Jesse Jarnow

pazz & jop 2005

The Village Voice posted the results of their annual Pazz and Jop poll. My ballot is here. I made the comments section this year, however blandly, under the “Earphone Heads” category.

Here are the full comments I submitted with my ballot, which I am going to indent because I think it looks nifty:

Since one can only take small planes off the island, I opted to take the ferry back. It was choppy as fuck, and I tried to listen to my iPod and watch the horizon. The boat was a jungle of sounds, all leaking queasily through my headphones: deep rumbling engines, calypso-tinged Christmas muzak piped through the cabin’s tinny speakers, chattering families, and emerald Caribbean waters slapping against the window.

Halfway across, I noticed that one noise — beats — had grown more distinct than the others. I turned, and studied the skinny island kid on the bench seat next to me. He scrolled through ringtones and detonated them one after another, a hit parade of instantly gratifying hooks. He noticed me watching and I took my headphones off.

“You like hip-hop?” he asked, studying me back. “Probably not, huh?”

“Sure,” I said. “I like all kinds of stuff. Who do you like?”

“Mike Jones,” he replied.

“Who?” I asked.

“Mike Jones,” he repeated, unimpressed.


Mike Joooooones,” he sang and laughed. “You like that shit?”

“Meh,” I shrugged. “I like the screwed and chopped stuff more than his regular stuff.”

“That shit’s weird,” the kid declared.

“Yep,” I nodded happily, and somehow found myself in another conversation about Houston hip-hop, some quarter way across the hemisphere from Brooklyn’s indie-dork enclaves (let alone Houston itself).

He went back to his ringtones, 50 Cent thugging out in the background picture on his cell, as the ferry pulled into the harbor.


Despite making for retarded hard copy, Mike Jones’ shtick made for a hell of a meme: news vessel as pop hit, doesn’t even matter what the song is (hell, sing it in every song), and doesn’t even matter if that news is merely the arrival of Jones himself.

R. Kelly did it, too, in his boggling serialization “Trapped in the Closet.” Then there are the mash-ups, like the Notorious K.O.’s “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People.” Give or take the Texas robo-trippers — who are truly psychedelic and have added a cool new tool to the pop kit — it’s all just the latest iteration of novelty, except these novelties have concepts that somehow play with the technology of the moment, and that’s sorta nifty. Sorta.

“It disappeared up its own fundamental aperture,” Tom Wolfe snarked in The Painted Word, his 1975 treatise on contemporary art, “and came out the other side Art Theory! … a vision ineffable as the Angels and the Universal Souls.”

Lord knows, Mike Jones (who?) ain’t, um, a Universal Soul, but his meme-pop is the very definition of ineffable, the place where music — that self-contained world of melodies and performances — takes steps towards a broader universe of breathing things.

And, of course, if Jones’ endlessly circulating mp3s are steps, then the ringtones are crowbarred intrusions — sudden infections that come unannounced from somebody’s pocket, and disappear just as suddenly. And if you don’t have ’em on your phone, you can’t play ’em again.

Which is exactly why ringtones are music and not just sound: if done right, you want to hear them again. I’ve seen it on the subway, too: kids clicking through ringtones because it makes them happy.

When The Residents recorded their Commercial Album in 1980, cramming 40 60-second “pop” songs into 40 minutes (with instructions to play each thrice), they were operating on the assumption that the entirety of a pop song could be condensed into a minute. As Mike Jones has proved, they were off by about 50 seconds.

While ineffable, it’s hard to think of Jones’ hook as particularly transcendent in and of itself. But it points towards the new — or, more accurately, the old. Like every new medium, it will be used to reassess and repackage the past.

As of this writing, a half-dozen old tracks — call them proto-meme-pop — are scattered across Billboard’s top 50 Hot Ringtones chart: “Jingle Bells,” “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies,” “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” the “Super Mario Brothers” theme, the “Pink Panther” theme, and — blessed art thou, oh Lord, our “Bob” — “Sweet Home Alabama.” Like all truly classic folk works, each can be boiled down to one central idea that pretty much anybody reading this can almost surely remember.

If the advent of mp3s returned us to the New Golden Age of the Single, then ringtones may well introduce an even more primitive age, one that never really existed outside the head of people who thought ’70s rock was a good idea: the Age of the Riff, where the popcraft of Skynyrd will meet the genius Japanese techno-artisans who code the sound of chirping crickets.

And what a challenge! Who can create something magnificently short? Who will be the first to cram meaning into a 10 second statement? It’ll be like building ships in bottles, or carving micro-sculptures in the heads of needles. When will the ringtone mash-ups start to drop? Will “Smells Like Teen Spirit” come ricocheting rudely up the ringtone charts during 2006’s inevitable grunge revival? Will it still rock? Can it?