The Number Ones

June 23, 2012

The Number Ones: Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”

Stayed at #1:

9 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.

At least in theory, we should get songs like “Call Me Maybe” all the time. The music industry, as presently constructed, is partly built around the idea of discovering, developing, nurturing, and promoting songs like “Call Me Maybe.” “Call Me Maybe” is the platonic ideal of a pop hit. You hear it once, and you find it catchy or irritating or some combination of the two. And then you hear it again and again and again, to the point where you can’t imagine a world without this song in it. The song worms its way into your life, altering your brain chemistry and coloring your memories. Decades from now, the song will function as a time machine, instantly sweeping you back to the summer when it was all over the radio, when you couldn’t leave your house without hearing it. That’s how pop music is supposed to work. It almost never happens.

There are lots of songs like “Call Me Maybe,” but at the same time, there are really no songs like “Call Me Maybe.” When “Call Me Maybe” took the world by storm in 2012, it came out of nowhere. Carly Rae Jepsen had something resembling a career in Canada, but that career hadn’t yet become lucrative enough to allow her to quit her waitressing job. “Call Me Maybe” was nowhere and then everywhere. The song sounded shiny and plastic and brand-new, but it was still instantly recognizable as pop music to anyone who had even the tiniest working understanding of the genre. In simple economical terms, the song put a universal terrible-crush feeling into words and set those words to a rocketship melody. The production wasn’t showy or avant-garde, but it was full of tiny touches that made it punch even harder. For a few months, “Call Me Maybe” held the entire world in its thrall.

In some ways, what happened after “Call Me Maybe” is even more interesting than the song or the story of its rise. Carly Rae Jepsen never became a centrist pop superstar on the level of a Katy Perry. She didn’t exactly fall into the evanescent one-hit wonder category, either. Instead, Jepsen transitioned into a kind of cult stardom, a strange category that’s become more and more important in the years since “Call Me Maybe” ruled the radio. If you go see Carly Rae Jepsen live — and you should really go see Carly Rae Jepsen live — you’ll still hear “Call Me Maybe,” and you’ll still feel the rush of euphoria that accompanies a song as perfect and omnipresent as that one. But “Call Me Maybe” won’t be the focus of the evening, and you’ll hear a whole lot of songs that are, in their own ways, just as great. Those other songs never became massive hits, and that’s fine. Carly Rae Jepsen only got one “Call Me Maybe,” and she made it count.

Carly Rae Jepsen wasn’t famous when she made “Call Me Maybe,” and neither were her collaborators. You can see those levels of non-fame at work in the song’s charmingly daffy and low-budget video. In the clip, Jepsen and her bandmates play “Call Me Maybe” in a suburban garage while Jepsen tries to catch the attention of her neighbor, a generically hot model-type guy with an unfortunate torso-tattoo situation.

Jepsen makes eyes. She sends signals. She pulls the classic move of washing her car, but then falls off and hits her head the moment the guy looks up. She fantasizes her way onto romance-paperback covers, but then she wakes up with the guy standing over her. Instead, he’s interested in her badly-moodwalking emo-hair guitarist, played by co-writer Tavish Crowe. As the video fades out, the guy passes Crowe his number while Jepsen makes what-the-heck faces. It’s all so simple and goofy, and it has none of the big-budget flash that you’d expect from a song as huge as “Call Me Maybe.” But big-budget flash wouldn’t have helped. The “Call Me Maybe” video has personality, and that’s all it needs. It’s all the song really needs, too.

Carly Rae Jepsen has never really nurtured much of a superstar persona. Instead, she’s built a career by singing fizzy, immediate songs about the rush of falling in love, and she’s come off as a nice and normal person who likes writing and singing these songs. In a pop-star ecosystem dedicated to branding and persona-building, that almost makes her an unsung hero, an underdog, even though she once had the biggest song in the world. When you look at Jepsen’s backstory, the triumphant-underdog narrative just keeps coming back.

Carly Rae Jepsen — real name, no gimmicks — comes from the small British Columbia city of Mission, about 40 miles away from Vancouver. (When Jepsen was born, Starship’s “We Built This City” was the #1 song in America. In Canada, it was Ready For The World’s “Oh Sheila.”) Jepsen’s parents divorced and married other people when she was a kid, so she grew up with two sets of parents. Her parents were both into folk music, which she loved, and she also got into fizzy ’80s pop through her stepmother.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Carly Rae Jepsen was a theater kid. She acted in musicals in high school, and then she went off to study performing arts in Victoria. After finishing college, Jepsen lived in Vancouver, working menial service jobs and working on her own songs. In 2007, her high-school drama teacher encouraged her to try out for the fifth season of Canadian Idol, a TV show that has never produced another artist who I’ve heard of. (Wikipedia tells me that the most famous non-Jepsen Canadian Idol contestant is season-two third-place finisher Jacob Hoggard, whose big-in-Canada band Hedley is on hiatus after Hoggard was hit with sexual-misconduct allegations.) Jepsen came in third place on her Canadian Idol season, and the videos of her tenure on the show are frankly adorable.

