“I only listen to cassettes.” -Thurston Moore
(from “This is not a mixtape.”)
A lot of people don’t understand the resurgence of cassettes in music culture. They’re ugly, mechanical and fragile; vinyl’s less-refined bastard cousin. Most people couldn’t even play a cassette if they wanted to, because barely anyone still owns a tape deck. But this exclusivity is a huge part of their appeal. It’s art, encrypted by its own obsolescence.
Cassettes have a frequency range which is limited compared to CDs and Vinyl. Unlike digital files, they don’t last forever. Cassettes are living objects that degrade a little every time you enjoy them. No matter how careful you are, after a certain number of plays, they will start to demagnetize and wear out.
For all of these reasons, Sonic Youth is a band that fits perfectly on cassette. The sonic limitations of the medium actually work in their favor. The tape saturation and hiss seem, not only apt, but essential–it’s hard to decouple the natural, background noise of the medium from the intentionally constructed noisy ambience created in the studio. And even after the tapes start to degrade, the music only gets more interesting. Similar to William Basinski’s disintegration loops, the strange aural qualities produced by the physical decomposition of the magnetic strip obscures the music, but resonates on the same frequency as Sonic Youth’s artistic ethos–an aesthetic of destruction as creation.
Most people won’t get why this makes cassettes cool. That’s fine. They can have their bit-perfect digital libraries. There is a cult value to the artifact–the object which has mass and occupies space but also contains within itself a musical paracosm–that compels a covetous impulse, and I obey that impulse when I’ve got the cash. My music collection is real, physical, and slowly rotting and that’s the way that I prefer to keep it.
Below is a compilation of Sonic Youth at their most cassette-like. Mechanical, aggressively physical, and fragile.