From the pounding thump of its programmed drums to its synth-based violins (a literal embodiment of the term “heartstrings”), Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2011 smash “Call Me Maybe” ranks among the best songs about young love ever recorded — a masterclass in pop songwriting that perfectly captures the thrill of infatuation. Its success also represents a sea change in music marketing, one defined by both technology and interconnectivity: on its own, “Call Me Maybe” might never have attracted much attention outside of Jepsen’s native Canada, but thanks to fellow Canadian Justin Bieber’s superstar sway and the increasing cultural influence of user-generated digital content, the single (and its singer) catapulted to international renown.
Before Jepsen co-wrote and recorded the song that made her a breakout star, she was merely a Canadian Idol also-ran with an acoustic guitar. Born in British Columbia to schoolteacher parents, Jepsen leveraged a childhood of theater performances to place third on the CTV reality competition’s fifth season, which aired in 2007. After her elimination from Canadian Idol, she transitioned to a pop music career and was soon signed by Jonathan Simkin, co-founder of Vancouver’s 604 Records. (Prior to hearing her demo, “I assumed she didn’t write her own songs,” Simkin later recalled to Billboard.)
A cover of John Denver’s “Sunshine on My Shoulders” preceded Jepsen’s debut LP, 2008’s Tug of War. Though it featured “Sweet Talker,” the folk-pop song which introduced her to Canadian television viewers, the album failed to make a dent at radio, with two singles stalling out in the lower rungs of the Canadian Top 40. But Tug of War also introduced Jepsen to the songwriting team that would help her become a global phenomenon: backing guitarist Tavish Crowe and Josh Ramsay, frontman of Canadian pop band Marianas Trench.
Jepsen and Crowe wrote “Call Me Maybe” in 2009 while touring Canada. The track was initially conceived as a folk-pop song in the same fashion as her debut album; listen closely in KORD to the acoustic guitar to hear the chords from their original version. But when Jepsen and her band retreated to Ramsay’s Umbrella Factory Studios to work on the follow-up to Tug of War, she and Crowe asked Ramsay to give “Call Me Maybe” a pop edge, and he introduced the synths, strings, drum programming and double-tracked vocals that reshaped the song. Ramsay also convinced Jepsen and Crowe to take their pre-chorus and turn it into a full chorus, iconizing one of the most recognizable hooks in contemporary pop.
Among the myriad tools Ramsay used to flesh out “Call Me Maybe” (including a couple of skyward electric guitars), the digital strings make the most impact, drawing upon decades of musical history, from classical to disco to schmaltz, to heighten the song’s drama and passion. From the introductory pizzicato to the diving swoops that bifurcate each chorus in call and response with Jepsen’s vocals, the strings assert full control over the finished product — a bold creative decision that points to Jepsen’s innate pop prowess.
The catchiness of “Call Me Maybe” has as much to do with its structure as its arrangement: at just over three minutes, the single features every time-tested hallmark of compelling songcraft. It starts with a soft intro that ramps up to a pre-chorus half the length of the verse — a clever trick that “cuts to the feeling,” to borrow the title of another Jepsen hit. This pre-chorus rises like an exponential curve, a dynamic that has as much to do with Jepsen’s words — so urgently lustful, like a flipped switch — as with the way her voice suddenly rises another octave to meet them, a showstopping flourish in line with her history as a musical theater performer. She’s in a higher register altogether in that earworm chorus, and if you trace the vocal melody with your finger, you can follow the peaks and valleys it carves out as Jepsen hits one fifth after another.
The commercial success of “Call Me Maybe” also comes down to another decisive factor: the exponentially multiplying power of the internet. The radio team at Universal Music Group, 604’s Canadian distributor, did not consider the song their first choice for a single, but upon Simkin’s insistence, “Call Me Maybe” was released to broadcasters in September 2011. It slowly climbed the charts, in December hitting number 22 on the Canadian Hot 100… and then tween-pop superstars Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez discovered the song on the radio. Bieber broadcasted his approval of “Call Me Maybe” to his 15 million Twitter followers, calling it “possibly the catchiest song I’ve ever heard,” and on Bieber’s word, pop management titan Scooter Braun hastily signed Jepsen to his Universal imprint Schoolboy Records, obtaining worldwide distribution through Interscope Records.
Shortly after “Call Me Maybe” topped the Canadian pop charts, Braun and Bieber turned their focus to American radio, deploying a canny marketing tactic emblematic of the burgeoning social media era: a so-called “lip dub” video (i.e., a grassroots clip combining lip synching and audio dubbing) featuring Bieber, Gomez, actress/singer Ashley Tisdale and others performing Jepsen’s song. When Braun and Bieber uploaded their “Call Me Maybe” clip to YouTube on Feb. 18, 2012, two weeks ahead of Jepsen’s official music video, they generated a million views in the first 24 hours; moreover, Bieber implored viewers to produce their own “Call Me Maybe” lip dubs, and they did so in droves, with everyone from Katy Perry to Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster to members of the 2012 Olympic swim team getting in on the action.
“Call Me Maybe” reached number one in the U.S. in mid-June 2012. “I think what that video did was turn it from a hit song to a cultural phenomenon,” Simkin told Billboard in 2019. In hindsight, Bieber’s “Call Me Maybe” lip dub also set into motion a trend that continues more than a decade later each time a viral TikTok video is responsible for a pop song entering (or reentering) the national charts.
“Call Me Maybe” additionally benefited from a paradigm shift in music criticism. At the time of its chart ascent, music journalists were aggressively pushing back on longstanding biases within the critical establishment against commercial pop music — a mode of discourse dubbed “poptimism.” Jepsen soon emerged as a critical darling as well as a chart force, with the Village Voice’s annual Pazz and Jop critics’ poll declaring “Call Me Maybe” the best single of 2012; five years later, it topped Billboard’s list of the best choruses of the 21st century. Jepsen remained a critics’ favorite for the rest of the decade on the strength of multiple acclaimed records, but none of her efforts replicated the meteoric force of “Call Me Maybe” — and the singer says she’s okay with it.
“It’s a gift to have a song like that, because it’s allowed me now to start to be able to make, without sacrifice or compromise, the exact music that I’ve always dreamed of making,” Jepsen told Billboard in 2017. “‘Call Me Maybe’ was definitely a part of my story and part of how I look at myself as an artist, but that’s always evolving. It’s nice to have the confidence and freedom to be able to change like that.”