Let’s Analyze the Lyrics to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”
Posted by Newson 06/19/2012 at 3:40 PM
Carly Rae Jepsen threw a wish in a well, and she ended up with the best—and before all is done, probably the biggest—pop song of 2012. Of course, she had a lot of help in the first regard from co-writer Tavish Crowe and producer/sprucer-upper Josh Ramsay, and a truly invaluable amount of help in the second from professional mentors / unofficial PR directors Justin Bieber and Scooter Braun. But the end result is a song that has connected with listeners of all stripes from all locations and demographics in a way that only a handful of pop tunes in a decade do—the kind of song that inspires people to gather their friends, pick up their instruments, and record their love of it for all the world to see.
What makes “Call Me Maybe” so special? Well, a variety of factors both musical and textual, but the most important one is probably how simple and relatable the primary sentiment of the song is. It uses a lyrical hook as familiar as nearly any over the last half-century of popular music—waiting and hoping for a phone call from that one special girl or guy—keeps the specifics vague for universality’s sake, but provides just enough emotional detail to make the feeling immediately identifiable and totally genuine-seeming. In the 17 words of the first line to the chorus, Carly Rae captures that buzz of a crush in its larval stage, a giddiness matched by the song’s pitch-perfect production, with the end result being the most intoxicating concoction to hit the Top 40 in almost a decade.
Here’s the thing about “Call Me Maybe”: The verses don’t matter at all. That’s not to say that the verses are poorly written or anything—they’re just irrelevant. You might hear the song 20 times before you can even remember a single pre-chorus line in the song, you might be listening to the song for the 57th time and pick up on a turn of phrase in the verse that you’d never noticed before. They’re almost written specifically to not perk up your interest too much—an opening lyric like “I threw a wish in a well / Don’t ask me I’ll never tell” is mildly intriguing but ultimately offers no real information, nor does “I beg and borrow and steal / At first sight and its real.” They hint at deep emotion but express nothing in themselves, and Carly rushes through them in a low hush, trying not to draw attention to herself or the words sung.
Though Carly and company clearly want the song to get to the chorus as soon as possible, they’re smart enough to throw in a couple flares to get the listeners attention—mostly in form of the “Now you’re in my way” interjections that end every set of lyrics in the verse, with Carly raising above her low whipser for the “innnn MY way” sections. Casual pop fans attempting to sing along to “Call Me Maybe” will probably murmur their way through the first three lines of the verses but come back strong for the “Now you’re in my way”—they act as beacons for the verse, pointing the way towards the chorus while ensuring don’t get totally lost in the meantime. Similarly, the “Where you think you’re going, BAAAA-BY??” exhortations at the end of each verse—which the music cuts out almost entirely for—act as an introduction for the chorus to come, saying to the listener “all right, you’ve been patient, but we’re finally here.”
And boy, is it worth the wait. You hear the chorus once, and it’s in your head for all time, those four lines with five syllables each—”Hey, I just met you / And this is crazy / But here’s my number / So call me maybe.” The chorus snaps you to attention in a number of different ways. The first is musically—production-wise, the song hangs back for most of the verses, just a layer of softly plucked synth-strings with some low bass and drums laying the groundwork—a lot like the beginning to Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” actually. Once you get to the chorus, though, those synth strings explode into the big staccato hook that provides the song’s musical signature—the kind of hook you’d hear in a ’70s disco smash (a similarity brought ought by this excellent disco-style cover), or maybe an early ’90s UK house cut, but almost never in 2012 US Top 40. It’s a grabber, for sure.
But there are also lyrical and vocal shifts in the refrain that make sure Carly Rae has the entirety of your attention. She sets the chorus apart from the verses several ways, first by raising the vocal up almost an entire octave, and enunciating with far greater precision than she had previously, finally allowing you to hear her loud and clear for the first time in the song. Then, after singing the entire verse seemingly in the same breath, not stopping for a beat from line to line, now she’s cutting herself off at the end of every lyrical fragment. “Hey, I just met you.” (Pause.) “And this is craaa-zy.” (Pause.) It gives the chorus that added significance, that all of a sudden Carly Rae is taking her time with each of her lines, after rushing through the verses like she had someplace better to get to.
And then of course, the lyrics themselves set the chorus apart. The verses are descriptive of Carly Rae’s meeting this guy for the first time, but they sound more like an internal monologue, told half in present tense (“Now you’re in my way”) and half in past-tense (“Your skin was showing…”), like she’s narrating the story of a meeting that’s already happened. But when it comes to the chorus, it’s very, very in the moment, as Carly Rae addresses the object of her affections directly, practically shoving her phone number into his hand. Instantly, you forget anything that came before, as you’re thrust into Carly Rae’s shoes in the pivotal moment of her encounter, where she tries to ensure that this time is not the last communication she and the guy will have.
It’s a moment that just about anyone can relate to, summed up with brilliant efficiency in the first 17 words of the chorus. The “Hey I just met you, and this is crazy”—with purposeful emphasis on the “crazy”—accomplishes the task of setting the stage for the encounter, while also establishing Carly Rae’s nervousness, and raising the emotional stakes of the situation by having her let you know that she realizes her actions are somewhat socially unprecedented. Then, the “But here’s my number / So call me maybe” shows Carly in a split-second of emotional bravery—though not so much that she can’t help but qualify it with that final “maybe.”
When Debbie Harry of Blondie requested a lover call her in the biggest “Call Me” hit to date before Carly Rae, there was no “maybe” about it—you either called Debbie, or faced real, immediate peril at her hand. (The rest of the band even echoed the “Call me!” sentiment immediately after their singer did, as if to say “No seriously, you better do that.”) And that was fine for Debbie Harry, as big a rock star as there was in the world at the time of that song’s recording, one who shouldn’t need to hedge emotionally with such a request. But most of us are more like Carly Rae when putting ourselves on the line emotionally—anxious, hesitant, just hoping to not come off like too much of an ass. The “maybe” at the end of the chorus ensured the song’s universality, letting us know that she was no Debbie Harry either—she’s as awkward and unsure as the rest of us when broaching romance, she just has better backing strings.
There’s another, more subtle aspect to the song’s universality—the genderlessness of it all. Only once in the entire song does Carly Rae ever make a gender-specific reference, and even then when she says “And all the other boys try to chase me” on the chorus—otherwise it’s all “you,” or “baby.” Even the reference to “ripped jeans, skin was showing” on the verse could fairly easily apply to males or females. And that’s one of the main reasons why when you see all the hundreds and hundreds of YouTube covers and tributes to the song, just as many of them seem to be from guys as from girls—you can change it to be about the other gender with an absolute minimum of effort, allowing everyone to get in on the giddiness. (Hell, had Carly Rae not cast a male lead in her video, you could probably make a fairly strong argument that the song might even be about another female.)
All of this contributes to making “Call Me Maybe” the best, most impossible to hate pop song of the year, or any other in recent memory, an at-first-sight-and-it’s-real anthem that just about everyone can understand and relate to. As much success as she’s having with the song, you still almost have to feel a little bad for Carly Rae—to have a first song this enormous and this beloved, one that’s been covered to the point of the song officially becoming public domain, having to follow it up is a task that nobody would ever want. As charming as the humility and awkwardness of “Call Me Maybe” is, if Carly Rae wants to get to Debbie Harry-like icon status, here’s hoping that the song gives her the confidence to be a little more assertive with her next single—so that in a couple years’ time, she’ll never have to qualify her requests, phone-number-related or otherwise, ever again.
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