After Canadian Idol, Carly Rae Jepsen went right back to waiting tables in Vancouver, but she also signed a deal with 604 Records, a Vancouver-based label co-founded by Chad Kroeger, leader of former Number Ones artists Nickelback. Early on, Jepsen stayed in her folk-pop singer-songwriter lane. Her debut single, released in 2008, was a cover of John Denver’s “Sunshine On My Shoulders.” Later that year, she released her mostly-acoustic debut album Tug Of War. It sold a few thousand copies, and a couple of its singles were minor Canadian hits. You can hear a spark in those songs, but it’s nothing like what Jepsen did soon afterward.

Josh Ramsay, leader of the big-in-Canada band Marianas Trench, co-produced Tug Of War, and one of the album’s singles was “Sour Candy,” a duet with Ramsay. After Tug Of War came out, Jepsen toured Canada with Marianas Trench, and she worked on new songs with her guitarist Tavish Crowe. One of those songs was a dizzily crushed-out jam called “Call Me Maybe.”

Jepsen and Crowe first intended for “Call Me Maybe” to be an acoustic folk song, but when they showed it to Ramsay, he figured that it could work as straight-up pop. The three of them reworked the song and recorded it as a full-on dance-pop anthem. The inspiration for the “Call Me Maybe” strings came from Annie Lennox’s 1992 banger “Walking On Broken Glass,” which totally makes sense. (“Walking On Broken Glass” peaked at #14. Annie Lennox has been in this column as a member of the Eurythmics.)

You don’t really need me to explain the “Call Me Maybe” lyrics, do you? They’re about as straightforward as these things get. Hey! Carly Rae Jepsen just met you! And this is crazy! But here’s her number! So call her maybe! The track captures the nervous exhilaration of an instant crush and the vulnerability that comes when you try to act on that crush. There’s doubt in her voice — that’s the “maybe” — and she sounds like her own feelings have taken her by surprise. But she’s going with that feeling, having fun with it, and that playfulness comes through more than any hesitation. On the bridge — “before you came into my life, I missed you so bad” — you can hear whole universes of possibility unspooling in Jepsen’s brain. But before any of that can happen, she has to ask: “Where ya think you’re going, baaaaby?”

It’s probably perfectly obvious, but I love this shit. I love how those lyrics are specific and universal at the same time. I love how Jepsen sounds both flirty and overcome. I love the insistent bounce of the beat, the earwormy immediacy of the hook. And I love all the little touches in the production. There are ear-candy elements of “Call Me Maybe” that you might not notice on first listen, but they all work to sharpen the track. There’s the jubilant strings on the chorus, but even more than that riff, I love the descending flutter thing that follows. I love the echoing harpsichord sound on the intro, before everything explodes. I love the disco drums, the lightly funky power-chords, the slight growl in Jepsen’s voice. Everything just works.

Carly Rae Jepsen recorded “Call Me Maybe” for her Curiosity EP, and the single came out in September 2011. The song was an immediate hit in Canada, and it got a significant boost when a Canadian superstar happened to hear it on the radio. Justin Bieber and then-girlfriend Selena Gomez heard the song in December, and Beiber tweeted about it, misspelling Carly Rae Jepsen’s name but calling “Call Me Maybe” “possibly the catchiest song I’ve ever heard lol.” Gomez tweeted about it, too, and Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun, a guy who will become a major character in this column, got on the case. (Bieber and Gomez will both eventually appear in this column, thanks in part to songs that are presumably about one another.)

Early in 2012, Carly Rae Jepsen toured Canada as the opening act for former Number Ones artists Hanson. During that tour, “Call Me Maybe” reached #1 on the Canadian charts. In America, the song was just starting to bubble. In February, Bieber and Gomez posted a video of themselves dancing and lip-syncing to “Call Me Maybe” along with famous-ish friends like High School Musical villain Ashley Tisdale and boy band Big Time Rush. (Ashley Tisdale’s highest-charting single, the High School Musical 2 full-cast number “What Time Is It,” peaked at #6 in 2007. It’s a 6. Big Time Rush’s biggest hit, 2011’s “Boyfriend,” peaked at #72.) For a while, that Bieber/Gomez lip-sync had more views than the actual “Call Me Maybe” video.

