FEATURE: Do London’s Red Telephone Boxes Still Ring? The Changing Role of the Telephone in Popular Music




Do London’s Red Telephone Boxes Still Ring?


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The Changing Role of the Telephone in Popular Music


WE are in a time where most of us…


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are communication through text and email. There are messaging services and, between that and social media; how often does one ever pick up a phone and speak?! A lot of interviews are not being done through Skype and that human connection is lacking! Even if we call a big company; a lot of the time we are connecting with a machine and pre-recorded voices. From Wilson Pickett through to Blondie; the telephone has formed the bases of music for decades. Whether it is a hero dialling up his girl or suggesting the best digits she needs to call or the heroine waiting for a call late into the night; the phone has always carried this potent symbolism and imagery. It can be used as a romantic tool or a way of communicating urgency but I wonder whether we have as many phone-related songs now as decades before. Look at cities like London and you always see tourists posing beside them and I often wonder whether anyone uses them and whether they exist merely to provide photo opportunities. In many ways, the street-level phones many of us used to rely on, pre-mobile phones, seem to be either symbols of past days or have become obsolete. Many are in a state of disrepair. It is sad to see but musicians are still using the phone in the same way musicians always have.


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I will bring in an article that examines the shift in trends but it seems, although the romantic notion of sweethearts talking for hours has been replaced to an extent; we have not come so far as to replace the phone with text and swiping left or right. The article I will bring in makes a good point: many people see voicemail as a violation! How many of us leave a message (rather than text) and do we ever check them?! A lot of us do not have landlines and, as we use Smartphones; so much of what we do is texted. Music still employs the telephone when it comes to romance and friendship but it is interesting music has not shifted so much artists are referencing texting, Snapchat and Instagram. I can detect social media and technology coming into some Pop music but is referencing texting and dating apps etc. the same way artists used to talk about the telephone a step too far?! The Guardian covered this topic a couple of months ago and it resonated with me:

From Glenn Miller’s Pennsylvania 6-5000 to Drake’s Hotline Bling, pop’s obsession with telecommunications is long and glorious; Lady Gaga committed to the theme so strongly she wore a phone on her head. Phone songs have taken in anticipation (Abba’s Ring Ring), spontaneity (Call Me Maybe), popular hobbies (Village People’s Sex Over the Phone) and smartphones’ woeful battery life (Maroon 5’s Payphone)….


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And that’s before you consider phones’ real-world connections to pop. Decades before Spotify, the nearest teenage fans got to “on-demand” was Dial-a-Disc, where you would phone a number and listen to music looping on reel-to-reel tape machines. Mobile phones made their own impact: from the ringtone boom of the 2000s to the way the Walkman of the past is now built into all handsets, and even the way songwriters’ melody ideas are stored first as voicenotes. In the studio vocal booth, lyrics are read off a phone screen”.

Of course; when the likes of Blondie and whoever used the telephone in their music; this was back when people had landlines and leaving a voice message was not seen as weird. Although that romantic idea of the telephone has been modernised; musicians feel it is a little too much replacing that idea with texting and technology. It is somewhat cold and inhuman singing about texting someone or breaking up with that way. Although there is not that complete move from the telephone to Smartphones; the romantic symbolism and old-skool charm has been replaced. Adele’s Hello (released in 2015) is that old friend calling up; an emotional and revealing song that stands as one of her finest songs.

I feel there is a real opportunity for songwriters to embrace the telephone in a real and old-fashioned way. I am not suggesting we have those phones were you have to dial each number individually in a very pained way – can’t recall what the phones are called but you get them a lot in classic dramas – but the vision of two lovers trying to reach one another by the phone holds so much potency. Some of those sweethearts went to voicemail but it was the build-up before the call and the actual conversation that we were all waiting for. Even in 2018; songwriters realise the lure and importance of the phone:

Phones are a very powerful trope,” acknowledges songwriter Jack Lee – and he should know. In the 1970s, he was a struggling musician in San Francisco. One afternoon, he received a call informing him that his phone line was about to be disconnected. However, there was time for one more incoming call, which informed him that a band were interested in covering one of his songs. The band were Blondie, the song was Hanging on the Telephone. From his home in Los Angeles, the 2018 version of Lee tells the Guide: “It changed my life, and it saved my life.”

