As a songwriter, you’re responsible for transmitting the world as you see and understand it to your listeners. Songs have this incredible power to distill moments in time, experienced or imagined by a single person, and communicate them to a global audience. So when technologies that have permeated popular culture move forward and change, those obsolete objects and actions that have been left behind crystallize and become frozen in time when they’re captured by film, photography, and song.
In pop music, there’s perhaps no greater object of antiquity than the telephone.
And while I’m technically a “millennial,” I still feel like, these days, technology is moving at a rate that’s leaving me behind. I see 10-year-old kids with smart phones now, and it’s only a matter of time until toddlers have their own Snapchat accounts.
There are a ton of things I won’t understand about smartphones, so here are a bunch of songs about old-fashioned telephones that millennials just won’t understand.
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Tom Waits – “Martha”
Lyrics that may confuse:
“Operator, number, please. / It’s been so many years… / And I am calling long distance / don’t worry ’bout the cost.”
Off of Tom Waits’ debut album, Closing Time, here’s the story of a man reaching out to an old lover from his past. Not only did you used to have to call up an operator to connect with whomever you wanted to call, you’d also have to pay more money the further away someone was. To connect with an old lover now, all you basically have to do is keep swiping or try to slide into their DMs, whatever the heck that means.
The Replacements – “Answering Machine”
“How do you say I miss you to an answering machine? / How do you say good night to an answering machine?… / The message is very plain / Oh, I hate your answering machine.”
Despite the way voicemail works being different (answering machines literally used to record messages to tiny cassette tapes), we still use this function. And apparently, it seems that we still hate leaving messages after all these years. Kids today would much rather text or message via WhatsApp, Slack, Instagram, or Facebook Messenger than leave a voicemail. Some things never change.
Blondie – “Hanging on the Telephone”
“I’m in the phone booth, it’s the one across the hall. / If you don’t answer, I’ll just ring it off the wall.”
Pining after a lost lover. He’s been told that she’s bad news and won’t answer her calls. She’s calling him from the pay phone in her building, hanging out in the booth hoping that he’ll pick up. I don’t know what’s harder to wrap your mind around: imagining a pay phone in your hallway or somebody not calling Debbie Harry back.
Jim Croce – “Operator”
“Operator, well could you help me place this call? / See, the number on the matchbook is old and faded… / Operator, well let’s forget about this call. / There’s no one there I really wanted to talk to. / Thank you for your time, ah, you’ve been so much more than kind / and you can keep the dime.”
Do young people today even know what an operator is? I’m sure they have a vague idea, but they may never be able to have the experience of talking to one. Croce’s imagining of a man so desperately in need of personal contact that he reaches out to the operator was not in the least bit unfathomable. Yet these lyrics did, and still do, transmit a veritable poetic depth of loneliness that any listener can pick up on.
What I want to know is, do kids today even use nickels and dimes anymore, or is it all BitCoins and Venmo?
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Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash – “Girl from the North Country”
“If you’re travelin’ in the north country fair, / where the winds hit heavy on the borderline, / please say “hello” to the one who lives there. / Oh, she was once a true love of mine.”
You used to have to ask some wayward cowboy to check in on an old flame whenever he’d wander over to that part of the country. That’s true romance right there. Someone should build an app for that and call it OkCowboy , or TaskCowboy, or something like that.
The Kinks – “Party Line”
“I can’t speak without an interception. / This is private, please get off my line. / Please tell me when I can have my privacy, / I’d like to meet the girl who’s always talking / when I’m speaking on my party line.”
If you shared a phone connection with multiple houses or apartments you’d have something called a “party line” where you could listen in on other people’s calls. The Kinks, like some lonely CB radio operator, just want to know who that mysterious woman is on the other end.
R.E.M. – “Star 69”
“I know you called, I know you called / I know you hung up my line. / Star 69.”
“Star 69” might sound like some kind of sexy celestial thing, but before we had “Caller ID” to tell us who the heck was phoning us, we’d have to dial *69 to call back the number that just called us if we missed it.
No Doubt – “Spiderwebs”
“Communication, a telephonic invasion / I’m planning my escape. / Sorry I’m not home right now, I’m walking into spiderwebs. / So leave a message, and I’ll call you back. / A likely story, but leave a message, and I’ll call you back.”
Gwen Stefani is avoiding an unwanted suitor by letting all her phone calls go straight to her answering machine, and apparently, she pulls this move pretty often. These days leaving a voicemail is a fool’s errand.
Nu Shooz – “Lost Your Number”
“I lost your number. (3x) / How did I lose it? / I need it so bad! / It’s a yellow piece of paper that I used to have.”
I have the phone number of everyone I’ve dated for the last 10 years. Even if you lose your phone or drop it down the toilet, and you lose all your contacts, just Google your friends’ names, and I’m sure you can find a way to get back in touch. Speaking of phone numbers…
Wilson Pickett – “634-5789”
“If you want a little huggin’, / call on me baby, mmm. / Oh I’ll be right here at home… / All you got to do is pick up your telephone and dial 634-5789.”
Back in 1966, Wilson Picket gave out his number in hopes of doing a little huggin’ and kissin’ with some nice young women. It was a much more moral time back then. These days, it’s a good day if you don’t wake up with a late-night booty call sext message or a photo of somebody’s “hoo-ha” on your phone.
Electric Light Orchestra – “Telephone Line”
“Okay, so no one’s answering. / Well, can’t you just let it ring a little longer? / Longer, longer oh, I’ll just sit tight / through shadows of the night. / Let it ring forever more, oh”
I guess it goes without saying that there are way more creative ways to stalk someone nowadays!
Bonus: NOFX – “One Million Coasters”
“You’re going to love our selection of 8-track tapes, / blank floppy discs, mobile car phones, Atari 2600 consoles… / We got a 10,000-foot warehouse full of cassette tapes, Persimmon woods, ink jet printers, telephone booths, Sony Walkmans, Kodak 110s, analog TVs, Betamaxes.”
What a great collection of obsolete things we used to love to use! So much of what is old is now edified as being “retro.” It’s hard to believe that all these things were once at the cutting edge of technology.
There are so many more songs out there about telephones and other obsolete things we used to rely on in our daily lives. Share your favorites in the comments below!
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