Pop music lyricism, at its core, is about communication. A chanteuse might be telling her man she loves him; a starlet has a new fling with whom she must be in constant contact; a crooner whines that he and his girl broke up because something wasn’t getting through to her. You boil it all down, and these songs are about the way we try—and sometimes fail—to communicate with each other. More often than not, a phone facilitates that reaching out.
It’s interesting, though, because many songs directly about telephones tend to be aggressive accusations or pleas. “You never call! I’m waiting right here! Did you forget about me?” What, is every modern songwriter my grandmother?
It may be that some of the greatest songs involving phone calls highlight something about our age of telecommunications: we’re all closer to each other because of it, but that can cause some major anxieties. That’s why the following five songs all deal, in some way or another, with the complications of living in our hyper-connected world. Obviously, many of these complications involve romance, because this is, after all, pop music.
1) Blondie – “Hanging on the Telephone” from Parallel Lines.
Blondie’s third studio album, Parallel Lines, saw the group move from its CBGB punk roots into a more firmly new wave sound. Coming in guns a-blazing is track one, “Hanging on the Telephone,” which confirms that a move toward pop doesn’t mean a band has to give up on its sinister lyrics. “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 / I know he’s there, but I just had to call / Don’t leave me hanging on the telephone,” sings Debbie Harry, doing an unconvincing job at assuring her victim she’s not stalking him.
2) X – “Your Phone’s Off The Hook, But You’re Not” from Los Angeles.
One of punk’s great threats, “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not” is also a first track from legendary L.A. punk group X’s debut, Los Angeles. The title’s more straightforward than Blondie’s tale of restraining orders, but the actual lyrical content in this thrasher sounds more like someone ranting stream-of-consciousness style through the wire. “They said all of New York is a tow-away zone / He paid sixty dollars on 12th Street today / And now all my money’s gone.” Who knows what vocalist Exene Cervenka is upset about, but it sure is scary nonetheless.
3) Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention – “You Didn’t Try To Call Me” from Freak Out!
Yet another track from a debut album! The late, great Frank Zappa put out around 60 albums in a career spanning more than 30 years. Whether he was screeching out guitar solos like a classic rock god or arranging classical symphonies, Zappa infused all of his work with impish humor and an angry condemnation of American social mores. On his debut album, Freak Out!, Zappa chose 50s-era doo-wop as his delivery system for a set of scathing criticisms of Vietnam-era America. In “You Didn’t Try To Call Me” it sounds like his narrator is just sad about a sweetheart who he thought was his “teenage angel, man / But you didn’t call me!” Dig a little deeper, you’ll find him skewering the weird sanitization of romance in US culture. Always call Frank Zappa back, or he may write a scathing song about you!
4) The White Stripes – “Hello Operator” from De Stijl.
“Hello Operator, can you give me number 9?” sings Jack White, a man known for his oddly outdated methods of communication (as well as music recording). The lyrics are chock full of other anachronisms, such as a strange person known as the “mailman,” and a canary that carries an obituary in its claws. Stick around for Meg White’s incredible drum solo, which consists of some slow hits on the snare rim.
5) Destiny’s Child – “Say My Name” from The Writing’s On The Wall.
I wouldn’t want to start an international incident by leaving Beyoncé off a superlative list on the Internet. In this modern classic, Beyoncé and the other two members of Destiny’s Child chastise their man for some unmistakable duplicity, answering the telephone with a “baby, how’s your day?” instead of, “Good morrow to you, Beyoncé, I say, for this is surely you and not the other members of Destiny’s Child that I’m simultaneously dating!” Had this cheating man been around during the FaceTime era, this crisis may have been averted.
Bonus piece of trivia!
Electric Light Orchestra’s debut album, No Answer, involves a piece of telephone-related apocrypha. Legend has it that the group’s 1971 self-titled debut was mistakenly released in the US in 1972 with the name No Answer based on a communication error. An executive for the band’s US label reportedly asked what the album’s title was; a clerk called the British branch, but no one picked up. The caller jotted down “no answer,” and the executive erroneously believed this to be the album title. One of rock’s great trivia pieces, all because of a simple telephone call!