Singled Out: "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen
A detailed and comprehensive overanalysis of “Call My Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen.
There is a Canadian jetliner called the CRJ that is very popular and capable of soaring at fantastic heights. Although this plane actually does exist, for the purposes of this article, you need not be concerned with it as anything more than a metaphor for Canadian pop singer Carly Rae Jepsen (a.k.a. CRJ), who is achieving admiration all over the world through her debut single “Call My Maybe”. Chances are that if you’re a human being with at least one properly functioning ear and you have been in proximity of a radio, television, or teenager within the past few months, you know what I’m talking about. You’re probably singing the song to yourself right now, aren’t you? Well, don’t stop on my account. In fact, have another listen:
In December of 2011, like various perfumes and nail polish before her, Jepsen received an official endorsement from fellow Canadian and all-around-super-mega-teen-idol, Justin Bieber. Riding the wake of this invaluable press, “Call Me Maybe” was number one with a bullet in Canada by February. By March, being the resident music buff in my circle of friends, word of “Call Me Maybe” had made its way to my inbox (multiple times). It was being hailed as “the new perfect pop song.” That's high praise.
Recognizing the potential greatness that sat in my inbox, I maintained a reserved excitement about the song on account of the Bieber-endorsement. Was the song actually that good, or was it solely living on Bieber-manufactured hype? His initial tweet about the song read as follows:
Call me maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen is possibly the catchiest song I’ve ever heard lol
An old economics professor of mine used to frequently say of Alan Greenspan (then Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve): “When that man sneezes, the whole economy feels it.” A similar observation can be made about Bieber: “When that teen tweets, the collective opinion of Earth’s teenagers changes.” And so, without a second thought, he tweeted and consequently cleared CRJ for takeoff. Such is the power of Bieber; not that he understands it. I can’t help but think that if knew the true power lying within each of his tweets, he’d never be “laughing out loud" while sending them… unless he were some sort evil scientist, that is. (Conspiracy theorists, take note.)
Nevertheless, sometime in early March, I listened to "Call Me Maybe” for the first time. I then proceeded to listen to it a second, third, fourth, and fifth time. That same day, I wrote a nearly 4,000 word first draft of this very article. However, I couldn’t finish it. I needed to ruminate on the song a little more. I mean, it was clear to me at that point that “Call Me Maybe” was not living on the hype alone; but that was no longer the question I was interested in. The one question on my mind was whether “Call Me Maybe” was truly the next perfect pop song?
It has been about four and a half months since then and I finally have come to a conclusion. Appropriately, the answer is “maybe." If you’re wondering what my scientific method was in making this determination, there was none; obviously, this is all purely subjective. (Don’t forget that last part!) However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have many detailed reasons for making my decision. Let me take you through my thought process…
It's Catchy, But Not Too Catchy
The most difficult quality for a perfect pop song to obtain is that of "catchiness.” There is no definition of what that word means, but if you’ve ever heard music before then you understand what I’m talking about. Every perfect pop song is catchy one way or another, but not every catchy song is perfect. In fact, many otherwise decent pop songs suffer from being too catchy. To be considered a perfect pop song, a delicate balance must be struck on the spectrum of catchiness. This concept is best illustrated by example.
The most recent example of a song that is too catchy is “Fuck You” by Cee Lo. It’s an undeniably catchy song, simple to learn, and fun to sing; but there’s not much else to it. I remember the day it was released. It was a Friday on YouTube (perhaps the title of my yet-to-be-written memoirs?), and the typographic music video for the song was “going viral!” I played it for my roommates later that day and told them this, verbatim:
“This is a new song by Cee Lo. Enjoy it while you can because by the end of next week, you’re never going to want to hear it again.”
