When Adele and Drake duke it out on the Hot 100 next week, it’ll be more than just a clash between streaming versus downloading, or yet another example of Drake’s dreams been crushed by a woman. Both “Hello” and “Hotline Bling” find common ground in romantic duress revolving around the telephone, the former about missed connections with an ex via home phone, and the latter about missed connections with a soon-to-be-ex-something via cell phone.
This fascination isn’t new, of course: Pop music’s relationship with the telephone is a long and sometimes sordid affair. Neither obsolete technology nor ever-evolving modes of communication has stopped the device from being a central plot point in dozens of hits. The phone has helped romance smolder — whether protagonists are whispering sweet nothings over a land line while twirling a rotary phone cord, leaving declarations of love on answering machines, or slyly sexting from an iPhone 6 — but it’s also functioned as a vessel for heartache, in times when messages are ignored or nobody picks up. As these 30 songs reveal, although the device itself has changed over the years, the phone’s importance to relationships has stayed remarkably constant — and thus remained a lyrical staple.
“Chantilly Lace,” Big Bopper (1958)
It’s distressing to realize that men have been using the same lame lines to woo women for decades, just communicating them via varying degrees of effort as technology has enabled. In “Chantilly Lace,” the Big Bopper is chatting on the phone with his gal, obliquely and idly complimenting her ass, her voice, and her face, while peppering their conversation with “baby”s and “honey”s. But the work put in over the phone isn’t getting him anywhere IRL: She orders him to be on time when picking her up for a date, and though he claims to be broke, it’s clear she won’t be paying a cent when they go out.
“Beechwood 4-5789,” The Marvelettes (1962)
Call the romantic instigator of this Marvin Gaye–co-written motown tune the proto-Beyoncé: This bold woman not only drags a shy guy onto the dance floor, she then flirtatiously gives out her phone number and coos, “I'd like to make you mine.” Best of all, she placates his ego by framing it up like it’s his idea: “You can call me up and have a date any old time.” Brilliant!
“634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.),” Wilson Pickett (1966)
This hope-springs-eternal soul hit feels like a very early, chaste version of a personal ad. A crew of female vocalists repeatedly sings Pickett’s digits, while he encourages those looking for “huggin’” and “kissin’” to give him a call.
“Party Line,” the Kinks (1966)
Party lines — a telephone connection shared by multiple people or households — were notorious for their lack of privacy. This is distressing to the Kinks, who are unable to get proper intel on a mysterious woman who always seems to be chatting when they dial in: “Is she big, is she small? / Is she a she at all?” Farcical mayhem might ensue, but we suspect it might be easier if they just ask who she is directly instead of making insulting judgments about her theoretical appearance.
“Telephone Line,” Electric Light Orchestra (1976)
When a relationship ends and you don’t have closure because an ex won’t answer your calls, you can either dwell on the unknown or move on with your life. For those who prefer the former approach, there’s ELO’s soft-glow orchestral-pop hit “Telephone Line.” All the song’s protagonist wants is one more conversation with a faraway love; instead, his call isn’t answered, which inspires an epic wallow overflowing with the sort of emotional gloom and doom that makes it stick in your mind.
“Hanging on the Telephone,” the Nerves (1976)
The lovelorn protagonist of the Nerves’ ragged power-pop gem is the kind of psycho hose beast for whom restraining orders are invented. He’s calling his ex incessantly from a phone booth near her house, asks to see her in person though it’s clear the relationship is over (“I'd like to talk when I can show you my affection”— ew) and ends the song by demanding, “Hang up and run to me.” Uh, sure, creepster, I’ll be right over. All that said, what a great song!
“Love on the Telephone,” Foreigner (1979)
Long-distance relationships: When you’re together, things are hunky-dory; when you’re apart, uncertainty and longing rear their ugly heads. And so the couple depicted in Foreigner’s synth-prog romp “Love on the Telephone” is all too relatable to anyone who’s put themselves through this emotional hell: The man is repeatedly staving off a phone-based breakup, instead trying to convince his beloved that things will be perfect once they’re united by more than just a land line.
“Call Me,” Blondie (1980)
While the lyrics of Blondie’s signature hit are wildly chill about the future of a burgeoning love affair, both the pulsating disco-pop beat and Harry’s vocal delivery urge her potential beau to drop her a line. It’s an anthem for women who know what they want — and have no qualms about asking for it, albeit very coolly.
