1/3 Whatever happened to obscene phone calls?

Hello? You never hear about obscene phone calls anymore, despite everyone having a phone in their pocket. Yesterday’s item about the guy who was issued Sir Mix-A-Lot’s old phone number treats it as a joke, but I remember being taught in school around 1984 about the danger of “heavy breathers.” At the same time, Barry Gordy’s son Rockwell had released his sophomore single “Obscene Phone Caller” to radio and MTV, attempting to maintain the momentum of his “Somebody’s Watching Me.”

No doubt such songs, and those lessons in school, actually taught people that obscene phone calls were a thing, and thus helped cause them. And by people, I mean boys. Cultural sociologists like Michael Schudson think about cultural resonance, the relevance of an idea to different audiences.

The relevance of a cultural object to its audience, its utility, if you will, is a property not only of the object’s content or nature and the audience’s interest in it but of the position of the object in tradition (Schudson 1989, p. 169)

We have a long tradition of worrying that new technologies are causing immorality to proliferate, and thus polluting innocents. We can think about contemporary concerns about Internet chat and sexting, but we forget that this concern also focused on television, radio, the postal service, and even the printing press. It’s thus surprising that as mobile phones proliferated, the cultural resonance of obscene phone calls waned (as I show in Part Two).

One measure of the concern about obscene phone calls are the degree to which it figures in cultural objects like popular music. Rockwell’s Obscene Phone Caller reached #35 in the US charts in ’84, featuring such lyrics as:

How can I unwind or get some rest / receiving sick phone calls from a lonely pest.
If Alexander Bell were alive today / would he want the telephone to be used this way?
I must have my number changed / or trace these calls from whence they came

It’s also one of the rare pop songs to use the word whence. More like wince, amiright?

Hard to believe, but this was only the most recent of a string of songs on the topic. The first was Dory Previn’s “The Obscene Phone Call” from  1974. This jolly ditty, by Andre Prévin’s onetime wife, details her reports to authorities ranging from the police and FBI to the United Nations and God about a man who “threatened my life with a Boy Scout knife and a bad invitation to ball.”

Country singer Johnny Russell‘s “Obscene Phone Call” charted at #91 in 1977 despite being banned by some radio stations for, well, obscenity. This celebratory anthem to stalking features such lyrics as: “I’ve been in your bedroom / touching secret places in my mind. I guess tonight’s the night / I do what my mind does all the time. Oh it’s an obscene phone call! And I’ve made plans for us tonight!” Creepy never goes out of style.

In 1981, punk band Maniax recorded their punk dirge “Obscene Phone Call.” It gets inside the mind of the obscene caller better than any other, which is appropriate for a song written by teenaged boys: “Talk dirty to you on the phone / You’re getting hot all alone. My breathing’s getting harder now / You’re getting wet, so grab a towel. Ah! Ah! Ah!” The song was not popular: it was released much later on the “Forgotten Tapes,” and the link has less than 20 views on YouTube. At least 10 of those are mine (Ob.Scene.Phone.Call!).

Avant-garde new wave band Volumatix released their “Obscene Phone Call” in 1983. The 80s was a great decade for the x, wasn’t it? The band wasn’t big, and the song seems more designed to feature its campy video because the lyrics literally consist of only a chorus:”What! Who? Huh? Ugh!”

And let us not forget the famous comedy sketch by Lily Tomlin featuring her iconic character, telephone operator Ernestine:

“Wait a sec, he said he was going to do what to you? Is that F as in Frank” Incidentally, I grew up across the street from an Ernestine who had been a telephone operator. Tomlin’s sketch plays on the idea that reporting obscenity requires its reproduction.

This is exploited with delicious effect in John Water’s Serial Mom, with the added twist that the obscene caller is a woman. You can keep your New Yorker cartoons, Kathleen Turner pranking her neighbor is my favorite cultural object on the topic ever.

“Is this the Cocksucker Residence? Isn’t this 4215 Pussy Way? Now let me check the zip code, 212 Fuck You?” Here, the innocent who is victimized by obscenity is provoked into it, negating the violation by exposing the filth of everybody in everyday life. Kathleen Turner’s self-satisfied chuckle recalls Pee Wee Herman.

Waters’ 1994 film was one of the last of movies and after-school specials featuring obscene phone calls. They soon descended from dangerous into a total joke, as on Family Feud in 2012. Here Cleveland native Steve Harvey gets to play the lonely role of moral gatekeeper who can only shake his head (or give a slack-jawed stare) at the gleeful immorality of everyone else:

  • Next up 2/3: lawyers, doctors and academics try to make sense of obscene phone calls, and what they studied instead as their cultural resonance waned in the 1990s
  • Finally 3/3: tracking cultural resonance using Google Ngrams, and an answer to the question of what caused the decline in the cultural resonance of obscene phone calls




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