The other night, I was on a train, sitting across from two women who were sharing a single set of headphones—communal listening for those worried about disturbing the people around them. A man of their age and interested in, if not one, both, inquired after what was filling their ears. They giggled girlishly. “We discovered a new song this weekend,” one said, “and we’re sort of obsessed. It’s called . . . ‘Call Me Maybe’?”
If this had been the first time I’d overheard someone not only raving about this song, but acting as if it were a particularly attractive crush object, I’d have paid the incident no mind. But it wasn’t. “Call Me Maybe”—performed by the Canadian Idol alum Carly Rae Jepsen and at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 that was active as this issue went to press—has evoked sheepish grins and exclamation-point-filled blog posts from music listeners of all stripes, engendering excitement not because of the boldfaced-name antics of its proprietors but because of the way it’s sweetly arresting.
“Call Me Maybe” harkens back to the late-’90s teenpop era; it has a candy coating and feather-light lyrics, and Jepsen’s delivery vacillates between confident and defensively coy. Its upbeat hyperactivity has been somewhat absent from the radio in recent years, when Top-40 playlists have seemingly mired themselves ever deeper into the recesses of bottle-service hell, or whatever irritatingly self-congratulatory place Katy Perry might be presiding over.
Part of its appeal might lie in the way that it hooks the listener quickly: Over some plucked strings, Jepsen, her voice sounding delicate yet conspiratorial, sings about throwing a wish in a well and spotting an attractive guy clad in ripped jeans (“skin was showin'”) who just happens to be staring at her. And then—29 seconds in—the strings soar into a bowed crescendo and Jepsen lays down her pickup line: “Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy/But here’s my number, so call me maybe?” She belts this—and an assertion that there are, in fact, other “boys” after her—out in the sort of singsong way associated with clusters of kids gathering on the playground to sing taunts, making it easy for anyone to join in. (One of the women across the aisle sang the hook idly long after she and her friend had detached their mutual earbuds, as if trying to extract it from her brain via speech.) The quick path to infatuation outlined by the lyrics is replicated musically by the rapid progression to its triumphant, string-laden chorus—it’s the sonic equivalent of a cartoon character’s eyes turning into big pink hearts immediately upon seeing someone who came out of their dreams.
It’s probably worth noting here that, despite the teenpop associations all over “Call Me Maybe”—not only is the song rife with the sort of innocent flirtatiousness practiced by the not-yet-scarred-by-bad-romance, but also its rise to fame was aided by teenpop titan (and fellow Canadian) Justin Bieber—Jepsen is 26 years old. Which means that she’s two years shy of the current cutoff for American Idol, eight years older than that talent show’s most recent winner Scotty McCreery, and 10 years older than Britney Spears was when “. . . Baby One More Time” was sent to radio stations. Jepsen is playing younger, but the way that she’s doing it entices not only those listeners who are still in high school, but also those who graduated from it long ago.
Is there a teenpop resurgence going on? A glance at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 might indicate a yes. One Direction, the British-Irish boyband who engendered low-grade mania when visiting New York earlier this year, have the No. 4 song on the charts, the sparkling supportive-boyfriend anthem “What Makes You Beautiful.” Ahead of them is another collective of young men from the British Isles, the Wanted, and their song, the slightly raunchier, clubbier “Glad You Came.” (Wink-wink, nod-nod.) And at No. 5 is the new single by Bieber, “Boyfriend,” in which the once–mop topped singer tries to follow in the more grown, sexier footsteps of another onetime teen idol named Justin. (Note that all these artists are from outside the U.S. Another import/export crisis!)
More likely, the blip of chart success by these artists is the result of the “anything goes” nature of the digital-music era, where iTunes and, now, streaming-music services like Spotify give listeners more power to engineer a song’s ascent into the Hot 100 than before. The top two songs on the Hot 100, Gotye’s plinky breakup letter “Somebody That I Used to Know” and Fun.’s future grad-night staple “We Are Young,” both fall under the rock side of the pop-musical spectrum—a genre that has been notably absent from pop radio in recent years, instead existing in a rapidly shrinking area of the dial that’s almost entirely separate from your Z100s and 92.3 NOWs. But the reception that both of these songs received once people figured out that they existed—the Gotye song was aided by Glee and Saturday Night Live, while Fun. got its big push after a Super Bowl ad—shows that music made by singer-songwriter types or bands that want to be the next Queen isn’t wholly out of fashion. (Chris Molanphy goes in-depth on this topic on the Voice‘s music blog, Sound of the City.)
This sort of up-from-below enthusiasm is helping Jepsen’s song bubble up the chart, too. Watching it ping-pong around the world these past few weeks—from the Internet’s leading-edge appreciators of pop to bloggers who enjoyed the alternate video (which had cameos by Bieber, Selena Gomez, and other young stars) to people who just heard it ambiently and had its Velcro-sticky chorus adhere to their brains immediately, even if they normally resisted songs they regarded as pop trifles—has been fun, offering the kind of escapist thrill-by-proxy lacked by so many other songs that are ostensibly about having a good time. Is it possible to get a crush on not just a pop song but also on the way that said track has nestled itself in peoples’ consciousness? Maybe.