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Friday, May 9, 2003

++ Anyone Got Cellular Minutes?

++ Screw that dork who keeps asking "Can you hear me now?" on the Verizon Wireless commercials. (And the simpering chick who tries to smile as she flashes the hybrid peace/victory/Verizon sign with her fingers, except it also looks like she's suffering some private misery, like maybe her Marxist parents have disowned her for turning from Brechtian theater to TV commercials, or perhaps the director's been leering at her throughout the entire shoot, and she's not sure that the SAG card is actually worth all the crap she's gone through to get it, or maybe she's just constipated — screw her, too, and her bad-faith pearly whites.) If the phone companies really want to woo new subscribers, they should follow my advice: license Mad Anju's track "Cellular Minutes," give the cranky caller center stage, and film the whole thing in a joint bouncing with a bevy of bashment beauties.

Recorded over the absolutely boffo "Clappas" rhythm — a lanky 6/8 ditty that never fails to remind me of "God Save the Queen" — "Cellular Minutes" is Anju's diatribe against people who refuse to charge up their mobile phones, thus requiring him to call . "You don't have credit on your cellular," he belts out as the song opens with a queasy digital whine, "You're wrong! This is the minutes song! Bad bwoys, go buy some minutes and put by your cellular!"

It's one of those tunes that's just perfect: blustering Anju, righteously belligerent, sings as though he's jabbing a finger at your sternum, while the rhythm itself sounds like a shoving match (or, perhaps, the crowd that gathers 'round to watch one). As Tom Ewing pointed out at New York London Paris Munich a few months back, Anju's bellowing "buzzes with authentic irritability." Every one of Anju's insults is spit through clenched teeth, dripping with contempt. "Don't tell me 'Call me back,' you done called me, so speak!"

Granted, the song's crossover appeal for a U.S. audience may be limited, as "pay as you go" plans have never really taken off here. But anyone who has traveled in Latin America or, apparently, the Caribbean, knows the debilitating effects engendered by pay-as-you-go plans. In such a culture — almost a reverse-potlatch system, really — you only pay to make calls, but not receive them. Net result? No one charges his or her phone, assuming that anyone wanting to get in touch will simply make the call.

I saw it first hand in Santiago, Chile: everyone had phones, but no one had minutes. At bar after bar, café after café, someone would ask to borrow a phone to make a quick call, and that person's friends — with a look hovering between shame and indignation — would all shake their heads, protesting that no, they didn't have any minutes left either. Who wouldn't get pissed off at such a squandering of silicon? And so Anju steps up with a trenchant critique of the moral failings of the pay-as-you-go society:

"Maybe the price is too high
"Why the minutes the people won't buy
"I can't explain I don't know why
"But every time you hear 'call me back' me want cry,
"'You can't have cellular and don't have credit
"If you want some minutes will you please go get it!'"

He says lots of other things as well, in his assessment of this crisis of "epidemic proportions escalating to the sky," but unfortunately his patois is so thick that the cleanest fiber optics in the world wouldn't help me figure it out. Still, there's no missing Anju's point. Some may write this off as a novelty song, and there are those that protest that "Clappas" is at best a cartoony parody of the clap-happy "Diwali" rhythm. But I prefer to read Anju's broadside as a properly agitated engagement with the technological sublime.

Yes, there's a metaphor here: the dire warnings of that park ranger of your youth who explained that if everyone picked the alpine lilies, there wouldn't be any left, have come true. Except it's minutes, not wildflowers, that have been yanked and spent. And with the depletion of the soil of the common goodwill, the blue flower of technology (pace Benjamin) is left to wither in an anguished, crackling silence.

Besides, it's hilarious — and the best telecommunications rhyme since Q-Tip's "Back in the day when I was a teenager/ Before I had status, before I had a pager." What are you waiting for, Madison Avenue?


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