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Ask Billboard: Uncovering Potentially Uncoverable Songs, Reader Responses

Knowledgeable Chart Beat readers (is there any other kind?) recall songs with now-outdated lyrics. Hey, remember phone booths?

Ask Billboard is updated every week. As always, submit your questions about Billboard charts, sales and airplay, as well as general music musings, to askbb@billboard.com. Please include your first and last name, as well as your city, state and country, if outside the U.S.


Hi Gary,

I enjoyed George G. Kitchens III’ question in last week’s “Ask Billboard”: What songs feature now-outdated lyrics, perhaps making them “uncoverable” today?


I’d say contemporary hip-hop and R&B hits are the most prone to lyrical obsolescence, since so many of them name-check brand names. The very lyrics that make them seem cool and up-to-the-minute today will make them seem charmingly dated tomorrow.

You might remember, for instance, that in Destiny’s Child’s “Bug-a-Boo,” Beyonce sings, “You make me wanna throw my pager out the window. Tell MCI to cut the phone pole.” Later, she even says she wants to “tell AOL to make (her) e-mail stop.” You’d pretty much need a historian to cover that song today.

Fondly remembering my AOL account,

Mark Blankenship
New York, New York

Hi Gary,

Try these on for size:

“Please Mr. Postman,” Carpenters/Marvelettes (“Mr. E-mail Server”?)

“Half-Breed,” Cher (What’s the big deal about mixed races these days?)

“The Night Chicago Died,” Paper Lace (“… and there was no sound at all, but the clock upon the wall – tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock.” When was the last time you heard a clock go, “tick, tock”?)

“Jump,” Van Halen (“Oh, can’t you see me standin’ here. I got my back against the record machine.” Against the what, now?)

“Pinball Wizard,” the Who/ Elton John (Pinball?)

David Fritz
Reseda, California


I loved “Brand New Key” by Melanie from the first time I heard it on the radio in 1971. The only thing was, I had no idea what a key had to do with roller skating. Roller skates were shoes with wheels on the bottom. You didn’t need a key to turn them on.

Then, I heard a DJ talking about skate keys and how you used to buy metal skates that you would attach to the bottom of your street shoes, adjust and lock in place with a key.

How bizarre, especially when compared to today’s roller blades. But you can’t beat “Brand New Key”!

Mike “The Bear” Dittmer

Hi Gary,

Enjoyed the article.

One song that I find somewhat outdated is Prince‘s (and Tom Jones’) “Kiss”: “You don’t have to watch Dynasty to have an attitude …”

And, Elvis Presley‘s “Return to Sender” would probably be lost to those who no longer visit (or never have visited) a post office.

Fun stuff!

T. Scott Benefield, MD

Ask Billboard is updated every week. As always, submit your questions about Billboard charts, sales and airplay, as well as general music musings, to askbb@billboard.com. Please include your first and last name, as well as your city, state and country, if outside the U.S.



Happy holidays, kind sir! In response to George G. Kitchens III’s letter about “Uncovering Potentially Uncoverable Songs,” and your initial list, I’d like to contribute a few more:

“Pac-Man Fever,” Buckner & Garcia (No. 9, Billboard Hot 100, 1982)
While Pac-Man still exists today in the random arcade, on computer screens and iPods, 30 years ago it was a whole different deal. Those younger than 30 probably won’t understand, but for those of us who were around and do remember, Pac-Man was the icing on the cake of an amazing video game and arcade phenomenon that stuck around for many years.

“Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand,” Primitive Radio Gods (No. 1, six weeks, Alternative Songs / No. 10, Radio Songs, 1996)
Hard to believe just 15 years ago, when this song was popular, there were still a good number of phone booths and not so many “cellular” phones. Fast-forward and the roles have reversed and then some.

“Valley Girl,” Frank Zappa (No. 32, Hot 100, 1982)
I’ve never been to Los Angeles, and therefore have never been to “the Valley,” but I honestly can’t imagine that almost 30 years after this song became the late, great Frank Zappa’s only top 40 hit, that girls would actually still talk like this. ( Editor’s note: they, like, totally, still do).

Ron Raymond, Jr.
Host/Producer, “stuck in the 80s”
WMPG-FM, Portland, Maine


This discussion began with an observation that Rod Stewart‘s “Da You Think I’m Sexy?” features the lyric, “Give me a dime, so I can call my mother.” Off the top of my head, I can think of four more songs with dated pay-phone references.

The Turtles’ 1967 classic “Happy Together” features the line, “If I should call you up, invest a dime …” Not in this day and age, you won’t!

In Jim Croce‘s 1972 hit “Operator,” the narrator finally gives up his quest to call an old girlfriend by telling the operator, “You can keep the dime.”

In Dr. Hook’s 1972 song “Sylvia’s Mother,” the narrator states, “And the operator says 40 cents more, for the next three minutes.” How interesting. I’m wondering if now that amount would buy you three seconds, not three minutes.

The entire premise of Rupert Holmes’ 1979 hit “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” is based on the idea that newspapers printed personal ads. Pre-internet, of course.

Let me close with an observation from a novelty song. In Ray Stevens‘ 1974 hit “The Streak,” the narrator, attending a basketball game, says, “At halftime, I was down there gettin’ Ethel a snowcone.” “Down” implies that he actually walked down to court level and bought the snowcone at one of those old-fashioned portable concession stands. Nowadays, you’d walk “up” to the outer concourse to purchase snacks from a permanent concession stand. And, no one would be allowed on the floor level (at least without a ticket or a press pass). Of course, all this implies that basketball games are being played, which is a bit of a novelty itself this year.

Andy Ray
Carmel, Indiana

Hi Gary,

Good topic.

I don’t know why “Alley Oop” by the Hollywood Argyles popped into my head the other day, but it was stuck there for several hours. It occurred to me then that almost no one under the age of 30 would have any clue as to what that song is about. (“Alley Oop” starred in a newspaper comic strip).

Most old song lyrics concerning the telephone would have to be revised in order to make sense to today’s younger audiences. Jim Croce’s “Operator” and the Manhattan Transfer’s different song of the same name are favorites of mine. The latter act asks the operator to “give me long distance,” along with other requests to be connected to heaven and Jesus.

And, what about “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits? Nobody plays guitar on MTV anymore. Or any instrument, practically. No videos. No guitars.

Don Helms
Norman, Oklahoma

Hi Gary,

It wouldn’t be too easy, if even possible, to buy a can of beer in 2011 that you open by pulling back a pop-top, i.e., a pull tab.

Back in the 1977, however, it was a timely reference in Jimmy Buffett‘s “Margaritaville”:

“I blew out my flip-flop / Stepped on a pop-top / Cut my heel, had to cruise on back home.”

Hmm, maybe that’s why those sharp items went out of style.

Eric Jones