What Made the Mixtape Disappear?

Written by | Columnists and Letters

Kevin Phinney

Kevin Phinney

During the reign of Top 40 radio, Kevin mastered crafting crowd-pleasing playlists, but as tastes began to change, he found it harder to get people into the mix.

Most of us will love many kinds of music over a lifetime, but nothing will ever hold the same hypnotic sway as what we listened to in our own puberty.

There’s something about coming of age that imbues every note of those songs with the essence of who we were in the process of becoming. Just a few chords can spin you right ‘round (baby) into a reverie of how Everything Was Better Then.

I learned this simple truth when I vaulted into perfecting the art of the mixtape while they were at the apex of their popularity. Friends would often joke that I seemed to have invented the art form. Some of them went out and bought Walkmans, then Discmans, and MP3 players to keep up with the tapes, CDs and playlists I painstakingly put together, then gave away for free.

I admit, there was no small amount of ego involved. Certainly I didn’t write or record any of the songs. Nor did I discover the artists or sign them to record contracts. But in the same way that Colonel Sanders didn’t create chicken or spices, I could put the ingredients together in a way people found . . . irresistible.

I was just out of my teens when I discovered this parlor trick. A throwback craze for all things ‘50s had recently swept the nation: America couldn’t get enough of Happy Days (or its spinoffs, Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy and Joanie Loves Chachi), so my roomates and I decided to throw a retro-themed house party. But instead of hearkening back to the sanitized ‘50s, we decided our party — in true Animal House style — would celebrate the debauchery of the free love ‘60s. To complete the ambience, we snapped up a few lava lamps, a black light and concocted a trash can punch (in an actual trash can, double lined with plastic lawn bags and containing what can only be described as a heroic amount of alcohol).

Since I had the most records, I was elected to spin. This was ideal for me, as my roomies were too intent on scoring with girls to care about what to play next, and I — still closeted and stuck going through the motions with women — had an excuse to avoid hunting down a gal pal to be my tonsil hockey partner. I started out playing current music, but then began slowly turning back the clock — meticulously linking a current song to an earlier one by the same artist or a contemporary cover to the original. Before long, we were all feeling it. Someone lit incense. Clothes came off. The ‘60s definitely had an encore that night.

It was easy to capture an audience back then. Top 40 and FM radio had created a ready template of something for everyone. You could hear Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” next to Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy,” followed by hits from Fleetwood Mac or the Commodores. Then MTV came along, adding Duran Duran, Madonna, Michael Jackson and the Beastie Boys into the mix.

I started to experiment with my own mixes. My formula was simple, at least on the surface: Pick a starting point in time. Pick a genre. Then link each song to another on the radio at roughly the same time while gradually creeping forward in time to create a sweep of classics that would remind listeners of complete eras in their lives. I made pop mixes, R&B mixes, disco mixes and rock ‘n’ roll mixes. I made a habit of carrying what I wanted to hear in my pocket, and would ask bartenders to play my tape, and I tipped them to do so — at first. Eventually, they started buying me thank-you drinks. Ultimately, they asked for their own copies. Several kept collections with certain ones marked “XXX,” because they made girls want to scale the bar to lead the crowd dancing below.

This went on an absurdly long time, but gradually I noticed things changing. MTV ditched videos, and with the rise of Napster and the ability of artists to get noticed on the internet without having to go through a record company, there were fewer that everyone knew. Sure, Madonna, Cher, Britney, Rihanna, JT, Xtina and Beyoncé all broke through. But with the rise of rap, hip-hop and countless indie bands, pleasing everyone at a party became an exercise in guesswork. And far too many people thought that if it looked easy, it must be. One night, as I had reduced a party into a sweaty throng with a vintage funk tune called “Get Off Your Ass and Jam,” the host drunkenly asked to cut in. He put on Hootie & the Blowfish. A fire couldn’t have cleared the place faster.

When I got married, the music for my reception was to be my masterpiece. People threw each other around to swing music, swayed to Nat “King” Cole, got their groove on with Prince, sang along to “Rainbow Connection” and left pleasantly exhausted.

Lately I’ve noticed my gift at inciting a party starting to slip. Last spring, I attended a friend’s wedding reception and passed the DJ $20 to spin a Whitney Houston megamix I found recently. He agreed, but then played “I Want to Dance With Somebody” first — knowing it would sabotage my intention. Many in the crowd were fine with hearing Whitney hit it baby one more time, but I knew I was done. I’m secure in the knowledge that I’ll never completely lose my mojo, but I won’t spend any more time butting into a DJ’s gig to prove it. I never want to be known as that Hootie guy. 

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Last modified: September 28, 2018