Wednesday, August 06, 2003

YES, I BOUGHT the stupid cell phone. I don't plan to turn the cute little thing on all that often, or to have it set for anything but "vibrate" mode when I do, but that didn't stop me from going on an orgy of downloading "ring tones" at two bucks a pop on Saturday morning.

"The Real Slim Shady" caught my eye right away, and so of course I got that one. Also from Eminem, and appealingly more obscure: "The Way I Am." Also conspicuously tasty on the main download page: the "Peanuts" theme, which you probably didn't know is called "Linus and Lucy."

So that's $6 before I even started searching and scrolling through the other options. The preview clips are too often actual versions of the songs rather than authentic representations of what they would sound like as cheesy ring tones. (So you're more likely to shell out the $2 just to hear just how cheesy they might be.)

The truth about novelty rings, of course, is that the novelty wears off very fast. Somebody at work has "Play That Funky Music, White Boy." Cute when you first realize what it is, but then you don't want to hear it ever again. The annoying thing isn't so much the novelty as it is the very nature of an unanswered phone, whether the ring is that disco classic or "Turning Japanese" or the Vivaldi or lunch-wagon notes that most people seem to choose between. As one colleague put it while an unattended cell phone chimed away, "Wouldn't it be great if those things were portable?"

Another colleague uses "vibrate" but doesn't seem to understand the concept. You're supposed to be alerted by a sensation in your pocket, not a vague insect noise coming from the thing sitting on your desk, right?

Anyway, I'm up to $6 when I hear the unmistakable head-banging, Beavis-and-Butt-head-thrilling introductory notes to "Smoke on the Water." How perfect for a ring; make that $8. And, while I'm there, what's that other unmistakable iconic metal tune I always mistake it for? Oh, right, "Iron Man." Check. Ten bucks.

Now it's search-and-scroll time. Blondie? There's only "The Tide Is High," but I have to get it ($12), if only to program the phone to identify it with any call from brother Kenneth, who loves Deborah Harry and the boys even more than I do. Nothing really good from R.E.M., and the Pretenders choices are horribly rendered.

Too few novelty ring tones actually work as ringing-phone noises. You need that hook, and you need to get right to it. Too often, these things simply reproduce the song. An all-hook version would be all the more annoying, true, but a ring isn't meant to play on and on and on (see vibration and portability notes above).

The tune-tones that work best, I found in my explorations, are the hooky '80s synth-pop songs that sounded like cell-phone rings before we knew what cell phones were. "Don't Go" by Yaz; "In-Between Days," "Close to Me," "Just Like Heaven" -- any late-period Cure. "Just Can't Get Enough" by Depeche Mode.

I rounded out my purchases (and arrived at a default ring, in case I'm ever actually awaiting a call and not in a vibrating mood) with a twist on the above: one of my favorite mid-period Cure songs, "Let's Go to Bed." Great hook, and not something everybody will immediately recognize. Fourteen bucks. You could do worse with an addiction.

I bravely resisted Tom Tom Club's "Genius of Love" and Bananarama's debut, with Fun Boy Three, "(He Was) Really Saying Something," among many others. "Rich Girl," from when Hall and Oates didn't suck. Adam and the Ants' "Stand and Deliver," maybe not the best ring choice but deliciously semi-obscure. Numerous TV themes, including "Love American Style"!

Sadly, "Our Lips Are Sealed," the Go-Go's version (again, girls upstage Fun Boy Three), perhaps the greatest single the '80s produced, wasn't there.

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