by Andrew P. Moisan
It is not news that Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” has caused widespread illness, infecting millions of people’s heads with bubblegum and stuffing their souls full of hell. A moth flew by the other day and landed near the computer, and when I played the song, it flew off. It, too, had had enough.
Of course, this is not the first hangnail we’ve had to put up with in hit radio, nor will it be the last. But like any hangnail, all we can do is chew on it, yank it away and try to stop the bleeding.
The song is not bad per se, as it serves its purpose: It feels young and comes off as fresh and fast. If you’re 19 years old and away from home for the first time, this is the mood you’re probably in: Just fly free and give in to abandon. And aptly, there is a simple chord progression, with a blend of teen-pop, a bit of disco and an animated dance tempo. Plus it includes a pretty lead singer whom girls might want to emulate and whom boys might want to think about at night…overall, a good formula, if the point is to pump cash into the pockets of moguls.
But if we were to leave the boardroom momentarily and see music as a vehicle for emotional ideas, and if we compare what 20-somethings were listening to back in the early 1970s, then we would be forced to place a song like John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” right next to this song.
Some lyrics from Lennon: “Instant karma’s gonna get you/gonna knock you right on the head/you better get yourself together/pretty soon you’re gonna be dead.”
Some lyrics from Jepsen: “Your stare was holdin’/ripped jeans, skin was showin’/hot night, wind was blowin’/where you think you’re going baby?”
YouTube views of “Instant Karma”: 5,706,837.
YouTube views of “Call Me Maybe”: 344,450,353.
Obviously songs about hormonal, infatuated kids have always sold. And yes, it’s a bit absurd to highlight a YouTube clip of a record that’s currently charting and compare it to a hit that came out 42 years ago and wasn’t on YouTube to begin with.
My point is not the numbers, however; it’s the substance. Lennon wrote about geopolitics and American culture. But for the last 30 years or so…on and off, of course, as we’ve had respites here and there…the subjects in contemporary music have drifted, meandering from concerns about love, fear and politics, and wandering, in a general sense, toward deeper concerns about things like people’s butts.
Undoubtedly, Jepsen did not set out to write a song about love or politics. This was a song about butts. And again, in this respect, the song is pretty perfect, since it achieves what it aims to do: It encourages young men and women to freak each other in nightclubs, get to sniffing and then tell lies to their mates about where they had been until 4 a.m.
But the triumph of a hit is measured neither by the content of its character nor the character of its listeners. What makes a Jepsen a Jepsen are unit sales, marketing mannequins, focus groups, bar charts, PowerPoint shows, standard deviations, nerd-talk at Starbuck’s and rambling inexactitude on the part of know-nothing, pencil-pushing trust-fund ken dolls who, for some reason, are able to very accurately predict what the proletariat will drink up.
I’m actually starting to depress myself a bit here, so I’ll move on. Besides, I need to take a break since I have a little bit of throw-up in my mouth.
The 27-year-old Canadian artist’s hit debuted on the U.S. charts last March, entered Billboard’s Top 10 in April, hit number one in June and stayed there for nine consecutive weeks. But it’s so far passed the nuclear smell test: As of Nov. 26, 2012, the song lingers, rather like a cockroach or a dirty diaper, holding at 31 on the Hot 100.
Jepsen told Rolling Stone earlier this year that “Call Me Maybe” had started off as “a folky tune,” which I expect is even funnier than finding out your favorite professional wrestler likes to drink chamomile tea, decorate for the holidays and make scrapbooks.
She wrote the song with her guitarist Tavish Crowe and Josh Ramsay of the Canadian band Marianas Trench, whose song “Desperate Measures” may help inform us as to how Jepsen’s song migrated from “a folky tune” to what now spews like butt vomit from radio speakers.
Ramsay “helped us kind of pop-ify it,” Jepsen told Rolling Stone, basically explaining how he is really the one to blame. “He’s really good. He’s got a little bit of pop genius in his blood. It was written, recorded and produced within four or five days, tops.”