“867-5309/Jenny,” Tommy Tutone (1981)
Tommy Tutone’s New Wave trifle has all the makings of a rom-com: The lovesick main character has spotted Jenny’s digits on some random wall and is trying to muster up the nerve to call her. The potential meet-cute ends there, however, because he’s already let his imagination run wild about their theoretical relationship and proclaimed that he “need[s] to make you mine.” Pass.
“Mr. Telephone Man,” New Edition (1984)
First heartbreak sticks with you forever, especially when it’s handled in a confusing, callous way. Just ask New Edition: Although they insist throughout the bubblegum R&B lament “Mr. Telephone Man” that their “baby wouldn't hang up on me,” there’s too much evidence to the contrary. They keep hearing a click that’s not a line glitch, while her sister, a “strange man,” and even the operator are all conspiring to block communication. Take the hint and lose her number.
“I Just Called to Say I Love You,” Stevie Wonder (1984)
Leave it to Stevie to set the bar insanely high for romantic telephone gestures — so high, in fact, that even today’s text-only zealots would pick up the phone for this. No special occasion needed — Wonder was just hanging out and figured he’d call up his beloved to let her know he cares. This guy.
“Answering Machine,” the Replacements (1984)
Answering machines are relics that go hand-in-hand with the days when, y’know, people actually talked on the phone. However, the agony described in this Replacements song is completely timeless: Sometimes you do want to hear the voice of someone you miss, and the possibility of having to leave a message instead is downright excruciating. That the song dead-ends with a looped sample of a computerized operator intoning, “If you need help, if you need help …” adds insult to injury.
“Lost Your Number,” Nu Shooz (1986)
Technology has made the premise of this song obsolete on many different levels. Freestyle pioneers Nu Shooz want to use a pay phone to dial up their new obsession, but have lost the scrap of paper with their phone number — a catastrophic loss that would kill the relationship before it started. Now you could probably creep online a little and send a Facebook message instead. How romantic.
“Talk Dirty to Me,” Poison (1986)
Those nice young gentlemen in Poison never specify how “dirty” their phone conversations get, but we can safely assume they’ll involve R-rated ways to make late-night tour stops that much more bearable. The “Talk Dirty to Me” video is far more problematic, however, as it features Bret Michaels ringing up what appears to be a teenage girl, who breathily tells him, “I want to put my hands all over you.” In today’s world, this gesture would get him doxxed and put on full blast across social media. Back then, it just ran up the phone bill for his hotel room.
“The Telephone Call,” Kraftwerk (1987)
If you’ve dated (or married) someone emotionally stoic, you know that even the smallest overt romantic overtures are a Big Deal, things to be cherished when they happen. That’s certainly the biggest takeaway from this percolating synth-pop jam from the masters of the genre. The recurring sample of someone dialing a rotary phone is used to prop up adorkable lines such as, “I call you up from time to time / To hear your voice on the telephone line.”
“Star 69,” R.E.M. (1994)
The pre-caller-I.D. standby *69 — used to dial back the last person who called you — was the bane of any prankster’s existence, the surefire way to get caught misbehaving. As this buzzsawing, lighthearted R.E.M. track underscores, punching in *69 is indeed an excellent way to exact revenge on a not-so-smart crook who wants to drag an innocent into a massive criminal enterprise.
“Spiderwebs,” No Doubt (1995)
Long before iPhones made it super easy to block the numbers of annoying suitors who couldn’t take a hint, No Doubt was doling out tips on how to ghost while sidestepping messy emotional confrontation. It’s foolproof, really: Screen your calls and let them go to voice mail. Of course, in this age, leaving a voice mail is a damn fools’ errand.
“The Call,” Backstreet Boys (2001)
“The Call” begins with a phone conversation between one of the Boys and his girl that’s cut short due to a low cell battery and bad reception. Spoiler alert: This intro foreshadows a similar scene later in the song, when he has the same conversation right before he sneaks off and cheats on her with someone he just met. (Naturally, she eventually finds out — this is a BSB song, so the moral undertones are hard to shake.) At least the lying lout is racked with guilt over how much that fateful call derailed his relationship and his life.
“Hung Up,” Madonna (2005)
At first, “Hung Up” is shockingly out of character for Madonna: She spends the first half of the Confessions on a Dance Floor single glued to the phone hoping her dude will call. Thankfully, our Madge remembers that she would destroy him with one swift stiletto dropkick and dumps the scrub, letting him know he’ll regret it later. Revenge is a dish Madonna serves best.
