how listening to those mixes now can evoke extremely intense memories and emotions from them.
~ Snapshot Mixes and Memory Music ~
While some ‘snapshot mixes’ are made to preserve or commemorate a specific moment in time (e.g., a tape for someone’s 21st birthday or a Valentine’s Day Love Letter), others are
made to create an atmosphere or express a specific feeling (e.g., party tapes, tapes about leaving/being at/going home, and road trip tapes). Allison Anders discusses how some artists use the latter type of snapshot mix in their work:
I passed tapes back and forth with Kurt Voss, Boyd Rice, and Quentin Tarantino. In fact Quentin made a tape called “True Romance”—he only made 4 copies—one for me, one for Ridley Scott, one for Patricia Arquette, and one for Christian Slater, and they were songs he imagined the characters in the film gave to each other. What made me especially happy was that a song I gave to him on a tape ended up on there: “Last Night In Soho” by Dave Dee Dozy Beaky Mick and Tich…
I also use mix tapes and CDs in my work. The first thing I do when I sit down to write a script is make a tape or CD of the music of the world of the film. Often these songs or songs similar end up in the movie or they inspire something which finds its way to the movie. In Things Behind The Sun, Kurt Voss and I used a mix tape between the characters in childhood as a love bond between them, as well as a plot device. It is also the object which propels their healing and the paths they take in their lives. The soundtrack itself was created in part by songs my daughter Tiffany put on a tape for me. Likewise, the soundtrack for Mi Vida Loca emerged from the gang kids in Echo Park from tapes they passed amongst themselves and shared with me. (Anders qtd. in Moore 62-63)
Another type of snapshot mix is the holiday mix. Some holiday mixes are made for specific celebrations such as a wedding mix or an anniversary mix while others might just reference a specific day (e.g., “Monday Mix” or “24 Thoughts for March 24, 2001”). There are also seasonal holiday mixes where the songs are organized in reference to a specific holiday. Really popular holidays for these types of mixes include Valentine’s Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The amount of ‘traditional’ music included in this type of mix depends on the mix maker and the recipient. For example, a typical Thanksgiving mix might contain songs that are traditionally associated with Thanksgiving, such as “Home for the Holidays” or “The Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Theme,” but it might also include “The Mashed Potato” and other songs that refer to typical Thanksgiving foods. Some mix makers will also include less traditional songs about eating or nontraditional Thanksgiving foods (e.g., “Roly Poly” or “I’m A Cucumber”) as a joke.
Songs on any of these types of mixes often become ‘memory music’ (i.e., songs that remind the listener of the maker, a specific time, or other specific sensory information). One mix maker described memory music as “these songs that come up that not only remind me of her [i.e., the mix maker] but also remind me of all these people that I’ve had experiences with when these same songs are playing—or even the sound of that singer’s voice can elicit some old memories of different people. It becomes quite the Pandora’s Box of emotions for me” (Geegs).
A mix I made, called Movin’ To Portland, is a good example of how memory music in a mix can create community. I made it when my girlfriend and I were moving to Portland, Oregon. Our friends were helping us move, and I wanted to thank them and also provide some sense of cohesion and closure to the whole process of moving away. So the songs on the mix were all about Portland, moving, and going home. I Googled images of our new house in Portland and used them along with the information from the rental advertisement on Craig’s List to create the artwork for the CD. We played the CD while we were packing and loading the vehicles. Then I gave a copy to each person, and the CD was played in every vehicle that was used to move us to Portland. We started them all at the same time, so that we would see and hear the same things at the same time as we all drove to Portland. So using the mix to create this group memory was my way of dealing with the pain of moving away from my friends. It was a way of showing that we would still do things together in the future- that this wasn’t the end.
