Has “Call Me Maybe” Kicked Off a New Phase in Pop Music?

Slate's Culture Blog
June 19 2012 3:20 PM

Top of the Pops: Carly Rae Jepsen, “Call Me Maybe”

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Carly Rae Jepsen performs in May

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

If you want to get technical, Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” became the No. 1 song in the country last week, nudging Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” out of the top Billboard spot after an eight-week-long run. But Jepsen’s pop bonbon has been No. 1 by acclamation for a few months now—the People’s Choice, nominated by Justin Bieber and friends, seconded by the Harvard baseball team, thirded by President Obama, and clutched to the bosom of seemingly every man, woman, drag queen, and golden retriever in North America and beyond. “Call Me Maybe” is the kind of 21st century viral phenomenon that makes Billboard’s charts seem quaintly 20th century. The number-crunchers and radio programmers have staggered in late to a party that’s been roaring for weeks.

Culture critics have been pondering the runes of “Call Me Maybe” for a while now, too. One of my favorite takes is Ann Powers’ on the homoeroticism in the “Call Me Maybe” video and its viral offshoots—Jepsen’s doofy hit as an unlikely liberation anthem in this landmark year for marriage equality.

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But it is timelessness, not timeliness, that defines “Call Me Maybe.” The musical architecture is classical: the stately procession from verse to “pre-chorus,” the exhilarating bottle-rocket explosion of the chorus. The lyric is pure bubblegum, a guileless-but-lusty meet-cute valentine, delivered by the 26-year-old Jepsen in a spot-on impersonation of a teenager. “Your stare was holdin’ / Ripped jeans, skin was showin’ / Hot night, wind was blowin’ / Where you think you’re goin’, baby?” As artfully artless evocations of summer vacation infatuation go, that’s hard to beat. None of the Brill Building greats could have written it any sharper or plainer.

The key line is in the chorus: “Here’s my number / So call me, maybe?” 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: a cutesy sound, so much smaller and less emphatic than the usual pop chorus in the age of “the soar.” 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?

Jody Rosen is a Slate contributor.