Time proved me correct. That song tastes too sweet. It’s only good in moderation. Take a trip back to your more formative years for a moment and let’s talk about cereal, namely Waffle Crisp and Cinnamon Toast Crunch - two breakfast foods uniquely inspired by other breakfast foods. Do you remember the feeling you get after opening a box of delicious Waffle Crisp cereal and then accidentally eat the whole thing in one sitting? What you considered to be Earth’s most delicious food just moments earlier is now nothing more to you than a toxic box of sugar and a future bellyache. I hypothesize that this is why General Mills packages Cinnamon Toast Crunch in such a tiny box - so consumers can never overindulge that much in one sitting, thereby never wanting to see Cinnamon Toast Crunch again, let alone buy it and eat it. To this day, Cinnamon Toast Crunch seems to be the more popular cereal. [NOTE: Waffle Crisp is a product of Post.] The same idea applies to your hearbuds (once again, your "sonic taste buds"). Apologies for referencing college-level economics twice in one sitting, but the problem with these types of songs (ones that are too catchy), is that they have an easily attainable point of diminishing returns. That means a person does not have to listen to the song very many times before he or she stops deriving enjoyment from it.
People who love “Call Me Maybe” have a bad habit of calling it “the catchiest song of all time” or “the catchiest song I’ve ever heard.” That is a mistake. First of all, as established above, being “the catchiest song of all time” is not necessarily a good thing. And second, the title of “catchiest song of all time” belongs to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin—a song so catchy it became too sickening for him to keep playing.
NOTE: After having “Call Me Maybe” stuck in my head continuously for all of last week, I serendipitously walked by a bar playing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and it instantly replaced “Call Me Maybe” in my head. As far as I’m concerned, those facts are good enough to at least prove that “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is catchier than “Call Me Maybe”.
There’s no way to measure how catchy a song is or should be. Drawing inspiration from the epic poet Homer, when you listen to a song, you want to essentially ask: “Is it crispy? But not too crispy?” This is the crowning achievement of “Call Me Maybe”; it is very catchy, but not too catchy. If this song were porridge, it would be just right.
It's Going The Distance, Not For Speed
As a testament to how balanced this song is, all you have to do is look to the charts. The song hit number one in Canada last December, but didn’t begin to gain ground in the States until February. It was only this month that Jepsen made her first televised late night performance on Fallon. She doesn’t even have a proper album out yet to support the single! And despite how ubiquitous you think this song already is, there are most definitely still people who haven’t heard it. I’ve met them. That means that there is still room for growth. This may be a frightening thought, but as big as “Call Me Maybe” currently is, it is still merely “taking off.”
Regardless of whether or not we have a perfect song on our hands, we most definitely have a perfect storm. You may have not realized it because of this spring’s exceptionally nice weather, but summer officially arrived last week. Now, although not every summer consists of a fantastic voyage with waterfalls and beautiful girls, each summer is guaranteed to have a select group of songs that define it; past examples of which include “Fantastic Voyage” by Coolio, “Waterfalls” by TLC, and “Beautiful Girls” by Sean Kingston. Every summer, one of these songs rises above the rest to become the Song Of Summer (SOS).
In this case, the CRJ is still ascending - please keep your tray tables in the upright and locked position. And once a song like this makes it to those hot summer sound waves, it will easily coast on to September. Although we won’t have a definitive idea as to what the SOS 2012 officially is until we get a little deeper into the season; there is zero doubt in my mind that it will be “Call Me Maybe”. It’s hard to think of another serious contender. This song’s got legs! (And so does she!)
Also, don’t expect “Call Me Maybe” to run out of steam in September. This song has true staying power. Jepsen’s obviously going to be playing this song for years to come; but the beauty of it is how easy it will be to turn it into a ballad. I think it’s not that hard to picture because the strings are already there, but imagine what the “Unplugged” version of this song sounds like: All of a sudden the song is pushing five minutes in length and Jepsen’s being backed by (at least) a string quartet. By no means am I comparing these songs at face value, but think about what Springsteen did, stylistically, with “Thunder Road”.
