Hello, it's me: Adele, Drake and why pop will always love a phone call

In the era of social media and texting, it’s rare that we pick up the phone – but the three biggest hits of the moment show that calls still carry an emotional charge

Adele has been trying to reach you. The Weeknd will only call before six. Your cellphone hasn’t shown up on Drake’s caller ID in weeks, and he won’t stop singing – and dancing – about it. And we shouldn’t be surprised by any of it.

In pop music, phone calls have always been a lyrical staple. As the lyrics of Hello, The Hills and Hotline Bling – right now, three of the biggest hits in the world – make all too clear, a call can be emotional, meaningful and (sometimes) even sexy. From Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s booty call Person to Person to Carly Rae Jepson’s uber-hit Call Me Maybe and beyond, whispering sweet nothings into the mouthpiece an essential element of pop’s romantic currency.

Naturally in the real world, most of us respond to a ringing cellphone by tossing it out of the window of a moving car – or at the very least turning it to silent and letting it go to voicemail. We live in the age of WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger; phone calls are for emergencies or telling telemarketers never to call again. If somebody calls us unannounced, it’s safe to assume they’re deranged or time travelling from the 1990s. There’s a taco emoji now, and a plate of spaghetti. And if you can’t say it with those, why say it at all?

Yet there are still times when you need to hear someone’s voice – in matters of life, death or love. Which is why 2015’s biggest hits don’t feel too anachronistic. Furthermore, they’re in a grand pop tradition. As Vulture recently pointed out, the Big Bopper’s 1958 single Chantilly Lace set the bar for jams like Hotline Bling. In it, the libidinous singer spends the duration of the song on the telephone, complimenting a woman on her physical assets and peppering the chat with pet names.

In 1979’s Love on the Telephone, Foreigner sang about the perils of long-distance relationships (which in those pre-Skype days depended on how good the participants were at romantic chat). In 1984, Stevie Wonder Just Called to Say I Love You (probably interrupting whatever “you” were up to). Cellphones made calls more intimate – at last, you didn’t have to conduct your affair tethered to a wire in the middle of the living room. And unlike texts, which can be screen-capped, read aloud and sent to everyone, a phone call stays in the moment. (Unless, of course, you’re recording your calls. And if that’s the case, what is wrong with you?)

A call carries an emotional charge which social media will never replicate. If a boyfriend or girlfriend broke up with you via DM, you’d be humiliated – for them. And an important conversation via text will always come across as lazy, especially if you’ve shared something more special than the casual “u up?” exchange. This was proved comically last week when a woman texted the lyrics to Adele’s Hello to her ex-boyfriend as a joke. Also, texts could technically be sent or written by anyone with access to a cellphone. So despite our world having drastically changed since the days of Big Bopper, we still crave the confirmation that the person contacting us is emotionally engaged. Phone calls provide that. Texting and social media, not so much.

Plus, nobody wants to hear about Drake wishing an ex would text him. If Hotline Bling was about that, we’d roll our eyes and wish he would just text her himself so that she could either write back something dismissive or ignore him completely. Phone calls take time and allude to a relationship in which at least one party is emotionally invested. In fact, songs about phone calls immediately establish a mental picture: if the Weeknd replaced “I only call you when it’s half past five” with “Cool I’ll message you later”, the song would wilt. Instead, we know he obviously cares because he’s bothering to tune out the rest of the world and pick up his phone.

So it’s not that phone calls are making a comeback in 2015, or that our favourite pop stars have abandoned social media in lieu of flip phones. (Although if you’re a pop star who uses a flip phone, hit me up.) Instead, the phone represents something in music that helps paint a bigger picture: intimacy, heart and genuine feelings that necessitate a private moment between the caller and recipient. These songs mean something because the singer didn’t just receive texts, letters, notes or an apathetic wave. They’re the post-5.30 phone call, or the reason Drake dances the way he does, or why Adele retreats to an abandoned house to revisit the ghost of her old relationships. Like us, pop’s still hung up on the phone call – and always will be.


Anne T Donahue

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Drake calls for Grammys to be replaced after snubbing Black artists
Singer’s demand follows absence of the Weeknd in all categories of the 2021 awards despite huge success this year and dismay at exclusion of Lil Uzi Vert

Laura Snapes

26, Nov, 2020 @1:19 PM

Article image
Tainted love: how Drake started pop’s erotic comedown
In music, the joy of sex has been supplanted by nihilism and melancholy. Has the digital age made pop lose its loving feeling?

Paul Flynn

15, Jul, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Drake/the Weeknd review – 'Drake ticks enough boxes to justify his superstar tag'
The Weeknd's fog of sound tantalises to a rapturous reception, while Drake has the lasers but still seems baffled by his status, writes Dave Simpson

Dave Simpson

12, Mar, 2014 @2:37 PM

Article image
Future sounds: the best pop and rock of 2017
Black Sabbath rumble towards the end of the road, Drake and comeback kid Craig David spread goodwill across the UK, and the xx top the stack of new releases

Michael Hann, Ben Beaumont-Thomas, Robin Denselow and John Fordham

07, Jan, 2017 @10:00 AM

Article image
Sex stories, purgatory and Adele’s tears: the album skit is back
Keen to re-establish the album in the age of the playlist, artists are peppering their work with voice notes and sketches – to profound and annoying ends

Tara Joshi

14, Feb, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
The 100 greatest BBC music performances – ranked!
As the Beeb celebrates its centenary, we take a look at its most memorable pop moments, from the birth of grime to the first sightings of Bob Dylan and Bob Marley, plus TOTP goes Madchester and countless classic Peel sessions

Guardian music

06, Oct, 2022 @12:12 PM

Drake – review

Considering his braggadocio lyrics, the Lil Wayne protege is surprisingly gauche on stage, finds Ian Gittins

Ian Gittins

10, Jan, 2011 @9:45 PM

Article image
Billboard Music Awards 2016: the complete list of winners
The Weeknd scooped eight awards out of 19 nominations at the Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas, and Adele carried off a haul of five, including top artist, at the ceremony on Sunday night

Guardian staff

23, May, 2016 @11:20 AM

Article image
New band of the week: THEY. (No 114) – meditative rock for the Drake generation
Grunge’n’b, anyone? Meet the LA duo in love with emo and R&B, urban and indie

Paul Lester

08, Aug, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
Love the game: Drake and Taylor Swift's decade in pop dominance
Since 2009, Drake has become a cross-genre streaming star, while Swift’s glow-up has transformed her into a blockbuster brand – and their co-command of ‘pop 2.0’ isn’t wavering yet

Michael Cragg

29, Nov, 2019 @2:40 PM