Any new technology will usually trigger a new wave of cultural anxiety. The advent of nuclear power spawned a generation of Cold War sci-fi, the space race gave us everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Gravity, and television’s ubiquity brought us horror gems like Videodrome and The Ring. But the cell phone’s debut in pop culture at the turn of the millennium signaled a whole new breed of paranoia. Suddenly, you could be tracked down by your family, friends, and lovers no matter where you went.
Like any nascent personal tech, cell phones represented futuristic cool in the late ‘90s and early aughts; you could set your own ringtone, text your friends, and play Snake in class. They also came bundled with a terror that was quick to bleed through the era’s movies and music videos. Suddenly, going outside didn’t mean an escape from connectivity. Your phone followed you, and so did everyone who had your number.
“You make me want to throw my pager out the window,” Beyoncé sings on Destiny’s Child’s 1999 single “Bug A Boo,” whose music video features bandmate LaTavia Roberson chucking her beeper into a trash can in slow motion while the guy pursuing her looks on, phone in hand. “Every time my phone rings, it seems to be you / And I am praying that it is someone else.”
Cell phones opened a new channel for creeps, but they also opened the floodgates of relationship insecurity. On the flip side of the constant caller was the boyfriend who wouldn’t pick up his phone no matter how many times you called, the partner whose negligence or infidelity left a trail on the technology he used. The video for Pink’s 1999 single “There You Go” breaks from the music so the singer can ream her man through her cell phone. Then she drives a motorcycle directly into his living room. In 2001, Backstreet Boys dramatized a phone’s dying battery as the harbinger of doom with “The Call,” whose action-packed video turned a night of cheating into a life-or-death chase through an urban landscape.
Anxiety about cell phones and personal computers had begun to permeate popular culture throughout the ‘90s, but nothing fixated on mobile technology quite like The Matrix did in 1999. Phones weren’t just there to look futuristic; they were pivotal to the plot, serving as portals between the virtual world and the real one.
Neo’s escape from the Matrix begins when he’s hand-delivered a cell phone in a FedEx envelope, and each subsequent chase in the film hinges on whether he’s able to communicate with the liberated world via cell. The Matrix made the cell phone into an object of both power and anxiety, something that could lead you down the rabbit hole to truths you didn’t necessarily want to know.
The Matrix inspired the look and feel of countless music videos, as well as their relationship to technology. Long leather jackets flapped around the ankles of the Backstreet Boys in “The Call,” which referenced a few scenes from the film directly (the strobes in the opening shots are Matrix green, while Kevin Richardson leaps from window to window Trinity-style). The same year, Three 6 Mafia rapped against walls of scrolling green text while threatening to “throw this Motorola out the window” in “Two Way Freak.” The video for Brandy’s 2002 hit “What About Us?” saw her smashing pagers and phones with a baseball bat while decked out in head-to-toe black leather. Whenever phones showed up in videos, anger, anxiety, and violence weren’t too far behind.
In 2016, the green LCD screens and blocky black text of early cell phones look absurd (as do floor-length leather jackets). But these early millennial music videos helped establish a visual vernacular for technology’s role in everyday interpersonal relationships. Waiting for a reply to your text could be as high-stakes an endeavor as sprinting away from Agents or dodging bullets in slow motion. Pop artists voiced that anxiety in the mainstream, justifying the phantom ringtones some of us still hear.