Peng t(h)ing called disruption…

Discourse and rhetoric around the ‘sharing economy’ is something that fascinates me, and I am hoping to do a larger project on the topic (subject to time, funding and the usual caveats). But the 2017 release of two songs ostensibly ‘about’ new ways of travelling (Tom Zanetti’s ‘Uber’ and Not3s’ ‘Addison Lee’), and the brief shout-out to Airbnb in the best-selling ‘Feels’ (Calvin Harris with Pharrell Williams, Katy Perry & Big Sean) prompted me to say a few words about popular music and the Internet at this year’s Gikii workshop. My full playlist is available on Spotify, and the text that follows is an attempt to summarise some of my points. (Links in this post are to YouTube, where available).

It’s not unusual for communications technology to be mentioned in lyrics. Glenn Miller’s ‘Pennsylvania 6-5000‘ used the brief and catchy telephone number of the hotel in which his band performed as a refrain – indeed, the only spoken words in the whole piece. Indeed, 20th-century popular music has a whole plethora of songs about or referring to telephones – be that Blondie’s ‘Hanging on the Telephone‘ (1978) or ELO’s ‘Telephone Line‘ (1977) (which I borrowed for an academic article, once) – and into the 21st century, Lady Gaga’s ‘Telephone‘ (2009) also makes significant use of (somewhat retro) telephone imagery in its much-viewed video, while Drake’s >1bn viewed ‘Hotline Bling‘ (2016) makes specific and repeated reference to something that Glenn Miller would not have imagined – the now-ubiquitous cellphone. (As pointed out in the discussion and in subsequent emails, the metaphorical potential of the telegraph and telephone is strong – ranging from Cardinal Wiseman’s Victorian hymn ‘Full in the panting heart of Rome‘ (‘For, like the sparks of unseen fire / That speak along the magic wire / From home to home, from heart to heart / The words of countless children dart / God bless our Pope, the great, the good’ – a fifth verse added in the 1860s to a text first published in 1850) to Meri Wilson’s ‘Telephone Man‘ (1977) (‘Hey, baby, I’m your telephone man / You just show me where you want it and I’ll put it where I can … / I can put it in the bedroom, I can put it in the hall / You can have it with a buzz, you can have it with a ring / And if you really want it you can have a ding-a-ling’)

Two themes quickly emerge. One, as seen very clearly in the case of Drake, is the association between communications and sex / relationships / love. We will return to this. A second is how to approach technology and technological change. Kraftwerk are a worthwhile case study here because of the joining of technology as a subject matter with the use of emerging technologies in the production of the music itself. Sometimes the tone is celebratory (e.g. ‘Home Computer‘), and yes, again, related to relationships (‘Computer Love‘). Famously, later releases and performances of ‘Radioactivity‘ contain pointed critiques of nuclear power and highlight scandals and disaster in a way that the original did not.

A relatively early specific reference to the Internet is found in Mousse T vs Hot ‘n’ Juicy’s ‘Horny‘ (1998). Not in the catchy chorus, but in the narrative verse, and with the Internet positioned as one of a number of means of communication (‘I tried to call you but I can’t find the telephone / I sent a message through the Internet but it rejected / I wrote a letter and I sent it with the post / But post just takes too long / So I’ve got to sing this song…). As error messages go, though, it must take second place to Bran Van 3000’s ‘More Shopping‘ (2001), where the guest artist Momus talks about a message ‘sent by Internet / by obscure protocols / to its recipient / the delicious Miss G’.

Unsurprisingly, the subsequent shift towards social media is also found in music. Here, the temptation is to raise an eyebrow, to some extent. See in particular The Chainsmokers’ early release ‘#SELFIE‘ (2014), where the lyrics (backed up by the video) portray the vapidness and self-absorption of the selfie-taker in the club; the text is spoken, with each section concluding with the timeless peroration ‘let me take a selfie’ or a variant thereof – leading into what Switched On Pop excellently call a ‘pop drop‘ (instrumental hands in the air chorus). Or, in the aspirant genre of English folk about 21st century life, the Lancashire Hotpots singing about Myspace on their first album (which also takes on eBay, Shopmobility Scooters and emo in other tracks): ‘I got myself a Myspace page / It really was the best / I logged on to it t’other day / To see a friend request / It was from a lass from Lancashire / Her page had loads of hits / I looked at the pictures on her profile / She had absolutely massive / A-toora-loora-loo / Toora-loora-lay …’. (‘I Met A Girl On Myspace‘ (2007)). Or, in Eurovision world, serial entrant and pride of San Marino Valentina Moretta, whose 2012 entry ‘Facebook‘ was initially disqualified for its commercial reference, and replaced by the very similar ‘Uh Oh (The Social Network Song)‘ with the offending references removed, but the lyrics preserved mostly intact, e.g. ‘Do you wanna be more than just a friend / Do you wanna play cybersex again / If you want to come to my house / Click me with your mouse’. (It didn’t get out of the semi-final).

