Unlikely pop perfection turns 10.
Every so often, a seismic shift occurs in the landscape of popular music which alters how the public at large respond to or engage with the art in question. This does not always have to do with the quality of the music and it doesn’t always correlate to a change in musical tastes or which genre becomes the dominant one in the popular consciousness, but it nonetheless leaves a radical impact upon music consumption. The mainstreaming, arguable White-washing of rock and roll. The British invasion. The rise of LPs as a cohesive artistic statement rather than a quickfire singles compilation. Nightclubs and discos. MTV and music videos. Total Request Live. Napster and later the legal counterpart, iTunes. Each of these events changed how listeners responded to pop music and, by extension, changed how pop music itself would be constructed by artists going forward.
But of course, saying that, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The particulars and parameters of pop music have changed throughout the decades. The images and sounds of what pop music can be have evolved since pop charts were officially consolidated in the mid-50s. And the manner in which music is consumed, released, and appreciated has altered to such a degree that pop music which sells actual purchases rather than just logging streams that, through some arcane mathematical wizardry known only to Capitalism’s weird gods, equate to a single proper purchase is now newsworthy. But the fundamentals of Pop music, the kind which earns that capital P, have remained fairly consistent over the last seven decades. They are often big, universal, heartfelt things. Massive choruses and relentlessly catchy hooks. Major emotions conjured, explored, and expelled in a compact cathartic manner. They sound like hits and, for three-and-a-half to four minutes, the best of them become the only thing that matters.
No matter how much things on the periphery change, none of it’s worth a damn if the tune don’t slap. It’s as true today as it was way back when, even if the current overall vibe is more, well, vibes (and even if I get all Old Man Yells at Cloud about our current indisputable biggest pop stars). But the right song at the right time can absolutely signal one of those major changes in pop music. And, ten years ago today, a Canadian Idol bronze medallist waitressing to make ends meet after her unassuming folk-pop debut failed to set the world on fire released a song which signpost the power of social media co-signs, YouTube trends, and memes in making songs go supernova.
Carly Rae Jepsen had always wanted to be a performer. Raised on a musical diet of Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, and Broadway, she auditioned for and won lead roles in all of her major school musicals whilst Sinéad O’Connor’s iconic cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U” imprinted a love of pop music’s melodrama which would serve her well in later life. She got into the prestigious Canadian College of Performing Arts only to drop out after her first year when she discovered an affinity for guitar-based songwriting, moving to Vancouver and a life of busking at open mics and juggling three jobs to make rent. A former high school teacher urged Jepsen to audition for Canadian Idol which she did with an original song, “Sweet Talker,” and ultimately placed third, later reflecting “it was like all the exposure without the devilish contract at the end.” Post-show, she secured a deal with MapleMusic Recordings and put out debut album Tug of War; a folk-pop record in the vein of Corrinne Bailey Rae, Vanessa Carlton, and other similar early 00s AM radio fodder which was likeable but nothing spectacular. It did ok numbers but didn’t break out.
Even when 0604 Recordings came and snapped her up to a slightly bigger Canadian label and reissued that debut in 2011 – fun fact: 0604 was co-founded by Chad Kroeger of Nickelback and I think we can all agree that this signing squares him for “Rockstar” at the very least – nothing so far indicated that Jepsen was going to be more than a minor Canadian celebrity. Tug of War was fine with flashes of emotional hooks but it was also derivative and dated even by 2008 standards, working in a sonic genre which had been left behind in the wider world. And when she got picked up by 0604 in 2011, she was the wrong side of 25 in an industry which likes its female pop stars to start very youthful and very impressionable. (Not condoning, it’s skeevy as all fuck.) If Jepsen was going to have a moment, it would seem that her time for one had passed.
So, “Call Me Maybe” turns 10 today. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?
