More than perhaps any other era since the days of Alexander Graham Bell, we are living in a time of telephone obsession. Whether it’s the well-worn trope of millennials staring blankly into their smartphone screens, or the equally well-worn trope of baby boomers and Gen-X-ers griping impotently about millennials staring into their smartphone screens, our society is preoccupied with the ease, ubiquity, and yes, the potential pitfalls of contemporary communications technology. It should come as little surprise, then, that this phone fixation would also be reflected in our popular music. Indeed, just last fall, the only thing keeping Drake‘s cell phone-themed “Hotline Bling” off the Billboard Number 1 was…another phone song, “Hello” by Adele.
But of course, pop is no stranger to the telephone. Maybe it’s because both came of age around the same time: telecommunications and recorded music are both products of the late 1800s; they’ve evolved alongside one another, with music ultimately traveling through fiber-optic wires originally intended for phone signals, and pop hooks being written to fit the requirements of the mobile ringtone. Really, though, I think the chief appeal of the telephone to songwriters is its symbolic resonance. Phones bridge the gaps between people over distance, while at the same time reducing them to disembodied voices; they simultaneously connect and isolate us. The interpersonal feelings exacerbated by the telephone–loneliness, yearning, occasional elation–are pop music’s bread and butter. Certainly, it makes for better songs than any other household appliance. So let’s put aside, for now, our endless debates over whether smartphones are improving or ruining society, and take a few moments to enjoy what Bell Telephone has wrought. You can even read this post and listen to the accompanying playlist on your phone. Isn’t technology grand?
1. Electric Light Orchestra: “Telephone Line”
(from A New World Record, 1976)
Baroque dad-rockers Electric Light Orchestra got their biggest U.S. hit to date with this 1977 ballad about a lonely man who can’t reach the person he loves on the telephone. Maybe it’s because stateside listeners connected subliminally to the opening keyboard line: a painstaking recreation of the contemporary American ring tone achieved, per band leader Jeff Lynne, by calling a U.S. number from England and then tuning the Moog synthesizer’s oscillators to match the notes created by the phone. Or maybe it’s just that there’s something universal about the feeling of helplessness that comes when the technology meant to connect us with others ends up putting a barrier between us. In any case, if any of our younger readers are confused, just pretend that this song is about texting someone and getting the little “…” indicator in return. Tragic, right?
2. The Time: “777-9311”
(from What Time is It?, 1982)
Forget all about bitch-ass Tommy Tutone and “867-5309“; everyone knows that for a real good “Time,” you call 777-9311. I mean, just listen to that hi-hat intro: ably handled in live performances by Jellybean Johnson, but played in the studio by the song’s ghostwriter (/ghost-everything) Prince. There’s a reason why 2Pac sampled this song for his own phone-related jam, “What’z Ya Phone #” from 1996’s All Eyez on Me; and why, almost 35 years later, it’s still a staple on adult contemporary R&B radio: quite simply, it’s funky as shit, a true highlight of the Minneapolis Sound’s golden age. Also, fun fact: “777-9311” was the actual phone number of Prince’s touring guitarist Dez Dickerson at the time of the song’s release–so, basically, this is also an early example of doxxing!
3. Elvis Costello: “No Action”
(from This Years Model, 1978)
So far, the songs on this playlist have used the telephone as a symbol of either yearning or wanton lust. Leave it to Elvis Costello, though, to turn it into a marker of disdain. The opening track of 1978’s This Years Model–Costello’s first album with longtime backing band the Attractions–“No Action” is Costello at his most casually brutal. “I don’t wanna see you ’cause I don’t miss you that much,” Elvis sneers at a long-distance girlfriend, before hitting her with one of his trademark oblique barbs: “Every time I phone you, I just want to put you down.” It’s a delightfully snotty anthem for misanthropes and telephobes alike.
4. The Nerves: “Hanging on the Telephone”
(from The Nerves EP, 1976; available on One Way Ticket)
Covering the other end of the neurotic New Wave tip, here’s L.A. power pop trio the Nerves with a song from their self-titled 1976 EP–the group’s only release before disbanding in 1978. “Hanging on the Telephone” is more widely known for its cover version on Blondie’s Parallel Lines, but I’ll always prefer the original: while Debbie Harry has never sounded like she’s given a shit about anything, let alone a stupid phone call, Nerves frontman Jack Lee yelps the lyrics with a genuine sense of distress. If you’ve ever fought the wild compulsion to call someone you shouldn’t be calling, I’m guessing you can relate.
5. Mike Jones: “Back Then”
(from Who is Mike Jones?, 2005)
Remember Mike Jones? (Who?) The Houston-born maker of mid-2000s club hits like 2005’s “Back Then” was best known for his gimmick of shouting out his actual cell phone number during songs, giving a whole new meaning to down-to-earth accessibility in hip-hop. The number is (281) 330-8004, but I don’t know if it’s still in operation…I’m kind of afraid to call it, actually, because he might pick up and I don’t know what I’d say. Mike Jones doesn’t seem like he’s all that busy these days.
