Cassette tape revival: a seductive format, or object fetishism?

Ben Beaumont-Thomas
Photograph: Victoria Lesniara/Alamy Stock Photo

Anyone who has ever stuck a pencil through the sprockets of a cassette to patiently wind back a beloved tape recording after it was violently displaced by a curious infant will wonder why they are growing in popularity again. Particularly in an age where almost all recorded music can be accessed cheaply, or indeed for free, via online streaming services – and without the infamous light hiss that sits at the back of cassette recordings.

The cynical answer is that the format – its days of widespread use gone forever – is now merely a new frontier for object fetishism. With vinyl records widely available everywhere from specialist stores to Tesco, the cassette is the perfect medium for hipsters and the inveterately wacky to show off with. What smugly telegraphs “I cannot be constrained by society’s shackles, unlike the rest of you sheeple” than walking around with a Walkman and headphones while everyone else thumbs through their smartphones?

But beyond the novelty factor, there is something seductive about the format. The cassette has a tactile and intimate element to it compared with the corporate magic of streaming millions of songs. Cassettes give every album an overture of clunk and rattle as they settle into the player, and they confer a strange, transgressive mastery on the listener. If you decide you don’t like the music, you can just record over it with something better. Cassettes bring artists back down to earth by reminding them that art, like life, is fragile and fleeting.

This mutability and immediacy has made them the bedrock of various grassroots music scenes for years, beloved of noise bands and the outer reaches of psych, garage rock, punk, rap and electronic music. Robbie Williams and Coldplay may be netting a few nostalgia-driven bucks with cassettes this Christmas, but will soon turn their backs on them again. Underground cassette culture, however, will never be taped over.