Like a lot of other surprise big hits, the story of “Call Me Maybe”’s creation was one of spontaneous happy accidents. Jepsen and long-time friend and songwriter Tavish Crowe were busy writing an entirely different song in her Vancouver apartment when Crowe started strumming out the C Major/D Major/E Minor chord progression which would eventually make up “Call Me”’s exhilarating release. To this progression, Jepsen sang out what she thought were some filler lyrics “but here’s my number/so call me maybe” for said other song’s pre-chorus. She felt they might’ve been too cheesy or on-the-nose to use in a song proper and planned to change them later. Crowe advised that they might be worth keeping around since he found them “quirky and light-hearted and fun.”
The next day, Jepsen and Crowe met up at Umbrella Studios with friend, labelmate, and Mariana’s Trench frontman Josh Ramsay. They played him some of their demos which were still in line with the minimalist AM folk-pop of her debut when he heard the track with the “Call Me Maybe” hook. “That pre-chorus is way hookier than the chorus that you guys have, so let’s repeat it” is what Jepsen recalls Ramsay saying upon first listen, so the trio took that pre-chorus, threw away the rest of the song, and composed an entirely new one in its place. Over the next several days, “Call Me Maybe” took shape with Ramsay in the producer’s chair turning a folk song into a full-blown bubblegum pop anthem with electric strings. Whilst liking the song, Jepsen had reservations. She was a singer-songwriter, she made folk-pop. This was a hell of a left-turn. “I was like, ‘Is this a world I can play in? Does this feel like me still?’”
It would absolutely be a world that Jepsen could play in. I’d say that you can hear Jepsen realise her destiny as a pure pop singer in real time, as that reserved internal monologue of the verse gives way to the outward inquisition of the chorus in a higher register, but that wouldn’t be true. She’s locked in from the very outset. That vocal melody remaining fixated on one note aside from the “in my way” in the verses perfectly communicating her one-track anxiety-riddled mind, somebody so struck by the physical manifestation of an idealised cutie crush that it takes their all to open themselves up to that risk of rejection. Even when she hits the chorus, so much is said from where she chooses to hold a beat rather than sing a note; that slight delay on the “hey” rather than hitting directly on the downbeat sensationally translates the butterflies of asking a stranger out into musical form. The tension and unsteadiness of that silence is so relatable and masterfully handled, clumsy yet glossy like a rom-com meet-cute. (Honestly, I think Jepsen is a master at wringing power from off-beat deliveries; the pause of “I’m forever haunted by our [beat] time” on “Julien” is a key example.)
And whilst we’re discussing that chorus, that monster chorus which justifiably overtakes everything the moment it hits, we gotta talk about those strings. They’re rooted in disco, or at the very least classic ABBA, but they’ve also had a modern digitised sheen processed through them. Rather than sounding ornate and lush, they have a slight chintz and budget feel, like a ringtone from the era just after polyphonic samples but before slapping full 320kps MP3 audio files on one’s phone was a breeze. That sounds like a burn, I can assure you it is not meant as one. Especially once combined with the descending triplet synths in the chorus’ second half, those syncopated strings call to mind that specific moment in time of waiting and hoping for someone to message or call you back. There’s almost a text tone sting in the effective concision of that arrangement, but one which simultaneously doubles as a drama amplifier – you can envision the samurai/anime film style dramatic zoom-ins accompanying each string blast – allowing it to work on multiple levels.
And those lyrics. “Hey, I just met you/And this is crazy/But here’s my number/So call me maybe.” The directness is charming and ridiculous, endearing and silly, simple and deceptively complex, relatable and escapist. They’re both an idealised version of how a romantic listener would love to approach their crush, all of the complications and fear and doubt and feeling out stripped away to just get right to the heart of the matter, and yet filled with that exact same fear and doubt and yearning. Not just in the beats held between each line, but in that “maybe.” “Call me maybe.” The “maybe” does so much work on a dramatic level, betraying the potential confidence of the rest of the chorus to reveal a protagonist self-aware of the risks of getting her heart broken by this perfect-seeming human and, even in a moment of impetuous desire, unable to fully let their guard down. A pure-hearted romantic incapable of not bracing for disappointment. Somebody who’s built up this crush to impossible deity-like levels (“Before you came into my life I missed you so bad”) that talking to them risks ruining the purity of that fantasy if rejected. It’s so fucking good!