6. Erykah Badu: “Cel U Lar Device”
(from But You Caint Use My Phone, 2015)
Neo-soul songstress Erykah Badu may not have released a “proper” album since 2010’s New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh), but that hasn’t stopped her from establishing a new side hustle of remixing zeitgeisty hip-hop songs and killing the original M.C.s on their own beats. Her most recent victim/beneficiary was Kanye West‘s “Real Friends,” but I’ll always be partial to last fall’s take on the ubiquitous “Hotline Bling” by some Canadian beta-bro named Aubrey. Badu turns Wheelchair Jimmy’s petulant (albeit catchy) whine into something decidedly sexier and more tongue-in-cheek, with a spoken-word interlude mimicking the passive-aggressive cadences of a voicemail message (“If you’re calling to ask for some free tickets in a city near you, and know that she don’t really fuck with you like that, press seven”). It’s a warm, clever take on the song that pretty much single-handedly justifies the whole “Hotline Bling” phenomenon–yes, even that horrible SNL parody with Donald Trump.
7. New Edition: “Mr. Telephone Man”
(from New Edition, 1984)
Back in our day, though, whiny R&B stars still didn’t have the luxury of being called–or not called–on their cell phones; they actually had to dial long distance on a landline, then make up lame excuses to the operator when their girl didn’t pick up. Granted, some of them were also 15-year-old boys who honestly had no business bothering phone operators in the first place, but that’s not the point. “Mr. Telephone Man”–a bald-faced rewrite of Chuck Berry‘s “Memphis, Tennessee,” made famous by New Edition during their early incarnation as a bald-faced ripoff of the Jackson Five–is one of those songs that today’s crop of “young millennials” would probably be bewildered by: the notion of speaking to an operator; the use of the onomatopoeia “click” to denote a phone call being terminated; hell, even the basic principle that Ralph Tresvant, Ricky Bell, Bobby Brown, and Michael Bivins are actually calling a girl and not just texting her an unsolicited picture of their dongs. Also likely to go over their heads: the fact that the song was written by none other than Ray Parker, Jr. You know, the “Ghostbusters” guy? Oh, forget it. Goddamn kids.
8. Unknown Mortal Orchestra: “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”
(from Multi-Love, 2015)
One of the great things about pop music is that it can seem so universal, but at the same time be incredibly personal and specific. Case in point: “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” by Portland/Auckland-based indie rockers Unknown Mortal Orchestra, which I chose for this playlist as an example of the anxieties arising from our near-constant state of connection in the smartphone era–only to discover, thanks to a Pitchfork feature story from last year, that it’s actually about UMO leader Ruban Nielson and his wife’s mutual pining for the third partner in a long-distance polyamorous relationship. So, okay, not quite universal. But this quote from Nielson suggests that my interpretation wasn’t too off-base: “‘Can’t Keep Checking My Phone’ is about missing somebody and that point where you refuse to accept online ‘connectivity’ as a substitute for being with someone IRL. When someone you love turns into text and ideas delivered through a device, at some point they’re competing with real things like the aurora borealis, which is another thing that only really makes sense in the flesh. I also read somewhere that the universe might be holographic, and in that case maybe the distance between us is just an illusion. So do you fall in love with the idea of someone? Or the chemicals they give off in person? Either way, I’ve got to get off my phone.”
9. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti: “Round and Round”
(from Before Today, 2010)
One of the pleasures of putting together this playlist has been experiencing the artists’ use of actual or simulated phone ringtones in the songs. In this 2010 track from Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, for example, an impressionistic narrative of alienation on the road is interrupted by the sound of a ringing phone and Ariel picking up the receiver: “Hello? Oh, hi.” It’s a simple sonic device that serves as a prelude to the song’s understated bridge: “Pick up the phone / And I’ll want to go home now.”
10. Rick James: “Call Me Up”
(from Street Songs, 1981)
Even better on the musical-use-of-phones front is this underrated cut from Rick James‘ 1981 magnum opus Street Songs: not only do we get a number being punched in over the intro, serving as a percussive accompaniment to the funky ascending bassline by Oscar Alson of James’ Stone City Band, but we also get a simulated phone call from one of Rick’s ladies, breathily asking for a certain “Slick Rick.” If this song doesn’t make you start dialing your phone like Tracy Morgan in 30 Rock, nothing will.