Didactic Mixes: Introduction, 101, and Rites of Passage Frameworks
Other mixes have a more didactic intent behind their creation. Many people use mixes as a sort of introduction when making new friends. This underscores the fact that many makers see their mixes as somehow representing them. One mix maker that I interviewed commented:
There’s a process of identification that goes on too, because even though you’re trying to express yourself, you’re re-identifying yourself through the process of music by making a mix. And there’s a real self-actualization that can happen through each mix and…all of us have different…aspects to ourselves that no one will really understand, but the listener might be able to get a better glimpse of that through a mix that a person has put together, because of the effort that they’ve put into the sequence of the material on the mix and the cover itself. Because if there’s any artwork on the cover, that can be a point of self-expression as well. (Geegs)
Another kind of didactic mix is the ‘101 mix’ in which the maker’s intent is to literally teach the listener about a specific type of music, experience or perspective (e.g., “A ClassyCool Collection,” “Psychedelics 101,” and “Chart Toppers Of The 1920s”). One tape maker I interviewed often used this mix format:
Another thing I’ve done in the past is just introduce somebody to a new style of music. I would actually see the tape end up as a kind of “Rock-a-billy 101” where I would hit on all the cornerstones of that particular style of music. I did that pretty frequently—not only with Rock-a-billy, but [also] with Country or Jump Blues. (The Traveler)
The same tape maker later commented on using mixes to express unique musical connections:
A lot of times I’d take some really extreme song from the early Fifties that for all intents and purposes would be punk rock if it would’ve been put out in the Seventies, and I’ll put that together with something from the Seventies. A lot of times seeing the difference is harder than seeing the similarity. (The Traveler)
In some cases didactic tapes use a ‘Rites of Passage’ framework to express a concept or experience while creating a specific ideological or psychological atmosphere. For example, ‘meditation’ and ‘drug/trip’ mixes (e.g., “Songs of OM,” “Acid Tripping 101,” and “Mushroom Cloud Stew”) are meant to express and/or recreate the experience one feels during a given state of altered consciousness and may even be intended by the maker (or used by the listener) to recall a past experience or create an atmosphere for inducing a new experience. One tape maker commented on how he works to create a liminal space/experience:
A lot of times the first thing I put on a mix isn’t even a song! It might be a bit of dialogue, some crazy sound effects, or the sound of the radio—just something that’s not a song, to make them wonder what they’re listening to—what this whole experience is gonna be like. It’s a little unsettling, and maybe it’s supposed to be that way to send that message of, well, you don’t know what’s gonna happen next, and you better be ready for anything! (Klaus)
This form of lyrical play allows the maker to use images, words and music to toy with and expose the listener to conceptual frameworks comprised by juxtaposing different ideas, feelings, images, themes, hidden messages, social criticisms, memory music, found noise, etc. This process involves appropriating and redefining elements of corporate, commercial and popular cultural systems. These juxtapositions function as a sort of ludic recombination causing the listeners to contemplate their culture/reality from a different perspective. This type of mix also corresponds with the Rites of Passage model proposed by Victor and Edith Turner in that its intended function is either to initiate one’s siblings and friends into new cultural concepts and ways of being or to re-energize the listener (201-202). One recipient of mixes commented on the importance of these types of mixes in his life:
I learned a lot about life and music from the mixes that my older brother sent me when I was younger. I was still at home in Missouri, and he was always moving around between Oregon, the canneries in Alaska, and The Netherlands. We might have a phone call once every few months, but the mixes really kept the bond. They showed that he really cared about me. They told me something about what was going on in his life at that time and what he thought about it all… They gave me some hope that I would get to see him again. (Robert)
It’s All in the Mix: DIY and Excorporating to Create
Making mixes is also a transformative art in a very physical sense. A lot of innovation occurs in the packaging of mixes. One example of material excorporation and transformation in packaging is the reuse of the metal America Online (AOL) promotional tins as cases for multi-disc CD mix sets. The tins are often altered in some way or completely covered with original and/or found artwork, content information, etc. In this way, materials used for corporate advertising are re-appropriated and put to more innovative personal uses. There are many aspects to making mixes that require innovative thinking such as figuring out how to ‘multi-track’ yourself using several handheld recorders in order to create conversations between characters or to sing a song ‘in chorus’ when you are the only person in the room. The combined ideological and physical processes involved in making mixes help the maker develop skills for living in today’s globalized world community such as juxtaposing conflicting ideologies or cultural value systems to better understand them:
