Imagine a pop song. A perfect pop song, if you will: simultaneously guileless and sly, hooky yet understated, with strings like heart flutters and vocals like a sugar cube dissolving into a smiley-face mug. It’s a love song, or at least a crush song, and it charmed its listeners much like its subject charmed its singer. The song was small, compared to the bloated anthems elsewhere on the charts and their audiences; its own was, at first, mostly regional. Tastemakers heard it, then moguls who were de facto tastemakers, and it spread to listeners who knew nothing about the singer except this beautiful thing she’d written. They fell in love at first listen. They gushed. They sang along. They recorded karaoke videos and public swoon mobs and re-enactments of its summer-love video. They sent it to No. 1 for seemingly the entire summer and sent its singer to what looked an awful lot like dazed stardom. They funded a whole new album, which billed itself as inspired by early Madonna, Robyn and the Cars, a trio made to send poptimists into arpeggiated glee. They loved her enough to accept a prefab duet with a whey-voiced Ben Gibbard wannabe. She made it work; she was triumphant. And then the album came out, bought only by a dwindling fraction, and then the follow-up single tumbled out of the charts, and then she was not.
“Her debut, Kiss, has been out for more than a month — and is fantastic, living up to all its inspirations and more — but as of Oct. 10, not even 100,000 people bought it.”
Such is the fate of Carly Rae Jepsen, who’s coming worryingly close to being synonymous with “Call Me Maybe.” Her debut, Kiss, has been out for more than a month — and is fantastic, living up to all its inspirations and more — but as of Oct. 10, not even 100,000 people bought it. Her follow-up single “Good Time,” charted well, but the credit belongs largely to Owl City; Jepsen’s mostly the hook singer. The follow-up to that, “This Kiss,” dropped out of the Hot 100 almost as soon as it entered. It’s too early to call either single or album a failure — and judging by album sales is an iffy proposition in a singles-driven pop market — but Jepsen’s been here before. “Curiosity,” the first follow-up to “Call Me Maybe,” did almost nothing outside Jepsen’s native Canada. In other words, the artist behind the undisputed song of the summer — really, the most popular song of 2012 — could, as some have feared end up a one-hit wonder: first overplayed, now overlooked. What’s going on?
It’s important to note first just how much of a fluke “Call Me Maybe” was. It was written entirely by Canadians — Jepsen, her bandmate Tavish Crowe, and Josh Ramsay of pop-punk band Marianas Trench — who were all but unknown in the U.S. and, it should be noted, who wrote no new material for Kiss. The song was a Canadian hit, but thanks to Canadian airplay regulations, so are lots of singles that never leave the country. To wit: “Call Me Maybe” spent four weeks at No. 1 — as many as Olympic theme “Believe by Nikki Yanofsky, a name likely unfamiliar to most non-Canadian readers. There was no immediate reason Jepsen would escape the same fate — at least until country mate Justin Bieber tweeted about it after hearing it on Canadian radio. (Everyone involved swears it truly happened this way.) That led to the celebrity lip dubs, then to the civilian ones, then to a deal with Bieber mogul Scooter Braun and worldwide exposure and so on. As hometown-heroine stories go, it’s all so improbable and fortuitous.
But none of that guarantees a hit, as thousands of failed pop crossover acts can attest. Bieber got Jepsen a huge collateral fanbase, but “Call Me Maybe”’s chart success is owed to something else: Billboard changing its chart calculations in early 2012 to incorporate streaming. It doesn’t sound like much, but it leveled the playing field; where the past few years saw the same couple established acts trading off chart spots, 2012 was dominated by left-field hits, and three in particular: fun.’s “We Are Young,” Gotye and Kimbra’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” and “Call Me Maybe.” At the time, it seemed like a revolution: finally, the people could crown their own hits! The data certainly supported that, until it didn’t. It’s easier to enter the Hot 100 now, but it’s arguably also easier to leave; these newcomers, suddenly initiated as forces in pop, have to prove they can remain so. Their methods have varied. Nate Ruess of fun., having gotten a behind-the-scenes boost for “We Are Young” by Kanye West affiliate and very recognizable hitmaker Jeff Bhasker, has apparently repaid the favor by going behind the scenes himself — in the past month alone, he’s joined and co-written tracks by P!nk and Ke$ha. Gotye hasn’t been so successful, but he’s got several disadvantages: geographical (he’s from Australia, another place with a walled-off music industry), sonic (album Making Mirrors is good but wildly divergent in musical styles; people expecting more Sting mumble core instead got the Motown pastiche of “I Feel Better”) and temperamental (Gotye, by all indications, doesn’t much care for this level of fame). Then there’s a fourth factor — one Carly Rae Jepsen shares.