The X Factor
It’s very hard to define what exactly the x factor is here. Maybe it’s because Jepsen hails from The Great White North. Maybe it’s because she has one of the biggest songs in the world right now, and it’s her only notable song. There’s a sort of “awww” appeal to her; but then you realize that she’s 26 and not just some wunderkind protege of Bieber’s. She’s not a diva and she’s not putting on an act (re: Ke$ha, Lana Del Rey). If you’ve heard the song and seen her perform it, you understand. I don’t know that an antonym for the word “diva” exists yet. Maybe it should be “jepsen.”
She performed Queen’s “Killer Queen” when she was a contestant on Canadian Idol in 2007, but before doing so, she workshopped the song with with Brian May and Roger Meddows (Queen’s guitarist and drummer, respectively). Of her performance, May had this to say:
“She is irresistible, isn’t she? There is no doubt about it. She has such a twinkle, like a little star. You can’t possible watch a performance like that and not smile.”
She hasn’t lost an ounce of that charm, either. There are no bells, whistles, or dance moves. There is no “cool” factor. There’s just a smiling girl singing a very addicting song. Have you seen her perform “Call Me Maybe” live? She’s having more fun than everyone who’s singing along (and everyone is singing along). Or how about this performance she did with Jimmy Fallon and The Roots using nothing but toy instruments?
So, Brian May was right, she is irresistible - gunpowder, gelatine, dynamite with a laser beam, guaranteed to blow your mind, anytime. What type of girl would respond to a tweet from Bieber like this? Everybody loves her - boys and girls, moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas. Trying to hate Carly Rae Jepsen is like trying to hate Jack McBrayer - it’s not possible. “Call Me Maybe” played at a wedding that I recently attended (per my request) and not only did it tear the roof off the reception hall, but it flooded the dance floor with boys and girls, moms and dads, and grandmas and grandpas. All of the people knew all of the words.
Perhaps the biggest testament to the likeability of Jepsen and “Call Me Maybe” is the fact that there has yet to be any Internet backlash against it… and there is always Internet backlash. The general behavior pattern of the Internet seems to be that something (be it a musician, song, television show, movie, etc.) starts to build some buzz; then there’s a backlash to that buzz; then a backlash to the backlash; then a backlash to the backlash to the backlash; repeat ad nauseam until someone ultimately writes a piece about how no one person is correct and everybody is entitled to their own opinion. (Don’t forget that last part!) In the last couple of months we’ve seen this cycle play out with singer Lana Del Rey, Lena Dunham and her show Girls, and most recently, Aaron Sorkin’s new show The Newsroom, which has not even premiered at the time of this writing. (For more on Sorkin and the so-called Backlash Era we now live in, please read The Backlash Era: Smelling Sorkin Blood by Richard Rushfield.)
The fact that there’s been no backlash against “Call Me Maybe” either means that its so insignificant that nobody cares enough to complain about it, or its so good people can’t find anything to really complain about. Since a song as pervasive and popular as “Call Me Maybe” is right now cannot possibly be considered insignificant, I guess it’s just that good.
Notice that “Call Me Maybe” begins with a four-second staccato violin introduction. If you’re wondering why the four most bland seconds of the song are so special, you already know… just maybe not consciously. When you’re listening to “Call Me Maybe” on your iPod or computer at home, these four seconds are inconsequential; but in the right setting, they serve a very specific and very important purpose. They amount to, what I like to call FOT, or freak-out time.
The scenario usually plays out like this: You’re out at a bar, club, wedding reception, or some other event that necessitates a DJ. Alcohol is usually involved. Like most, you only want to hear the songs you love. Had you control of the turntables and any idea of how to use them, you’d be “pumpin’ your jam” all night. But alas, the DJ is not taking requests and he knows better than to play the big hits all night. Not only would that be hack, but he would lose the crowd (there is an art to song selection). But don’t worry! Every now and then, when you really need it, he’ll hit you with the great stuff. Just enough of it to keep you going. You just don’t know when it’s coming… which is part of the fun.
So now it’s getting to close to the end of the night. You were in a groove, but your friends are getting tired and the song currently playing, something by some post-chillwave blogbuzz band out of Brooklyn, isn’t helping. Then, out of thin air, you hear the auspicious plucking of a synthesized violin. This. Is. Your. Jam. Finally!
