My own little ghetto blaster

May 28th, 2008

Like any decent idea I have, someone else thought of it first. In this case, when an obnoxious cell phone ring went off in the Potomac News newsroom, it occurred to me that ring tones are the new ghetto blaster. A blogger named Martin Dittus thought of it first (at least, that’s what my google search told me). He posted about this fad in 2005, when he noticed a guy riding his bike, using a cell phone to blast hip-hop, glancing around to see if anyone was noticing.

“It seems odd at first to use the cheap and weak speakers of a phone in this way, but when you think about it it’s not that strange,” Dittus writes. “Ghetto blasters were never about high fidelity sound. They were a method of communication, they were about group-building, and about attention.”

If you already know what ghetto blasters are, bear with me for two paragraphs while I explain. “Ghetto blasters” typically refer to large, loud, gaudy boom boxes, typically in urban neighborhoods. Unlike just a plain boombox, using the term “ghetto blaster” also refers to a statement and sense of community as well as the music.

Wait, isn’t that a stereotype? You bet. Reread that previous paragraph. “Urban neighborhoods” could be code for “black” or “Harlem” — and the image of a group of black men, sitting on a stoop, blasting music. It’s an image re-peated over and over in popular culture. But check out Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” A ghetto blaster is central to the movie’s plot, highlighting disregard for the rules, power and even empowerment. There’s an iconic boombox-less scene at the beginning where Ruby Dee dances to “Fight the Power” outside her Bed-Sty neighborhood. The song recurs throughout the movie on a character called Radio Raheem’s ghetto blaster. So it goes both ways.

But, with the prevalence of customized ring tones, what’s happening is a whole mess of unaware ghetto blasting. In “Do the Right Thing” Radio Raheem was consciously using his ghetto blaster to make a statement. Every loud ring tone isn’t exactly the political discourse of “Do The Right Thing’s” ghetto blaster, but it pretty much serves the same purpose. Everyone who selected a customized ring tone (myself included) made a conscious decision of how they want to call attention to themselves when their phone goes off.

“You’re not buying a ring tone to enjoy Christina Aguilera,” Dario Betti, an analyst for Ovum, a London-based market research firm told Time Magazine in 2004. “You’re buying it to tell everyone else who you are.”

(According to that same article, Ovum predicts the global ringtone market will hit $2.8 billion this year).

Or, you’re buying it to create community. My friend Paul tells a story that I love: he’s on a bus traveling through India a couple years ago. Someone’s phone goes off. Instead of answering the phone, the people on the bus start dancing to the music.

My ring tone is the chorus of Ben Folds’ b-side, “Hiro’s Song,” a song about a Japanese businessman dating his daughter’s best friend as part of a midlife crisis. I’m 26, not in a midlife crisis, not Japanese and certainly not a busi-nessman. But I really like Ben Folds. What was going through my head when I sent the song to the online service that would text it back to me as a ring tone was simply “I love this song. Every time I hear it, it makes me happy. There-fore, I will now be happier to hear my phone ring.”

But let’s deconstruct this further. I made a subconscious decision. Out of all the tens of thousands of songs in my collection, I picked “Hiro’s Song” because I wanted those 30 seconds to represent me. Hiro’s Song is one of Folds’ few solid rockers. I wanted something upbeat, something danceable, something fun. Folds is best known for “Brick,” an abortion ballad. Pass. I could have picked that ironically; but “Brick” would scream, “I love crappy radio schlock!” not “Hey, it’s funny because it’s about abortion!”

“Hiro’s Song,” musically at least, says “upbeat and fun.” It’s also a somewhat obscure b-side, from a Japanese im-port, so it sends a clear message to those in the know: “This guy is a real fan.” For everyone else, it says, “this guy listens to fun music I’ve never heard of before.”

Admittedly, when I sent the Mp3 to the online, I had hoped they would send the first 30 seconds of the song, when Folds sings “My name is Hiro/I am 51/since 1980 life has been no fun/and I don’t want to die/I left my family for the secretary/her name is Yuko/ she is 22/she and my daughter were best friends in high school/they say it’s crazy and it’s temporary/but I refuse to rot like my contemporaries.”

Instead, I was kind of disappointed when I got the chorus instead. “I don’t want to grow old/won’t you let me ex-plode/in a karaoke supernova.” I mean, I guess that works. I read comic books, listen to some of the same rock music that the kids in middle school love and am no closer to “settling down” at 26 than I was at 22.

If that’s what’s going to represent me, I’m fine with that. It’s still catchy and upbeat and I’m fine with people judg-ing me by that.

C’mon… you judge people by their ring tones too. My favorites in the newsroom? I’ve got a colleague whose phone serenades him with Gnarls Barkley’s “Smiley Faces,” another with multiple ring tones including the theme from “Superbad” (her others aren’t worth mentioning).

I’m still waiting for that India moment. When my phone goes off somewhere and everyone starts dancing.


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