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Wednesday, August 3, 2022

August 3, 2022: AmericanPhones: Phone Songs

[August 2nd marks the 100th anniversary of inventor Alexander Graham Bell’s death. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy some famous phones in American culture, leading up to a special weekend post on AGB’s life and legacies!]

On five pop songs that call upon this technology.

1)      Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels)” (1972): One of the more interesting lost elements of telephone technology is the role of the switchboard operator, that unseen middle person on whom callers relied for decades to make their connections. While I believe that role had significantly lessened by the 1970s (I certainly never had to speak to an operator to make a phone call), both of my first two songs use it in a compelling symbolic way, with Jim Croce’s 1972 ballad featuring a speaker who spills his emotions over a breakup to an apparently quite sympathetic operator.

2)      Switchboard Susan” (1979): Nick Lowe’s speaker addresses the switchboard operator even more directly and spills some emotions as well, but in a quite different tone than that of Croce’s ballad. In an attempt to pick up this “greater little operator” with whose “ringing tone” he “fell in love” immediately, that speaker resorts to a series of increasingly desperate telephonic double entendres, including (apropros of the week’s inspiration) “When I’m near you girl I get an extension/And I don’t mean Alexander Graham Bell’s invention.” What more is there to say about that?

3)      867-5309/Jenny” (1981): As operators faded away, wannabe callers could dial their desired numbers directly—but this former teenage dialer can confirm that it’s not always easy to go through with the call. That’s one telephonic lesson of one-hit wonder Tommy Tutone’s 1980s smash: with the line “I tried to call you before but I lose my nerve” he succinctly sums up that painful experience of ending a call mid-dial. But Tutone’s song also illustrates another side to the topic I talked about with Scream yesterday—the way the phone can connect us to strangers. In horror films that’s a threatening proposition, but as “number[s] on the wall” like Jenny’s suggest, it can be an enticing one as well.  

4)      Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand” (1996): Sometimes the phone lets us down, though. I’m sure there are other pop songs which also use the distinctive (if perhaps now outdated) sounds of telephone calls falling to connect, but I don’t know of any off-hand. And in any case, this Primitive Radio Gods track with one of the longest titles in pop music history is a true original, in sound and sound effects as well as in lyrics.

5)      Telephone” (2009): Music videos were of course already a thing in 1996 (and even in 1981), but over the subsequent decades they’ve become more and more fully a genre unto themselves, as illustrated by that hyperlinked short film for Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s “Telephone.” To be honest, that video is far more interesting than (and quite fully distinct from) the song. But I did want to note that even in our cell phone/smartphone age, the trope of a phone call (answered or unanswered) to represent the highs and lows of a romantic relationship remains very much in force in pop music.

Next famous phone tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Famous cultural phones you’d highlight?

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