December 20, 2010


The Happiest Sound of Them All

There is only one thing wrong with Lady Gaga's video for "Telephone," the greatest experimental film of 2010, which is that it doesn't have a whole lot to do with telephones. (It does have a pair of sunglasses made of cigarettes, the "Prison for Bitches," and Gaga treating the most mean-spirited rumor about her like it's the funniest thing in the world, though, so all is forgiven.) The song itself is fully telephonic: the most perfectly-aimed-at-ringtones number since Madonna's "Hung Up," complete with an "eh eh eh eh eh eh" sound that approximates an old-fashioned busy signal. Not that most of "Telephone" 's audience remembers busy signals.

Gaga seems like the kind of wicked genius who could retro-engineer a song from the idea of selling a particular ringtone to indicate a call from somebody you don't want to date any more. And her guest-star Beyoncé comes in for special commendation for singing one line after another that's nearly singerproof. Almost every line in her part of "Telephone" ends in a two-syllable or three-syllable word — "faster," "disaster," "station," "dancin'" — which the rhythm of the song forces her to sing with an accent on its final syllable, and she makes every one of them sound like she's just being emphatic. (Both the song and the video easily outpace the slightly earlier Beyoncé-featuring-Gaga track "Video Phone," whose video features the fantastic image of camera-headed men in suits, but which is otherwise basically a hook in search of a song.)

"Telephone" (like "Video Phone" and "Hung Up") belongs to an odd little tradition of dance songs about phones, the best example of which is a bit over 20 years old at this point. In 1989, the most exciting production team in the U.K. was Coldcut--Matt Black and Jonathan More--who'd made their name with an insane remix of Eric B. and Rakim's "Paid in Full." Their debut album What's That Noise? flows like a mix tape, and one of its highlights is "My Telephone," a clickety-clackety groove with a brief, repeated chorus (plus a bridge that has more lyrics than the rest of the song put together) sung by the then-barely-known Lisa Stansfield. (She also sang the bigger dance hit from the album, "People Hold On," best known these days for its appearance in Grand Theft Auto IV.)

Most of "My Telephone," though, is More and Black's showcase for their sample-collage technique; it's filled with phone-related sound effects (its biggest instrumental hook is the slightly off-pitch sound of old Touch-Tone telephone buttons) and bits of old movies involving people speaking on the phone. There was never a video for "My Telephone," but it was released as a single, extended with various bits of phone-related noise — most notably DJ Mark the 45 King's breakbeat classic "The 900 Number" (which was itself a looped bit of Marva Whitney's old soul single "Unwind Yourself").

The "My Telephone" groove had a bizarre afterlife. What's That Noise? also featured "(I'm) In Deep," a spikier track with moaned, off-pitch vocals by Mark E. Smith, leader of the Manchester art-punk band the Fall. Black and More went on to produce part of the Fall's 1990 album Extricate. Its first single was "Telephone Thing," a radically reworked variation on "My Telephone," with Craig Scanlon making grotesque guitar noise and Smith spitting out aggressive phone-related phrases: "How dare you assume I want to parlez-vous with you? ... I'm tapped." The next year, De La Soul released an even angrier phone-inspired single, "Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)" — a acid-tongued riposte to anybody who wanted to get them on the line as a career move.

As much fun as all of those songs are, none of their artists were doing anything particularly new. Anyone who thinks that Lady Gaga created the idea of wearing ridiculous outfits and singing about phones is directed to ABBA's 1973 video for "Ring Ring," one of the earliest songs they recorded under that name. (At one point, the song was #1 and #2 in the Swedish charts at the same time — the former version sung in Swedish and the latter in English.) The song's attitude toward the phone couldn't be more distant from Gaga's; at a time when electronic connection required one party to be waiting at home for a call, getting bugged in the club by a ringtone was unthinkable. And one more detail for the benefit of those who are lucky enough not to know it: the weird finger gesture Anni-Frid and Agnetha are making at the end of the "Ring Ring" video is miming calling someone with an old-fashioned rotary phone dial.