An unusually successful engagement with Internet (and particular gamer culture) comes in the Swedish-language releases of Jonas Altberg (aka Basshunter). His first major Swedish hit (‘Boten Anna‘ (2006), with chart performance in some neighbouring states, tells the tale of a bot who keep order in a chat channel, and turns out to be a real person (though the narrator is nonetheless happy to continue to think of her as a bot). It was followed by the splendid ‘Vi sitter i Ventrilo och spelar DotA‘ (2006) – we sit in Ventrilo (chat application) and play DotA (Warcraft battle arena Defence of the Ancients). The English-language releases of these tracks, though (‘Now You’re Gone‘ and ‘All I Ever Wanted‘, both in the heights of the UK charts in 2008) pursue much more conventional themes, with no remaining references to gaming or the Internet, e.g. ‘All I ever wanted / was to see you smiling / All I ever wanted / was to make you mine’ and ‘Now you’re gone / I realized my love for you was strong / And I miss you here now you’re gone’).

Turning now to the sharing economy, I note that the strength of the ‘share’ metaphor has been acknowledge by a number of scholars of these emerging platforms and business models. Nicholas John, for instance (in The Age of Sharing), traces the links between filesharing, social media sharing and the sharing economy, while also positioning the business strategy of key players in an even broader context of altruism, Care Bears and more. I am fond of pointing to the remarkable intervention of former European Commissioner Nellie Kroes, who condemned the regulatory approach of the city of Brussels as not wanting to be modern – to me, this is less Share Bear and more the infamous pitch to get on board in ‘The Monorail Song‘ (The Simpsons, episode 71, ‘Marge vs the Monorail’).

In that context, it’s so interesting how the songs I mentioned in the first paragraph go down a somewhat different path. In Zanetti’s ‘Uber‘ (2017), the emphasis is on partying and of course sex, and the life of luxury: ‘she don’t wanna ride round in a black cab / she wanna get picked up in an Uber’ (followed by, yes, a version of a pop drop). This highlighting of a particular type of good life of a piece with Zanetti’s breakthrough single ‘You Want Me‘ (2016), where the video features a rotating cast of Instagram models, reality TV stars and others; Zanetti’s own social media profile is a key part of his brand. His entrepreneurial spirit has caused some to liken him to Pitbull; Zanetti is slightly sceptical about the link. Pitbull of course knows a thing or two about technology and the party life, famously opening ‘Give Me Everything‘ (2011) with ‘Me not working hard / Yeah right, picture that with a Kodak / Better yet, go to Times Square / Take a picture of me with a Kodak’ (also solving the dilemma of how one finds a rhyme for Kodak).  The sharing economy, photographic, and online themes then all come together in Calvin Harris’ ‘Feels‘ (2017); in Big Sean’s section, ‘fly in first class through the air / Airbnb / I’m the best you had, you just be comparing me to me / Imma ‘at’ this at you / if I put you on my phone / and upload it / it’ll get maximum views’. The overall impression (whether cringeworthy or zeitgeisty, I’ll leave to you to determine) is of a very 21st century version of being rich and famous, that encompasses both housesharing and photosharing.

The most rewarding exigesis, however, is of Not3s’ ‘Addison Lee‘ (2017), not least because it appears in its original form and as a remix. Both versions make specific and repeated reference to the London private hire company Addison Lee (a critic of Transport for London’s allegedly relaxed approach to new entrants, as it happens – and yes, I’m very aware that Uber as deployed in the UK does not fit the true definition of sharing economy as it does in some other markets with different private hire licensing structures). Anyway, you will not be surprised to note that the theme is sexual (‘Cause there’s no time to waste / I got my yard for free / Peng ting called Maddison / I tell her come and jump in my Addison Lee / I just called a driver / I slapped on a promo code / To you get to my yard for a fiver / Only for a fiver / Would you come and spend the night with me / Lay your head tonight with me’).  As has long been the case, transport facilitates or speeds up what the subject wants to do. But the juxtaposition of Addison Lee with Uber is fascinating. First of all, there’s indirect praise for Uber (‘I could have got an Uber / it might have been there sooner / It might have been way cheaper / but the price ain’t too much’). Then, there’s a brief reference to getting ‘blocked off my Uber’. We see more in the remix, where additional verses are contributed by collaborators. The key is Geko’s section (noting that Geko is Manchester-based and therefore outside Addison Lee’s area of operation): ‘I told her come jump in my Uber / I don’t live in the capital city / The fare was times 2.0 / So you better come and gimme, gimme / Better make it worth that moolah, girl / Cause a man ain’t rich’. Here, Uber is potentially the expensive option (damn that surge pricing), though that’s quickly reframed as a consideration of whether it’s worth it for, yes, sex. Though, the usefulness of references to different (and sometimes London-specific) forms of transport also sits very well with urban music genres (see also, as pointed out to me, Devs’ freestyle viral hit ‘Who What Where‘ – ‘(We go anywhere / I might Uber cabbie directly there’)).

And as I press publish on this post, Uber is, according to Transport for London, not fit and proper. Interesting.

Thanks to Lilian Edwards, Reuben Binns, Miranda Mowbray, and NíChaoimh Dewdney for contributing songs / links.

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