This is your brain on blogs

The chicken vacuum

Let us now praise the ringtone

In the current New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones has a superb little essay in praise of the ringtone. Most specifically, he’s intrigued by the aesthetics of creating something catchy out of the teensy, MIDI-like constraints of ringtone polyphony. As Frere-Jones points out, every ring includes a zillion tiny aesthetic decisions:

The ringtone also teaches us how songs work. Which clip best exemplifies a song? Did the ringtone’s maker select the right bit? Do you even need to hear the singing? Perhaps the part of the song that arouses our lizard brain is the instrumental opening. It may be stranger and more sublime to hear a polyphonic impression of George Michael’s voice than to listen to the real thing one more time. If a song can survive being transposed from live instruments to a cell-phone microchip, it must have musically hardy DNA. Many recent hip-hop songs make terrific ringtones because they already sound like ringtones. The polyphonic and master-tone versions of “Goodies,” by Ciara, for example, are nearly identical. Ringtones, it turns out, are inherently pop: musical expression distilled to one urgent, representative hook. As ringtones become part of our environment, they could push pop music toward new levels of concision, repetition, and catchiness.

He goes on to lament the rise of the “master tone”, which is not a polyphonic recreation of the original pop song, but a literal sample — a snippet of the song itself. Since it’s merely a cut-and-pasted chunk of the original, it doesn’t have any of the through-the-looking-glass qualities that make polyphonic recreations so necessarily surreal. But since the master tone is now taking over, as Frere-Jones concludes, “polyphonic-ringtone nostalgia is approximately six months away.”

I kind of agree with him. Though many ringtones annoy the heck out of me — and, as I discovered while doing research for New York in January, ringtones can actually increase your body’s histaminic stress levels — they’re a curious artform, part metaphor and part metonym: Both a version of the thing and the thing itself.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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