An Ode To The In-Car Cassette Player

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Image: Elizabeth Blackstock

There’s a moment in Van Halen’s fifth studio album, Diver Down, where the tense riffs of “Intruder” bleed right into “(Oh) Pretty Woman,” the single that brought the entire album to life. You go from moody to carefree in the blink of an eye, and it’s the kind of incredible transition you just don’t hear in between songs anymore. At least, not when you’ve got the AUX cord plugged in to jam on your favorite playlist mix.

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I, like many of you, have spent the past few years behind the wheel of newer cars that are quickly eschewing physical media. Instead of rifling through the sun visor CD holder for the most appropriate album for the moment, I have the entire world of music at my fingertips, either via satellite radio or Spotify. And that generally means I end up with the kind of frenetic playlists that swap from ABBA to Nirvana to Dokken in the blink of an eye.

Now that I’ve purchased a truly beautiful 1996 Chevrolet Suburban, however, I decided to swap things up. It’s decked out with a cassette player, an AM/FM radio, and nothing else. So I thought, hell, I’ll nab some cassettes off of eBay and throw it back to ye oldene dayse.

As soon as I popped in Diver Down, I launched straight back in time to my childhood. My dad was an avid music fan, and I inherited most of my aural taste from him. But for as much as he loved Van Halen, he’d also rib Diver Down over the fact that it was, predominantly, a cover album. I, however—a fledgeling Eddie Van Halen fan—loved that there were tons of guitar-heavy instrumentals and some of the most fun songs from the band’s entire discography. Needless to say, it was a special occasion when we got to listen to Diver Down from start to finish.

But the experience starts before the music even begins. There’s the visceral ka-chunk as you push the cassette into the player, then the soft fuzz that oozes out of the speakers while you wait for the music to play. Impatient, I found myself fiddling with my volume knob so that, by the time the first strains of “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?” filtered into the cabin, we were ready to party. Before I knew it, I felt like I was sitting in the backseat of my dad’s Grand Prix Turbo with the music cranked up loud on the way home from a late October trip to the beach.

It was that transition, though, that really got me. That little slice of magic I’d kind of forgotten about. I honestly don’t remember the last time I actually sat and listened to an album all the way through. I was barely even 10 years old when I started filling my lunchbox with CDs so I could swap out whatever I was listening to on the bus at a moment’s notice. I upgraded to an iPod after that, then finally joined the world of smartphone music listeners once I hit college.

Which is all fine and dandy, but I realized that I haven’t consistently listened to an album straight through since I was in the single digits. I’m a lot more inclined to do that when I can’t easily skip to the next song or add it to a different playlist. And it’s kind of nice.

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Now, I’m not saying we need to bring cassettes back or that they’re the best possible way to listen to music, since, yes, the quality is certainly lacking and the format itself is not exactly optimal. We have cool new technologies that it would be goofy not to use. But every so often, it’s nice to get that little flash back to the past to remember what it was that made me fall in love with an entire album in the first place, not just a single song.

DISCUSSION

By
HammerheadFistpunch

I will concede that rock operas as they used to exist are few and far between today, and the blend between tracks is a big part of that experience. The tape deck though, is nothing but a fun nostalgic throwback. Unlike, say laserdisc, that at least offered a semi-digital experience for movies that will never be remastered that way, a tape offers nothing that a CD does.

As the owner of one of the last cars built with a tape deck (08 gx470) as well as the previous owner of the same gmt400 k2500 burb with the same tape deck, I can honestly say I’ve never used either deck.

Magnetic tape storage is bad and it should feel bad.