A ringtone does far more than alert a cell-phone owner to the dull fact that someone’s calling. Those sing-song notes send a loud and clear signal to everyone around you about who you are—or at least who you want people to think you are.
They work like a wink, a code sent out into the world to announce your taste, your personality and often your sense of humor, luring in whomever lies on your wavelength.
Given the wide variety of human types out there, you’d think our choice of ringtones would convey a vast and confusing variety of messages and meanings.
In analyzing the nation’s most popular ringtones, I found that the overwhelming majority fall into rigidly focused categories that, taken together, convey a stunningly narrow message.
It goes something like ...
“I’m a super hot sex machine who likes to party hardy, so watch out, mother ...”
Looking over Billboard’s list of top ringtones week after week drives this point home with numbing regularity. And the results have more resonance than you may think. A top ringtone can generate hundreds of thousands of downloads per week. Top tones move in the millions, in some cases generating more money for the pop stars who created them than they cull from their albums.
While the overarching message conveyed by these tones is that of a, shall we say, healthy ego, the specific identities implied by the ringtones can be broken down into six focused categories.
So, what does all this strutting and preening mean about us collectively?
“Americans have to be the most egocentric people in the world,” says the rapper MIMS, a man who has benefited from the ringtone craze more than most.
Then again, it helps to remember that many people use these tones ironically. They’re meant to get a giggle. Also, by far the biggest market for ringtones is teenagers, which explains the proliferation of hip-hop joke and novelty songs, which double as the dominant sellers in pop today.
Examples: “My Humps,” Black Eyed Peas. A slutty, strutting ode to one’s own body parts. 90 weeks on the chart and counting.
“This Is Why I’m Hot,” by MIMS. The title couldn’t make its message any plainer. Small wonder it’s the No. 1 title of the year, with sales of over 1 million.
“Don’t Cha,” Pussycat Dolls. A proclamation that the cell-phone owner is sexier than whoever’s boyfriend/girlfriend may be listening in. 77 weeks on the chart and still holding strong.
`I LIKE TO GET HIGH’
“Because I Got High,” Afroman. The title says it all. 108 weeks on the chart, and still in the top 5.
“2 Step,” Unk. Features lyrics extolling smoking pot and drinking Grey Goose. Last week’s No. 1 ringtone.
“We Fly High,” Jim Jones. The Harlem rapper’s anthem of lofty living. The sixth most popular jingle of 2007.
“Buy You a Drank,” T-Pain. The lyric is all about getting someone drunk enough so that you can have your way with them. The second most popular ringy-dingy of the year. It recently spent seven weeks at No. 1.
“I’m a Flirt,” R. Kelly. A come-on anthem by America’s most notorious horndog. The fifth most popular ringtone of the year.
“Candy Shop,” 50 Cent. Treating sex as a purchasable sweet. 120 weeks on the chart with no letup.
`I’M STUCK IN THE PAST AND PROUD OF IT’
“Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin. The FM staple and original power ballad. The second most popular ringtone of all.
“Sweet Home Alabama,” Lynyrd Skynyrd. Southern rock’s proudest hour. The third most popular ringtone of all time. 135 weeks on the chart, and still in the top 10 last week.
“The Super Mario Brothers Theme.” Dates back from when Nintendos were new. The fourth most popular ringtone of all time.
`I’M BAD AND/OR COOL’
“Theme From The Pink Panther,” Henry Mancini. Retro-cool of the highest order. 136 weeks on the chart with energy to burn.
“Bad Boys/Theme From Cops,” Inner Circle. The classic outlaw theme song. After 132 weeks, it’s still on the chart.
“Theme From Mission: Impossible,” Lalo Schifrin. A vintage TV take on hip that later bred the cool movie franchise with Tom Cruise. The seventh most popular tone of all time, having spent 124 weeks on the chart so far.
`I’M A ROCK STAR’
“Party Like a Rock Star,” Shop Boyz. Hip hop’s salute to rock-‘n’-roll acting out. Shot to No. 1 on its first day out. The 17th most popular ringtone of 2007 so far.
“Rock Star,” Nickelback. Neo-grunge’s ironic salute to the classic rich, spoiled and out-of-control character. After 33 weeks on the chart, it holds in the top 10.
BILLBOARD’S TOP RINGTONES LAST WEEK:
1) “2 Step” Unk
2) “What Hurts the Most” Rascal Flatts
3) “Super Mario Brothers Game Theme” Koji Kondo
4) “Irreplaceable” Beyonce
5) “Buy U a Drank” T-Pain
6) “Because I Got High” Afroman
7) “We Fly High” Jim Jones
8) “Rock Star” Nickelback
9) “Candy Shop” 50 Cent
10) “Buckcherry” Crazy Bitch
TOP RINGTONES OF 2007:
1) “This Is Why I’m Hot” MIMS
2) “Buy U a Drank” T-Pain
3) “Don’t Matter” Akon
4) “Pop, Lock & Drop It” Huey
5) “I’m a Flirt (Remix)” R. Kelly
6) “We Fly High” Jim Jones
7) “Irreplaceable” Beyonce
8) “The Way I Live” Baby Boy Da Print
9) “Walk It Out” Unk
10) “On the Hotline” Pretty Ricky
TOP RINGTONES OF ALL TIME (SOURCE: TOP40-CHARTS.COM):
1) “In Da Club” 50 Cent
2) “Stairway to Heaven” Led Zeppelin
3) “Sweet Home Alabama” Lynyrd Skynyrd
4) “Super Mario Brothers Game Theme” Koji Kondo
5) “Halloween Movie Theme” John Carpenter
6) “The Next Episode” Dr. Dre
7) “Mission: Impossible Theme” Lalo Schifrin
8) “Sandstorm” DaRude
9) “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Theme” Will Smith
10) “Jetsons Theme” Hoyt S. Curtain