But how true is this in the era of Generation Mute? In 2015, it was reported that phone use among young people had dropped by almost a quarter in just three years. Calling someone unannounced – or, God forbid, leaving a voicemail – is now an egregious attack on privacy. Let’s pick up the phone to Emily Warren, the co-writer of Dua Lipa’s New Rules. “Agreed!” she declares. “It’s a violation!” New Rules, she says, was inspired by the real-life predicament of co-writer Caroline Ailin, who was fielding texts and phonecalls from an ex. “We sat down to write a song that was a guidebook to ending that situation”.


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Has technology made the way we communicate more obsessive, bombarding and less physical? Consider that quote above and many of us have to deal with a barrage of texts and messages. I get countless emails a day and many people you see on the street are texting like ninjas on crystal meth! Digits that once would twiddle a phone cable coyly are now muscular and twitching because of endless texts and this rather obsessive lure. One of the reasons a song like Blondie’s Hanging on the Telephone holds charge is because of that anticipation and the fact there was something human behind the words. Even if there was that frustration and sense of longing; we could all relate to what was being said and it (the song) has survived because of the power behind the words. In many ways, songs such as that are popular because they represent a time that no longer exists. I often compare the shift away from telephone-based songs to that age-old view of the highway. Consider the songwriters who discusses being on some dusty trail and the romance of American highways. Many people still take those trips but songwriters cannot really relate to that classic image of a sweet car burning down the highway without a care in the world. There is traffic and jams; we have more people about and, in many ways, one cannot realistically sell an image of a romantic stretch of road and the freedom of the open.

Pre-Internet and the technological boom; people could only really communicate via phone – or letter or fax if you want to be picky – and, as such, it is understandable why the telephone became such an iconic and reliable trope. Now, as I said, most of the ways in which we communicate with a sweetheart or do our daily bidding is either via email, group chats or texts. So many men and women (mainly women) are besieged by texts and it seems like technology has made it easier for us to be obsessed, overly-forceful and, in many cases, plain stalker-like. It is that synthetic and technological aspect that gets to me: how can songwriters talk about being on the phone and hearing someone’s voice when, for the most part, we communicate through texts? Does this mean the phone has lost all of its meaning and music can no longer correlate the telephone with emotional resonance and deep desire? This article explores transmogrification and why the phone will always be important and can never be replaced by texting/emails:

Yet there are still times when you need to hear someone’s voice – in matters of life, death or love. Which is why 2015’s biggest hits don’t feel too anachronistic. Furthermore, they’re in a grand pop tradition. As Vulture recently pointed out, the Big Bopper’s 1958 single Chantilly Lace set the bar for jams like Hotline Bling. In it, the libidinous singer spends the duration of the song on the telephone, complimenting a woman on her physical assets and peppering the chat with pet names”.


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One downside to texting is you never know if the person is who they say they are. Not many older songs dealt with duplicity and a faux voice over the other end – someone pretending to be the lover and duping the other. In an age where fake numbers are given and you can get your phone nicked – meaning you can impersonate someone easily – it is not easy to avoid a slightly creepy and dystopian image. The need to speak with someone and hear their voice is always there and, as the above article explained; you get that emotional hit and real connection that cannot be substituted. Consider the multiple dimensions and dynamics of a phone call. It can be a desperate call for help or an emotional call from across the seas. That need to hear someone’s voice and feel reassured is something, I feel, is not being rightly explored by a generation whose minds and eyes are distracted by screens. One can flirt via phone and there is that age-old bootie call; two old friends picking up after years away or, as I did as a child, calling someone up merely to hang and see how they are. Consider that last point. How often do we take the trouble to pick up the phone and ask how someone is or whether they saw that cool new drama last night? Texting and messaging seems to provide an easier and hassle-free option – no chance of voicemail or having to speak – and it would be forgivable if artists dispensed with vocal communication altogether.