And to think aristocrats have been deposed in less time.
To be fair, however, she isn’t a total disappointment. In Canadian Idol’s fifth season, in 2007, she hazarded a rendition of Queen’s “Killer Queen” in a cabaret-style performance that was interesting and charming. And while it bugged me that her bangs hung over her pretty eyes, like caterpillars dangling over the rim of a nice glass of lager, I thought she did a good job. Now, I’m a lover of Queen, so I may be partial.
But like any veteran of a singing competition…and despite that she didn’t win the race…she has had a handicap. Original songwriting done subsequent to these prime time spectacles tends to leave the artist looking unimpressive, as we had come to know them as glorified karaoke performers—conduits through whom we could hear our favorite hits reborn in younger vessels. So as they try to carve a place of their own in the music business, the point of comparison becomes a Whitney Houston or Madonna song versus their own material. The emerging singers mostly lose in the end. In Jepsen’s case, her musical innovations went head-to-head with Freddy Mercury. This is like trying to outrun an airplane.
But even though she failed to become the Canadian Idol, losing it to some fellow named Brian Melo…whose song, “Soundproof,” is an unremarkable blight that resembles what would have popped out had Linkin Park and Maroon 5 mated—she bounced back after the defeat and gave Justin Bieber night sweats as her YouTube hit climbed up very near to his comfy chair in the celebrity sky.
But here was something I didn’t expect.
“She has such a twinkle, like a little star,” Brian May, the lead guitarist of Queen, said on Canadian Idol. He had just watched Jepsen sing. “You can’t possibly watch a performance like that and not smile.”
I wasn’t sure whether to hate May for liking Jepsen or hate Jepsen for seducing May. I nearly put a pistol in my mouth that night.
By the way, YouTube hits on Queen doing “Killer Queen”: 3,717,498.
YouTube hits on Jepsen doing “Killer Queen”: 51,219.
But the problem with Jepsen is also the success of Jepsen. This is a song that is hummable, like any hit on any successful record ever pressed. Hearing it on the radio recently, it was like being sprayed by a skunk: You didn’t mean to be there at the time, but since you were, now you’ll spend days trying to wash the stink out.
In fact, A-sides like this…to use an antiquated term…will follow you to your casket. The utter simplicity of it drills through your skull and wets your brain. If the damn toilet flushes at just the right pitch, these sorts of hits will enter your body and possess you. Next thing you know, you’ll be pissing all over the living room carpet in the middle of your parents’ dinner party…and then, if you’re lucky, some priests will show up.
This is the meat-and-potatoes tack that worked magic for Elvis Presley, Wal-Mart, M&M’s, Starbuck’s, and who knows how many other enterprises: modest but rich; bold yet accessible; colorful but not too pricey. And yet, with Jepsen, I’ve nary a teaspoon of respect for her with which to take sugar for my coffee.
There will always be these hangnails in pop music, just as there will be in life: like how there will always be morning breath, impurities in drinking water, guys like Bonaparte, influenza, unscrupulous business owners, bedbugs, America’s Funniest Home Videos, gorgeous people who stroll by when you are very, very single, etc. To some extent, we must accept these hindrances, fall to our knees and just pray for better days.
In life, though, I find meaningful moments reside at the very busy intersection of simplicity and honesty. And so it is with music. This is a hectic juncture, and many accidents occur. But if you can navigate it, what comes out the other end is some part of your soul suddenly made tangible. And maybe, for nearly half a billion people, “Call Me Maybe” fits the bill.
But for me, this is a lot of horse apples.
The best news is that, before writing this, I listened to “Call Me Maybe” about eight times, and then, right after, I played “Killer Queen”…Mercury’s version. I had played it only once. And as any degree of common sense would tell you, Mercury trumped Jepsen, and all became right with the world. There will be no more bubblegum-pop or skunk spray riffs. The moths and I will sleep well tonight.