In the spirit of self-mythology, I can trace the trajectory of my life back to the moment I got my first mixtape. I didn’t ask for it, it appeared because someone had something they wanted to share. The only thing that beats someone giving you a mixtape is someone else asking you to make one for them. I used to love doing this in high school, but somehow between then and now, I lost the spirit. One of the fortunate byproducts of this quarantine was a friend reaching out and asking me for some music. Like I said, it’s a great feeling.
The mixtape feels like an ancient, lost nerdy art. It’s one of the many fads that saw its prime before the digital age,and lost something in translation. I treasured my $49.99 Discman and the terrible headband earbuds that came with them, and every 80 minutes I didn’t really mind the effort it took to find the next disc. A finite amount of time on a CD-R meant you had to get down to business.
What separates a playlist from a mixtape is intention. The classic homemade mixtapes are well-planned procedures, like surgery. Think of the cliche of making a mixtape to confess your feelings to someone. You got to strategize and really plan that biz out! I feel like the whole point of mixtapes are to use songs as shortcuts to the feelings and deep thoughts seeded in our mind-hearts, and summarize them in four minutes or less, preferably with a Sam Cooke-type, or maybe Brittany Howard (exceptions notwithstanding).
A playlist is like a collection. I am one of many people I know that uses a playlist to just collect new songs that I like. This is a great feature, and one of the many boons to come from the digital age. I love my Spotify! But, having a bucket of songs to shuffle through is not the same as hearing a mixtape organized with intention, a crafted message from one person to whoever is listening. So, in the wake of the coronavirus and the potential onslaught of monster killer wasps threatening Washington, I’m searching for shortcuts to mind-hearts. Make me a fuckin’ mixtape!
OBJECTS, PART I – GAME OF PHONES
Somewhere in the timeline of my high school experience, my father bought me a book called “The Culture Code” for Christmas. I don’t know if this is something I heard about on NPR and asked for to seem smart, or my dad, thinking I needed enriching, just saw it and thought, “why not?” Both are plausible. It’s been years since I read it, but what I recall is that it is a book about advertising. Specifically, how to reach target markets by speaking through symbols. Each group in society has established meanings for symbols, and if you understand those symbols you can use them to tap into emotions. It ended up being my first introduction to semiotics, which after “holistically” is maybe the most important word I learned in college. Semiotics is basically the study of creating meaning, down to how human beings decided how letters correspond to sounds. It’s dense as hell, some of the hardest stuff I had to work with in college, and to be honest, I’m still learning about it. However, what this book got me onto is the idea that objects can carry meaning, and this meaning is understood on a large scale.
In 2015, Erykah Badu released an album entitled “But You Caint Use My Phone.” Coincidentally, the title is a reference to the last line in the hit that kick started her career, “Tyrone,” where a phone call is prominently featured. She’s said the album is about, “our reliance on staying inter-connected and our dependency on smartphones,” and it proceeds as 11 tracks of covers and originals representing what our phones mean to our daily lives. It’s not the best album of all-time, but it is such a wonderful idea, and the whole album is executed very well to its intention.
Though I enjoy Erykah Badu, I wanted to explore this idea of phones as connections through a variety of songs. The result is this, part one of a four part object series: Game of Phones -songs about trust, connections, missed connections, and distance.
1. Ariel Pink – Put Your Number In My Phone
Though “netflix and chill” probably instigates the same emotional dopamine rush in two words, these six words by Ariel Pink are really some of the best things you can hear from someone you’re sweet on. Pink’s music can go in weird directions, but this song fully embraces the joyfulness of sixties pop rock with only a tinge of irony.
2. The Nerves – Hanging on the Telephone
I fielded this out to the IT crowd, and those with an opinion said the OG beats Blondie, and I’m inclined to agree. The jangly guitars remind me of the long, ringed chords from house phones hanging on walls, and Jack Lee’s vocals have a sense of yearning and frustration that Debbie Harry doesn’t exploit in her version. What I really like about this song is how it gets to this idea of limbo. Being on the phone, you’re present, but distant simultaneously. Waiting on the other line of an important call, or in the queue for the next friendly customer service representative, OR being on the end of an awkward pause after dropping some truth, can feel like purgatory.
