While walking past a co-worker's desk a few weeks ago, I heard a familiar bass line squeaking out of the desktop speakers. I stopped in my tracks.
“You like the Wallflowers?” I asked.
“Oh, definitely” she replied, “do you?”
“Pfff… ‘One Headlight’ is only one of my top five favorite songs of all time.”
She was taken aback by my accuracy and challenged my bold claim.
“Alright then,” she replied, “what are the other four?”
She moved her mouse across her desk and replied, “Cool. I love 90’s music. Have you seen I Love the 90's on VH1? It’s awesome.”
Her response struck me as odd. Have I seen I Love the 90's? No. I lived it. And since when does 90’s music have to be classified in the first place? It is the music of my youth, not a classical genre.
Or is it? Confused, I attempted to provide some historical context to the conversation.
“That song came out when I was in high school.” I informed her.
She nodded. That’s it. She just nodded. What kind of response is that? Attempting to make a cultural connection with my younger co-worker, I pressed on.
“I remember listening for that song to come on the radio so I could record it.”
She didn’t nod this time. This time she looked confused and simply asked, “Record it?”
“Yeah,” I replied, “you know, for a mix tape.”
No response. Blank stare.
“You know what a mix tape is right?” I choked out.
She looked back down at her computer screen and then it hit me. I did some quick math in my head and realized that, at most, she would have been 6 years old when “Bringing Down the Horse”, the breakthrough Wallflowers album, came out. That same spring, I turned 15 and wore cargo jeans in public on a regular basis.
At this point, our conversation had attracted a few observers. I went on to explain to the small crowd of 22 year olds that gathered around me, each anxious to learn of a time when we listened to FM radio, the wonders of a mix tape.
“You see, back before there was iTunes,” I might as well have been sitting in a rocking chair, “we used to listen to the local Top 40 station for hours hoping that they would play that one Marcy Playground song…”
“What’s a Marcy Playground?” they wondered aloud.
“It doesn’t matter. ” I snapped, “Where was I… Oh yeah, you see, you had to keep a blank tape in your cassette player, cued up and ready to go, so you could hit record as soon as the DJ stopped talking during the intro. Make sense?”
Judging by their expressions, it didn’t.
I pressed on. “If you spent a lot of time on it, you could have a full tape in a week or so, especially if the station did a ‘Top 9 at 9’ countdown or something like that.”
No response. Blank stares.
I scrambled, clawing to justify my actions. “Everyone did this.” I said, “That is unless you wanted to pay $3 to buy the single at the music store in the mall.”
One of the young ones spoke up and asked, “What would you put on a mix tape?”
“Just depends on what the tape is for.” I explained. “Mix tapes are like people; created by God for a specific purpose. For instance, is it a workout mix? If so, you have to go with Puff Daddy or Master P or 'Song 2' by Blur.”
They looked confused. I continued.
"You mean Willow Smith?" one of them asked me. Realizing that she didn't know any better, I ignored her query.
“Now, the holy grail of all mix tapes, the one you had to nail perfectly – I’m talking clean transitions and no audio blips from previous mixes in there – was the tape you made if you were entertaining a lady friend. On these crucial occasions, you always led with Savage Garden or Edwin McCain. Strong ballads. Solid choices. This was a great recipe for success. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Know what I mean?”
“My friend Allen always included an 80’s power ballad somewhere around song six. Personally, I always thought this was a bit of a cheesy move. Plus, I never really liked Firehouse. But it worked for him, so, whatever. In my opinion, if you wanted to take it over the top, throw in ‘Kiss the Rain’ by Billie Myers and round it out with LeAnn Rimes' ‘How Do I Live’. Any 15 year old will tell you that these are great down to earth songs. Pure raw emotion. Now that’s a solid mix tape.”
No response. Blank stares. One at a time, they slowly turned and walked back to their desks. Which was fine by me really. I could tell they didn’t really appreciate the work and devotion it took to entertain oneself in the late 90’s. And I know they had work to do anyway.