After the Bieber/Gomez video, more and more celebrities started posting videos of themselves lip-syncing to “Call Me Maybe”: Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, a James Franco video on some social network that doesn’t exist anymore. Colin Powell and Gayle King sang it together on CBS News. Groups of people — collegiate sports teams, military people serving abroad — posted videos of themselves singing or dancing to “Call Me Maybe,” and those videos made their way around the internet. A video of Barack Obama, chopped-up to make it look like he was singing “Call Me Maybe,” went mega-viral. As all this was happening, Scooter Braun brokered an Interscope deal for Carly Rae Jepsen through his own Schoolboy imprint, and the song shot up the Hot 100.

The different “Call Me Maybe” viral videos definitely helped the song blow up, but those videos were responding to the song’s catchiness and popularity as much as they were driving it. That kind of internet virality was becoming more and more important to the success of pop songs; Billboard started using Spotify streams to calculate the Hot 100 as “Call Me Maybe” was still rising up the charts. But “Call Me Maybe” probably would’ve been huge without any of that internet stuff. The song tapped into something that people really wanted to hear at the time. It’s a laser-precise pop song as perfect as any that we’ve heard this century, but it didn’t come from the big-money song factory. It was a low-budget affair, and you could tell. That was part of the charm.

Part of the secret of “Call Me Maybe,” I think, is that it’s the work of a few people who knew what they were doing. Josh Ramsay produced “Call Me Maybe,” and Tavish Crowe plays virtually all the instruments: guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, fake strings, backup vocals. Carly Rae Jepsen has a perfectly pleasant voice, but she doesn’t sound like a world-conquering pop supernova. She sounds like someone you might know who might be good at singing. These things register, whether consciously or not, and they make a difference.

After a few years of overpowering, lab-tested Max Martin/Dr. Luke pop anthems, something as lo-res as “Call Me Maybe” had a certain charm that was irresistible. The Max Martin stuff didn’t go away after “Call Me Maybe,” and Jepsen’s song has plenty of superficial things in common with the Katy Perry tracks that were still hanging around the charts at the time, but it sounds a bit like a reset. I hear a similar good-natured bubblegum jankiness in One Direction’s debut single “What Makes You Beautiful,” another 2012 summer jam. (“What Makes You Beautiful” peaked at #4. It’s a 9. A couple of solo One Direction members will eventually appear in this column.) One Direction were more of an obvious creation of the pop system. Like Jepsen, though, they came out of another country’s game shows, and they brought an amateurish euphoria that called back to past generations of bubblegum pop. The jankiness was part of the appeal.

Carly Rae Jepsen’s new bosses at Interscope didn’t really understand the jankiness. Jepsen’s Curiosity EP came out in February, and “Call Me Maybe” conquered the Hot 100 in June. Jepsen went out on tour with Justin Bieber, and she also rushed the release of her album Kiss. Jepsen co-wrote almost every song on the record, but Interscope still set her up with way too many proven-hitmaker types: Redfoo, Dallas Austin, Toby Gad, the aforementioned Max Martin and Dr. Luke. Jepsen followed “Call Me Maybe” with “Good Time,” a regrettable duet with the dreaded former Number Ones artist Owl City. “Good Time” made it to #8, thus saving both Jepsen and Owl City from one-hit wonder status. But it sounded like pure Disney, and it didn’t even come close to touching the “Call Me Maybe” phenomenon. (It’s a 3.)

Ultimately, Kiss is a pretty decent early-’10s mainstream pop album with very little of the joyous effervescence of “Call Me Maybe,” and it promptly sank. The record failed to go gold, and collaborations with big pop stars only scraped the bottom of the Hot 100. (The Justin Bieber duet “Beautiful” peaked at #87, while a “Tonight I’m Getting Over You” remix with future Number Ones artist Nicki Minaj only made it to #90.) The commercial failure of Kiss left Carly Rae Jepsen in a strange position. She was a grown woman in her mid-twenties who was famous for one hit song beloved among teenagers. She had to recalibrate.

Rather than attempting to force another “Call Me Maybe”-level hit, Carly Rae Jepsen took another job, playing the lead in a Broadway revival of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Cinderella musical. While doing the play, Jepsen kept working on new music, sometimes working with New York indie-hipster types like Dev Hynes and Rostam Batmanglij. Around the same time, former major-label teen-pop hopes like Solange Knowles and Sky Ferreira were following a similar trajectory, leaving mainstream pop behind and finding critical acclaim. But none of them had hits on the level of “Call Me Maybe.” Jepsen’s change in focus seemed, if anything, even more radical.

When Carly Rae Jepsen released her 2015 album Emotion, she basically followed in the footsteps of Robyn, the former ’90s teenpop hitmaker who’d reinvented herself as an idiosyncratic cult star. (Robyn’s two biggest Hot 100 hits, the Max Martin collabs “Show Me Love” and “Do You Know (What It Takes)” both peaked at #7 in 1997. They’re both 8s.) In the mid-’10s, as Atlanta trap slowly took over the Hot 100, pop music became less of a broad catchall category — music that was popular — and more of a genre unto itself, one genre among many. Paradoxically, with the internet-addled atomization of mass culture, you could be a pop star who didn’t interact with the mainstream at all. That’s what Carly Rae Jepsen became.

