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Jehnie Burns’ Mixtape Nostalgia traces the history and appeal of mixtapes

Like most people, Dr. Jehnie Burns will never forget her first mixtape. “The first one that I remember was when my friend and I had invited guys to the snowball dance,” says Burns, a professor of history and cultural studies at Point Park University. “We made a mixtape to listen to in the car when we were sophomores in high school. I was actually better at receiving mixtapes than making them.”

Burns is the author of "Mixtape Nostalgia: Culture, Memory, and Representation" (Rowman & Littlefield), a book that synthesizes the history of the mixtape in nearly 300 pages, but her story reflects the stories of thousands. Ever since the introduction of cassettes and the Sony Walkman, mixtapes have been the go-to soundtracks for teenage memories. They are compilations of your favorite songs for long drives, high school relationships, and important moments.

A French historian by training, Dr. Burns stumbled upon the original idea for "Mixtape Nostalgia" when looking for a new project around 2015.

“I put together this article about the mixtape and it got way more attention than any of my French history ever had,” explained Burns with a laugh. “It was actually a couple of publishers and editors who came to me and said, ‘Have you ever thought of turning this into a book?’”

Dr. Jehnie Burns

Written mostly during the thick of the pandemic, the book reflects all of the changes that went into the past 40 years of mixtapes, the personal touches that bind us all to the music we love, and the culture of reminiscence that come with talking about cassettes today. From the hip-hop mixtapes of the early ‘80s to their appearances in films and books like High Fidelity or Less than Zero, the cultural identity of mixtapes is varied.

What makes a mixtape special is the sentimentality that the creator imbues into it, such as “the liner notes, the cover art that you put on it, and the stories that you tell with it,” says Burns. While playlists and other digital compilations have many uses, the medium of cassettes solidifies mixtapes apart from the rest. Serious attention to detail is a requirement: to make a great mixtape, you need to slow down, take some time, and think it through in a way that a Spotify mix wouldn’t account for.

“When I first started writing ["Mixtape Nostalgia"], I made this ridiculous spreadsheet that includes every mixtape I could pull from fiction and nonfiction. [I asked] What are the songs? What is the order? What are the genres? I was trying to see if there were common themes. Is it mostly grunge and alternative because that was the era? What I came to realize was that there’s really not anything overarching,” said Burns. “When you’re thinking about making mixtapes, there’s sort of two different ways that people do it. You are either telling someone else about yourself by the music that you’re giving them, or you’re trying to tell the other person that you know them well because you’re giving them music that they’ll like.”

Throughout the book, Dr. Burns writes with a clear love for the medium in all of its forms and an appreciation for how a song is a great form of communication. "Mixtape Nostalgia" is an exhaustingly researched, thorough examination of any question you could possibly have, from the mixtape’s cultural reappearance in newer media like "Guardians of the Galaxy" to the cassette revival of recent years. But for Burns, one of the best rewards of writing the book has been hearing an endless supply of stories about mixtapes.

“Whenever I do a talk on mixtapes, people always come up to me and they always have something to tell me, like ‘I have this mixtape that my girlfriend made me or I still have a box of mixtapes in my closet’,” said Burns. “It doesn’t really matter who I’m talking to, they always have a story.”

The Government Center will host Dr. Burns at a book reading and signing on Wednesday, June 21 at 7 p.m. The event is free. Go to thegovernmentcenter.com for more details.

Support for WYEP’s music journalism is provided by the Hillman Foundation. Read more stories written by WYEP Music Journalists here.

Ethan Beck is a Pittsburgh-born, New York-based culture writer. He is currently working on his bachelor’s degree at New York University. His interests include power pop, Seinfeld, halal carts, public transit, Pittsburgh music, Spike Lee, and the imprecise nature of language. His work has appeared in Bandcamp Daily, Paste Magazine, Vice, Mic, Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, Washington Square News, and others.

Ethan Beck is a Pittsburgh-born, Brooklyn-based culture writer. His work has appeared in Bandcamp Daily, Paste Magazine, Vice, and others.