Well part of the whole joy of making mix tapes is that sound that you get in-between songs. I have found that you could make all kinds of great noises with just your tape recorder and the buttons on it. For example, you can play a really terrible song in your mix [from] Journey, or Boston, or Styx- just something like stadium rock, and right when it gets to that “wheedelee-wheedelee-wee” guitar crescendo, you [can] press that pause button, and you get this “EEEERWEB!” And it totally ends the song, and then you put something cool on after that, and it really shakes up your listener. (Klaus)
Like zines and other forms of DIY material culture, mixes function as an extremely personal conduit for information exchange that, if not hampered, has the ability to far exceed the limits that U.S. corporate, mass media, and commercial cultures would place on the kinds and amounts of information available to the public for the construction of worldviews. For example, some mixes might include material written and/or performed by the maker or his friends, which is placed in the mix between a song from Tomorrow (a 1960s English band) and the latest single from Björk. In this way, mix makers function like de Certeau’s (1984) “cultural poachers” by taking what they want from cultural texts (e.g., music, art, icons, politics, belief systems, and advertising) and ignoring, reinterpreting, or responding to the rest. The process of decontextualizing and recontextualizing these cultural poachings leads to the exploration, formation, and expression of possible worldviews within the mix. Another mix maker referred to this aspect of mixes:
[When] you take a song out of context and juxtapose it with something that it wasn’t originally intended to be juxtaposed with, you change the meaning completely, and it adds one new element to the whole process which is the person at the other end of that mixed tape now becomes a participant in the listening. So you’ve got not only the music you’re hearing, but then you’ve also got the actual structure that that person put together with that hidden message that they might be trying to convey to you . . . [P]art of why you make it is you’re hoping to have an effect on the person that’s getting it. Mixed tapes certainly changed the way I looked at people and the music that I was listening to. You know, I’d like to think that maybe it changed somebody’s worldview listening to the tape that I made. (The Traveler)
Narratives are constructed in mixes utilizing vast amounts of culture (e.g., an audio clip from an old television commercial or political add used in the mix, or an old Wonderbread sticker used in the cover art of a mix) that may be deemed ‘unworthy’ (or more likely, ‘not lucrative’) by the U.S. corporate consumer culture. Mixes also function more directly as a medium for the free exchange of culture and ideas in the following way:
1) The maker expresses a worldview in a mix directly, by creating an experience; indirectly, by criticizing, commenting on, or building upon another worldview; or through the combined use of both direct and indirect approaches.
2) The listener chooses to accept or reject all or parts of this experience.
3) The listener may continue the process of exchange by responding directly with a framework of their own design (i.e., make a mix as a response) or indirectly by extracting bits of the mix and recontextualizing them in new pieces of transformative art.
One tape maker commented on the enduring effects of this powerful form of material culture:
So now I have a box of tapes that I will never listen to, I’m sure, but I just can’t bear to part with that physical representation. How could I throw away that tape that Diane made for me in 1990? Even though I have it on my iPod, and I listen to it all the time, I can’t just throw [the tape] away! It’s got her handwriting on it! It’s got the date that she made it on it—April 30, 1990. There are little messages, you know. It’s an important thing to me; so I gotta keep it. (Klaus)
As examples of lyrical play, mixes function in society as a DIY medium for self-expression, social commentary, and the free exchange of culture. These syncretic works of art serve as ideological playgrounds where the players encounter an infinite number of worldviews and develop the skills needed to construct and express their own worldviews and cultural models. Technological advances such as the development of digital media and the internet have led to many debates concerning copyright law, the public domain, and issues surrounding cultural creativity. Some look to the benefits these technologies offer, while others feel that the digital revolution must be met with more stringent copyright laws and technological safeguards to prevent media piracy. We are poised to make an extremely important cultural decision: Will we protect the long-standing tradition of free culture that has given rise to so many examples of lyrical play and enriched our culture, or will we dispense with these modern forms of DIY lyrical play and passively consume the spoon-fed realities of corporate culture?
