A Brief Episode In Music History

Elizabeth O'Brien

Flash Fidelity

First, music went from ephemeral—song as performance, never sung exactly the same way—to physical object. Through records, cassettes and CDs, we captured songs; then, finally, came the Internet. Music has been returning to the ephemeral ever since.

Cassettes consisted of a case and two spools wound with magnetically-coated tape. They came pre-recorded or recordable, “blank.” Each represented different possibilities; each offered a way of preserving a particular moment in time.

Cassettes were maligned for their low fidelity by our parents, but they were important to us. We thought our technologies would last. After all, records had lasted; people still play records to this day. And if eight-tracks hadn’t, they’d vanished so neatly that we—the cassette tape generation—barely knew they had existed.

Tapes were easy to copy, and durable. A beloved tape—Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All, for example—could be forgotten on the floor of a car, shoved in the pocket of one’s faded black jeans, or stuffed in a backpack with one’s undone homework and comics and an uncapped tube of black lipstick, and suffer no damage. Tapes could survive heat, cold, neglect. Though they eventually wore down with use, they did so gently: The playback warbled, faint, as if the sound travelled from a greater distance as time passed.

Through tapes, underground music penetrated the Iron Curtain. Tapes were also instruments for musical education amongst American teenagers, who recorded artful mixes. A teenage girl might cherish her friends’ mixes nearly as much as the friends themselves: An Ozzy mix from Steve, the coworker she crushed on who said she seemed like “someone who could appreciate Ozzy;” Pink Floyd from Eric, who took her to see Star Wars. She might keep these, long after abandoning her other tapes. They might occasionally turn up in boxes while unpacking moves in her twenties.

Tapes varied in length. 120, 90, and 60-minute tapes were common. It was perhaps a 60-minute tape that played in the car on a road trip that began in Maryland and ended in Massachusetts; three girls in the car, one leaving home for the first time. They smoked Marlboro Reds; they drove fast with the windows down. They had only the one tape, with songs by Marilyn Manson, Siouxsie Sioux, and My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult. Also, inexplicably, Taco’s “Putting On The Ritz.” After several hours, they decided not to play it again for the remainder of the trip.

Tapes included protection to prevent accidental erasure: They had tabs that could be snapped off so the indentation triggered sensors to prevent recording. A beloved mix might thus be afforded some protection. But if needed, sticking adhesive over the indentation bypassed this prevention. Tapes were durable, but nothing is indelible.

Sometimes mechanical problems also occurred. Tapes suffered “wow and flutter,” frequency wobbles from playing speed fluctuations below or above the 4Hz sweet spot. Or a player might rotate the supply spool faster than the take-up, or not release the heads, and the tape would spew out of the cassette and tangle in the player. Tape players sometimes “ate” tapes, destroying them altogether.

In Massachusetts, a teenage boy once painstakingly rewound an eaten tape for his girlfriend because it was her favorite, a mix that reminded her of her Maryland home. He rewound the spools and re-sealed the tape ends. Afterward the player lurched as the adhesive daub passed through, but the tape played fine. The girl would long remember this kindness, how carefully he had treated something she treasured.

Cassettes peaked in the 80’s and were overtaken by CDs—the return to ephemeral was primed to begin. Perhaps it began on an elementary school bus, 1987, on the last day of school. On the bus, a boy held a cassette in his hand.

He snapped the tape inside, as a girl next to him watched. Holding the end of the tape, he flung the cassette out the bus window. The tape unfurled, flying out behind. It sparkled, seal-gray and nearly weightless, fluttering, suspended there, before finally it dropped onto the road. The girl felt troubled by the boy’s wastefulness, but it was somehow tragic and exhilarating in equal measure.

The tape ribbon sparkled in the sun as the bus turned a corner and then, just like that, it was gone.


Elizabeth O’Brien lives in Minneapolis, MN, where she earned an MFA in Poetry at the University of Minnesota. Her work—poetry and prose—has appeared in many journals, including New England Review, The Rumpus, Diagram, Sixth Finch, Radar Poetry, PANK, Cicada, and the Ploughshares blog. Her chapbook, A Secret History of World Wide Outrage, is forthcoming from ELJ Publications.