The great podcast Pop Pantheon, which I’ve been on a couple of times, dedicates itself to taxonomizing the impacts of different pop stars throughout history, and it’s got a term for culty sub-mainstream stars on the level of a Charli XCX or a Rina Sawayama: niche legend. With the release of Emotion, Carly Rae Jepsen effectively abandoned the mainstream pop stardom that had already mostly slipped past her and embraced niche-legend status instead. Lead single “I Really Like You” aimed for the immediacy of “Call Me Maybe,” and it mostly got there. The video had Tom Hanks lip-syncing the lyrics, and it ended with a dance party that featured both Tom Hanks and Justin Bieber — a truly strange spectacle until you realize that there’s a whole lot of That Thing You Do in Jepsen’s story. “I Really Like You” is a great song, and I thought it was about to be huge, but it really wasn’t. The single went platinum — not bad, until you realize that “Call Me Maybe” went diamond. “I Really Like You” peaked at #39, and Carly Rae Jepsen hasn’t been back on the Hot 100 since then.

When I tell it like that, Emotion looks like a failure. Emotion is absolutely not a failure. It’s one of the best pop records of this century. It’s got bangers upon bangers upon bangers: “Run Away With Me,” “Boy Problems,” “Your Type,” “I Didn’t Just Come Here To Dance.” Revisiting Emotion for this column has been an absolute fucking blast; I’d forgotten all about how “Black Heart” absolutely colonized my brain for a month or two. And the best song that Jepsen wrote for Emotion didn’t even make it onto the album. Jepsen voiced a character in the instantly forgotten 2016 French/Canadian cartoon movie Ballerina, and she contributed the almighty banger “Cut To The Feeling” to its soundtrack. “Cut To The Feeling” was just an Emotion castoff, and it never charted, but the song has endured. At this point, I think it’s Jepsen’s best song — better than “Call Me Maybe,” even. Jepsen might agree with me. These days, she ends her live shows with “Cut To The Feeling.”

About those live shows: In 2016, I saw Carly Rae Jepsen play an absolutely fucking glorious set at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. I used to work at Pitchfork, and I’ve been to a lot of Pitchfork Festivals, dating back to that first one in 2005, when it was called Intonation and the damn Decemberists headlined. Jepsen’s set was one of the most purely fun that I’ve seen at that festival. Pitchfork had a reputation for snottiness, but a festival is still a festival. When you get a bunch of people into a sunny park together, they want to hear hits. Carly Rae Jepsen wasn’t even a headliner — she played on the main stage before Beach House — but I will never forget that entire field bouncing to “Call Me Maybe.” When that song first came out, I could not have imagined getting to hear it at Pitchfork, outside of some kind of ironic-cover situation. I’m so glad that I did — that Pitchfork and Jepsen reached that strange and mystical convergence point.

Carly Rae Jepsen has released a few more albums since then, and they’ve all been pretty good, though I haven’t liked any of them anywhere near as much as Emotion. She’s leaned a little more into her singer-songwriter roots in recent years, though she veered back toward dance-pop on 2023’s pretty-great The Loveliest Time. These days, she’s got a huge, dedicated, predominantly gay fanbase, and she can play festivals and fill big rooms like Radio City Music Hall whenever she wants. “Call Me Maybe” was a one-off, and when you come out of the gate with a song that huge, you set yourself up for failure. Different artists react to that pressure in different ways. Gotye disappeared. Carly Rae Jepsen built a sustainable career. “Call Me Maybe” only happens once, but Carly Rae Jepsen has stuck around, and we’re all better off for it.

GRADE: 10/10

BONUS BEATS: A month before “Call Me Maybe” reached #1, former Number Ones artists Fun. covered the song in an acoustic radio-station session. Here’s their version:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: While “Call Me Maybe” was still sitting at #1, Sesame Street aired a Cookie Monster parody that honestly goes hard. Here’s “Share It Maybe”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the spaced-out “Call Me Maybe” cover that JPEGMAFIA released in 2013 and that’s been a live-show staple since:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The great Disney Channel show Gravity Falls, which is extremely popular in my house, stopped making new episodes in 2016. But in 2020, Disney put together a “Call Me Maybe” parody, with Kristen Schaal singing in character as Mabel Pines. Here’s “Call Me Mabel”:

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. Hey! I just met you! And this is crazy! But my book is currently available for purchase! So buy it maybe!

Stereogum is an independent, reader-supported publication. Become a VIP Member to view this site without ads and get exclusive content.

more from The Number Ones