I bought my first ringtone, "Shake It" by Metro Station, back in 2007. A decade later, I can still remember every word to that catchy pop hook. (To be fair, it's not that hard. It's only six words and five of them are "shake.")
It's crazy to think that a 30-second snippet from a single song can still drum up so many emotions, but a ringtone is a fascinating time capsule. Back then, it was reflection of your personality, an extension of who you were.
So it makes sense that in 2006, at the height of the ringtone craze, the MTV Video Music Awards gave out the first — and last — accolade for Ringtone of the Year. Fort Minor's "Where'd You Go" reigned supreme, besting The Black Eyed Peas' "My Humps," Bubba Sparxxx’s "Ms. New Booty," Nelly's "Grillz," and Kanye West's "Gold Digger" to take home the coveted Moon Person (f.k.a. the Moonman).
If you're anything like me, then you probably have one reaction to this piece of information: Huh?
I'm not trying to suggest that "Where You'd Go" wasn't a success. In fact, it was a hugely successful single for the Mike Shinoda side project. (At the time, Shinoda was mostly known to fans of Linkin Park.) It spent 20 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at no. 4, and in 2006, MTV's Total Request Live played it on heavy rotation. But it's a song about loneliness, written from the perspective of someone whose significant other is always away traveling. Who would make such a melancholy song their ringtone? Well, I found somebody who did.
Leanne Patrick was 17 and living in North Carolina when her boyfriend left for basic training for the U.S. Air Force. She was devastated. So she turned to Fort Minor's "Where'd You Go" — a song that, as a self-described emo kid, she'd normally never listen to — to console herself. Or maybe it was an act of commiseration.
"Being 17 years old, and a big ball of emotion, that song just resonated with me so much," Patrick, now 28, told MTV News this month by phone. So much, in fact, that she made the somber song her very first ringtone on her brand-new Samsung flip phone.
"I really liked it because it was relatable," she added. "For some reason, I just wanted to have that sad song play as much as possible. Now that I think about it, it sounds kind of pathetic."
But it's not pathetic. In the mid-2000s, having a customized ringtone set to your favorite song (technically called a mastertone) was on trend. It was the perfect sonic accessory, one that you could easily change to match your mood and your caller.
When Patrick and her high school sweetheart broke up, she swapped "Where'd You Go" for a ringtone that better reflected her feelings at the time: My Chemical Romance's "I'm Not Okay (I Promise)." Then, in college, every time her phone rang she heard the theme to The Office.
Now, Patrick said, she defaults to marimba. "I just use whatever is on my iPhone. I haven't bought anything in years."
She's not the only one. The ringtone market has been on a steady decline since it hit its peak in 2007 (with $881 million in sales). In 2015, ringtone and ringback sales amounted to only $54.6 million, according to a report from the Recording Industry Association of America. So, no, ringtones aren't entirely dead, but they are less essential for Gen-Z, who now have so many other ways to communicate at their fingertips. And the Millennials who grew up with ringtones are now more likely to have their phones on silent throughout the work day than blasting Fifth Harmony's "Down."
Patrick hasn't listened to Fort Minor in years. In fact, as a human resources official, she advised that she's "probably not going to hire anyone who has a ringback tone." But that doesn't mean she's forgotten "Where'd You Go" or what that song meant to her during a particularly tumultuous time. "This is so random," she said, "but I do remember every word to that song."