Listening To Music In The ’90s


I’m fifth in line. My attention is divided between the virtual time machine I’m nested in and 2011 when something disrupts my half-realized train of thought – I hear Dr. Dre’s ‘I Need a Doctor.’

“What? This isn’t right.” My eyes shift downward to the small-scale chat box that accompanies every room.

“Uh… isn’t this room ‘90s Mix?” one audience member inquires.

“This song is not from the ‘90s by any stretch of the imagination,” another chirps.

“His queue is repeating itself. He’s been babysitting this room all night, sitting in the mod seat, but he’s been AFK for at least eight hours,” a DJ states, ever so matter-of-fact.

“AFK?” someone asks.

“Away from keyboard. We can’t boot him.”

The room votes down ‘I Need a Doctor,’ and moments later, our avatars are bopping in unison to La Bouche. As it should be.

I am sitting in a glorified chat room whose population is outraged that a virtual DJ played a song that was not released between 1990 and 1999. I am sitting in a glorified chat room whose population is outraged that a virtual DJ played a song that was not released between 1990 and 1999. I am sitting…

We’ve become quite spoiled in our music consumption this past decade. God forbid iTunes doesn’t have the limited edition xx vs. Hercules and Love Affair remix by DJ Sheet Sweat available for purchase. Hell hath no fury like a music enthusiast who’s accidentally pirated the live album torrent as opposed to the studio album torrent.

This, from the same generation that sat around for hours listening to the radio for the chance to hear our favorite song, fingers poised to hit ‘Play’ and ‘Record’ simultaneously when the moment was right. All of our cassettes had masking tape over their corners; this enabled us to record over our favorite songs from yesterday, the week before, the month before until the strip of tape wore thin or got tangled in the spokes of the stereo.

Those were amateur mix tapes, I realize. In the summer of ’09, I read Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield. The book uses fifteen mix tapes created by Sheffield and his girlfriend-turned-wife, Renée, to chronicle the couple’s brief but intense relationship. Sheffield, now a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, credits music for keeping the two seemingly incompatible lovers on the same page – until Renée passes away from pulmonary embolism in ’97. Sheffield had the tapes, but some things? You can’t have back.

My father had a friend named Eddie who was a DJ (an actual DJ, not an avatar chatroom DJ), who made him a ton of mix tapes in the ‘80s. We’d always listen to them on car rides – this was how I discovered Michael Jackson B-Sides and The Eurythmics. Eddie died of AIDS before I was born, but I felt like I knew him. I even felt indebted to him – he introduced me to some of my favorite songs as a child. Which is why, after my dad’s car had been stolen for the umpteenth time, after he’d lost almost all of Eddie’s tapes, my desecrating the last of his memory by recording No Doubt singles over the last of his tangible gifts sent my dad into a tailspin. The look on my father’s face when he popped the cassette into the car stereo only to hear traces of Elvis Duran instead of ‘Would I Lie To You,’ well – it was the worst and most ‘90s moment of my short life.

Music is replaceable now. Sometimes, it’s even interchangeable. If it gets deleted, we can have it back in under a minute. No one ‘backed up’ in the ‘90s. If you lost the mix tape your dead friend recorded for you, sayonara. Some things, you can’t have back.

It’d be disingenuous for me to suggest that things were better back then, but there was something special about a mix tape. They were crafted in such a way that one song purposefully prefaced another. Mix tapes were loaded with intention. Mix CDs are like The Beatles 1 album – you can skip around, each song is memorable and chosen with purpose. It’s nice. But mix tapes are like Abbey Road – arranged deliberately, painstakingly – skipping around ruins the experience (and the physical tape. Plus, it’s annoying. You always fast-forward too far into the next song, then rewind into the last minute of the song prior, it’s like you’re playing “Wanna dance?” in a narrow hallway with a stranger.)

We rarely remember the things we were willing to do to listen to music in the ‘90s. Besides the ‘Gotta Catch ‘Em All’ nature of recording songs from the radio, we then would walk around with a three-pound Walkman, and later, the Discman (the toting of these portable music players is probably what kept ‘mini-knapsacks’ and JNCOs in vogue for far too long). Our batteries would start to die, and we’d either have to switch to the AM/FM dial or listen to the slow-mo version of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album. “JJJAAAMMM… ITT AIN’TTT TOOO MUUUCCHH –“ Then you’d have to run home and scrape up coins to purchase more expensive ass batteries. Sometimes your plastic headphones would crack in two, so you’d use masking tape to repair them. Or you’d lose the piece of plastic that kept the batteries from falling out, so you’d tape the hole shut. We were all fucking MacGyver, with that masking tape.

Ramshackle as it was, we were dedicated to The Way Things Were. Even Justin Timberlake had to scream at MTV to, well, give him his MTV (albeit, years after an undercurrent of disdain for the lack of music video programming had been expressed and reinforced via the internet and various sub-celebs. I likened Timberlake’s outburst to a NY Times trend piece – which is to say, years late, half-baked, and slightly begging for approval).

Coincidentally, I never had cable during MTV’s music video prime. Living in a borough ensured that, if the antenna was angled correctly, I could receive channels 2-13, thus rendering cable unnecessary. Of course, you could find gold between the static. If you were industrious enough, you’d find The Box somewhere around channel 60 (or channel 150 – I’m not the ‘90s Encyclopedia but I try). The Box was what the MTV generation had been begging for all along but was, ironically, too privileged to have. Absent from the basic cable lineup, The Box was a call-in station that only played music videos. By request. For 99 cents a play, I believe. It was a paid-for Total Request Live for people who were to poor to splurge on cable. (I don’t get it either.)

The Box introduced me to the Smashing Pumpkins, Tony! Toni! Toné!, Night Ranger, and Aerosmith. Jodeci. R. Kelly’s ‘Down Low’ video (the original and the remix). Dru Hill. The Presidents of the United States. Junior M.A.F.I.A. So I didn’t have Buzzkill or Beavis and Butt-head – I had music videos 24-7 (or at least, I had them when someone was calling them in and paying for them). And that was worth the embarrassment of not knowing who the fuck Jenny McCarthy was (and not having Wikipedia at my fingertips to figure it out).

Napster eventually introduced us to the next wave of music sharing, and we left these relics to rot in a landfill of cultural irrelevance along with boy bands and condom eye patches. I love being able to control the music I hear. I love the downloading and repeating and queuing and skipping and sharing – but it doesn’t stop me from wishing I could hold one of Eddie’s tapes in my hands thinking, “This is the future.”

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image – Theoddnote