1. A Tribe Called Quest, “Skypager” (1991)
Some songs are made to last forever, with lyrics that resonate just as loudly a hundred years after they were written. But just as today’s plasma TV is tomorrow’s Goodwill cast-off, songs based on technology carry their own built-in obsolescence. For example, someday children of the future will hear Q-Tip ask, “Do you know the importance of a skypager?” in the opening bars of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Skypager,” and grandpa will have to sit them down and explain that in the old days, before everyone received telepathic implants, people used to carry around little beeping plastic boxes that displayed numbers, which they were then supposed to enter into a pay phone to talk to someone who wanted to talk to them. (Also, they used to have these things called “pay phones.”) Of course, since early hip-hop artists, from ATCQ to Ice Cube to The Notorious B.I.G. used the pager as a status symbol—like when Phife boasts in “Skypager,” “Beeper’s goin’ off like Don Trump gets checks,” which will also take some explaining—it’s also taken on a patina of old-school cool that has nothing to do with the technology itself, to the point where modern retro-hounds like The Cool Kids still bring it up. But even if “Skypager” survives as a cred-building reference, it’s hard to imagine kids 20 years from now comprehending a lyric like, “You leave code 69, that means you want some cock” without having to do some research. Into a couple of things.
2. Pulp, “Ansaphone” (1995)
Before everyone became tethered to a cell phone, if you called a would-be lover and got “a machine on the end of a telephone line,” like the heartsick, jealous protagonist of Pulp’s “Ansaphone,” it was somehow much more conducive to freaking out. Something about the automated indifference of “leave your message on the ansaphone” invites melodrama, whether it’s wondering, as Jarvis Cocker does, “Are you really not at home?” or “Are you there but not alone?” Nowadays, an unreturned phone call has a much clearer meaning—and if she didn’t pick up the first couple of times, hasn’t returned your voicemails, and won’t respond to your texts, there’s no point in wondering any longer. (And you might want to check her Facebook page.)
3. Gym Class Heroes, “New Friend Request” (2006)
Back when Gym Class Heroes released “New Friend Request” on 2006’s As Cruel As School Children, the outfit probably couldn’t imagine a world where MySpace wasn’t the king of social networks. Although most of the lyrics to “New Friend Request” could apply to any social-networking site—so it can show up on a new version of this list a decade from now—frontman Travis McCoy drops plenty of goofy MySpace signifiers: He first noticed this woman when “my man Tom introduced us,” but she makes it clear she’s not “just another MySpace mistress.” There’s a reference to seeing his face in her “top eight,” and this chorus: “So click ‘approve,’ so simple / show me some kind of sign and let me know it’s time to make my move.” The video imagines a real-world version of MySpace, with potential friends behind a velvet rope, and McCoy holding signs that say “Approve” or “Deny,” and people exchanging cards with familiar MySpace actions written on them. The most cringe-worthy moment arrives at the end, when a woman hangs a sign around McCoy’s neck that says “Status: In a relationship.” (It makes sense this guy was engaged to Katy Perry.)
4. Bow Wow Wow, “C30, C60, C90, Go!” (1980)
“Home Taping Is Killing Music,” went the record industry’s panicked cry during the mid-’80s; this 1980 song from Malcolm McLaren’s second-most-controversial act (after the Sex Pistols) could have been the cause for alarm. “My cassette’s just like a bazooka,” shouts teenager Annabella Lwin over pseudo-African drumming and giddy guitar chords. “I don’t buy records in your shop / I tape them all off Top Of The Pops.” The industry wanted to impose a hefty levy on blank tapes to make up for perceived losses in income; consumers responded by purchasing more pre-recorded tapes than vinyl LPs—until the CD came along later in the decade. Then, of course, file-sharing opened the floodgates, and cassettes—and songs like this—became signifiers of a more innocent past.
5. R.E.M., “Star 69” (1994)
Although it seems laughably low-tech in the new millennium, the subject of this R.E.M. song from 1994’s Monster offered the pre-caller-ID world a powerful tool (and a considerable victory against prank callers): the ability to dial back whoever just called you by typing *69. The circumstances around using it in “Star 69” aren’t entirely clear—making out the words is hard enough, thanks to Michael Stipe’s heavily delayed vocals—but it has something to do with a criminal friend and arson. But the chorus spells out this brave new technological world: “I know you called, I know you called / I know you hung up my line, star 69.”
