In years to come, leading scholars in the British Library will surely pore over the lyrics of Lil Uzi Vert’s ‘Erase the Socials’ (“Pull up the Snapchats on me / I ain’t got no Snapchat homie”) in a quest to learn more about ’10s history – suspending their disbelief that once upon a time, humans communicated using disappearing pictures. Frank Ocean’s ‘Facebook Story’ will puzzle historians everywhere, and entire dissertations will be written about Kelly Rowland’s creative use of an Excel spreadsheet in the music video for ‘Dilemma’.
While a lot of tech-nodding tracks are yet to reach their moment of dinosaur reckoning, their day will eventually arrive – and like a firm and assured press of a self-service checkout’s ‘customer looks clearly over 25’ button, it will be a crushing, humiliating moment. Sticking tech references in a song is a dangerous business – just ask these artists who have already found themselves demoted from cutting edge tech to ’embarrassing auntie who won’t stop reminiscing about AOL’…
Britney Spears, ‘Email My Heart’ (1999)
A staple of the genre. Britney Spears made an accurate assessment about her weirdest slow-jam, ‘Email My Heart’: “everyone has been doing emails,” she said “…so everyone can relate to that song”. Approximately a year ago, I would’ve respectfully disagreed – but now, after a year of working from home, I think I’d probably cry if my local pub sent out a newsletter declaring that “our love will stay alive forever.”
Destiny’s Child, ‘Bug-A-Boo’ (1999)
Nowadays, you’ll only find a pager in a couple of places: they’re still used in hospitals, and sometimes restaurants (remember them?) hand you those terrifying plastic squares that wobble aggressively across the table when your food is ready. By and large, though, it’s an outdated piece of tech clobber – and way back in ’99, Destiny’s Child were leading the rebellion. “You make me want to throw my pager out the window,” they sang, spurning an overzealous suitor who doesn’t know when to quit it; soon the situation escalates, and the band are forced to turn to AOL’s email blocker. It raises a question – what on earth was he filling her mailbox with? Unless it was the short-lived Glossier discount code that accidentally went public the other week, there’s no excuse.
Missy Elliott, ‘Beep Me 911’ (1997)
A stone-cold classic to this day, Missy Elliott just wants closure from a cheating scumbag on ‘Beep Me 911’– her pager’s primed and ready to settle matters once and for all. And when Missy tells him to dial 911, she’s referring to a series of code numbers people used to communicate via their tiny pager screens – this one means ‘it’s an emergency’. And buckle up, because pager-related code messages put txtspk to shame: ‘1134 2 09’ means ‘go to hell’ (flip it upside down) and ‘187’ means ‘I hate you’ (see also: Snoop Dogg’s ‘What’s My Name’ dialling “187 on the motherfucking cop”)
Låpsley, ‘Operator (He Doesn’t Call Me)’ (2016)
On this disco-flecked track from Låpsley’s debut, the Liverpool-raised singer has a very tuneful rant about a long distance-squeeze who won’t pick up the blower, and in an attempt to get in touch, she rings up the telephone switchboard. It makes for an excellent song about fleetingly seducing an anonymous employee on the other end of the phone (and not to mention a cracking DJ Koze remix) but next time it might be quicker to check when they were last online on WhatsApp, Lappers.
De La Soul, ‘Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)’ (1991)
Years before people finally realised that leaving voicemail messages is an excruciating business – and long ahead of mobile phones with voicemail built in – households clamoured to buy answering machines. Equipped with a tape recorder, and hooked up to your landline, this cutting-edge piece of tech welcomed callers with a pre-recorded greeting, and let them leave a message after the tone – and for De La Soul, having a robotic PA was a saving grace. Despite being inundated by endless demo tapes, the Long Island trio were kind enough to record a jingle for theirs: “Hey – how ya doin’? Sorry ya can’t get through / Why don’t you leave your name and your number, and I’ll get back to you.”
Pulp, ‘Ansaphone’ (1995)
Not just a jaunty attempt at mixing up spelling, ‘Ansaphone’ borrows its name from a particular brand of answerphone – one which is currently causing poor old Jarvis Cocker no end of grief. “Are you really not at home?” he despairs after being met by the ominous bleep, “or are you there but not alone, screening calls you don’t want to receive?” Popped on the deluxe edition of ‘Different Class’, this B-side serves as an accidental kitschy artefact from an era bygone – the modern equivalent is surely checking if the person you fancy has been watching your Instagram stories.
Kraftwerk, ‘Pocket Calculator’ (1981)
Though it’s quite tragic to look back, clunky calculators offered endless amusement at school: why would anybody in their right mind focus on mastering algebra when you could use your TI-84 Plus CE graphing calculator to secretly spell out rude words and play Pac-Man? And before smartphone apps made them obsolete, it wasn’t completely unheard of to see people lugging around a pocket calculator outside the classroom, either. For Kraftwerk, the appeal was obvious: “I am adding and subtracting, I’m controlling and composing / By pressing down a special key, it plays a little melody.” A simpler time.
Kanye West, ‘I’m In It’ (2013)
Like 2013’s answer to Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed lovers at the heart of this lusty ‘Yeezus’ cut seem doomed from the start, committed by contract to rival smartphone providers. “Damn, your lips very soft, as I turn my Blackberry off,” Kanye growls atop orgasmic groans, ”and I turn your bathwater on, and you turn off your iPhone.” There’s an awful lot of button-bashing taking place mid-pashing, and all perilously close to an over-brimming bathtub – it’s an expensive trip to the Apple store waiting to happen. PS: ‘do not disturb’ mode exists for this reason.
Lupe Fiasco, ‘Hip Hop Saved My Life’ (2008)
Once upon a time in the early ’00s, entire battles were won and lost in people’s Myspace ‘Friends’ section – meaningfully axing somebody who wronged you from your Top 10 was considered the ultimate power-move. And on ‘Hip Hop Saved My Life’ Lupe Fiasco sings about a fast-rising rapper who is sitting on a political landmine: “1100 friends on his myspace page / Stack that cheese got 700 plays”. With great power comes great responsibility.
Kendrick Lamar, ‘Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter’ (2012)
Long before the advent of Hinge and Tinder, message-based courting took place strictly over SMS and, occasionally, on a glorified walkie-talkie radio. And on Kendrick Lamar’s second album ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D City’, ‘Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter’ revisits a summer fling that began with a simple exchange: ”’What you trying to get into?’ She didn’t tell, just gave me her Nextel”. Interestingly the song neglects to mention that it took about 20 minutes to download a text message on the bloody thing.