“Beeper,” Count & Sinden feat. Kid Sister (2008)
It’s weird to be nostalgic for primitive technology, but there’s absolutely something charming about the days of pagers and beepers, when text-flirting was far less fraught with subtext. As with anything, however, people found a way to be jerks anyway: On “Beeper,” Kid Sister shuts a guy down because he crudely disrespected her by paging “69.” Rude.
“Video Phone,” Beyoncé feat. Lady Gaga (2009)
Bey’s self-confidence is such that she isn’t afraid of having sexy-time videos of her floating around on her guy’s phone — in fact, she encourages him to rewatch the provocative clips, seemingly immune to the fact his bros could also be watching. Reflective of voyeurism? Nah, maybe it’s that he knows she’d effectively end him if the clips got out.
“Text Me,” R. Kelly (2009)
Raunchy text messages have largely replaced booty calls, which is kind of a shame: Few things are more seductive than the sound of a human voice expressing longing. Put it out of your mind that Kellz is saying these things (shudder), as he does raise a good point with his memorable cut: Sexts are simply the aperitif to the call — which, in the most indulgent scenario, is just foreplay for an in-person rendezvous.
“LOL :),” Trey Songz feat. Gucci Mane and Soulja Boy (2009)
Of course, these text messages are either completely eye-rolling or enticing, depending on your feelings towards the sender. This song illustrates how quickly textual seduction can get bordering-on-embarrassing levels of cheesy (“Sent that lil' face with the tongue 'cause I'm nasty” is actually one of the lines here, I mean, c'mon).
“Telephone,” Lady Gaga feat. Beyoncé (2009)
Okay, so at least it wasn’t a Post-it breakup, but still: Ending it with Lady Gaga via phone is an exercise in futility. She’s going to blame you for being needy and ignore your pathetic call barrage — all while sipping Champagne and dancing up a storm in the club with freakin’ Beyoncé.
“Call Me Maybe,” Carly Rae Jepsen (2011)
Carly Rae Jepsen acutely nails the vulnerability it takes to give someone your phone number out of the blue. Sure, she keeps things light enough to make the digit transaction feel like no big deal, but part of what made people love this song is that its glimmers of hope mirror the optimistic butterflies that creep in after meeting a potential paramour.
“Payphone,” Maroon 5 feat. Wiz Khalifa (2012)
It’s unclear why, in the year 2012, Maroon 5 were using a pay phone to salvage a relationship. Is someone going around swatting Adam Levine’s iPhone out of his hand every time he goes to make a call? (An inside joke among Voice bros, no doubt, that Blake Shelton took too far.) Did Levine simply want to show that he really cares, since pay phones aren’t even easy to find? Either way it’s a moot point, since the relationship seems sunk by self-loathing, regret about past indiscretions, and half-baked accusations. Way to waste your big romantic pay-phone gesture on a lost cause. Ya burnt, Levine!
“Car Phone,” Julian Smith (2014)
Zack Morris’s oversize portable phone has no peer in terms of ridiculousness — even though the gigantic, clunky car phones that were a luxury item in the ’80s are a close second. This robotic electropop spoof mocks the high price of calls ($2 a minute!) and how utterly non-useful these contraptions were: The song’s father figure puffs up with pride over being able to call his friends to meet up for doughnuts.
“Text Me in the Morning,” Neon Trees (2014)
The morning-after-debauchery text exchange is a frightening thing. Will last night’s phone history be a train wreck when examined in the sober light of day? Will you find out about bad decisions from someone else? Did you tell your crush you loved him? In the case of the latter, if Neon Trees is involved, you can rest assured that they won’t hold this sloppy-drunk admission against you. After all, they’re respectful folks who actually care if you’re okay: “When all the other boys just want your sex / I just want your texts in the morning.”
“Hello,” Adele (2015)
On one hand, Adele’s “Hello” might be about her navigating awkward conversations while making amends for breaking an ex’s heart. On the other, perhaps the song is one extended overreaction to the fact that she can’t get him on the damn phone. Perhaps using a land line instead of a flip phone will help?
“Hotline Bling,” Drake (2015)
“Hotline Bling” is the classic tale of the sulking man-child who can’t handle the fact that the world doesn’t revolve around him. After he moves away, his former girl stops late-night booty-calling him, which makes the poor baby feel rejected. To hide his hurt feelings, he tut-tuts that she’s no longer a “good girl” because she starts going out more, dresses provocatively, and is even (gasp) maybe hooking up with another guy. Quick note to Drake: The phone works both ways, buddy, maybe you could have turned this thing around if you called her for once instead of playing the “you’ve changed” card when you’re the one who moved away and all. I know you’re busy and all, but, like ...