The phoney songs
Pop songs about telephones are
having a second life - as ring tones, writes Jon Casimir.
The song that launched the career of Britney Spears in 1999 - Baby, One More
Time - was interesting not only for its Lolita-style video clip, but for another
marketing gimmick: an extra track on some versions of the single called
Answering Machine Message. It was not, as you might expect, a song built around
the idea of a taped declaration of fidelity, but something more prosaic: a
recording of the singer pretending to be a receptionist.
"Hi, this is Britney Spears and sometimes my friends can't come to the phone.
And this is one of those times. So leave a message at the beep and, baby, I'll
call you back one more time. And thanks for calling. Hit me, baby, one more
It's impossible to know how many of the singer's fans used Britney's message in
lieu of their own, but given that the mobile phone is arguably the number-one
status symbol of this generation of teens (the phone industry's priority market)
it must have been more than a few. Certainly, it was enough to make her repeat
the trick on at least one later single.
Over at Ringtones.com, one of many websites that cater to mobile users who want
customised ways to annoy the rest of us, you can download, direct to your phone,
dinky keypad versions of all of Spears' singles.
Three other recent tone hits are Alicia Keys' How Come You Don't Call Me?, Janet
Jackson's Someone to Call and Usher's U Don't Have to Call. These are pop songs
based around telephones now having a second life as telephone sounds.
At first glance, there's a weird circularity in that idea but the truth is, pop
music and the phone have a long-established symbiosis - developments in
telephony have been paralleled in lyrical shifts. Is that "U" in Usher's song
title a nod to Prince's lyrical affectations or to the abbreviated world of SMS
Hundreds, if not thousands, of songs have been built around the imagery of
telephones, around calling and waiting to be called.
It's been well-documented that the car, which became accessible to young people
in the postwar financial boom, represented financial status, freedom and dreams
of escape. While there's no doubt the car had a profound effect on the landscape
of the popular song, the phone's relevance has been longer and deeper.
There may have been earlier phone references in song, but the first I'm aware of
arrived in Irving Berlin's My Wife's Gone to the Country, from 1909, a
cheerfully misogynist romp about a husband offloading his spouse.
The first coast-to-coast telephone call was made in America in 1915,
commemorated by a song called Hello Frisco, a hit tune in that year's Ziegfeld
Follies. Another early reference can be found in Hello, Central, Give Me No
Man's Land, a dramatic 1918 war song made famous by Al Jolson.
As the phone achieved ubiquity, references to it found a way into the works of
many of the century's greatest lyricists.
In 1921, Ira Gershwin referred to the phone in There's Something About Me They
Like ("Whenever they get me alone/They want the number of my phone"). Berlin
returned to it three years later in All Alone ("All alone by the
telephone/Waiting for a ring, a ding, a ling"). Ten years later, Rodgers and
Hart opened a song with "Phone's busy/We're dizzy!" Bluesman Joe Pullum kicked
off a procession of songs called Telephone Blues when he wrote his in 1934. Ella
Fitzgerald sang about the phone in Makin' Whoopee! Hoagy Carmichael mentioned it
in I Get Along Without You Very Well.
Frank Sinatra sang about wanting someone to pick up the receiver in Sammy Cahn's
Same Old Saturday Night, an archetype for all those lonely phone-watcher songs.
Bells Are Ringing, a musical set in a telephone answering service, arrived in
1956. Ten years later, Cabaret featured The Telephone Song, about table phones
used by nightclub guests to arrange to rendezvous.
Chuck Berry brought the phone into the rock era with the epochal Memphis
Tennessee: "Long distance information give me Memphis, Tennessee/Help me find
the party that tried to get in touch with me."
In the next decade, direct dialling was phased in, though that didn't stop Bob
Dylan borrowing Berry's opening for his own Long Distance Operator, one of the
dozen or so phone songs Dylan has written. Berry probably didn't mind the theft:
he'd pinched the famous line from an old Muddy Waters song in the first place.
As the car had become widely available after the war, so too phone technology
began to achieve saturation in Western countries. At the same time, the popular
music industry exploded, fuelled by the arrival of a cashed-up teenage market.
During this period, the phone moved towards the centre of teen culture.
As telephones were more commonly a central image than mere lyrical reference,
they often became the peg on which songs were hung. Why? Because the phone is a
complex and supremely flexible metaphor.
It can represent love requited and unrequited. It offers the chance to say
"Sorry" or "I love you", to start a relationship or to save one.
In the '60s, the Beatles regularly referred to the phone (You Know My Name Look
Up My Number, Back in the USSR, She Came In Through the Bathroom Window). The
Beach Boys wrote Had to Phone Ya, the Rolling Stones contributed Off the Hook.
But Hal David wrote the decade's best telephonic couplet in I'll Never Fall In
Love Again: "You get enough germs to catch pneumonia/After you do, he'll never
But phone imagery appears in song not only in its romantic context. One of the
best protest songs of the past couple of decades, Public Enemy's 911 Is a Joke,
angrily details the experience of trying to get emergency help in black areas of
There are religious phone songs (Jimmy Little's Royal Telephone), criminal phone
songs (AC/DC's Dirty Deeds), avant-garde phone songs (Laurie Anderson's Oh
Superman!), and snotty phone songs (Stevie Wonder's vapid I Just Called to Say I
Love You was satirised by the US bubblegum punk act the Queers on I Just Called
to Say F--- You).
There are songs about answering machines, songs that use answering machine tapes
as textural elements and even songs about new phone functions. REM's Star 69
referred to the buttons pressed to auto-dial your last caller.
There are phone sex songs, too, such as the Village People's Sex Over the Phone
and, more recently, N'Sync's raunchy Digital Getdown. That a song like this
should come from a teen popster makes perfect sense.
Young people, pop's key audience, are highly sexualised, and they are almost
always technology's biggest boosters.
This is why pop dresses itself in the clothes of now, using the toys, tools, and
preoccupations of now to sell itself. The current surge in phone songs can be
pinned directly to the success of the mobile.
Similarly, it's no coincidence that there's a Spears song called E-mail My
You'd be mad not to expect we'll see a string of pop songs referring to instant
messaging in the next year or two.