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Consider the nuances of the voice and the way it can never be superseded or demurred in terms of its immense power and warmth:

A call carries an emotional charge which social media will never replicate. If a boyfriend or girlfriend broke up with you via DM, you’d be humiliated – for them. And an important conversation via text will always come across as lazy, especially if you’ve shared something more special than the casual “u up?” exchange. This was proved comically last week when a woman texted the lyrics to Adele’s Hello to her ex-boyfriend as a joke. Also, texts could technically be sent or written by anyone with access to a cellphone. So despite our world having drastically changed since the days of Big Bopper, we still crave the confirmation that the person contacting us is emotionally engaged. Phone calls provide that. Texting and social media, not so much”.

Not only is there still a desire to have a voice speak to you at the other end of the line but a distinctly U.S. phenomenon has been revived – the hotline and that form of communication. I remember them from childhood – you used to get them in adverts and T.V. shows – but there was a time when artists stop referring to hotlines and they seemed tragically outdated. It seems, although not entirely, they are making a bit of a comeback – as this article explores in more detail:

First up, some context: in 1990, fans could call David Bowie and leave a message to request the songs they wanted him to play on tour. Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince had The New Rap Hotline, 1-900-909-5333, where for $2 for the first minute (35¢ for each additional minute) you could hear a recorded message that changed daily. In the UK, Smash Hits had numbers in the back of the mag to call to listen to the week’s biggest pop hits – like a pay-per-minute Our Price listening post, only one your parents would get incredibly angry about when they saw the phone bill

After a few years of screening calls, phone hotlines made a comeback in 2015. On the Dark Sky Paradise album, Big Sean gave out his real cellphone number, 313-515-8772, and fielded calls from fans before realising that, actually, saying “Yes, it’s really me” 8,205 times a day is boring. Shamir, meanwhile, played telephone agony aunt to fans to promote his breakup single Call It Off, while Justin Bieber fans could, er, make his Hotline Bling by calling 231-377-1113 to hear his remix of Drake’s hit”.

“So, is 2017, with Fever Ray and Eminem’s old-school music promotion tactics, the year pop goes analogue, like those irritating people who have swapped their iPhones for Nokia 3310s? The warning signs were there: Adele’s flip phone in the Hello video; Maroon 5’s Payphone; Liam Payne’s ringtone on Bedroom Floor. Could the fuzzy phone effect replace the crackly vinyl sound that lazy producers use to make a track sound “classic”? Will Beyoncé drop the mystique and be calling you 24/7 like an annoying PPI spammer? Will Taylor Swift leave you long, pointless voicemails like your mum? Call us on our premium-rate number, 0800 111 GUIDE, to find out!

The more artists and consumers investigate and dust-off older music; the more we are becoming aware of new ideas. Consider songs about the telephone and how, when we listen to them, they make us feel warm, nostalgic and, in a way, better. I can listen to Stevie Wonder or Blondie talking about the telephone and can picture what they are singing and the mere imagery makes me imagination swim.


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Even they we live in a time where, as we’re told, we are less connected and happier to avoid talking altogether; there are so many opportunities for songwriters to revoke the beauty and power of the telephone. We all still use them in everyday life: from discussing a job interview to calling your folks; they have not been replaced entirely by texting and emails. Maybe a song that details a late-night call where both lovers are being told (by their angry parents) to end the call because it will break the bank would not fly today. We can all chat for hours for free and, as I said, the landline is becoming marginalised – most homes that have them tend only to rely on them now and then. Whether you feel the telephone is a relic and pointless device that should be left in the past or prefer to pick one up and actually speak with another human; you cannot deny the effect and impact they have made on popular music. The voice, and the nuanced emotions it holds, means we will always use them and, as such, musicians will be able to mine them for gold. Although the march of time has rendered some telephone-based avenues obsolete; artists still bring telephones into music and I feel they could go a lot further. Think about the reason why they existed in the first place and how memorable songs that mention them are. We are all becoming so lost in machines and screens that, in many ways, the telephone seems like an oddity. You can never be rid of the telephone and deny why we all still need them in our lives. Whereas more modern artists are talking about texts and modern distractions; many are keeping the telephone ringing and ensuring it does not get disconnected. I still love its (the telephone’s) romance and simplicity; how it has survived through the years and the ways it can really make an impact. That may make me sound old and slightly uncool but one cannot deny the importance and potency of…


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THE human voice.