Love in the Time of Call-era: Rap music videos and the infectious relationship between humans and mobile phones

On: October 17, 2011
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About Kendall Grady
I grew up in suburban Chicago appreciating the colloquial differences between "soda" and "pop" in Midwestern American English. At DePauw University, I studied English Writing and German with a Honors Thesis titled "Same Old Cyborg Lying Down: Apertures of Love." I left coffee stains on manuscripts at BOMB magazine, Soft Skull Press, and The Poetry Project in Brooklyn/NYC; swam in glacial creeks near MASS MoCA; served as the Assistant Director of David Castillo Gallery, and, most recently, as a nebulous employee of the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, FL, where I developed interests in New Media aesthetics, poetics, and materiality; picked avocados; ran a marathon; and watched Trina do hair at the flea market.

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Attraction: Mobile tools
R. Kelly ft. Nas
“Did You Ever Think” (1998)

The access point of your curiosity is the body, an exciting, new gadget. J. Macgregor Wise describes one perspective of human-technology relations as a received view in which mutually external parties can act upon one another, indulging an oscillation between technological and social determinism (81). For Kelly and Nas, the mobile phone is indeed a tool— one of the many wielded in “Did You Ever Think” for the individual articulation of sex appeal in maintaining luxurious tastes (alongside designer suits), luxurious habits (alongside cigars) and a luxurious lifestyle (alongside sold-out tours). Kelly and Nas’ mobile phones function as means to an end.

Dating: Tactical media
Ludacris ft. Nate Dogg
“Area Codes” (2001)

You are dating and scheduling, courting and quartering, sparking and testing. You are strategically occupied with episodic, hit-and-run romantic encounters. Your objectives are immediate, your futures unsubscribed. You come together and separate out of need. “What brings these tactical initiatives together is their carefully designed workings, their aesthetics beyond the questions of taste. Being neither cute nor ugly, good or bad, tactical media appear, strike and disappear again,” Geert Lovnik writes. “Instead of the old school rituals of negation and refusal, tactical media engage both makers and users, producers and viewers, into a game of appearances and disappearances.” “Area Codes” portrays women very literally as budding nodes in a transnational, jet-setting network facilitated by mobile phones. They are homogeneous, beyond questions of taste. They are both makers and users, benefiting alongside Ludacris and Nate Dogg. (While it is not my intention here to unpack the sex and gender politics implicit in the “area nodes,” I must remark that “Area Codes” serves as a flinching reminder that such pressing concerns are never divorced from tactical media.)

Monogamy: Immersive media
Warren G
“Ringtone” (2009)

You usurp area codes with one signifier: “Smile for the camera, let me put my picture in your phone/ Cause baby got her own ringtone.” The ringtone and all its implications constitute Matthew Fuller’s standard object: an established technology so ubiquitous that it ceases to be individualized. “The standard object implies exchange, trade, command, communality, ‘otherability,’ a difference in state from one location to the next,” Fuller writes. “It demands that something is not individualized but composed in part by the necessity of relations.” The necessity of relations does not escape Warren G, and his mobile phone as standard object delivers results with minimal effort. Emily Bazelon’s recent article in the New York Times critiques similarly “frictionless” Facebook applications such as Spotify, which shares a user’s real-time music selection without so much as the click of a mouse. The result is shared experiential coordinates. “Being with you or without you is how I measure my time,” Borges writes in the poem “The Threatened One” (The Book of Sand, 1975). Whereas Bazelon registers concern for (especially young) Facebook users and Borges writes warily of his lovesick state, Warren G does not question the standard object. “When she calls my phone, I know it’s on,” he sings simply. The Reader Response school of literary theory counters the act of reading as a suspension of belief with a creation of belief (Murray 110). “Ringtone” viewers understand that Warren G, and themselves by extension, actually enter  the inverse of the singular ringtone. They do not suspend, but rather create. They enter an assemblage including video technology, lyric narrative, the entirety of personal histories, all possible storyworlds, etc. Encyclopedic rhizomes are  the expectation rather than exception, and the mobile phone is both ingredient and mascot by virtue of connection, its most essential technological and conceptual function.