This is precisely why the four-second intro is so vital. It’s your freak-out time. Here is an incomplete list of things you might use the FOT for:
- Screaming very loudly
- Violently squeezing a friend’s arm
- Picking your jaw up off the dance floor
- Locating your BFF who you practiced singing this song with before you went out that night
- Putting your cell phone away
- Unpacking your air violin
- Finishing your rum and diet
- Shouting, “This is my jam!”
- Readying your beer bottle as a microphone
- Running back onto the dance floor
The point is that people tend to freak out when they hear songs that they really love. Sometimes we’re fortunate enough to be given a few seconds to prepare for these songs. For instance, Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” also allots four seconds of FOT - just enough time to gather your girls. NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” allots seven seconds of FOT before the song kicks into gear, which happens to be just enough time for everyone to free up a hand so they can pantomime the waving-goodbye-dance-move NSYNC does in the music video. The Backstreet Boys give us an even more generous nine seconds of FOT before “I Want It That Way” really hits; but the extra FOT is warranted so that everyone can link enough arms for proper swaying.
If this seems utterly ridiculous to you, let’s look at what happens when there’s inadequate, or even no FOT in front of a big hit. To illustrate the problem, we need not look further than “Ignition Remix” by R. Kelly. Never once has a person been fully prepared to hear “Ignition Remix”. Next time you’re out and it comes on, watch all the people scramble. People will trip. Phones will be dropped. Drinks will be spilled. Why such madness? Because R. allotted zero seconds of FOT before the song hits. Some may argue that he actually gives us seven seconds of FOT on this track, but let’s be serious, he ruined that time by talking during the introduction. Everyone knows the opening line; it’s become part of the experience:
“Now, usually I don’t do this, but uh… Go ‘head on and break 'em off with a little previews of the remix.”
The kicker is that those words spoken during this alleged FOT are evidence of R. Kelly’s inattentiveness as to the need for FOT. He was only going to break us off with a preview of the remix, but then the song was so great he couldn’t help but give us the entire thing anyway.
By this point, on the spectrum of pop songs, I think it’s sufficiently clear that I find “Call Me Maybe” to be a bona fide great one. (Canada. Gretzky. Shoots. Scores!) But now, it’s time to get into the grey area. When asked whether or not this was the perfect pop song, I answered “maybe.” Well, I wasn’t just being poetic. The answer essentially turns on how you view two specific issues: the synthesized violin, and a lyrical gaffe.
The Synthesized Violin
I am torn when it comes to this part of the song. The violin track on this record could have easily been any other instrument, and I mean that in a mechanical sense as much as an aesthetic one. Did you ever fool around on an old Casio keyboard (or GarageBand on your MacBook)? Remember how easy it was to hit a button and change what instrument the keyboard sounded like? The same idea applies here. The violin could have been power chords on an electric guitar, a horn section, a piano, a pennywhistle, a synth… anything. Even hand claps. (Shivers!) I’m sure they tried every instrumentations on the hard drive, too; yet, when it was time to mix the master, the violin won. I’ve heard multiple people say that the violin makes the song sound urgent or important. There is probably some truth to that, but regardless of what feeling the violin evokes, what’s really important is that it makes the song pop, and frankly, pop songs need to pop.
However, the synthesized violin is also a little gimmicky and gimmicky instrumentation is rarely the best way go (re: “Dancing In The Dark” by Bruce Springsteen - a fantastically written song that remains overshadowed to this day by the gaudy synth riffs featured on the track). If there’s one ingredient in here that is going to someday make listening to “Call Me Maybe” a sickening endeavor, it’s the synthesized violin. The song is good enough on its own. It doesn’t need a gimmicky synthesized violin on it, and there’s a lot of gimmicky synthesized violin on it. In fact, aside from some quiet, inoffensive electric guitar and a dance drum loop, it’s the only instrument on the track.