6. Brittney Cleary, “I.M. Me” (2001)
While instant messaging is still en vogue—whether it be through Facebook, Gmail, iChat, or whatever—something about Brittney Cleary’s “I.M. Me” is already incredibly out of touch even a mere nine years after its release. From the creaky door opening and trademark America Online “Hello!” at the kickoff to 12-year-old Cleary’s creepy, Shania Twain-like, adult-lady voice, this Radio Disney hit is orchestrated to the nth degree to capitalize on some focus-grouped idea of what “these kids today” are into. As such, “I.M. Me” is riddled with TTYLs, BBFNs, and pleas to “sign my guestbook with your screen name,” so it’s ever-so-poignant when Cleary wails, “It’s easier to type than use a pen.” Too true, Britters. Too true.
7. “O Superman,” Laurie Anderson (1981)
Some version of voicemail will be with us for the foreseeable future, but who knows what future generations will make of Laurie Anderson’s landmark single, which takes the form of an answering-machine monologue? With caller ID replacing call screening, the once-familiar refrain “Pick up… Are you there?” has drifted out of the lexicon, or at least drifted far enough out of use that its metaphysical undertones no longer seem quite so profound. What hasn’t dated, strangely enough, are the song’s eerie vocoder harmonies. Even though the sound has become a cliché in the Auto-Tune era, Anderson’s use of it is so strange as to seem timeless. Likewise the critique of American militarism, which never goes out of style.
8. Sir Mix-A-Lot, “Beepers” (1989)
Among the many, many hip-hop songs fetishizing the beeper, the most time-capsule-like might be Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Beepers.” With lines like “If you ain’t got that PIN number, dummy, you can’t call me” and a video that (between shots of Mix riding in a top-down convertible on Seattle’s Aurora Avenue) features a couple of women calling someone back in a telephone booth, it’s a perfectly preserved piece of pre-cell-phone history. Never forget.
9. The Five Americans, “Western Union” (1967)
It’s still possible to send a telegram, but it’s inconvenient and expensive, especially when compared to how cheap it is to give someone else in the U.S. a call or send them an e-mail (or hit them up on Skype, or talk to them on Facebook, or…). Is it possible, then, that there are people alive today who hear The Five Americans’ “Western Union” and don’t recognize the high-pitched “dit dit dit dit dit” atop the chorus as an imitation of Morse code? The song—which is all about reaching the singer’s girl when a phone call just won’t do—could be called charmingly anachronistic if the whole culture of sending telegrams hadn’t so completely and suddenly disappeared since the time the song was written in the late ’60s.
10. The Count And Sinden, “Beeper” (2008)
Infatuated with the beeper’s old-school cool, London house duo The Count And Sinden penned this catchy 2008 paean to pagers, featuring the vocals of Chicago rapper Kid Sister. The song is set to a sample of actual beeper noises, and details an ill-fated romance as a young woman hands an admirer her pager number, only to dis him once he sends her a tasteless booty-call message in code.
11. Britney Spears, “E-mail My Heart” (1999)
On this husky-voiced teeny-bop ballad from Britney Spears’ debut, she’s figuring out how to negotiate both the somewhat-new technology of e-mail and the age-old vicissitudes of boy-girl relationships: “All I do is check the screen to see if you’re okay / You don’t answer when I phone / Guess you want to be left alone / So now I’m sending you my heart, my soul,” she sings. Pity the next generation who has to learn all over again how to do those things with whatever next invention enables us to talk to each other without actually talking to each other.
12. The Promise Ring, “Make Me A Mix Tape” (2000)
It’s sad to think that today’s emo youth have never known the joy of making an actual mix-tape—or really, the joy of any magnetic tape at all. The medium was nearly dead by the time The Promise Ring released this joyous ode to the practice of curating songs to catch a love interest’s eye. (“It makes me yours,” goes the final line.) “Burn me a comp CD” or “Make me a playlist” don’t have nearly the emotional resonance, and neither lends itself to hand-drawn track lists, either. “Mix Tape” even alludes to another bygone practice in its lyrics: “Write me a letter, tell me where you are.”
13. The Capris, “Morse Code Of Love” (1982)
The notion of sending a telegram to a beloved already sounded old-fashioned in 1982, but then so did the group singing about it. The Capris scored some early-’60s doo-wop hits, most famously “There’s A Moon Out Tonight,” then enjoyed a bit of a comeback during one of the genre’s periodic revivals in the early ’80s. The group goes beyond referencing the telegram: Its singers imitate it with a chorus that goes “dit dot ditty dit dot a ditty ditty.” What’s that mean? It’s the Morse code of love, baby.
