Last week, a friend whose musical taste I normally respect introduced me to the song “Call Me Maybe” by the perky 26-year-old Canadian singer Carly Rae Jepsen. Before she was signed in mid-February to the Justin Bieber-affiliated Schoolboy Records, the only marginal claim to fame she had — other than a remarkably twee name — was being the third-place winner of the fifth season of Canadian Idol.
“Call Me Maybe” relies on “meh”-level production: a combination of dramatic synthetic strings and trebly percussion highlight dreadfully ordinary love song lyrics that contain the rhyme of “maybe” and “baby” again and again. The bubblegum attitude and I’m-just-a-zany-little-girl theme are reminiscent of a certain strain of pop music prevalent over the last couple of decades.
Knowing only this, the odds of my approval were stacked against her. But after watching her music video on YouTube for the millionth time, I’ve decided that she is officially one of my favorite soon-to-be pop stars, because this song is really, really ridiculously good sounding.
Of course, as a generation, we are obsessed with catchy pop hooks, and the more manufactured-sounding, the better. We were born amongst the grunge and the alternative of the early ’90s, the steady P-wave of the ideal to the soiled fringes, and we turned out 20 or so years later the way any reasonable force of reactionary youth culture should: addicted to Flo Rida, Bruno Mars, and ”sick drops.” Counterculture, man.
As a small child, though I listened to the radio as much as anyone, I wanted nothing to do with what I saw as the mainstream. I’m not sure where I got these snobbish politics, but I do know that when I noticed a group called the Backstreet Boys appearing on the back of juice boxes, I knew instinctively that they were too popular to pursue. I took my staunch underground position seriously, if curiously, to mean that I could earnestly enjoy installments of the “Totally Hits” compilation series, but my copies of “Now! That’s What I Call Music” 2 through 16 were purely for sociological purposes.
My “independent” heart chose to forsake Britney and Christina and instead shower its affection on the corn-syrupy hooks of throwaway singer Hoku, the beach-blonde daughter of Hawaiian musician Don Ho, and the perplexing mixed signifiers of the Irish jig-pop girl group B*Witched. I choreographed elaborate dances on the banister of my staircase and taught them to my friends, but as soon as they would suggest the then-ubiquitous tied white belly-blouse as a costume, I would shake my head in resignation.
I was convinced divine inspiration had blessed me with enough self-awareness to recognize the fundamental kitsch that pervaded the girl world of the late ’90s, an intellectual burden I knew solemnly to be heavy. My Nickelodeon clock radio and I were fated to appreciate — so, so misguidedly — the collaboration between Carlos Santana and Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty alone, together. Pop music be damned; I was the child who knew too much.
Maybe my focus on the lesser-known pop musicians missed the point. Anyone who listens to the radio or keeps up with the Billboard or iTunes charts (or American Top 40 with Ryan Seacrest, which I just discovered has an almost satirical, regressively kitschy website) knows that pop music isn’t particularly about compositional genius or aptitude for lyricism (see: Selena Gomez’s wildly successful and unthinkably inane “Love You Like a Love Song”) but about an inescapable cultural firmament of verse, chorus, celebrity.
Pop songs never make sense to listen to out of context, and can’t easily be put on a playlist alongside other sorts of music; the selfish urgency of a successful Top 40 jam often makes it feel less like music and more like an audible representation of the state of contemporary popular culture. Katy Perry and Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj, for example, operate in a recognizable but inaccessible pantheon of archetypal figures in the public consciousness. Rightly or not, we see ourselves in them.
Of course, we don’t always realize that we’re doing this. The brilliance of great pop songs is that they are sneaky, infiltrating our subconscious until we find ourselves humming along without realizing it to a song we might have only heard once. This insidious ubiquity gives each song an instantly dated, trendy quality, but at the same time, a timelessness. Ten years from now, you’ll still remember what stupidly regular thing you were doing while listening to it — grocery shopping, standing in line for the public pool — and you probably won’t know why.
What’s so great about “Call Me Maybe”? I just can’t put my finger on it. And that’s why it is so perfect.