Opponents may cite “Come On Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners as a violin-heavy pop song that has withstood the test of time. I would agree, but the difference is that “Come On Eileen” features live strings and, generally speaking, more instruments, including piano, bass, and banjo, which provide for a more rounded-out sound. The strings are not only used more cohesively in “Come On Eileen” than in “Call Me Maybe”, but they’re also not relied upon as heavily. Melody Lau of RollingStone called “Call Me Maybe” a “sugary dance-pop tune (think Taylor Swift meets Robyn).” I think that might be an accurate description, but that’s not necessarily helping the cohesiveness of the song. And I’m not necessarily crazy about hearing what it sounds like when Taylor Swift meets Robyn. Regardless, it’s hard to imagine either of those ladies bringing a synthesized violin to the party anyway (they’d too busy trying on platform shoes and making fortune tellers out of loose leaf paper).
On the bright side, it’s been four months since I first heard “Call Me Maybe”, and I am still not sick of the violin track. I originally had a much more skeptical view of the violin, but the fact that the track still holds up after four months has appeased some of my skepticism. Apparently the song is also very mashupable, which will help preserve freshness and reduce excessive auditory exposure to the violin. (For starters on the mashups, see “Semi Charmed Call” by Chambaland, “Call Me On Broken Glass” by Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend, and over 500 search results on SoundCloud.) At this time, I am unprepared to call the song imperfect on account of the violin; but that doesn’t mean we won’t look back on “Call Me Maybe” in 10 years and say, “ew!” Or maybe it won’t sound so bad in comparison to all the autotune.
Now that that’s settled, there’s one more issue…
The lyrics of “Call Me Maybe” are great for many reasons. Take the opening line for instance: “I threw a wish in the well / Don’t ask me, I’ll never tell.” It sets the half-shy/half-excited tone of the rest song. It’s also a nice twist on the expected (this same trick is also used in the chorus, as we’ll see). Instead of literally singing about throwing a coin down the well to make a wish, she throws a “wish” down the well. She’s not going to tell you what the wish was because then it won’t come true, and she really wants it to come true. I obviously did not need to explain the meaning of those lyrics to you, but the fact that I can goes to show how bad and on-the-nose they lyrics could have been.
The hook is great, too. “But here’s my number. So call me… maybe?” Just when you think she’s going to drop the ball and say “baby,” she doesn’t, and that makes all the difference. What that one word does in this song is truly amazing. Instead of making you say “bleghh,” it makes you go “awww.” Instead of making you wince, it makes you smile. If someone was raving about how great this new song “Call Me Baby” was, I think I’d be too off put by the song’s name to even press play.
But here’s the catch…
The song also contains this lyric: “Before you came into my life, I missed you so bad.” Call me nitpicky or what have you, but I see this as a blatantly illogical lyrical flub. It stuck out the first time I heard it. Read it again. It sounds okay, but it’s nonsensical. You can’t have some more of something you haven’t had yet and you can’t miss something you didn’t know existed before. Some people might argue that she’s using “poetic license” with this line. Despite the fact that the idea of poetic license is something I generally have a problem with, doesn’t the artist have to earn the right to use that license by proving her artistic merit over time through a rich body of work? It seems like the lyric is supposed to evoke the same sentiment as this one from the song “Slow Show” by The National: “You know, I dreamed about you / For twenty-nine years before I saw you / … I missed you for twenty-nine years.” The difference is that the line in “Call Me Maybe” misses the mark. And if you miss with a line like that, you miss big. Do you see the difference or is it just me?
Either way, I’m not just being a stickler for the fun of it (it’s not fun). In fact, I’m normally a proponent of nonsense. A wise man once said, “a little nonsense, now and then, is relished by the wisest men.” This is just not a proper time. And I’m not picking on this song alone - in fact, this isn’t even that grievous of an offense. The problem is that these types of nonsensical errors are currently an epidemic in popular music. It happens all the time and it bothers me each time I hear it. The worst part is that most of them could have been corrected very easily, so when they’re not, the songwriters come across as careless. And who wants to listen to an artist who doesn’t handle his or her work with care?