Simply put: when you think of “Somebody That I Used to Know,” you’re less likely to think of the man, Wally de Backer, but the meme. The nudie-paint video, anything that mimicked the nudie-paint video, the gimmicky Walk Off the Earth group cover, the bad lip reading cover, the bouzouki cover, the enough-already cover, Gotye’s own enough-already cover, not to mention all the image macros making merry with lines like “you didn’t have to cut me off!” The meme squad spared no part of Gotye’s song, nor passed up any humor-ish treatment, and neither did the bloggers covering them, reluctantly or not. “Call Me Maybe” was as thoroughly mined, if not more so, and like Gotye’s song, the deluge of ephemeral funnies earned her both praise and pushback, most visibly from Zach Kelly at the Village Voice, who asked: is the Internet going to kill “Call Me Maybe”?
As a little internet-only aside, [Jimmy Fallon], Jepsen and the Roots performed the song using only toy classroom instruments. Again, pretty amusing little video, but there seemed to be a distinct scent of “What the fuck do we do with this thing now?” swirling around that tiny dressing room. I mean, classroom instruments? What could possibly be next? Two xenomorphs jamming to it in the Prometheus cargo bay? Alia Shawkat reprising her Arrested Development role on Funny or Die? It chills the blood.
In the past, the worst thing that could happen to the Song of the Summer was it being played to death. But in the digital age, the pitfalls are boundless. As “Call Me Maybe” is increasingly meme-ified, it runs the risk of becoming completely mummified.
This sounds counterintuitive; shouldn’t it help Jepsen for thousands of people to remix, recreate and otherwise rejoice over her song? But the meme’s not about Jepsen; it’s about her song, and she is secondary. The past few years alone have plenty of examples of artists who, once memed, later on get maimed. They’re people like Kreayshawn, who thanks to a pair of Minnie Mouse ears and a songful of catchphrases, had $1 million thrown at an album whose title, Somethin’ Bout Kreay, didn’t even seem to convince itself, let alone buyers, and whose low sales are currently being pilloried everywhere. Or, right now, like Korean rapper Psy; though the “Gangnam Style” craze has produced entire libraries’ worth of Gangnam style guides, and field reports of every D-list celebrity who could be convinced to be televised dancing like a horse, and now Halloween costumes, there’s precious little being written outside K-pop circles about his other music, of which there’s a decade’s worth.
This is the problem Carly Rae Jepsen’s facing: loving “Call Me Maybe” as a meme hasn’t made people invested in her as a musician. To be fair, she’s at a few disadvantages. She’s 26, making music most people would call teenpop. She’s best associated with Justin Bieber, someone who’s still a moptop preteen in the non-fan imagination. Her 2008 debut, Tug of War, inexplicably remained Canadian-only. And she isn’t the type to flaunt the outsize personalities that bring success in U.S. pop. She’s just charming, to the point of being demure.
Normally that’d merely be unfortunate for Carly Rae Jepsen, but she’s not the only one missing out. Kiss is the best pop album of the year, and nobody is listening. It didn’t have to be this good, or good at all. It’d have been easy to dress Jepsen up in some secondhand Dr. Luke tracks and rush an album. But improbably, miraculously, everyone involved in Kiss went in not trying to cash in on “Call Me Maybe” but replicate it. There are exactly two mediocre tracks: the cootie-inducing duets with Bieber and Owl City. Everything else is near-perfect. “Tiny Little Bows” opens the album with slap bass — a nod to Britney Spears’ …Baby One More Time, which did the same — and samples Sam Cooke’s “Cupid.” The whole album’s like this: every reference to contemporary pop is balanced out by one more timeless: an early-Madonna twinkle here, a New Wave flourish there. There are hitmakers, but they’re on their best behavior. LMFAO’s Redfoo reins in his gaudy tendencies on “This Kiss,” the album’s “Call Your Girlfriend” both in its ebullience and its ambivalent adultery; he even manages to make cut-up vocals, the year’s most overdone trend, have a purpose: evoking the should-I-or-shouldn’t-I dithering that accompanies this sort of affair. Max Martin, meanwhile, gives Jepsen his usual factory-made dance-pop on “Tonight I’m Getting Over You,” but there’s nothing prefab about a line like “I want to touch your heart — I want to crush it in my hands.” The bonus tracks are even better. “Drive” is every bit as good as the Cars track of its own name, and “Sweetie” is the best bubblegum track in years, except made for adults — no tween would gush over, as Jepsen does, a “dinner date and a glass of wine.” It’s quite the feat: she’s made an album equally embraceable by crushed-out preteens and those who merely remember those days. There’s nothing guilty about its pleasures except their obscurity, which is crazy. Kiss is wonderful; hear it maybe.