The chorus usually dominates “Call Me Maybe” discussion which, well, how could it not when it’s that much of a bulldozing juggernaut? But the rest of the song is no slouch, either. It’s arguably all hook. The verses squeeze all potential melody out of as few notes as possible, with Jepsen lyrically painting a picture of somebody who realises she’s going to have to be the one who forces the issue since this crush isn’t giving any signals by himself. The pre-chorus hops and skips across its 16 bars as it builds up to that higher register, and the monotone stream starts to break into more fractured syllabic deliveries as Jepsen musters up the courage to come out. Ramsay’s production stays rather minimal for much of the runtime but gives each component the space to breathe in a manner which makes the song feel massive yet not overwhelming. His pop-punk background becomes most evident during the bridge when the sonic climactic fireworks come not from seventeen layers of vocal overdubs or brickwalling the beat but rather from an overdriven descending guitar line which sits in the middle of the mix and harmonises on the last few notes of Jepsen’s vocal melody in great synchronicity.
In fact, despite the bubblegum heart and sheening off of almost all edges (even the guitar chords have a crunch more to provide a tangible low-end than hint at any potential dirt or filth), I can even envision a world where “Call Me Maybe” resided alongside the late-00s/early-10s emo pop scene. Bands like Metro Station, Cobra Starship and, yes, Ramsay’s own Mayday Parade. It’s not a whole lot removed from where those acts were working, mashing up ultra-polished mainstream pop hooks with the tangible dynamic of a live band and lyrics attempting to explore the complicated push-pull of romantic attraction – albeit thankfully sans the juvenile bad boy sexism of that subgenre’s worst examples. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the video positions Jepsen as a singer with a band, who all dress like scenesters, rather than your traditional pop starlet. I feel it highlights the cross-genre appeal that the song had long before it started being covered by every human being under the sun.
So, “Call Me Maybe” is a musical masterpiece. Three minutes and thirteen seconds of pop genius, the kind of song which is instantly great but only reveals its deceptive depth after prolonged exposure. “possibly the catchiest song I’ve ever heard lol” was how one Canadian Twitter user put it. But pop genius does not automatically guarantee a globe-dominating hit record, just look at almost literally everything Jepsen released afterwards for prime evidence of that depressing fact. For a time, “Call Me Maybe” seemed to be a Canada-only deal, debuting at #97 on their Hot 100 in late October and steadily rising to the mid-20s over the next several months but still wasn’t doing much better than the singles from Tug of War. On the cusp, on Canadian radio, but not looking to go much further than that. Which is when that Canadian Twitter user intervened.
2011 was prime Justin Bieber mania. The 17-year-old teen-pop megastar who’d come up through the early days of YouTube, manager Scooter Braun having discovered the kid via accidentally clicking on one of his cover videos, was in the middle of conquering the world. He had a multi-platinum selling debut album, an inescapable meme-able multi-platinum hit single, a massively successful 3D concert film/documentary, the man had just sent a Xmas album to #1 as his sophomore record! But, perhaps most importantly of all, Bieber had a legion of devoted fans and he communicated directly to them via this new social media service called Twitter. For much of the service’s first few years in action, Bieber was one of the top trending topics thanks to his fans all congregating on, communicating with, and discussing their idol via the platform. He therefore wielded immense power with his 18 million followers, though nobody quite realised that nor how much just yet. So, in December of 2011, whilst back in Ontario for the holidays and after hearing “Call Me Maybe” several times on the radio, he sent out the tweet.
