Wednesday, 6 February 2008

When Songs' Technical References Become Out-Of-Date

Like many of my comments on pop music my thoughts on this one have been bubbling around in my head for a while, so it is probably a good time to flush them out. In March 1985 when Dead Or Alive sung 'You spin me right round, baby/Right round like a record, baby/Right round, round, round/You spin me right round, baby/Right round like a record, baby/Right round, round, round' in their Number 1 hit 'Spin Me Round' (23 weeks in the UK charts with 2 at Number 1) they could have no fear that any listener would not understand what 'like a record' meant. I was rather suprised in 2004 when Kyle Minogue sang 'Can't focus I can't stop/You got me spinning round, round, round, round (like a record)' on 'Red Blooded Woman'. I understand people often sing along with lyrics which they do not understand, but how many 14-year old pop fans have actually seen a record actually playing? Even 'round like a CD' would seem a little outdated now, more like 'spinning around like the patterns on my PC when I download a track' would have been more appropriate. I know it takes a while for songs to be written and get to the charts and maybe Kylie was trying to appeal to an older demographic, but she could update herself a bit. Another similar anachronism was in the single by The Cardigans of 1998, 'Erase-Rewind'. (It was most successful in the UK reaching Number 7). This one goes 'I've changed my mind/I take it back/Erase and rewind/'cause I've been changing my mind/Erase and rewind/'cause I've been changing my mind/Erase and rewind' and so on (it mentions 'erase and rewind' 8 times in the song). Now I know cassettes and video cassettes were still around in 1998 but the whole concept of erasing and rewinding has long gone and to hear it now seems pretty archaic.

This began me thinking about others and I must confess there are not a great deal. I suppose many classic songs represent a time when the public telephone was more common and there were no mobiles. You have to find some less obvious examples '5.7.0.5.' by City Boy released in 1976 which it talks about 'but there's not reply', these days you would get an answering service I am sure, and the other thing is no-one now puts their number on the wall, they enter it into the memory of their mobile at least. References to 'the operator' began to lead me down the hellish path into more naff 1970s tunes, 'Sylvia's Mother' by Doctor Hook (1971) has a chorus, 'And the operator says "40 cents more for the next 3 minutes"' (though actually the song only lasts 3 minutes it is to get the sense of desperation across). The sense of an operator interfering with a call and you having to slot in more coins again seems very strange in the 2000s. Blondie were a bitter better off with 'Hanging on the Telephone' in 1978 with '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'. These days even in student halls I doubt you would find a phone box inside a residential building. Even in 1975 when Manhattan Transfer released 'Operator' with the immortal lines 'Oh, operator, information/Give me Jesus on the line/Oooohhhh, operator, information/I'd like to speak to a friend of mine' and more of that ilk (I forgot this when talking about gospel crossovers in the UK) it was pretty rare to be unable to connect direct dial with who you were calling, though I accept William Spivery had written it in the 1950s and it was 20 years before it became a hit in the UK.

Maybe naff songs are aimed at older people than better quality pop songs and it is referring to their nostalgia. In these cases the change of technology would remove the tension of the circumstances. Imagine the difference if they simply got the dialling tone or the engaged signal, it would leave little to sing about. The Rah Band with their 'Clouds Across the Moon' (1986) may have forseen the future with calls into space:

'I'm sorry to interrupt your conversation, but we are experiencing violent storm conditions in the asteroid belt at this time. We may lose this valuable deep space communication link. Please, be as brief as possible. Thank you. BRIDGE'/
'or it's...or it's...Hello? Hello operator?'/'
Yes, we've lost the connection!'/'
Could you try again please?'/
'I'm sorry, but I'm afraid we've lost contact with Mars 2-4-7 at this time.'/
'Ok. Thank you very much...I'll...I'll try again next year...next year...next year...next year...'

Yet, even here they have to have the 'galactic operator' get in on the act to provide the tension in the song. Some may come back to life as technology moves on, Elvis Presley's 'Return To Sender' (1962) with the lyric 'Return to Sender, Address Unknown' could be brought up-to-date for the email generation.

To date, the only pop song that I have heard which seems to mention the kind of communication technology is 'Horny' by Mousse T released in 1998 (so the same year as The Cardigans 'Erase - Rewind') with the lines: 'I tried to call you but I can't find the telephone/I sent a message through the internet but it rejected' suggesting she has lost her mobile and the email system is screwed. Hopefully more tracks will actually embrace the kind of technology we now use rather than things like records which are soooo 20th century!

P.P. Whilst researching this posting, I also found out that misheard lyrics are termed 'mondegreens'.

Since posting this I heard 'Get The Party Started' by Pink (2001) and in that there are the lines: 'I'm your operator/You can call anytime/I'll be your connection/To the party line' which is referencing technology which was around before Pink was probably even born. Most young listeners or anyone not versed in 1950s-60s technology would probably assume 'party line' is something like a premium call service, but in fact more than forty years ago it was when there was only a single line going to two or more flats so that you had to wait until the other people, i.e. the other 'party' was off the line before you could make your call. This kind of technology offered the opportunity for difficulties that formed the basis of humour in things like Doris Day movies of the early 1960s. Thus, the lyrics have taken on a new meaning because they actually refer to well out-of-date technology.

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