I spent the first five years of my life not sleeping much. Much to the chagrin of my parents, I never hit that stage of early childhood where I finally slept a solid, semi-normal night’s sleep. I wasn’t necessarily disruptive, I just didn’t need to sleep that much. For those nights when I wasn’t tired or just couldn’t fall asleep (which was most of them), my parents would pop a cassette tape into my purple plastic boom box, the one my brother now uses to listen to the radio while he tinkers in the garage. They would put in the tape and then go back to whatever they were doing, and I would lie in bed, ostensibly trying to get to sleep but really just listening.
I really liked that purple boom box but it’s the cassette tapes that hold the most nostalgia for me, perhaps out of any artifact of my childhood. There was Simon and Garfunkel. There were the soundtracks to The Little Mermaid and The Lion King. There was “Octopus’ Garden” and “Three Little Birds”. There was even a New Agey one with a name like the musical equivalent of Celestial Seasonings that I really disliked, but I never told my parents since I think they bought it specifically to put me to sleep.
Whenever one side of the tape would finish, I would call, “It’s overrrrr!” and one of my parents would come in and flip the tape. At some point I learned how to use the boom box myself, but I would still shout, “It’s over!” to whoever would listen. It wasn’t that I was too lazy or stupid to do it myself, but that for some reason, in my mind, adults were the ones who flipped the tape over. They were special; they stayed up late and did grownup activities (mine in particular preferred watching ER and paying bills), and I desperately wanted to get in on their secrets. I felt like an adult in a child’s body, never sleepy enough for a child’s bedtime but pretending to be childishly helpless in order to see some of the grownups’ world.
Later on, I did become an adult. I got my driver’s license and bought my next door neighbors’ green 1995 Ford Taurus for $600, all the money I had saved up at the time. As so many of my generation can attest, a nineties Taurus is an ideal first car: both solidly reliable and a complete piece of junk. Mine boasted a tape player – technology I hadn’t used in years. I dug up my old tapes, only to find many of them missing and others of them (I’m looking at you, Lion King) unusable due to age and overplaying. So I did what I never thought to do as a child – mined my parents’ cassette collections. I found so many gems, like Eric Clapton’s Slowhand and Unplugged. Sky even pitched in after we met, donating David Bowie’s Golden Years, which I listened to literally nonstop my entire sophomore year of college, never taking it out of my car’s tape player. And driving around by myself, in my own car that I bought, I felt like an adult. I still remember the morning of my senior prom, driving home after getting out of school early to prepare. I had all the windows down, button-down shirt on so I wouldn’t muss my hair (in retrospect, I realize prom hair plus open windows doesn’t make much sense), “Two Princes” by The Spin Doctors on as loud as I could bear it. It’s the strongest sensation of freedom I’ve ever had, something I’ll never be able to regain, my most Bruce Springsteeny moment. And what better musician to call upon to embody my nostalgia?
My point in recounting this is simply to make the connection between the technology of the cassette tape – a bit of ribbon inside a plastic box that needed to be turned over halfway through its use – and the way I used it to construct this particular relationship with adulthood. The last thing I’d like to do in a nostalgia piece on cassette tapes is to lament their going out of style by setting them up as some sort of superior medium. They’re not. (As I said, it’s a bit of ribbon in a plastic box.) Of course my generation will feel that the cassette tape is superior. We grew up with it and made memories around it. To those who say, “Kids these days probably wouldn’t even know what [x piece of technology] is, much less how to use it!” I say, “So?” In my mind, the merits of various audio technologies are pretty much relative. It’s how we create identities around them that matters.