1 Due to the legal issues surrounding the making and distribution of mixes (discussed later in this paper), my informants have requested that I use pseudonyms to protect their anonymity. My informants were chosen based on their experience with making mixes as well as their reputation amongst their peers in the mix-making community.
2 This article is intended to function as a companion piece to All Mixed Up, the forty-minute documentary, which combines clips from interviews with mix makers and numerous examples of mix cover artwork with explanatory vignettes and a reflexive soundtrack in an effort to provide the viewer with a direct experience of a mix. The documentary is available under fair use for educational viewing at the University of Oregon Randall V. Mills Folklore Archive. A free copy of this documentary can be obtained for educational purposes only by contacting me via the University of Oregon Folklore Program (http://www.uoregon.edu/~flr/index.htm).
3 The terms ‘mixes’ and ‘mix’ are used throughout this paper to refer to both tapes and/or CDs. There are differing opinions within the mix-making community concerning the ‘genuineness’ of mixed CDs versus tapes due to factors surrounding the use of digital technology such as computers and the internet and how that affects one’s approach to making and listening to mixes. The purpose of this paper is not to take a position in this debate, but to discuss the phenomenon of the mix as it manifests in both tapes and CDs and to examine some of the functions of mixes in American culture.
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Geegs. 9 May 2004. Unpublished personal interview.
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Hornby, Nick. 1996. High Fidelity. New York: Riverhead Books.
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All pictures by Don Stacy except:
AMU PDF pg 22: (left): collaged pop culture CD by Iconoplast. http://www.math.sunysb.edu/~gaston/mixtape/cd4.jpg. Accessed 11/24/08.
Don Stacy is a graduate student in the University of Oregon Folklore Program. His studies emphasize folklore, film, journalism, and arts and administration. He holds a B.A. in English from the University of Oregon (1995), and he has studied at the University of Utrecht, in Utrecht, The Netherlands (1990-91), and at Hendrix College, in Conway, Arkansas (1988-90). At the 2008 Western States Folklore Society meeting in Davis, California, Don presented All Mixed Up, the forty-minute companion documentary to this article. He is currently working on a documentary about the Dutch tradition of “Surprise” (sir-pree-zuh), which is celebrated on St. Nicholas Day (December 6th), and its manifestations in the U.S.A. Don is also a musician, painter, photographer, filmmaker, poet, Autism Program Specialist, and a member of the University of Oregon Disabilities Studies Advisory Committee.
I can totally relate with this artcle. Just reading this brings back memories of mixes sent to me.
As implied by your use of the plural “mixes”, the term is not “mixed tapes”, but rather “mixtape”, or “mix tape”. In my experience, mixtapes are typically not mixed (by blending or interspersing individual tracks together to create a collage or layered audioscape), but are compiled by placing the tracks end to end in a sequence.
Don …You have this mix tape thing all mixed up…it was intended that you play all of the mix tapes in reverse so that you would become brain washed into ……..well I would rather not say on here. Just Do it!! Now!! Don’t wait!
This Article really hits home in a big way not only because I am mentioned in it and some of the Characters that I have created. Growing up in the middle of nowhere always made me think that I would never be able to acomplish anything or have any hope of becoming anything other than what trade my Dad had. I soon realized that if you are around the right kind of friends that thought like you some sort of a synergistic effect would happen and maybe just maybe we could find cures for disease, or discover new ways to overcome political, religious and social morays that held us so tightly. We wanted to hurl ourselves and mankind into the future into a more evolved culture and existance full of new reasoning, Ideas, and a space age lifestyle devoid of the horrible greed of capitalism, political and religous brain washing that we thought would ultimatly destroy all of humanity if a positive change did not occor.
After growing up we have all been assimilated into society buying in to all of the things we had tried to escape because as we all know now…if you can’t leave the Earth ..there is no escape.
As a Teenager…I had no idea I had any influence in a friends life much less my own.
It is a great honor to be writen about because it makes my life somehow more real and to see something I created written about is great becuase as long as people can read, it makes something I have done live on forever.
Thanks-a-mundo for the blog.Really thank you!
The mix tape was a cultural phenomenon sadly lost since the 1980’s. High Fidelity really gets in that!
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