Making the Perfect Mix Tape

Music |

If you grew up in the 1980s, you knew that one of the best ways to get your point across to your crush was by making a mixtape. Of course, you wouldn’t dream of putting in the time and effort unless you thought they might be a little bit into you too!

A mixtape was a major undertaking that required deep thought, careful planning, a clear radio signal, and a very quick index finger. A decent boom box didn’t hurt either. 

It’s important to remember, however, that you were limited to the songs that were playing on the radio at the time (more on that later). If you were imaginative and lived in an area with multiple radio stations, you could catch older songs as well, but by and large, you needed to be current. 

Knowing what your crush would appreciate the most was the critical element to the perfect mix tape. Putting the wrong songs on the cassette could not only spell disaster for the relationship before it started but could also make you a laughingstock (because you know that was going to get shared all around school)!

The 80s offered a variety of music styles to choose from, so it was essential to decide if you were going to stick to a specific genre or if you were going to go with a theme that would contain songs from across genres (again, you had to know your crush).

First Step: The Theme

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New Wave might feature Depeche Mode, Tears for Fears, and Simple Minds. Rock had to have Bon Jovi, Guns N’ Roses, and Mötley Crüe. No pop tape was complete without Madonna, Prince, and Michael.

However, if you were going for a theme, you could be much more creative. If your crush had a thing for action movies, you could include “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor (Rocky III), “A View to A Kill” by Duran Duran (from the movie of the same name), and “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins (Top Gun). You can see how much work would go into your playlist, regardless of your choices. 

Once you had your list of songs, you had to figure out how many songs you would be able to record on each side of the cassette tape. If you couldn’t calculate it just right, you ran the risk of trying to fit one more song, and having the tape run out right in the middle of the song. That wouldn’t do.

How did you figure out how much tape was left? Simply put, with a practiced eye. Sure, there were small markings on the tape that were supposed to indicate the amount of time used and remaining, but let’s be honest – did anyone really use those? 

Second Step: The Taping

When you had the songs in order, next came the hardest part: catching the song on the radio. This required patience and a lot of free time (depending on your theme). The best place to find the songs was Casey Kasem’s America’s Top 40, which ran on Sunday mornings. But even then, you had no idea what song might be coming next, so you had to stay glued to your boom box.

Practiced mixtape makers knew to listen for clues in Casey’s intros, and how to identify a song based on the band’s description.

When the song came on, you had to be ready to press the record and play buttons at the same time (unless you were fortunate enough to have a pause button that made recording a little bit easier), and this is where good reflexes came in. If you pressed it too soon, you taped the DJ’s voice talking over the intro to the song; if you pushed it too late, the recording started at a weird place in the song. It took a lot of practice to get the timing just right.

By the way, every time you stopped and started the recording, you needed to make sure that the tape was tight in the cassette; loose tape meant that you would miss the beginning of the song as the reels started to turn. So, how did you tighten the tape? You needed to have pencils nearby. 

And then you repeated the process for each song. There were decisions to make along the way, as well. For example, if a song was lower on your list, but came up sooner in the countdown, would you sacrifice your well-planned playlist to get the song (because who knew when it would play again)? If a song was introduced and you didn’t have it on your list, but it was perfect for the theme, would you add it?

Eventually, you would have a cassette full of songs, and you were ready for the piece de resistance.  

Since you put in so many hours making the tape, you wanted an awesome cover that would make your crush declare undying love. Or, you know, at least think that it was pretty rad. In the days before laser printers, you needed to have mad art skills (or know someone who did). If you felt especially bold, you could write a personalized note inside, meant only for a certain pair of eyes.

Putting it all Together

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The same went for writing the playlist on the back of the cover. If you had messy writing, you might enlist a friend who was known for neat printing. If you felt truly gutsy, you wrote the song list on the back regardless of your writing, because then it was truly personal.

Once you had the perfect cover, with the totally radical playlist, it was time to suck it up and give your mixtape to your crush. If you did everything right, you just might have found yourself with a date to the next school dance.     

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Jeanne McAvoy

Writer

Jeanne has always been drawn to history and remains avidly interested in all time periods, finding that there are many hidden lessons within historical events. Her heart belongs to the 80s, however. Hitting high school right when the Brat Pack emerged, she crushed on the cast from “The Outsiders,” danced to “Wham!,” belonged to her very own “Breakfast Club” and used her fair share of Aqua Net. Currently a soccer mom, she is very grateful for satellite radio and long drives to and from soccer practice when she can revisit the totally bitchin’ music of the 80s.