Music: The return to grace of the audiocassette

After vinyl, the audio tape miraculously returns to the music scene, even Madonna’s latest album was released in this format. By JD Beauvallet.

In the 1980s and 1990s, long after the advent of the CD, the market for recorded cassettes remained flourishing and little known. Mainly sold in gas stations, these objects of dubious artistic and legal origins were intended to power car radios, especially in the United States where CD players took a long time to enter vehicles. Some motorists went directly from the refurbished cassette radio (the 1970s must for long-distance travel in the United States) to digital radio.

The fashion for vintage was bound to affect the equipment one day: monumental hi-fi systems that even the rubbish dumps didn’t want fifteen years ago are today the joy (and fortune) of a few shops where electronics engineers are refurbishing them.In the streets of Biarritz and London, for example, we have seen young people proudly wearing Walkman walkmans hanging from their belts (if possible, white cotton boats with metal buckles), as required by the 1980s label, and even wearing the original headphones, whose foam that came off after a few hours of listening gave way to a plastic trap in which the hair was stuck.The pain of taking off the headphones was great, but many things with the cassettes were pain: their rough sound, their massive breath, their jackets too small to be called “artwork”, the way they twisted and even broke.They could only be listened to with a high-tech accessory: the ballpoint pen, which, inserted into one of the two toothed wheels, was used to rewind the tape by hand, or even to rewind it if it had the misfortune of twisting in the mechanism of the player.

And yet, the cassettes were a tremendous emancipation for the fans of the time, because with them, one was no longer the passive buyer of music engraved in vinyl; one became an actor of the sound.We chose with expertise and bad faith the songs worthy of being included; we determined the tracklisting, with a stopwatch in hand; we lovingly made covers with decals sold by the adored Letraset brand: we became curator, selector and graphic designer… Decades before Spotify, Apple or Deezer, the cassette invented the playlist.They were sent out like love letters, meticulously prepared, each song saying with its words and the simple magic of a pop chorus what you couldn’t write.At school, the best compilers were popular: their audience was no bigger than the schoolyard, but their cassettes were legendary, opening the doors, through subtle sequences, to an unknown, fascinating, better world.It sounds simple nowadays in the age of streaming, but making a perfect cassette was technically high-flying: you were working without a net on an uncertain medium. How many school loves do you owe to a cassette carelessly left on a desk corner? How many times do we have to thank David Bowie’s “Life On Mars”, followed by Sly & The Family Stone’s “Running Away”, for some guaranteed success? And then one day, without any other form of trial, in the name of modernity and the dictatorship of the digital age, we threw away our cassettes to fall back into the passivity of buyers. We did try to restart these famous compilations on MiniDisc or CD-R, but the magic, the personalization was missing from what looked more like archival records than love messages.

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