Smart Thinking

Get this on tape

The return of the cassette tape isn’t just nostalgic – it’s humanity’s cry for simplicity

Words by
Robin Swithinbank

In 1998, at the end of my gap year, I went to America. I’d saved most of the £195 a month I’d earned working six and half days a week in a boarding school (I got board and lodgings, too – I wasn’t completely stupid) and bought a Greyhound Bus pass and spent the most liberated two months of my life criss-crossing the US.

Toward the end of my tour – 30 states, $25 a day all-in budget, many nights ‘sleeping’ on buses – I found I had enough cash left to splurge on some bargain toys (remember when America was cheap?). I bought myself a Walkman, a cutting-edge, slimline model with soft-touch buttons you could press to skip through up to three songs at a time. It was a revelation and I was immensely proud of it.

It was the last Walkman I ever owned. After a brief – and expensive – flirtation with MiniDisc, I got an iPod and said goodbye to 12 songs, chewed tapes and control over my music library forever.

“Justin Bieber, Metallica, Eminem and The Weeknd have all put albums out on cassette. It’s a bit of a shock”

Or at least, I thought I did. News this week is that cassette tape sales are on the up. Apparently 129,000 of them were sold in the US last year, up from 74,000 the year before. Still small fry next to streaming, but enough that Justin Bieber, Metallica, Eminem and The Weeknd have all put albums out on cassette. It’s a bit of a shock.

And yet, is it? I’m increasingly not so sure. It starts to look like another sign of a growing collective hankering for the simple past we’ve smashed up like a cassette tape case at the bottom of a rucksack.

Critics of the reinvention of tapes will cite a cloying, easy nostalgia – just the next abortive attempt at coolifying old-school technology. Vintage is loosely defined as 25 years old or more, and in that respect, tapes are overdue a comeback (Philips released the first one in 1962). But then unlike vinyl, tapes were rubbish, and you’d have thought beyond even the most garden variety nostalgia.

Which means this rebirth is different. It isn’t just another hipster revival. It’s at the apex of an advancing rush of nostalgia that’s sweeping Western civilisation. Sales of the aforementioned vinyl are up; the Nokia 3310 is back on sale (albeit it’s made by another manufacturer); Lego is booming; and Sodastreams are on kids’ Christmas wishlists up and down the land. My Netflix email this week told me Notting Hill was trending, two years before it’s 20th anniversary.

Why so? Because we’ve reached, or perhaps even passed the zenith of our capacity for disruption and change, and the chaotic, amorphous, uncertain new world order they’ve brought us. Look at our politics. Look at the growing divisions and tensions in society. Look at the tyrant baby in The White House. Look at a generation of young people who can’t afford their own homes. Look at gender. Look at comedy. Look at food. Look at family. Look at TV. Look at what life today looks like. It’s messy. Messier than ever.

Alright, so it’s a stretch to attribute an increase in sales of 1980s tech to a growing malaise (I don’t buy yesterday’s happiness index results, saying we’re all sunnier than we were a year ago), and goodness knows many things are better than they were. This isn’t about the fake sound of progress, more the din created by the hallelujahs of change that drown out perfectly reasonable concerns. Buying cassettes is more than an over-the-shoulder look back at a simpler past – it’s also a white flag waved in the face of an oncoming future we don’t understand and can’t begin to control…