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Rewinding the Cassette

image of a Grateful Dead tape, via trahscanbear

About a decade ago, I believed I witnessed the inevitable and expected death of the cassette (both audio and video). The last major motion picture released on VHS as a matter of course was (get this!) David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005). Major retailers stopped carrying the format years ago. Cassette tapes were seemingly supplanted even earlier. My personal flirtation with the format ended with the widespread availability and unbelievable cheapness of CD-R media. I jumpstarted my music obsessions by trading Grateful Dead tapes. But my tastes and contacts quickly embraced the digital. Music could now be shared, mixed, and distributed in a fraction of the time, with “better” audio quality. With the spread of broadband, such physical media lost even more of their centrality. Fast internet meant music a-go-go!

Sure, there were late-game cultural touchstones that tried to keep these media alive. For example, generational favorite High Fidelity (2000) was a paean to analog media and material loss of all sorts. But aside from a few eccentrics, most of my friends gleefully got rid of their tapes. Inevitably, audio cassettes and VHS tapes became dirt cheap. They remain the bread-and-butter of thrift stores. Those without much money, collectors, and the curious would remain well served.

I don’t remember when it was exactly, but several years on from A History of Violence and the seeming death of the format, I began to notice its selective longevity. Such longevity often felt nostalgic. I think I first became aware of this new cultural impulse around the release of Be Kind Rewind (2008), a movie that I “misread” on first viewing. My first take on Gondry’s film was that it was out of synch with the prevailing technological forces: the VHS was finally dead…we should celebrate! The central conceit of the film–that a videostore must repopulate its shelves with homemade VHS movies–seemed like naive cinephilia at best. As much as Be Kind Rewind was steeped in film culture, it also seemed to be curiously blind to it. Some of the sequences seemed like lazy parodies. Thankfully, I later re-watched Gondry’s film, and as much as it is “about” the VHS and the institution of the video store, that didn’t seem to be the whole point. Far more interesting was the film’s sense of community building, its utopian impulse, deeply sketched characters, and interrogation of myth. The fact that the characters in the film “misread” the movies they recreate was probably what got me at first. But my own “misreading” was far worse!

Post-Be Kind, I started to notice the cassette clawing its way back from its (admittedly) shallow grave. Cassettes never left my sight. There is still a cassette within plain view of my desk. I see it daily. But another daily sight is my unplugged and battered VCR, a large metal machine slowly collecting dust in the bowels of an open media cabinet. I’m a lost cause, but others are back on the cassette bandwagon. So where has cassette culture gone?

One sure-fire harbinger of a returning bid at cultural relevancy are retro art books. Taschen is probably the master of this: the glossy, well-produced book of images that center on the visual legacy of a lost style (illustrations from men’s magazines, covers to pulp novels, and so on). The VHS lives on in pages such as these: Portable Grindhouse (2009) and VHS: Absurd, Odd, and Ridiculous Relics from the Videotape Era (2011) are two such books. Both books are light on text and heavy on photos of gloriously battered VHS boxes. Academic books like Joshua M. Greenberg’s From Betamax to Blockbuster: Video Stores and the Invention of Movies on Video (2008) recapture something of the retrospective relevancy of the video cassette, both examined critically and recollected in tranquility.

Audio cassettes were a bit harder to track for me. They still have a life, but it seemed more submerged at first. Paradoxically, I began to encounter an analog nostalgia in explicitly retro-styled videogames. The soundtrack to Double Dragon Neon by prolific composer virt, which I acquired in the most contemporary and digital manner possible (a pay-what-you-want download from Bandcamp) contains bonus “Mixtape” tracks, short snippets of music or quick sketches that are bookended by the sound of pressing play on a cassette deck. The aural signature of the cassette is something that I have not heard too often over the last few years. It even prompted me to have a crazy dream in which I made a wacky device (modeled after the Retron 3) that was a combination cassette walkman/digital music player, a tape-sized device that married 1980s technology and aesthetics to a continued ability to play mp3 and lossless FLAC audio files.

This post was really prompted by my realization of how blind I’ve been over the last few years. I just discovered that there is now a Cassette Store Day (vinyl is for poseurs). High profile bands, and many indies, release albums and mixtapes that they sell at shows and to their dedicated fan bases. The cassette fetish is alive and well! Anybody care to take bets on the inevitable resurgence of reel-to-reel audio? – Kevin M. Flanagan

Join the University of Pittsburgh’s Film Studies Graduate Student Organization on October 18th and 19th for our “Second Chances, Final Glances: Media Afterlives” conference. Click here for speaker and keynote information.