Left on Read: Telepoetics of the Disembodied Voice
Keywords: telecommunications, song lyrics, contemporary music, hyper-connectivity, missed connections.
This is an automatically generated transcript of Stefana Fratila’s paper, ‘Left on Read: Telepoetics of the Disembodied Voice’. Although it has been checked, please note that some transcription errors may remain.
Full transcripts appearing online for the duration of Telepoetics (27 May – 5 June 2020) have been reduced to excerpts of approx. 750 words.
[00:00:01] My name is Stefana Fratila and this is Left On Read: Telepoetics of the Disembodied Voice.
[00:00:10] Some of the worlds most notable and chart-topping songs make direct reference to telephones: this lineage stretches from Blondie’s “Call Me”, Madonna’s “Hung Up”, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s “Telephone”, Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend”, Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”, to Drake’s “Hotline Bling”. I am interested in exploring the possibilities of
[00:00:30] telepoetics through an analysis of telephone-propelled narrative arcs within song lyrics from the 1990s until present day.
[00:00:38] My engagement with telepoetics revolves around an interest in the relationship between telephony and literature, as well as the process of aestheticizing telecommunications. I feel particularly compelled to trace the ways that songs sample the affective structures of landline and mobile telecommunications. Certain storylines from only two decades ago would lose their dramatic functionality if the characters simply owned cell phones. In this recent history, the lack of personal telephones has actually been an essential part of TV and film writing– especially when it comes to building tension and raising the stakes. In the Friends Season 1 finale, “The One Where Rachel Finds Out”, Rachel is seen gripping tightly to a bouquet of flowers, nervously waiting to surprise Ross at the airport gate, to tell him that she wants to give their relationship a chance. Punctuated by Madonna’s “Take A Bow”, the moment is deeply heartbreaking as we, the audience, see that Ross has a cool new girlfriend, while Rachel has no idea. Of course, it’s difficult to imagine Rachel and Ross texting over WhatsApp, but if they had, the story would have turned out very differently. He might have not started seeing someone while away in China, or Rachel might have not come to the airport at all. The episode, in this alternate (future) timeline, would be (simply) boring. The moment is heartbreaking precisely because of an absence of cell phones and texting–and the potential for lost connections and chance encounters that this technological void makes possible. Similarly, many romcom climaxes in or around airports are so moving because the characters cannot call each other. With cell phones,
[00:02:14] there would be no young boy running through Heathrow airport to catch his first crush, as there is in Love Actually (from 2001), nor would Billy Idol have assisted Adam Sandler’s character in wooing Drew Barrymore’s character while on an airplane mid-flight, in The Wedding Singer (from 1998). We have clung to these moments, as the characters are almost suspended in time, a frame of hours within which they are unreachable, between leaving for the airport and reaching their hotel. Or, perhaps, even for longer, when they come home and check their answering machine for messages. If part of 1990s TV and film is an aestheticization of a lack of reachability, that the climaxes or moments occur when the characters cannot pick up the phone and speak to one another, then in music it is precisely the opposite; producers, songwriters, musicians, vocalists have found ways to centre the telephone, to use it as an instrument, in fact, to build suspense, unleash tension, and hold the promise of romance through the telephone. Of course, replacing the aforementioned TV and film story arcs, the cell phone ushers in a whole new selection of problems, like the phenomenon of being left on “read” or activating “Do Not Disturb”. The telephone fundamentally recasts our experience of narrative space.
[00:03:31] It is a device capable of both altering the stakes of connection, loss, and exchange as well as a transporter for the voice and feelings of its users. In a time when our phones serve as a proverbial lifeline
[00:03:43] (this has become only more true within the emergent context of covid-19), song lyrics both poeticize and archive our longing for one another through the medium of telephones
[00:03:53] and, more specifically, the disembodied voice. At its very core, the telephone is a transporter for our voices. When we put the receiver to our ear, we are hearing a disembodied articulation and, although intangibly, an essence of whom the sound belongs to. Though the speaker’s body is hidden from view, we hear the voice of the person on the other side in our ear, intimately so– as the phone vibrates with sound, especially if held closely enough to the ear, it feels like their breath is in our ear, ghostly but not unlike the real person being there, near us. Telephones, in bringing us voices and a trace of the sounds surrounding those voices too, are like microphones. Music, as perhaps an ultimately sonic medium, is a perfect arena for the telephone to be used within.