I consider myself incompetent when it comes to figuring out how most common technology works. I’m not proud of this — I find it somewhat embarrassing to consider how, if I were transported to the Middle Ages, I wouldn’t be able to make a light bulb from scratch and be received as a God. But whether I can personally make a light bulb or not, I still understand it, at least marginally.
But I barely understand the cassette tape adapter, no matter how I try. For those who’ve never had the pleasure, the general premise of a cassette adapter was this: You drive a car that’s old enough to have a tape deck, but because it’s the 21st century, you play your music from your phone or iPod. To bypass the dissonance, you insert a flimsy, empty cassette with an AUX cord coming out of it, and then plug that into your device. At this point, black magic runs through the cord into your tape player, and now “Old Town Road” is playing through your speakers, holy crap.
How does this work? The short breakdown, courtesy of an “AskScience” Reddit thread, is that a traditional cassette holds musical data that’s been magnetically applied onto a ribbon of tape. For a cassette adapter, instead of pressing all the information onto an entire ribbon ahead of time, you apply it, via the digital signal of the headphone jack, onto a small piece of tape looping continuously. Sure, I guess. It’s as simple as its light weight suggests. It’s just the concept that’s heavy.
I spent the better part of my adult life with a comically inefficient 1998 Volvo station wagon, but the car had a surprisingly dynamic tape-based sound system. Because of this — and because of the adapter — I spent a full decade sonically spoiled. The A.C. was spotty, and yes, the seats had a persistent and mysterious smell of crayons, but when it came to the music department, I could go toe-to-toe with any vehicle on the lot. Want to mistakenly think it’d be cool to roll up to high school with “Down by the Seaside” blasting? No problem. How ’bout shuffle through every song you’ve ever owned on a road trip until you’re pretty sure that you hate music altogether? Consider it done.
For those still stuck behind in — or eagerly holding onto — an aging car, the adapter provides freedom. It provides control. It keeps you at a respectable level of modern-day functionality, with “hand me the AUX” memes continuing to live on in your car as they slowly die out elsewhere. Better yet, the adapter scorches the clunky Bluetooth devices being made default in most cars now, which is a stain on the once and brief wholly democratic auditory world of the late 2000s. It makes the old new. It costs $9.95. It’s perfect.
The concept of the car stereo started, naturally, with the radio. (The Motorola company, which created one of the first car stereos in 1930, got its name from that very concept: “motorcar” + “Victrola” = Motorola.) At first, this consisted exclusively of heavy, expensive radio boxes added to the car, but it developed over time to become integrated into the vehicle, with FM added in the 1950s, allowing for music on the airwaves to not sound like complete shit for the first time.
After a notably hilarious (failed) attempt by Chrysler to make an in-car record player in the ’50s, the 4-track “Stereo-Pak” tape device was introduced in 1962, and with that, the ability to choose your own damn music, if you weren’t too fond of listening to what people like Alan Freed were being paid to play for you. Pretty soon after, there were 8-tracks, and then cassette tapes, and eventually there were those dudes who had 10-disc CD-changers in the back of their BMWs — you know where it all went from there.
As it happens with most technological progression, the general trend of this timeline involves a constant usurping, as one medium gets continuously erased by the next, keeping the car-driving group of us in a regular state of needing to upgrade. This is where the adapter saved our ass. Rather than leave a generation of tape-playing cars out in the cold as auxiliary-based personal electronics took hold, it created a temporary levee to hold the water back.
For some, that waterline is holding still: Cassette adapters on Amazon are actively purchased, reviewed, adored. These products are predominantly made by companies I’ve never even heard of — one of the top sellers, Gezan, offers three items on their Amazon page: a cassette adapter, a Sega Genesis extension cord, and a donut baking pan — and there is still considerable ongoing debate about which ones sound the best and are the most durable. There’s even a Bluetooth version available, somehow, which is not some ridiculous hybrid I’m just making up on the spot. (By my count, that’s three generations of technology being bridged for the cost of a couple cold brews.)
The cassette adapter is essentially the anti-dongle — a rebellious form of fighting back against obsolescence from outside rather than deliberately forcing it from within with a meek smile and a black turtleneck. But it can’t go on like this forever. As the struggle to awkwardly pair your phone to your friend’s new Honda Civic becomes more and more commonplace, that fight for affordable, universal, contemporary car-stereo autonomy appears to be a losing one. You can make a tape deck function in the 21st century; you cannot drag back a Bluetooth player into the past, so that your old CDs work. The slow lurch into modernity can only be resisted for so long, even with the help of something like the cassette tape adapter.
In its last couple years, my Volvo stereo somehow survived a few long years in the break-in-prone Mission District of San Francisco, but the car itself didn’t survive a red-light-running Jetta one evening not too long ago in Los Angeles. I had been listening to The Saints’ Eternally Yours that night, on Spotify via my phone, before a deafening bang hit, the dashboard split in two, and the tape adapter went silent in that car for good. (The anti-consumerist Saints anthem “Know Your Product” proved little consolation when I suddenly found myself in the position of needing to find a new car. Eternally mine, the Volvo was not.)
These days, I drive a Prius that was built in the small window of time when the only standard stereo options were a radio and a CD player. Once my old CD binder lost its nostalgia appeal (Weezer’s Maladroit is better than you remember it being, folks), I started to get into the habit of burning albums haphazardly, my car becoming a sea of loose, Sharpie-scrawled discs — and with 80 minutes to work with, you can usually fit two albums onto one CD, which allows for some enduring pairings. (Now playing in the car: Bruce/Lucinda.) It’s a perfectly adequate system. But I miss my cassette adapter. And I’ve also started listening to the radio.