The breakup: Autopoietic autonomy
Riskay ft. Aviance & Real
“Smell That Chick” (2008)

When the connection breaks, you see the mobile phone not seen as tool or tactic, but an entity unto itself. (When in doubt of The Affective Turn of Mobile Phones, read Natalie Dixon’s Master thesis.) In “Smell That Chick,” mobile phones are the quarreling lovers and the unanswered calls the infidelity. Although enraged by her unfaithful partner (portrayed by Real), Riskay does not “pull out my 9.” Riskay’s girlfriends, however, do shoot cellphone pictures with a weapon more deadly and incriminating. The mobile screen is an adaptable, omnipresent edition of Lev Manovich’s real-time screen that shows the present, as opposed to the classical screen that shows a “static, permanent image” or the dynamic screen that shows a “moving image of the past” (103). Manovich asks, “What is the price the subject pays for the mastery of the world, focused and unified by the screen?” (104). Real pays the price for experiencing one reality which he attempts to master by digital archive. Riskay pays the price for experiencing another reality, which she attempts to master by humiliating her partner. Both Real and Riskay take the micro-worlds of their mobile screens as unitary realities. In the former, a Real is “wildin’ but not clownin’ like that.” In the latter, Riskay is betrayed. The couple does not compare screens. In fact, the video’s ultimate heroine throws Real’s mobile phone into the bushes, where it remains irretrievable. Riskay earns the dominant reality. Reals earns a kind of imprisonment in the apparatus itself, staring blindly from the shrubbery, simultaneously as exposed as dropping his trousers and as hidden as shame.

The makeup: Cellular cybernetics
Rick Ross ft. Lil Wayne
“9 Piece” (2011)
The following music video may contain adult language and content. Viewer discretion is advised.

You’re back together, and choosing a relationship in the face of autopoietic autonomy has brought you closer than ever before. The activities in “9 Piece” (smoking, selling) are not in addition to but synonymous with taking on the iPhone. Mediated communication provides a “straight,” hyperreal experience that trumps physical inhalation or face-to-face business transactions. While Ross and Wayne’s entourage tote handguns, the only 9 pieces used by the protagonists are iPhones. Unlike “Smell That Chick,” the power of the mobile phone is not specific to an extreme situation, but integral to everyday functions: rather than rap into the camera, Ross and Wayne rap exclusively into their iPhones. “9 Piece” follows Janet Murray in her discussion of immersion one step further to enactment. “Enacted events have a transformative power that exceeds both narrated and conventionally dramatized events because we assimilate them as personal experiences,” Murray writes (170). Ross and Wayne experience their iPhones as personally as their own hands. Much like psycho-therapeutic uses of new media narrative, enacting iPhones allows for an augmented reality in which Ross and Wayne explore their gangsta selves without having to distinguish between personae. In “9 Piece,” there is not and has never been a carte blanche. Ross and Wayne are as “straight” as it gets.

It’s not you, it’s me: Questioning the long-term relationship of humans and mobile technologies
50 Cent ft. Justin Timberlake & Timbaland
“Ayo Technology” (2007)
The following music video may contain adult language and content. Viewer discretion is advised.

“Ayo, I’m tired of using technology,” Timberlake croons. The vague sentiment begs a more pointed question; simply asked, What happens when Ross and Wayne’s iPhones malfunction? Or, slightly messier, What happens during misinterpretation? In worst-case scenarios, misinterpretations can escalate to criminal circumstances, such as the intentions of a voyeur in regard to their subject. Indeed, “Ayo Technology” flaunts a predatory omniscience, as if challenging cellular cybernetics with the darker side of mobile connectivity. On a lighter note, “Ayo Technology” is a pang of lonely partiality, a testimony to the physical distance spanned but not eliminated by technology. The (cyber)sex scene in “Lawnmower Man” directed by Brett Leonard (1992) portrays intimacy like molten coupling from the perspective within virtual reality. From the perspective of physical space, however, two bodies grasp into separate nothingness. Manovich explores this scene (also discussed by Mark Dery in “Robocopulation: Sex Times Technology Equals the Future,” Cyber Reader: Critical Writings for the Digital Era, ed. Neil Spiller) in terms of  a VR paradox that “… requires the viewer to move in order to see an image and at the same time physically ties her to a machine,” (110). The technological binds of 50 Cent, Timberlake and Timbaland range from a touchscreen display to a cyber-optic blindfold to a wooden door. “Ayo Technology” distinguishes between virtual movement and tangible operations, synchronization and shared experience. Despite their shiny cars and suave leather gloves, the protagonists in “Ayo Technology” appear as ridiculous as decontextualized VR suits. Despite their self-affirmation and the perceived complacency of their sexual partners, the overall tone is sinister.

Works Cited

Fuller, Matthew. “How This Becomes That.” Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005. 85-107.

Lovink, Geert. “Tactical Media, the Second Decade.” Brazilian Submidialogia. Laudanum. Laudanum.net, Oct. 2005. Web. 12 Oct. 2011.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001. Print.

Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997. Print.

Wise, J. Macgregor. “Assemblage.” Gilles Deleuze: Key Concepts. Ed. Charles Stivale. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005. 77-87.

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