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Death of the Headphone Masterpiece

A lament for the mixtape

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On the eve of Jan. 1, 2005, I resolved that I was going to get in the habit of making music mixes for every day that I was alive. The idea was that each mix would serve as a soundtrack to that day, or as a musical diary to capture the mood or events associated with that particular 24-hour span of my existence. It may seem like a daunting task, but with the help of iTunes and my 100 gigabyte detachable hard drive loaded to the brim with enough music that would take 80 days of continual listening to hear every note, it was as simple as a few clicks of the mouse.

Occasionally, it was even easier than that. As I'm a little OCD (and who isn't these days?), I'd meticulously ranked all of the songs in my library, and with the help of iTunes' "Smart Playlists," I could let the machine choose for me based on my own preferences. Pretty soon, instead of making deliberate choices about the soundtrack of my life, I was letting the computer prepare a mix for me, rather like a jukebox cranking out forgotten singles long after patrons have ceased feeding it quarters.

Eventually I grew weary of feeling like an extension of the machine -- or I just got lazy; it's one of the two -- and I abandoned my mix project. However, I still have a lovely series of discs that serve as a soundtrack to the first 19 days of January of last year. I was impressed -- typically my resolutions wither within the first week of the year.

A month or so later, I met a woman who would eventually become my wife -- a lovely creature with the same appreciation for music as I, and my interest in making mixes was renewed. I spent days scrutinizing the possible candidates for inclusion on a mix, analyzing the various interpretations of lyrics. Would Barry White be too much, too soon? Probably not, as my future bride cavalierly "put out" on just our second date. But I ruled Barry out as perhaps expressing too much emotion, and opted instead for Little Feat's "Dixie Chicken" as the ode to express my longing.

When the task was finished, I had 80 minutes of music burned on a CD, all of it designed to further woo the object of my affection and enslave her to my love. When I presented it to her she smiled and said, "Thanks, but I don't have a CD player."

True enough: she had managed to pay the full sticker price for an automobile that had only a tape deck. Her stereo was currently in storage as she was in the process of moving (into my apartment, as it turned out, though I was unaware that the items of female clothing accumulating in my closet were a harbinger of that fact), and that left me with the Herculean task of making an actual, bonafide, throwback-to-high school mixtape.

You dear readers over the age of 25 probably have experience with the mixtape -- the attention it demands in listening to each track so that you can stop the tape from recording at the appropriate moments and the frustration and agony of forgetting to stop the tape, then rewinding and starting over. It is a laborious process and one which commands a full hour and a half of your time. Or more. If someone made you a mix tape back in the day, then you knew things were getting serious.

And that's what has been lost in the age of nano-technology that can reduce a wall of records to nothing more than a small rectangle of 1's and 0's. It seems that because we can possess so much music so easily that the idea of closely listening to an album to detect every subtle nuance of the music and words has vanished into the digital world, along with cover art and liner notes. Oh, yes, I know, iTunes offers "digital booklets" with certain album purchases, but it's just not the same as that tactile experience of holding the album in your hands as the needle makes its steady advance across the vinyl.

As we march into the digital domain of the 21st century, music lovers seem to have forgotten part of the pleasure of music -- particularly that aspect of music that transcends the usual limits of language: albums spread on the floor around you, headphones on, waiting for the end of the song so that you can lift the needle, or flip the tape (heck, even pause the CD) and make that transition to the next track that evokes within the intended listener a message more beautiful than its individual parts. A message that wasn't tossed off within a matter of thoughtless moments, but labored over well into the night and early morning, until your mixtape masterpiece serenades you to sleep.

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