Braun was almost immediately on notice. According to him, “[Beiber] never jumped out and promoted an artist like this before.” As Braun got straight to work finding Jepsen and signing her to his US Schoolboy Records label, “Call Me Maybe” finally went to #1 in Canada displacing Rihanna. A week later, Bieber, clearly infatuated with this song that still had not been released outside of its native Canada, gathered together a whole bunch of his famous teen friends and recorded a fun video of them all dancing and lipsyncing to the track in silly clothes. It immediately went viral. Two weeks later, the official Canadian music video dropped, full of many instantly meme-able shots and passages with a really goofy overall vibe – dear god, that boy has the absolute worst body tattoo in the history of hunky boy tattoos, it is perfectly dreadful – and attention-courting punchline of the male protagonist being gay (honestly not sure how that part’s aged). That also immediately went viral. People made more parodies: pop stars, beloved children’s institutions, football cheerleaders, the United States Army, actual normal people I’m assuming…
The way that a chart-dominating hit single was supposed to come about back then was via industry force. The labels had to anoint you, put a lot of money and marketing power behind your product, package you in micromanaged pre-approved ways, slip some payola to radio or get a prime placement on some film or TV show and, through a combination of relentless market saturation and a catchy enough tune, out would be born a hit single. Some natural phenomena and groundswell could slip through and force hands from time to time, but by and large it was a controlled system. By contrast, “Call Me Maybe”’s rise outside of Canada was somewhat organic and out of the major labels’ usual hands. The biggest pop star in the world impulsively tweeting out that he really liked this one song nobody outside of his home country had heard of at the time, online social challenges to the song inspiring others to get involved and share their creativity whilst spreading the track’s reach even farther, a music video with many gifs and stills which make for great reaction fodder on brevity-encouraging discussion platforms.
“Call Me Maybe” was not the first unlikely pop hit to circumvent the usual industry-organised pipeline to score major success. Of course not, there’s six decades of pop charts to provide other examples. Nor was not the first viral pop hit. Not even close. (Some critics at the time were saying things like “it’s ‘Friday,’ but good.”) It probably wasn’t even the first song to gain a boost from a famous pop star shouting it out on their social media. But the buzz it built up as a result of that Internet infamy, and more importantly the digital sales it was driving, certainly alerted the industry to the potential power that these still-nascent social media platforms had in making big hits. Why put millions of dollars into artificially making a new star when a direct (and genuine) co-sign from a big name and the resulting curious swarm of their legions of fans can organically make that new star for a fraction of the money and work? Combined with the similarly-insurgent singles by Gotye (“Somebody That I Used to Know”) and fun. (“We Are Young”) which also overtook Summer 2012 through similar means, you’re seeing one of the first instances of the tail (consumer demand) wagging the dog (radio) which would become ever more complicated and contentious a balance over the next decade as the means of music consumption would continue to evolve.
Of course, this virality would come at a cost. Whilst “Call Me Maybe” went completely stratospheric in the Summer of 2012, going to #1 in the US for nine consecutive weeks and ending up the second biggest song of the year (behind Gotye), it did not take long at all for Jepsen, like her fellow mainstream gatecrashers, to get the unfortunate and undeserved stink of novelty attached to her. Other than a collab with Owl City – oh god, there’s an unfortunate early-2010s blast from the past – Jepsen’s other singles from this era failed to launch. The album that “Call Me Maybe” was meant to prelude, Curiosity, saw its tracklist hacksawed down to an EP at almost literally the last possible minute partly thanks to Jepsen getting cold feet with the increased attention placed on her. She went back into the studio and rush-released Kiss, a full second album with only two holdover tracks from Curiosity, almost a year to the day of “Call Me Maybe”’s original Canadian release. It failed to make a dent anywhere, although it did win Album of the Year at the Junos in 2013 so there’s that.
