In Defense of “Call Me Maybe” As the Song of Summer 2012

To say you hate it is to say that you hate how much fun popular music can be. And if you hate how much fun popular music can be, well then, you must be reading this because you’re thinking maybe I can change your mind, eh?

Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” goes beyond the type of blockbuster summer teenage hit America has been used to hearing in recent years. Why? Think of all the female-led chart-toppers from May to September. Katy Perry? She’s too weathered. Yeah, “I Kissed A Girl” and “California Gurls” are polished pieces of pop art, but both lack virtue. The songs made statements rather than suggestions, thus providing an element that serves as something utterly divisive when considering youthful appeal and its authenticity.

Lady Gaga? She’s always catered to a more mature audience, anyway, and her continuous insistence to be transcendent and provocative alienates a certain fan base that typically turns out to be a section littered with younger people. I mean, come on. Do you really think some 14-year-old in Nebraska knows what “Don’t be a drag / just be a queen” truly means?

Rihanna? Too sexy. You can’t push or proclaim purity if your go-to move is the desire to be as lewd and culpable as possible. Shakira? Her voice has always been too womanly. In most cases, that’s a good thing. But in an argument for great, teenage-sounding pop music, such is the biggest detriment one could encounter.

Taylor Swift? That’s probably the most viable argument of the bunch — her appeal and success is directly contingent upon her constant youthful impression — but she wants to be a songwriter and not a pop star. Plus, for as much as country music fans might not want to hear it, the reality is that true teeny-bopper popular music has never completely embraced the medium, anyways. Swift can be the biggest, most interesting and successful teenage country-pop story, but unfortunately for her, she’ll never be able to be the most interesting and successful teenage pop story. Her maturity wouldn’t allow it.

It’s true. We would have to go all the way back to the days of Britney Spears before the breakdown and the burps and Christina Aguilera before The Voice and the letter “x” to find a teenage summer smash as blatantly perfect as Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”. The irony, of course, is the fact that the Canadian singer is actually 26 years old and for a woman who wasn’t even good enough to place in the top two of Canadian Idol, she sure can do a pretty damn good impression of a teenager. As Jody Rosen said in his column at Slate last week, the trick to the song’s greatness isn’t so much its texture as its simplicity.

“But it is timelessness, not timeliness, that defines “Call Me Maybe””, Rosen wrote. “The musical architecture is classical: the stately procession from verse to “pre-chorus”, the exhilarating bottle-rocket explosion of the chorus. …  The genius of the song is how it makes a sing-along out of a question, and a tentative one at that — a Nervous Nellie’s pick-up-line. The vulnerability is underscored by the synthesizer-strings in the refrain. … It’s been fully five months since Rihanna took one of her thundering club-bangers to the top of the Hot 100, nearly a year since a rapper had a No. 1. (And Pitbull barely counts as a rapper.) After six weeks of fun.’s “We Are Young”, and eight of “Somebody That I Used to Know”, is it time to conclude that pop is turning a corner, transitioning into a new phase? Maybe?” (“Top of the Pops: Carly Rae Jepsen, Call Me Maybe”, 19 June 2012)

Indeed. The most notable thing that has been lacking in popular music over the course of the last few years is humility. It’s precisely why Adele struck such a cord when she burst back on the scene with 21 — she was the first popular female singer in recent memory to come along and actually make the art of singing about heartbreak and sadness believable again. Too often do pop stars lean on the sleazier side of sexuality in today’s exposure-obsessed world and almost never are we offered a simple-minded, completely innocent pop gem.

The notion of “taking chances” has been devalued by starlets who claim risk-taking must include wearing one less article of clothing and posing for one more suggestive photo. There isn’t any intelligence attached to thinking outside the box, anymore. Simply saying or doing something that would make a grandmother blush can assure a reputation as a pop star who is “pushing the boundaries of what we once thought pop culture was”. 

But the truth is, what once passed for really good pop music decades ago could still be categorized as such today. The Beatles never had to write songs about kissing boys to be great. Michael Jackson never had to walk onstage in a singlet to draw a crowd. Mariah Carey never had to lean on her massive sex appeal in a provocative manner to sell records. And Whitney Houston didn’t mimic oral sex on stage in an effort make headlines.

These were artists who simply wrote and/or recorded fantastically perfect pop songs. Each had phases and gimmicks, sure, but none of these musicians made themselves so blatantly one-dimensional to suggest that what they were doing seemed mindless or contrived. 

Such is why “Call Me Maybe” isn’t just a breath of innocent air — it also serves as a reminder for how drastically different modern day popular culture is when compared with what ruled the charts years ago. On some level, the track itself is a throwback. It’s catchy as hell. It’s humble. It captures the exact teenage emotions that are prevalent in most every great piece of pop culture art. And most importantly, it’s an indicator that pop music doesn’t always have to be so serious. Or, for that matter, so seriously sexy. 

“After three weeks of patiently waiting at No. 2 on Billboard‘s Hot 100, Carly Rae Jepsen this week became the first solo female Canadian since Céline Dion to top America’s premier song chart. Right on schedule for the start of summer, the ubiquitous “Call Me Maybe” finally climbs into the penthouse”, the Village Voice‘s Chris Molanphy wrote recently. “Or should I say treehouse? With its featherweight synth-string arrangement, its gently clubby dance beats and its boycrush-oriented video, “CMM” is the closest thing to a pure teenpop song we’ve had at No. 1 since the turn of the decade. You can keep your Teenage Dream, Katy Perry — it’s Jepsen who’s poised to clean up at the Teen Choice Awards this year”. (“100 & Single: “Call Me Maybe,” Justin Bieber, And Teenpop Idols’ Ongoing Love-Hate Relationship With Radio”, 20 June 2012)

The question of penthouse or treehouse is a pretty good one, and its answer may ultimately prove to be the difference between Jespen landing a spot on some VH1 one-hit wonder countdown in ten years or her possibly following up this breakthrough with more soft-core irresistibly danceable singles. She’s 26, remember, and word has it that “Call Me Maybe” was actually originally conceived as a folk tune.

Is she a true pop craftsman? Could she carve out a nice little career that eventually proves its stability with unwavering relevance? Or will she simply just go down as the one Canadian girl who became an overnight sensation after the one Canadian boy who became an overnight sensation proclaimed her one hit single the “catchiest song I’ve ever heard”? 

That’s something that’s not even close to being remotely answered at this point, but why should it be? Why should it even matter? Pop star 26 is normal people 109, and maybe even she knows that this modicum of success is all just a fun ride she should enjoy while she can. “The U.S. was sort of like the big ocean that felt so impossibly large to me”, she told Rolling Stone in March. “Canada was enough of a tough shell to crack. I’m still scared to be too excited because it all does seem too good to be true”. (“Justin Bieber Gives Singer Carly Rae Jepsen a Boost”, by Melody Lau, 12 March 2012)

That might be. This kind of infectious and immediate success has become increasingly rare with each passing year in a business that struggles now more than ever. But even if this song eventually proves to be Carly Rae Jepsen’s one and only trip around the track, there’s one thing that no one will ever be able to deny her, and that’s the amount of impact she had on the summer of 2012. Regardless of if she goes on to sell hundreds of millions of records within the next ten years, or if she’s playing the county fair circuit by September, “Call Me Maybe” will always be a reminder of how great pop music can be when it decides it wants to be simple and fun. 

And how could anyone hate that?