14. The Replacements, “Answering Machine” (1984)
The ironic subtext of The Replacements’ classic “Answering Machine” is that a technology designed to facilitate communication can so easily be used to avoid it—to become just one more way to hasten the demise of an already-doomed long-distance relationship. “How do you say I miss you to an answering machine? / How do you say good night to an answering machine?” Paul Westerberg wails as the voice of the operator—yet another unfeeling automation butting in—coldly intones, “If you need help…” over and over. That pain and frustration over being separated and shut out by someone you love is timeless, but the future holds so many exciting electronic ways to have your heart broken.
15. The Kinks, “Party Line” (1966)
Ray Davies made a career out of writing about social and technological conventions—like preservation societies and steam-powered trains—that were already outmoded when he was celebrating them in the ’60s. But he doesn’t seem particularly enamored of old-timey telephone communication on the Face To Face standout “Party Line,” which finds the head Kink wondering who he’s sharing his conversations with on the same phone loop. He’s pretty sure it’s a girl, which offers enough of a romantic possibility for Davies to want to meet her, but he isn’t even sure if “she’s a she at all.” Ultimately, the guy just wants some privacy: “This party line was here when I arrived, which I’m not voting for in the next election,” he sings. In the end, he just had to wait a couple of years for direct caller-to-caller technology.
16. Warren G, “Ringtone” (2009)
Relationship signifiers have undoubtedly grown more complicated over the past decade. While new couples play a game of brinksmanship to see who will change their online relationship status first, Warren G. celebrates a lower-stakes move with “Ringtone”: “She’s got her own ringtone on my phone / so when she calls my phone, I know it’s on.” For maximum musical-time-capsule appeal, G drops in references to picture texts, rollover minutes (paired with a line about a king-sized bed that allows for rolling over), and mobile carriers (“Verizon, Sprint, Metro, even Boost / Nextel talkin’ on the cell in the coupe”). It’s basically a smooth, sexy version of “Hello My Baby,” though it’s doubtful it will age as gracefully.
17. Trey Songz, “LOL :-)” (2009)
Trey Songz’s 2009 hit is a pileup of au courant, soon-to-be-quaint technological references. The subject, as usual for Songz, is sex, in particular the way gadgets and facilitate hook-ups. Needing some loving from Songz (and to a lesser extent, featured guests Gucci Mane and Soulja Boy Tell ’Em), women send texts, Twitpics, MySpace messages, and emoticons like the one found in the title. The technology might be cold, but the results are anything but.
18. “Weird Al” Yankovic, “UHF” (1989)
Long before cable became widespread in the late ’70s, the television dial only had channels 2 to 13—until you turned it to the mysterious “U” and explored the wilderness of numbers leading up to 69. For most people, the UHF band of the TV dial had only a handful of local stations, most of which had fuzzy reception and ultra-cheap programming, which was part of the appeal. That’s what “Weird Al” Yankovic celebrated with his cult 1989 movie UHF, and its title song, in all its analog glory: “We control the horizontal / We control the vertical too / We’re gonna make a couch potato out of you… We’ve got it all on UHF.”
19. Bruce Springsteen, “57 Channels And Nothin’ On” (1992)
The Boss lost his way creatively in the early ’90s when he pulled up stakes in New Jersey, ditched the E Street Band, and moved to Los Angeles to work with hotshot studio musicians on what turned out to be his two least-regarded albums, Human Touch and Lucky Town. Even Springsteen seemed to realize this—as it was happening, no less—judging from the Human Touch highlight “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On),” which uses cable TV as a metaphor for the emptiness of his newfound Hollywood lifestyle. The only problem is that, in retrospect, having a cable package with only 57 channels hardly seems luxurious enough for a man who “bought a bourgeois house in the Hollywood hills with a truckload of hundred-thousand-dollar bills.” It certainly doesn’t seem like enough options to spend switching “‘round and ’round ’til half past dawn.” These days, everybody knows you can whip through 57 channels in less than five minutes, which is about as long as it would take for a rock star like Springsteen to get back on the phone to rustle up a better cable provider.
20. Prince, “My Computer” (1996)
Naturally, Prince—who’s always been fascinated by technology—was a fairly early adopter of the Internet. “My Computer,” from 1996’s triple-CD Emancipation, beats out the same album’s “Emale” (which is more of a traditional boy-meets-girl song with some cyberspace attached) as a wide-eyed harbinger of “a better world, a better life” to come through technology, complete with friendly America Online samples of “Welcome!” and “You’ve got mail!” “I scan my computer, looking for a site / Somebody to talk to, funny and bright,” he sings on the chorus. Clearly, nobody could have told him about the “firsties” cesspool that message boards and comment-boxes would devolve into. Perhaps that’s why he recently declared the Internet “over,” thereby rendering his own song obsolete?
