Day One hundred and forty-five: "Ringtone" from Internet Leaks

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Queen plays a fairly central role in the career of American pop parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic. Freddy Mercury and the boys provided the subject of one of Al’s first major releases when Dr. Demento recorded Al and Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz parodying “Another One Bites the Dust” as “Another One Rides the Bus.”

The song became Al’s second single, after Capitol released “My Bologna” at the very end of the 1970s as well as the foundation of his 1981 EP Another One Rides the Bus, as well as a track on Al’s self-titled 1983 debut and a staple of various greatest hits compilation and box sets. 

As Nathan Rabin wrote in Weird Al: The Book, “Though the modest Yankovic himself laughs off the notion, we can all agree that "Another One Rides the Bus" embodies the anarchic spirit of punk rock just as much as anything Johnny Rotten or The Clash ever recorded. It's the essence of punk: an enraged, defiant malcontent with a long list of grievances screaming his pain to an indifferent world. [...] Yankovic came to symbolize a curiously ubiquitous fixture of new wave: the enraged geek.” 

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I would apologize for reverently quoting something I wrote in the past but honestly, I’m a little pleased with myself, maybe overly pleased, that I somehow managed to make it one hundred and forty five entries before double dipping. 

Queen inspired one of the rawest, least produced songs in Al’s oeuvre at the very start of his career, when it still seemed possible that he’d be a one or no-hit wonder. It also inspired two of the most produced and polished songs Al has ever released in the form of first “Bohemian Polka”, which, as its title conveys, gave the polka medley tribute to Queen’s classic story song/suite after it was lovingly resurrected in an iconic sequence in Wayne’s World, which, as a sublimely meta movie about television based on a television sketch from a legendary sketch comedy institution, was very much in Al’s wheelhouse. 

Deep into the mature stage of an eternally youthful career, Al once again drew inspiration from the theatrical arena rock of the “We Are the Champions” hit-makers when he decided to channel the group at its most ambitious to sing about a distinctly twentieth century malady: being shunned by the sum of humanity for your migraine-inducingly annoying ringtone. 

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The ringtone is like so much modern technology. On paper, it radiates promise. The ringtone pointlessly empowers people to take control over their increasingly all-important cell phone experience by purchasing little nuggets of pop music that, to paraphrase Nicolas Cage in Wild at Heart, reflect their individuality and belief in personal expression. 

When ringtones became an irritatingly ubiquitous staple of technology-obsessed American life ringtone owners were liberated from having the same boring ring as everyone else. Alas, this proved to be yet another instance of technology managing to collectively make our lives worse, and more annoying, instead of better. 

The singer of “Ringtone” opens the song in a place of prominence. "Once, not very long ago, I was respected, I was popular” he crows before lamenting the schlocky instrument of his destruction, a ringtone so infuriating that it literally unites every human being on the planet Earth in their hatred of it. 

Like “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Ringtone” is a song that was not written so much as it was lovingly, meticulously composed as a sort of snack-sized musical suite with a series of distinct components that collectively add up to something simultaneously silly and symphonic, achingly ambitious and a song that, if it’s not about nothing, then it is at least about something perversely banal. 

It’s telling that the singer never specifies which ringtone led to his downfall, whether it was a snippet of “Who Let the Dogs Out”, or, to cite two irritatingly annoying songs more relevant to Al’s career, “Achy Breaky Heart” or “I’ve Got My Mind Set On You.” He doesn’t have to. If you were to close your eyes and think of a ringtone, I’m guessing that it would almost assuredly go to some place murder-inducingly aggravating. 

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To call a ringtone annoying is at once redundant and unnecessary, since the much maligned quasi-form of music is irritating pretty much by definition. The humor in “Ringtone” is largely conceptual; there’s something impishly inspired about making an epic, glossily produced rock and roll song, a miniature epic, as it were, about something so slight and meaningless. But I also dig the comic hyperbole, particularly the call and response part where Al surveys the whole wide world and discerns that the one thing that brings us together is hatred of this cursed ringtone, singing, “Chinese factory workers (they hate my ringtone)/Muslim women in burqas (really hate my ringtone)/Starvin' kids in Angola (they hate my ringtone)/Even folks with Ebola (just hate my ringtone)/All the nuns and nannies (all the welfare mothers)/All the Pakistanis (all the Wayans brothers)/Everyone on the land, everyone on the sea/Every single person everywhere unanimously.”

Yes, the humor comes largely from comic hyperbole but I also enjoy the sly, low-key understatement of the singer holding onto his universe-enraging ringtone largely because he wants to make the most of the dollar and ninety nine cents he paid for it. 

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The Internet Leaks EP begins and ends with a singer whose life is largely defined by his stubborn, self-defeating cheapness and pathological aversion to wasting even a tiny amount of money. 

With “Ringtone”, Al once again makes much ado about nothing in a most delightful way, unlike that William Shakespeare creep with his dumb play. 

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