3. Blondie – Call Me
One of the things about making a mix like this is acknowledging how many songs about phones there are. I felt I had to have some obligatory picks, and this is absolutely the first one. I know there’s pornographic implications, but phones are about immediate access, and this song celebrates how a phone call can actually be a short distance. I wish I had friends like Debbie Harry that just wanted me to call them for anything. Like, “Debbie Harry, let’s go get pizza!”
4. Drake – Hotline Bling
Erykah Badu’s cover of this song sparked the whole idea for her “Caint Use My Phone Mixtape.” I’m not huge on Drake, but this song is a banger with some real feels. What’s more trouble–expecting that late night call and getting it, or expecting that late night call and not getting it? Drake obviously feels a way about it, and he plays tough, but the man has got some things to get off his chest! Also, without this song, we wouldn’t have the all-time great Drake meme. Amen.
5. The Time – 777 – 9311
Getting a phone number from someone you’re into is a prize, and Morris Day singing this phone number sounds like someone’s “O face.” If that’s not enough, walk with me: this whole song is Prince! Every instrument is Prince, and Morris Day came in at the end and recorded the vocals. I think the lead role better suits the incorrigible Casanova Morris Day is famous for playing, but what makes this song sexy is how funky Prince gets on every track.
6. Cut Copy – Saturday
Props to one of the few songs that doesn’t reference phones in the title. Even more props for sampling the sound of dialing a phone! This song reminds me of those nights you don’t want to go out, but you hear someone you want to see will be there, and they text you and say they’ll be there, but there you are, dancing, taking more shots than you need to, going back to the bar just to check your phone…like I was saying, those missed connections are their own kind of limbo.
8. Lapsley – Operator
There is a generation of kids that don’t know what an operator is. It’s beside the point, but fuck those kids! (j/k)
There was a trend in early rock and R&B for people to be asking public employees to do all this personal shit for them. People asking Postmans and operators to be the mediators for their longing hearts. Told straight, it’s the fodder for a good Twitter thread. Sung by Lapsley, it’s an homage to a classic trope, with a bit of disco and a beautiful voice.
9. The Replacements – Answering Machine
Those same stupid kids I was talking about earlier probably don’t know about answering machines either! Voicemail is such an improvement, but there’s a merit badge for recognizing and knowing how to work an old answering machine, or there should be.
It’s painful to have to have a lot to say, but a limited amount of time to say it. It’s even worse if you don’t know if the person can really hear you. If this song were updated, it could be about texting, and how hard it is to properly express feelings through “convenient” technology that is supposed to bring us closer. Sometimes our phones do the opposite, and remind us how far apart we are. When you really need to see someone face to face, FaceTime can’t compare, and Paul Westerberg gets it.
10. Erykah Badu (ft. Andre 3000) – Hello
She had to be here, and I picked this song, and this is why: 1) Andre 3000 makes everything better. 2) His opening verse on this song is an absolute banger from the first word: “Challenge.” 3) This is some of the original content from this album, and I feel like it’s a great showcase for Badu’s voice and her sensibilities. The “hello, hello” refrain eventually starts to have the rhythm of a dial tone ringing, only prettier. 4) These two artists have a deep, complex personal history, and for fans, getting a glimpse into the creative relationship of these two icons through their collaboration…its choice.
11. Carly Rae Jepson – Call Me Maybe
A minor work? Some tasteless chumps might say. One of the best songs of the first decade of the 21st century? Some might say it’s the 97th, but it’s a top ten in my heart.
I wanted to echo that feeling of excitement for connection that Ariel Pink sings about in the opening of the mix. The one thing that this song improves upon is the element of risk. CRJ is giving out her number to this prospect, she’s taking a chance on love, reaching for a connection, and it’s thrilling! I like that this song celebrates the idea of putting yourself out there, how a phone number actually has vulnerability written into it. The way the chorus is sung has that conversational quality, as if she’s building up the confidence to take this leap of faith. I can’t help but cheer on any hapless fool who finally racks up the nerve to put themselves out there.
You can check out my Spotify playlist HERE.
I hope you enjoy the listen. I’m serious: make me a mixtape!
See You Next Time in Objects: Part 2 “Dispense with the Horse.” It is about cars.