45s, Cassettes, and Lost Magic
I’m an American right down the middle of Generation X, which means that most of my why-when-I-was-a-boy stories for my children are rather tame ones of mere convenience. We’ve really had it pretty easy, you know? I mean, we were never shot at in the Pacific, and nearly none of us ever had to work 14-hour farmhouse days to ensure our families had enough to eat.
[sws_pullquote_right] … being able to hear a song you liked whenever you wanted was magical. It was delayed gratification, and it was a true treasure when the payoff finally came. [/sws_pullquote_right] No, we say things like “we used to have to get up to change the channel” or “we used to have to wait ten whole minutes for popcorn.” And then we sit back enjoying the looks of horror on our children’s faces, because mostly, they’re even further removed from genuine hardship than we are.
Of these generational differences, how we consume popular music seems one of the most striking. My 10-year-old will come into my study with his tablet and a list of ten songs he wants, and I’ll say something like “got it, got it, got it, bring me $1 for that one, got it, got it, got it, another $1, got it, got it.” By the time he’s back with $2, I’ve purchased and downloaded the outliers, and away he goes with his whole wish list.
In 1981, when I was his age, that would have been just short of godlike.
You see, I dealt in 45s. Remember those? They were 7-inch circles of black plastic, with the song you wanted on one side and a song you never heard of on the other side. I started with my dad’s, which he generously shared with me when I was really too young to handle them properly.
As for new ones, I saved a dollar and a quarter or thereabouts for them. Then, I patiently waited to be in the same place where they were sold, like the mall or TG&Y. Finally, I arrived home with my prize, and proceeded to subject the entire house to Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” for four hours straight.
(Or Missing Persons’ “Words.” That was a rather hipper one I remember owning.)
The point is that being able to hear a song you liked whenever you wanted was magical. It was delayed gratification, and it was a true treasure when the payoff finally came. Today, there’s almost no chance I can’t immediately play a song my son wants to hear. And for a price completely untouched by inflation in over 30 years, he can hear it whenever he wants.
Even beyond the 45, when I eventually was able to drive myself to get music (cassettes!), it was still a big deal. I remember parts of my formative years by what I was buying and listening to. Most of the time I saved the receipt in the liner notes. Seemed vaguely silly then. How cool do I think it is now, that I can hold in my hand cash register tape from a day after my 17th birthday documenting my purchase of MSG’s Perfect Timing?
Oh, and my best friend and I would sit and painstakingly order, then record, songs onto 60- and 90-minute cassettes—preferably TDK or Maxell brand—for use primarily in the car.
Though the term du jour seems to be mix tapes, we called them compilations. We never called these mix tapes back in the day, and I’m skeptical anyone did. However, people do seem to use the term mix tape in a connotation of sharing it with a romantic interest. Given that a surplus of female attention was never a problem either of us had in high school, maybe the term is that old and we just never knew it.
I suppose that in some ways, it’s a positive that our children can have virtually any part of the popular musical universe delivered to them instantly and at little cost. The negative is that it ends up being just another component of the continual sensory assault they get.
For me, my favorite songs and albums are special milestones of my youth. Will my boys have a counterpart?
Lifelong Alabamian Bo Williams is a Christian, husband, father, writer, and human trafficking activist. He has strong opinions on many things, including good food, IndyCar racing, and the importance of high-quality socks. You can keep up with him day to day at BoWilliams.com.