Now slightly outdated in real life, the telephone remains the main form of described communication in music. For some reason, popular culture has been obsessed by the need to describe what it’s like to talk with people in song form. Cody Atkinson has written some words below that purport to find out why, but in reality it’s just a bunch of really lazy ‘jokes’ loosely strung together.
What’s a telephone?
A telephone is a communications device that was invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876… wait, am I really explaining what a telephone is? You all know what it is. If not, Wikipedia it on your phone.
Right. So when did the telephone first make an appearance in music?
The first song mentioning a phone or phone call came 23 years after its invention in 1899, with the unforgettable ‘Hello! Ma Baby’. You probably don’t need the reminder, but it goes a little like:
“Ev’ry single morning you will hear me yell / Hey central, fix me up along the line / He connects me with my honey and I ring the bell / And this is what I say to my baby mine…” While the song has been covered repeatedly and has lasted in popular culture until this day, the original happened to be really, really, really, really racist, down to the blackface on the cover of the sheet music… so there’s that.
So using the same timeframe, the first song about email will be out next year?
And what a corker it will be. But I really can’t wait for the first emoji-based song. WILL BE A BAAAAANGER!
What type of music is most associated with songs about phones?
Novelty songs. From the Big Bopper in 1958 onwards, the phone has been the vehicle for kitsch pop. In fact, I’m shocked that Weird Al Yankovic hasn’t done an album of phone-based parody songs. Or maybe he has. I’ve just realised that researching Weird Al is the limit to my willingness to undertake music research.
What other telephone-related songs are there?
The annals of telephone pop include such tracks as ‘Wichita Lineman’ by Glenn Campbell, ‘Call Me’ by Blondie, ‘Hello’ by Adele, ‘Party Line’ by The Kinks, ‘Promised Land’ by Chuck Berry, Lady Gaga’s ‘Telephone’ AND ‘Video Phone’.
Why the fuck does everyone sing about phones?
Honestly, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the immediacy of a phone conversation, the one-to-one connection of a phone call, the closest simulacrum to talking to a person face-to-face. The phone was, for so many years, the closest you could actually get to being with other people without actually being with them. So there’s that. And maybe some songwriters are lazy, they looked around their house and the first thing they saw was a phone.
Lazy artists, hey…
That’s your stereotype, not mine buddy. I never said such a thing… (looks up two paragraphs)… Oh, my bad.
How about artists named after telephones?
Glad you asked. First and foremost, Canberra’s own (not really anymore, but we’ll still claim him) Jonny Telafone sets the bar pretty high in the telephone name stakes. I mean, he’s so confident with it he drops the ‘ph’ for an ‘f’, which according to the Oxford English Swag Dictionary qualifies as a ‘baller move’.
OK, let’s work the other way. How about phones distributing songs?
This is actually a thing! During the ‘80s in the USA, artist-specific ‘hotlines’ existed so that fans could call up and hear a new song by an artist. Everyone seemed to have them back in the day, from The Replacements to Bowie to KISS to MC Hammer and even the Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff, a.k.a. Will Smith and… has anyone worked out the real name of Jazzy Jeff? Song hotlines cut out the middleman – in this case, radio – between fans and music. Most hotlines were pretty expensive, except for that of They Might Be Giants, who simply set up an answering machine to a standard phone number (Dial-A-Song) – a practice that has more or less continued until today.
Are there any modern equivalents of hotlines?
You’d nearly say that things like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and SoundCloud are the modern music versions of Dial-A-Song. Like the hotline, fans access these technologies via their phones, and it provides a somewhat direct path to artists.
Didn’t Jay Z do a thing like that?
Yeah, he released an entire album via a Samsung app, and of course U2 did that Apple thing that no one should ever talk about again. And most people listen to a majority of their music via smartphones these days, either via Spotify/insert-streaming-service-here or ripped albums.
Are there still oldschool hotlines going?
Absolutely. TECHNOLOGY IS CYCLICAL! This year alone saw multiple artists set up a variety of hotlines, from Shamir’s relationship advice line, to Neon Indian’s album preview line, and even the creation of a safe space hotline for fans attending Speedy Ortiz shows. Although the world might have moved on from the landline being an indispensable part of life, musicians have revived it a little bit, like they did the cassette.
Wait, wasn’t there a song about hotlines?
‘Request Line’ by De La Soul! But that’s not the only song about them. This article – and this should be obvious by now – was sparked by ‘Hotline Bling’.
HOTLINE. FUCKING. BLING. Drake’s relatively big hit about a whiny baby who no longer gets late-night booty calls from a particular lady, presumably because she realised the guy is a whiny baby. It’s one of 2015’s biggest songs, and it still seems a little stuck in the past. I mean, he’s not Snapchatting her or using Wickr to be contacted. And that’s before we even think about Tinder.
So it’s the nostalgia then?
Perhaps. Or maybe it’s the current wave of artists thinking about their youth and their own experiences with old-school phones. Time continually moves forward, and things evolve. As phones continue to evolve, and they get used less and less for traditional phone-like purposes, the music about phones will probably become less and less frequent. Because it’s a lot harder to sing about Angry Birds than it is a girl who you like.