In a key action sequence in the forthcoming spy thriller, Atomic Blonde, the MI6 agent played by Charlize Theron proceeds to beat the hell out of several armed men who burst into her apartment. But before the ass-kicking begins, she pauses to do something crucial: pop in a cassette tape of George Michael’s “Father Figure,” the ’80s pop ballad that blares from old-school speakers as she uses ropes, refrigerator doors, and the heels of her boots to violently show these guys who’s boss.
The cassette tape has been showing up lately in a lot of major motion pictures and TV shows, and not just in films like Atomic Blonde or series like Snowfall that are set in the 1980s, the heyday for TDK. What’s unusual is how often they’re appearing in stories about the present as well.
In 13 Reasons Why, the contemporary Netflix teen drama that made headlines and dominated social media last spring, Hannah Baker leaves a suicide note in the form of multiple, dual-sided cassettes, just as she does in the book that inspired the series. On the third seasons of both The Leftovers and Better Call Saul, audio tapes become key to the plot. (Two of the year’s buzziest shows — Twin Peaks and The Handmaid’s Tale — also happen to feature tapes in their original source material even though the new incarnations haven’t touched on that element … yet.)
Meanwhile, at the movies this summer, Star Lord continues to demonstrate his cassette fixation in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. The music-obsessed getaway master played by Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver maintains his own significant collection of mixtapes, in addition to plenty of vinyl and iPod playlists. Even in Despicable Me 3, the villainous Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), a former ’80s child star who never mentally graduated from that decade, uses cassettes to provide the soundtrack to his dastardly behavior.
And then there’s real-life American politics — which we can probably refer to as Despicable Me 4, I guess? — where the tape has become a character in the most compelling drama of the summer: the investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. “Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” former FBI chief James Comey testified at a Senate hearing in June, referring to his conversations with President Trump, prompting Trump to tweet-respond that he “did not make, and did not have, any such recordings.” (Trump did not deny, however, that during their meetings at the White House, he tried to slip Comey a mixtape called “Awesomely Funky Jams About Loyalty, Vol. 1.”)
So why are cassettes and tapes — those outmoded audio- and musical-delivery engines that we thought would preserve our carefully curated compilations forever if we just punched out the tiny, square write-protect tab — so omnipresent? Is their appearance in so many movies and shows another one of those odd little pop-cultural coincidences, like the proliferation of doppelgängers or the spike in narratives about nuns? Are they — like old TV show reboots, the popularity of Stranger Things, and the resurgence of the choker — a reflection of our endless fascination with the ephemera from past decades? Or, or: Is this a sign that the windblown dude from those old Maxell commercials is slowly attempting to take control of our nation? (Honestly? That would be fine with me at this point.)
All of these things may be true, except the coup part, which I know nothing about and certainly have not discussed with anyone while being recorded on tape. It’s also true that the cassette — while hardly the dominant format it once was 30 years ago — has never entirely disappeared. It has continued to exist as a way for indie and underground artists to quickly and easily circulate their work. And it’s been coming back into the mainstream for a while now, too, as noted by numerous media reports: The slight, recent uptick in tape sales, and interest on the part of various artists (as well as Urban Outfitters) are making sure that music continues to exist in the rewind-and-fast-forward format.
Anyone who’s ever watched a magnetic strip of tape unfurl from its plastic casing can tell you that a tape is a fragile thing. But because it’s an object with actual weight — and, most importantly for the purposes of film and television, one of greater visual interest than an electronic audio file saved on a desktop — there’s something about it that has power and implies permanence. The words someone says on a tape, or the songs someone chooses to record on it in a particular order, have meaning that feels more significant because there is a hard copy.
Making and listening to tapes requires focus and effort, an idea conveyed in 13 Reasons Why via Hannah’s tape collection and the explicit instructions she shares with all the people who receive it. Cassettes must be heard in the proper order, sides have to be flipped, they must be put back in their cases. “It’s not supposed to be easy,” she explains on side A of tape one, “or I would have emailed you an MP3.”
There’s also a subtle implication in 13 Reasons Why, as well as in Better Call Saul, that a physical tape of a confession or accusation is somehow more damning and real than it would be in any other form. In the latter series, given his alleged allergies to electromagnetism, it’s much easier for Chuck (Michael McKean) to go the old-fashioned route in order to capture audio of his brother Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) admitting he tampered with legal documents. “You taped me?” Jimmy shouts in episode two while breaking down Chuck’s door, making the word “taped” sound like an obscenity. “You asshole!” He later yanks the tape out of the recorder and breaks it into pieces with his bare hands, a physical expression of his rage that wouldn’t have the same, crushing impact if the evidence he was trying to destroy were preserved in any other format. (You ever tried to break an 8-track tape with your bare hands? It’s not possible.)
Cassettes are also a way to preserve the past and stay connected to those who are gone in a way that feels more tangible. That notion is explored in the Guardians movies, Baby Driver, and The Leftovers episode “Crazy Whitefella Thinking,” all of which use mixtapes and cassette recorders as symbols of the bonds between dead mothers and their sons.
Maybe this is why the cassette tape still resonates and continues showing up in popular culture: Like a record, it is a thing that can be held and felt in a way that digital files can’t. But unlike a CD, which doesn’t seem that old, or a Spotify playlist, a tape feels like a precious artifact or an heirloom. It’s a receptacle for memory that makes those memories feel more real because it’s not something that lives in the cloud, it lives in your hands. But while vinyl, which has existed for longer, has the air of the classic and more truly vintage, a cassette is a throwback very specifically associated with the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s, the decades with which, nostalgia-wise, our culture remains most fascinated at the moment. Because it’s so era-specific, maybe the cassette has become symbolic of that last gasp in time when our music, and all of our favorite cultural works, really, weren’t stored on a Google drive or an app. They were the things we carried.
Then again, as I’ve noted in previous pieces, maybe it’s as simple as this: The people making films and TV shows right now grew up in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s and still have a genuine fondness for cassettes because they hoarded mixtapes, too. They keep sneaking them onto our screens, large and small, so that future generations will know what it looks like to fire up a cassette deck and press play.