11. Icewear Vezzo: “Money Phone”
(from The Clarity 2, 2013)
So far, we’ve been sticking to songs that make use of phones in at least mostly legitimate ways. But Detroit rapper Icewear Vezzo knows that if you ever want to get up to any less-than-legitimate activities, you’ll need a burner–or, as Mr. Vezzo calls it, a “money phone.” “I stay copping work, bitch, I’m buying,” he announces, “You can ask my clientele, hit my line ’cause I’m buying bales.” One might argue that it kind of defeats the purpose of getting an untraceable burner phone if you’re just going to brag about your drug-dealing prowess on a mixtape; but hey, maybe that kind of wily anti-logic is why Icewear (allegedly) makes the big bucks.
12. Rick Ross: “Phone Tap”
(from Hood Billionaire, 2014)
And now here’s our old friend Ricky Rozay to demonstrate exactly why having a burner is so important: otherwise, you’re in danger of having your “money phone” bugged by the authorities. Of course, you’d think a
former corrections officer real-life drug lord like Ross would know a basic fact about petty crime like that; but whatever the case, “Phone Tap” is a nice little slice of gangster-movie paranoia, with a Chinese-tinged beat sampled from the soundtrack of the 1981 Burt Reynolds flick Sharky’s Machine.
13. Common featuring Bilal and Prince: “Star * 69 (PS with Love)”
(from Electric Circus, 2002)
The first of several phone sex songs on this playlist (sorry, not sorry), this underrated track from Common‘s neo-psychedelic vanity project Electric Circus is probably the best of the bunch. But hey, that’s what happens when you get Bilal to sing and fuckin’ Prince to play keyboard on your phone sex song; play this over the phone to someone and you’re basically having phone sex already.
14. Soulja Boy Tellem featuring Sammie: “Kiss Me Thru the Phone”
(from iSouljaBoyTellem, 2008)
This track, on the other hand, isn’t so much for phone sex as it is for phone coitus interruptus. In fact, fuck that: Soulja Boy Tellem’s “Kiss Me Thru the Phone” is a recipe for phone celibacy. If you listen to this song, even without a potential partner within earshot, you can pretty much kiss your sex life goodbye. Its one redeeming quality is this quote from the song’s Wikipedia page, which might be both the saddest and the funniest thing I’ve ever read on a wiki: “R&B singer Chris Brown was Soulja Boy’s first choice to sing the hook, but turned down the offer. Soulja Boy Tellem then tried to sing it on his own with Auto-Tune but found it unacceptable.”
15. R. Kelly: “Real Talk”
(from Double Up, 2007)
Anyway, connecting with a loved one over the telephone isn’t all sexy talk and sweet nothings. Just ask R. Kelly, who spends all three minutes of “Real Talk” having an impassioned one-sided argument over the phone with a jealous girlfriend. In all honesty, though, I’m not entirely convinced there’s another person on the line; in fact I’m pretty sure that, even in the fictional universe of the song, Kellz is just ranting and raving to a dial tone. Either way, “Real Talk” is a minor masterpiece of the singer’s ongoing “descent into lunacy” phase, and my personal choice of material if I ever decide to perform a theatrical monologue.
16. Bootsy’s Rubber Band: “What’s a Telephone Bill?”
(from Ahh… The Name is Bootsy, Baby!, 1977)
Now here’s Bootsy Collins with another phone sex anthem, not to mention one of the unlikely lothario’s best love joints. “I guess you’d call me an obscene phone caller,” Bootsy confesses in between reciting “naughty nothings that’ll wet your eardrums”: “Maybe, uh, I’ll manicure your toenails and, uh, make sweet love to you, baby… Rub my body with yours… Wait a minute, operator, ey, ey, I’m not talking to you!”
17. Village People: “Sex Over the Phone”
(from Sex Over the Phone, 1985)
Meanwhile, this lesser-known gem from the final album by the Village People isn’t another demonstration of the pleasures of phone sex, so much as it is a full-blown, enthusiastic endorsement of the activity: “It’s so fulfilling,” exclaims the group’s new lead singer Ray Stephens. “They’re always willing.” Of course, Stephens does admit to some drawbacks of his favorite activity: “This is the part I hate / Why do they make you wait?” But in the end, it’s all worthwhile: “If you are feelin’ hot, and after all, who’s not? / Right now I’ve got a cure to help your temperature / All that you need’s a dime and just a little time / A pay phone on the street can help you beat the heat.” Oh, and by the way–the man responsible for those lyrics was none other than comedy writer and former Hollywood Squares personality Bruce Vilanch.
18. Kelis: “Bless the Telephone”
(from Food, 2014)
But let’s end the playlist with something a little less raunchy. “Bless the Telephone,” originally recorded in 1971 by African English songwriter and poet Labi Siffre, was an understated highlight of 2014’s Food by Kelis, with a simple acoustic guitar arrangement and lyrics that make the ability to connect with distant loved ones seem precious, almost miraculous: “Strange how a phone call can change your day / Take you away, away / From the feeling of being alone / Bless the telephone.” It’s a timely reminder, in this age of hand-wringing over the power of technology to isolate, that it still allows us to connect with one another, as well–every time that hotline bling.