It might be going a step too far to suggest that ring tones are the new protest songs. After all, we are living in an era of powerful, angry message songs such as... well, alright, so this isn't a great era for protest songs. After Live 8, some wondered, "where were the artists with something to say?" I think it actually isn't difficult to find "music with a message". In particular, the Iraq War has prompted many songs. While some are supportive of the war and the Bush Administration, the vast majority are not. However, a band like Rilo Kiley is unlikely to be able to capture the public's imagination and bring them together with a song like "It's a Hit" in the way Edwin Starr could with "War". Even once public sentiment seemed to move from the "pro" to the "con" column with regard to the war, no single song has seemed to capture that anti-war spirit. Words have probably proved more powerful than songs during this wartime, even when it comes to statements by singers, whether its the Dixie Chicks' declaration that they're ashamed George Bush is from Texas or Morrissey's urging his fans to vote for John Kerry, stating that "Bush has single-handedly turned the United States into the most neurotic and terror-obsessed country on the planet." (For the record, Morrissey said that "Jon Stewart would be ideal" but he wasn't an option, so he gave the ol' Moz endorsement to Kerry. This was no doubt very valuable, as most Morrissey fans are likely a fairly conservative group, yet are easily swayed by the Mozster)
I find ringtones in general somewhat obnoxious... hey, cellphones are kind of obnoxious. They are overused, occasionally, it seems to make people feel important, or as a substitute for real interaction with the people someone is around at the time. Maybe talking to real people is scary. Or maybe headsets induce a cool feeling, like you're in space.
I feel especially conflicted about political ringtones, and in particular about where this trend (if it becomes one) may lead. The potential these ringtones allow those who use them for meeting like-minded people is intriguing. Eric Gundersen, who made the ringtones posted below, said:
If a cell phone rings with Bush saying, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" on your morning bus/subway commute, you might get some smiles. And create a little bit of community in a random place by letting other concerned Americans know they are not alone or unpatriotic by being pissed at the government.
All of that seems to have some validity, and I think a pressure-release function is worthwhile too. It's better for people to be able to have a healthy, harmless release for their anger.
I can also imagine this Barbara Bush quote used as a ringtone, perhaps in a shortened format: "And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this -- this is working very well for them."
I haven't heard much defense of the administration's reaction to the hurricanes. This might be the sort of situation in which a protest ringtone wouldn't stir up much trouble. Not that "stirring up trouble" is necessarily a bad thing... but in the thick of wartime in particular, and even now, when many people still have very strong feelings about it, a flippant political message from a cellphone may be more divisive than it is uniting. Gundersen imagines an audience of bus or subway commuters, which is a captive audience. You take your audience members as you find them. One may be a peace activist, one may be a Quaker, another may be a Vietnam Veteran, another a kid whose father or mother died in the Iraq War a week ago. I'm not saying there should be no political messages. I believe in the First Amendment, and I find the protest ringtones an intriguing, potentially useful concept. I don't find Gundersen's ringtones inflammatory (though some might). I do see plenty of potential for inflammatory ringtones, though, and that's of more concern... and makes me feel especially conflicted. And there is a risk of divisiveness, even with a "worthwhile" message. All of the benefits, such as community-building, may be worth the risk of alienating some people who already were somewhat alienated from people with a certain point of view...
But what happens when people start using ringtones to broadcast messages of hate? Is this already happening? What hath you wrought, Crazy Frog?
MP3:Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job ringtone
MP3:Bush on pre-war intelligence ringtone
MP3:Rilo Kiley - It's a Hit (from More Adventurous)
MP3:Edwin Starr - War (from Billboard Top Rock & Roll Hits: 1970, etc.)