Within two years, Jepsen, the first female Canadian artist since Avril Lavigne to top the Billboard Hot 100, was seeing her name in “One Hit Wonder” listicles. It took until 2015 for her to complete work on the follow-up album E∙MO∙TION. The comeback was launched with lead single “I Really Like You,” a track which mined similar topical ground to “Call Me Maybe,” with a similar nagging and endlessly catchy hook, and featured a big flashy meme-ready video starring Tom Hanks. To this day, I find myself wondering what would’ve happened if Jepsen had gotten her way and “Run Away With Me” was issued as the first single instead. “I Really Like You” is a damn good song, don’t get me wrong, but it is undoubtedly “Call Me Maybe (Redux)” and in the public perception absolutely killed her chances of ever sniffing mainstream success again. Three years away and the “Call Me Maybe” girl is just gonna do “Call Me Maybe” again but with the artificial backing of the very industry her initial success stood in relative contrast to? For those already sceptical to Jepsen after the inescapable cheesiness of that earlier hit, and I can tell you from experience that the backlash was there, the relaunch was definite “how do you do, fellow kids?” vibes.
If you’ve read this far into a “Call Me Maybe” retrospective, though, you already know how this story concludes. E∙MO∙TION may have been rejected by the general public, but it got critical acclaim and was immediately venerated by a die-hard cult fanbase who appreciated its widescreen, 80s-esque, go-for-broke vision of pop music. Combined with the poptimism wave causing even devoted Indieheads to feel comfortable openly respecting motherfucking craft, Jepsen was able to refashion herself as an indie pop star, playing to a devoted throng who show up and show out for almost everything she does rather than just The Big Hit. In particular, she became embraced by the outsiders who reliably make pop divas into long-lasting icons: the gays, a community whose support she’s been publicly grateful for. (Seriously, few things gave me more desperately needed serotonin in 2020 than a morning boogie around the house to “Boy Problems;” it works 100% of the time 75% of the time.)
As much as it feels like a crime that somebody like Ed Sheeran gets 2,000x the seemingly unstoppable success Jepsen deserves despite having 0.000000000000000001% of the talent, I also get the inkling that she’s happy with how things are turning out. After all, Jepsen’s career has been marked by almost-coulda’s – she almost coulda graduated from Performing Arts school and gone permanently into theatre, she almost coulda won Canadian Idol, she almost coulda skipped over “Call Me Maybe” entirely – and that, plus the relatively late age at which she achieved her inescapable mega-hit, clearly gave her the requisite perspective to keep her head on straight. It’s probably a lot more fulfilling for her to play for that highly appreciative cult creating the idiosyncratic music she wants to make, rather than navigating the mega-star game which exhausts and burns out the vast majority it touches (especially women). I’m particularly struck by the answer she gave Billboard when interviewed for a retrospective about the song in 2019.
“…it was such a relieving thing to realize it wasn’t maybe the way for me. It’s nice now to look back and not see ‘Call Me Maybe’ as this big, terrible thing that I could never outdo, versus the beautiful start to a crazy adventure of its own, and a thing I’m very grateful for.”
A song like “Call Me Maybe” defines an artist forever, whether they’d like it to or not. A song that big, tied so specifically to a cultural moment, presaging a major shift in the pop music landscape on a meta level? How could it not? In the general public eye, Carly Rae Jepsen is the “Call Me Maybe” girl; a guilty pleasure or novelty record treated with minor embarrassment until it comes on the karaoke system as the last song of the night where it gets greeted with the reverence it deserves. That’s not a bad legacy to have. To her devoted, meanwhile, “Call Me Maybe” was the launch pad to bigger and better things, the start of a cult pop icon career which, whilst eluding the wider success songs like “Want You in My Room” deserve, shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. That’s maybe an even better legacy to have.
To put it another way: right now, Carly Rae Jepsen is at a point in her career where she can pull “Call Me Maybe” out sixth in a twenty-four song-long setlist and have at least a half dozen other songs on said setlist be greeted with even louder rapturous approval than that. Not bad for a Canadian Idol bronze medallist.