A Brief Case Study on Lyrical Gaffes in Recent Popular Music
Considering the quality of and rate at which rap music is being released today, I feel comfortable saying that there is an infinite amount of nonsensical rap lyrics in the world. They just keep on coming. Someone is probably recording one right now and it will probably be streaming over your local Internet in a few weeks. You could fill many leather-bound tomes with Lil Wayne’s nonsense alone. To spare you the time, here’s just one quick example. In 2009, Lil Wayne had a smash hit with the song “A Milli”. One of his lyrics in that song is:
“Even Gwen Stefani say she couldn’t doubt me.”
Let that one sink in. It sounds okay, but it’s nonsensical. Gwen Stefani is the lead singer of a band called No Doubt. Wayne is trying to say that you cannot doubt his talent. The phrase “no doubt” means exactly that - “I do not doubt whatever it is you are proclaiming.” If Gwen Stefani named her band I Doubt Everything Anybody Tells Me And I’m Very Stubborn About It, this lyric would make sense. As it stands, it’s the equivalent of bragging that you hit the Sprite button on a soda vending machine and a Sprite came out.
If you’re not into rap, then listen to Rob Pavaronian dissect the nonsensical bits from “I’ll Be There For You (Theme from FRIENDS)" by The Rembrandts:
The most recent example of this sort of careless songwriting comes from “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. The lyric in question comes from the chorus:
“In New York, the concrete jungle where dreams are made of.”
Read it again. It sounds right, but it’s nonsensical. The worst part about this mistake, and what makes it so egregious, is that it has such an easy fix. The lyrics could be “that dreams are made of” or “where dreams are made up.” Either would suffice. One word.
Let’s count all the culpable parties here. According to Wikipedia, the original song was written by Angela Hunte and Jane’t Sewell-Ulepic, two unknown songwriters who submitted the song to Jay-Z. Normally, fault would fall on the original songwriters; however, Jay-Z had the sense of mind to throw out everything about the song except for the hook. Being that he was only taking less than 30 words from the original and was adopting the track as a love letter and anthem to his home, he should have had the sense of mind to grammatically correct it. The same thing goes for Alicia Keys, who must have sang the song many times before recording it, the producer Al Shux, and either of the other two credited writers of the song (Burt Keyes and Sylvia Robinson).
It was nominated for three Grammy Awards and won two. Apparently "Grammy” is not short for “grammar.”
Despite the rampancy in which these errors appear in popular music, there is a silver lining. They speak to just how great the rest of the song is. On paper, your high school English teacher would spill bloody red ink over errors like these; but within the confines of the song and the feeling the artist creates when performing it, they go unnoticed.
I recently read an interview with comedian Bob Odenkirk. In regard to comedic films, he said, in pertinent part:
“That’s very important: to have a good feeling, an upbeat feeling. There are very few comedies that I can name that don’t have 'dog’ jokes in them, or 'dog’ scenes—meaning just awful jokes and terrible scenes. But in the good comedies, you excuse those bad scenes and bad jokes because you just don’t care; it doesn’t matter. They blow you away—they’re not weighed down, and the good things are still worth waiting for.”
[This passage was excerpted from the book And Here’s The Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft by Mike Sacks.]
Regardless of whether it is more difficult to write a perfect comedic film than a perfect pop song, Odenkirk’s words shed some light on how these pop songs work. They’re magic, but by way of misdirection (unintentional or otherwise) rather than slight of hand. And when something is that magical, people don’t need to be bothered with the logic of it all.
Thus concludes this comprehensive, detailed, and overblown examination of “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen. It has some good parts; and maybe it has some bad ones, too. So... is it a perfect pop song? The better question is: who cares? If an artist records a song that makes so many people so happy that they all rhetorically exclaim "could this possibly get any better!?" then does it even matter? No. The good things are still worth waiting for.
And by the way, if you have been wondering this whole time what the last perfect pop song was, the answer is “Hey Ya!” by OutKast. But let’s save that for another time.