21. MC Frontalot, “Pr0n S0ng” (2005)
Masturbating to titillating images has been around since the first crude drawing of a topless cavewoman, but the lyrics of MC Frontalot’s “Pr0n S0ng” make one of humanity’s most abiding activities sound almost alien. “Lurking in #pass chans on the IRC / Got DCC’d unexpectedly with an 80-minute XviD: Nuns In Heat Part III: Bad Habits,” Frontalot says. Though he’s talking about the time-honored tradition of, as he puts it, whipping it out for a naughty movie, even in the present day, all but the most Internet-savvy may get lost. In the future, his talk of archiving nasty scans from “alt.binaries.everything” and trading “MPEGs of an heiress that she ought regret” (not to mention his complaint that his “mouse wheel don’t turn ’cause it’s all gummed up”) will probably sound downright primitive compared to whatever new methods we invent for procuring our jerk-off material.
22. De La Soul, “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)” (1991)
De La Soul enjoyed a taste of fame and fortune after releasing 1989’s instant classic 3 Feet High And Rising. Trouble is, everyone else wanted a taste too. “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey),” a single from the trio’s darker follow-up, De La Soul Is Dead, offered a long kiss-off to everyone pushing demo tapes their way hoping they could do as De La does. The solution: Hey, call the answering machine. Someone’ll get back to you soon. Just hang in there. Chances are, some would-be stars are probably still waiting for their messages to be returned nearly 20 years later.
23. Chris Brown, “A Song For Twitter” (2009)
Like any modern-day 20-year-old who’s just broken up with his girlfriend because he’s been given a restraining order after repeatedly pummeling her in the face, R&B singer/oversized bowtie aficionado Chris Brown took to the Internet to work through his pain, posting explanations, apologies, and even a tribute video to the failed relationship on his Twitter. Many eyebrows were raised at this ill-advised bit of public relations, but the deluding power of the @ reply is strong, and the support Brown received from his followers in the wake of his February 2009 felony assault on pop singer Rihanna could have been the catalyst for “A Song For Twitter.” Then again, perhaps that’s giving him too much credit, as “A Song For Twitter” contains nothing remotely resembling introspection—or even much discussion of the 140-character phenomenon at all. It’s really just a showcase for guest rapper K-mac’s to lay down so-so rhymes over a generic chorus where Brown boasts “I be goin’ out, I’m a go-getter / I be feelin’ all the chicks that follow me like Twitter.” It’s not much in the way of a legacy for either Brown or Twitter, and definitely not worth the time it takes to retweet it.
24. Slumber Party Girls, “The Texting Song” (2006)
Ridiculous as it may seem, future progeny, young people once communicated in short bursts of letters and numbers called “text messages.” To allow more time for taking photos of themselves, they devised a form of shorthand, such as the kind elucidated in “The Texting Song (BTW, This Is All 4 U)” by Slumber Party Girls—a teen-pop group assembled at the behest of corporate opportunists, as was the style at the time. For example, when these Girls said “We’re gonna make you LOL,” they meant you would “laugh out loud.” When they warned, “Don’t tell us to BRB,” they meant they would not “be right back,” because they were already there, “rockin’ eternally.” And when they claimed they were “All live, we OGG” and said that if you didn’t want to join in, “then GTG”—well, we had no idea what they were talking about, and didn’t particularly care to look it up, because we had other things to worry about, like the imminent death of the ocean. Perhaps you should visit the Library Of Congress’ Urban Dictionary wing.
25. Paul Simon, “Kodachrome”
A breezy examination of the fallibility of memory, Paul Simon’s song pits reality against the souped-up colors of Kodak’s flagship film stock. Photographs, he sings, “make you think all the world’s a sunny day.” By way of an example, he convenes an imaginary summit of his ex-girlfriends—the ones, presumably, to whom his thoughts drift when his current relationship starts feeling oppressive—then cops to the fact that they probably weren’t so great, either: “Everything looks worse in black and white.” As of 2009, Kodachrome is itself merely a memory, a relic of the era before digital cameras and hi-res cell phones. Nowadays, we’re drowning in images, whose capture often supplants the experience they purport to document. Simon’s song now evokes nostalgia for a time when pictures came in finite rolls, and you could go to a concert without having your view of the stage blocked by a wall of iPhones.