1. What if It Were a Folk Song?
Jepsen says “Call Me Maybe” originated as a “folky tune” that she and her collaborators made into a pop song. But what if it had stayed folk? The way a song is coded — the non-musical “tags” that go along with it, like genre, instrumentation, band name, clothing, hair, font — determine how we interpret the song, which in turn determines what we do with the song. And a lot of things were done with “Call Me Maybe.” It was a cultural phenomenon, the subject of memes, parodies by Sesame Street characters, pranks involving Chatroulette, artsy manipulations, and conceptual covers by late-night television hosts. It was able to do that because it was pop, played on keyboards, set to a thumping beat, and sung by a woman with well-defined bangs. It wouldn’t have happened with a folk song. Jepsen’s pre–“Call Me” image was rootsy, not exactly Vashti Bunyan maybe, but Paula Cole anyway: acoustic guitars, rocky shores, mussed hair. Her first single was a cover of a John Denver song. Keeping it folk was very much an option, but that would’ve conveyed an “authenticity” that would’ve discouraged audience participation.
2. What if Justin Bieber Never Heard It?
Not all pop songs are popular, of course. “Call Me Maybe” was legendarily elevated by kingmaker Justin Bieber, who heard it on Canadian radio and tweeted his endorsement before recording a lipdub of the song with Selena Gomez and Ashley Tisdale, and then signing Jepsen to his label. But it had already been out for five months at that point, and it’s easy to imagine it staying a minor single in Canada (it didn’t hit No. 1 there until after Bieber’s bump) and unknown in the rest of the world. This is not to say that no one would have heard it, but it would have been a minor pleasure, the kind of thing that’s held dear in part because it’s not widely known. The massive popularity of “Call Me Maybe” is key to its use and reuse. The song was so ubiquitous that within a few months it had become part of the language, as instantly recognizable as a stop sign. You could sing a snippet to someone or make some play on the chorus without having to worry that they wouldn’t get it. It was open, efficient, and exciting, a snug little vector for whatever you wanted to pile in, from the Mars rover to Colin Powell’s political aspirations.
Without that, the song becomes something very different. It doesn’t diminish its greatness, but there are lots of great songs that never become hits. When it cropped up on pop-nerd review site the Singles Jukebox three months before Bieber became involved, it got a 5.86 out of 10 from the assembled wags. Maybe it would’ve grown in status over time to become as well-loved as Sky Ferriera’s “Everything Is Embarrassing,” or maybe it would’ve stayed nestled away in a few scattered iTunes libraries. But it would’ve been enjoyed in either case as something for us, a thing that only your niche truly recognized, rather than being for everyone, as it is now. That’s a very different mode of appreciation, and of use.
3. What if She Sang “All The Boys Try To Change Me”?
If you’re attuned to performers’ attempts to critique, subvert, or just avoid the sexism endemic to pop culture, “Call Me Maybe” seems promising at first. Jepsen isn’t as aggressive as someone like Madonna, but the premise of the song is empowered and assertive (“Where you think you’re going, baby?”), with the narrator approaching a boy to make the first move and making him into an object for her gaze. The video, too, is conscientious. Jepsen does everything she can to show that her sexuality is a performance, and the object of her attraction turns out to be gay. But then one line in the chorus trips you up: “And all the other boys try to chase me,” she sings, and the implication seems to be both that such chasing is OK and that her current target should chase her too; the singer returns to a passive state. As a result, the song was generally consumed as a neutral thing, lacking any specific point of view.
But one little word could’ve made all the difference. If the line is “All the other boys try to change me,” a song about assertiveness as flirtation rather than personality becomes a search for romantic relationships in which you’re allowed to retain your own identity. My other boyfriends have been controlling, the line says, and paints that as a bad thing; the relationship she’s on the lookout for is one of mutual respect. Something can be for us and still be massively popular, but it has to signal that in some way, whether it’s Aaron Sorkin’s liberalism or Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes’ more subtle insistence on including gays and people of color in her shows. Everyone can enjoy the thing in its broadly entertaining, pop-culture way, and then certain affinity groups can get it on a different level.
4. What if It Was About Jesus?
Maybe it is. The song would seem to be about the pleasures of the flesh — “Ripped jeans, skin was showing,” and so forth — but upon closer inspection, seems to be about something a bit less material. The reveal comes in that glorious half-bridge, half-chorus at the end. “Before you came into my life / I missed you so bad,” Jepsen sings, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense at first. Through the rest of the song, the sequence has been clear. She “threw a wish in a well,” and then the object of her wish was “in my way,” newly appeared before her. She gives him her number and hopes that he’ll call, but one thing is clear: “I just met you.” So how could she have possibly missed him before he came into her life just now? The only way would be if she’s expressing a kind of spiritual yearning put into her heart by a higher power. We find Jesus, after all; Jesus does not find us. We are created by God and then must find Him. Christians sometimes speak of the salvation experience as a process of feeling a great emptiness without knowing what they lack, looking within their own hearts and welcoming Jesus into it, and finally feeling whole. Before Jesus came into their life, they missed him, without even understanding what it is they were missing.
The point here may not be a literal reading of Christian salvation (and, indeed, some proud American Christians might disagree), but Jepsen’s yearning seems spiritually directed. “It’s hard to look right at you,” she sings, as if her romantic interest were the sun, or a monster. She conjures him with a ritual, and says she’d “trade my soul” for the opportunity. She seems less interested in a relationship or even a one-night stand than she does in something like grace, the nameless, immaterial peace that settles on its recipient for no reason or rhyme. “I wasn’t looking for this,” she protests, but here it is. Salvation arrives suddenly, and it will decide for itself whether you are chosen. Leave your number and it’ll get back to you.
Mike Barthel is a PhD student in the communication department at the University of Washington, and a writer for Salon, The Awl, and The Atlantic.