I’ve been thinking a lot about the process involved in making a mixtape. Kids these days just don’t know! It was effortful! It was intentional! It often required a delicate system involving a radio station request line, a stereo tape deck with an antenna, and a finger faster than a sharpshooter's. Making a mixtape was a production. You had to plan out the songs, source the songs, record the songs in the right order—sometimes doing fade ins and outs if you were truly fancy—and then design the cassette cover. That last part was probably the most stress-inducing. Visual art! At such a time as this?! Back in the day, I was too busy for an after school job because I spent all my waking hours making mixtapes.
But all that is over and it’s a real shame. How do people tend to their crushes like an herb garden these days? There’s the DM slide. There’s the late night “like” on a photo. There’s, I imagine, speaking in person. That’s a thing people do, right? But I’m terms of props, crush culture peaked with the mixtape.
A playlist, no matter the platform or the intention at its heart, is not a mixtape. Clicking “save to playlist” doesn’t have the same world-shifting heft of pressing “Play” and “Record” at the same time. (Why was there a button that claimed to record but required you to press a whole other button in order to make it work? What were we doing in the field of efficiency in the 80s?)
I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I wrote a play, a romantic comedy, about, among other things mixtapes and nostalgia and the effort of having a crush. The play, Backing Track, currently running in Philadelphia at the Arden Theater, works like gangbusters on stage. And it got me wondering about the ways that we see love and crushes and romantic comedy in pop culture these days. Has it all gone the way of the mixtape?
On screen, at least, we’re in a fallow period. And part of that has to do with technological advances and the ways they make our lives simpler but strips them of the romantic serendipity that romcoms depend on. Is the downfall of the romcom, cinema’s most important and least realistic genre, due to the rise of the cell phone and internet? I think about this a lot. I’m sure you do, too. Many people are saying that it’s the cell phone’s fault that we don’t get to watch Jennifer Lawrence or Lupita N’yongo bumble her way into romance in an eerily pristine onscreen version New York City. Congress is debating this right now. But I think there’s more to it than that.
Rom-coms are built on miscommunication and banter in equal measure and our modern ways of getting in each other’s business really puts a damper on both. Sure you can banter on an app or in DMs, but it doesn’t feel as electric. Plus, seeing the effervescent flow of text bubbles on screen is about as romantic as watching someone do algebra on one of those giant movie Beautiful Mind blackboards. And, while most social media seems specifically designed to confuse, obfuscate, and misdirect--the kind of dizzy miscommunication that results in romcom near misses and coincidental reunions--a quick text cuts most romcom setups off at the knees.
While there have been charming romcoms in the last 20 years, the heyday was really the late 80s and 90s. 1998’s You’ve Got Mail still stands out as the best marriage of new technology and an aging genre. But, of course, that was one of Nora Ephron’s many talents—making the nostalgic and quaint feel immediate and vibrant. Ephron, queen of rom-coms, made it seem always that we were living in romantic times, no matter the tech.
It’s also possible, then, that the romcom is on a break because we aren’t living in romantic times. Recent offerings like Starstruck, Zoë Kravitz’s High Fidelity, and Love Life have masterfully expanded the genre to television, texts and all. But the best parts of each were rooted in older tech, the throwback hallmarks of culture. High Fidelity is probably the best example in that it situated Kravitz and co. in contemporary Brooklyn, but, as in the film and book on which the series was based, they spent most of their time in a record store discussing music that was decades old. They had access to modern technology but their love language was steeped in older cultural touchstones.
When writing Backing Track, I tried embracing the lack of romance in these times. The convenience and the flatness of technology. The way that nostalgia seems essential to romcoms, but how every love story still needs to feel immediate and urgent. And, most of all, crush culture’s way of pushing through all of that when the chips are down and someone’s on a plane about to take off and the lead character needs to make a grand gesture in order for them to get their happy ending.
Because at the end of the day all of it–romcoms and mixtapes and crush culture–are just means to an end. And that end is something as impossible and as common as falling in love. Near the climax of Backing Track, one of the characters makes a grand romantic gesture by giving the lead, Avery, a mixtape. Except it’s on a thumb drive because we live in the present and that’s how you do it (actually you’d probably just make a Spotify list; I don’t even remember how to download songs). Avery responds, “This is not a mixtape; it looks like you’re giving me a computer virus.” And yet, it’s probably no great spoiler to reveal that things end up working out for them, just as they have been doing in romcoms for years.
The onscreen rom-com may be in a transition period, the mixtape may wearing a much less flattering form, and these may not be romantic times, but we’ve still got the tools for great, fizzy, silly love stories on screen. And in real life, too. Everybody go make a mixtape!
Cover image: Getty
Editorial assistant: Sean Simon