Welcome to New Retro Week, a celebration of the biggest artists, hits, and cultural moments that made 2012 a seminal year in pop. MTV News is looking back to see what lies ahead: These essays showcase how today’s blueprint was laid a decade ago. Step into our time machine.
By Ilana Kaplan
Ten years ago, pop music underwent a pivotal shift. While glossy hooks dominated artists’ repertoires, so did alternative stylings, which helped usher in a gamut of subgenres and made critics and fans alike redefine the pop ethos. The release of Red prompted Taylor Swift’s evolution from diaristic songwriting to sticky, larger-than-life radio hits produced by Max Martin, while Lana Del Rey’s cinematic sadcore and woozy vocals were equally captivating. The experimentation on Frank Ocean’s groundbreaking release Channel Orange, an album brimming with pop, R&B, and classic-rock references, has echoed throughout today’s pop singers.
And then there was Carly Rae Jepsen, a British Columbian singer-songwriter who had been cutting her teeth across the border after a stint on Canadian Idol. After placing third on the competition series, Jepsen released her inaugural album Tug of War in 2008 — a stripped-down project that preceded her bubblegum-pop career. But it wouldn’t be long until that changed thanks to one viral song and an international debut album.
While 2012 may not have been the first time we met “Call Me Maybe,” it was the year that Jepsen’s crush-anxiety anthem became a viral hit. Initially debuting on the singer’s Precious EP in 2011, “Call Me Maybe” not only prompted a shift in the direction of Jepsen’s sound but transformed the trajectory of her career. And it went through a handful of iterations before becoming the No. 1 hit we know.
Of the song, Jepsen told Seventeen back in 2012 that the main inspiration for the song was “the idea that there’s a kind of chemistry when you meet the right person.” “There’s a spark that needs to be investigated, but it can be left unsaid because sometimes people are too shy to take that step, including myself,” she said.
Co-written by writer-producers Josh Ramsay and Tavish Crowe, the track’s foundation began in late 2010 or early 2011 — a timeline that’s fuzzy because of Jepsen’s tour dates around the time, according to Crowe.
Jepsen had initially been writing songs with Crowe, and together they developed an alternate version of the track — it wasn’t exactly the catchy earworm listeners are familiar with. “It was quite a bit folkier than it was before Josh had laid ears on the song,” recalls Crowe. “He really honed in on the hook of the song.” Ramsay’s memory differs slightly in that he recalls that Crowe and Jepsen had written a completely different track, and when Jepsen shared it, they pulled out the pre-chorus that the world soon wouldn’t be able to forget: “I just met you / Call me maybe.”
“We left the rest of the song alone, [and] then Carly and I, together, wrote a new song around this one pre-existing line,” Ramsay says. “It was still [about how] Carly had met a guy and wished that she was confident enough to just walk up and give someone her number.”
Ramsay wanted to create a song that combined influences from Jepsen’s acoustic-leaning beginnings with the infectious energy of a Katy Perry track and the bouncy production of Max Martin sans synths. A reference point for the song’s pop-meets-strings melody was Annie Lennox’s 1992 breakup anthem “Walking on Broken Glass.” “It felt clubby and poppy, but still felt organic because it had that human element of strings in it,” he says of the track. What made the song feel singular stemmed from Jepsen: Her bright-eyed, endearing personality was consistently magnified in the lyrics. “It’s a light pop song,” Ramsay says. “But I think that Carly’s delivery just makes it feel more genuine and grounded than a lot of the stuff that was going on at the time.”
In late 2011, a tweet from fellow Canadian pop star Justin Bieber saying that “Call Me Maybe” was “possibly the catchiest song I’ve ever heard” changed everything. “It kind of exploded [on] the radio after that,” Ramsay recalls. “And it just didn’t go away.” While Bieber did have a pivotal role in the song’s visibility, 604 Records cofounder and Jepsen’s former manager Jonathan Simkin claims the song “was already well on its way before Bieber even heard it for the first time.”
The single, which was initially released in Canada, charted to No. 1 there while Jepsen and her band opened for Hanson on tour in early 2012. Gradually, Crowe noticed more and more fans were coming to the shows for Jepsen — even Hanson fans. On a Friday soon after the Canadian tour ended, Jepsen phoned Crowe asking if he was ready to tour again in three days, but this time, through America and Canada without an end date. The irony of the track’s international acclaim, Crowe recalls, is that it began slipping on the Canadian charts just as it was going viral elsewhere.
By then, Jepsen’s slow-burning success began to move at warp speed. “Every label in the world wanted it,” recalls Simkin. “We took a ton of meetings, and we ended up doing the deal with Interscope [in 2012].” Despite having a record already completed and ready to go, Simkin claims, Interscope scrapped it and had Jepsen record a new one — Kiss, which was eventually released in September 2012. “[They] did what American major labels often do. They decided, ‘Oh, no. This was made by Canadians, it can’t be really good. We’re gonna have to do an entire new album,” he says. “I kind of regret that I didn’t fight harder against that.”
The traction for “Call Me Maybe” was seemingly endless: It skyrocketed more when Bieber later posted a video singing the song with ex-girlfriend Selena Gomez and Ashley Tisdale and friends. What followed was a series of similar parodies from former president Barack Obama, Katy Perry, sports teams, and more. The memes and influx of texts from friends and family persisted for Ramsay and Crowe. “I don’t know why people filmed and embraced it the way they did,” says Crowe. “It still blows my mind.” In an interview with The Independent, Jepsen revealed she needed to take a beat following the track’s success saying she “was sick of hearing myself on the radio.” “I needed some time to reflect about my next move, because I was hungry for something but I hadn’t figured out what,” she added. “And then with Emotion, I started to gain my footing.”
Today, Ramsay and Crowe struggle to pinpoint what exactly about the track made it take off — they’re just deeply honored. “There is this sense of joy, happiness, and celebration that comes attached to the song. That celebration, I think, is what must have given it a long-standing life,” Crowe speculates. Ramsay is just “thrilled” that it’s remained so successful. Simkin remains in awe of Jepsen’s “knack for articulating the mechanisms of romantic relationships.”
“Call Me Maybe” remained at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for nine consecutive weeks in mid-2012, and Jepsen ended up earning two Grammy nominations for Song of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance. It was the launching pad Jepsen needed to become an international sensation.
Despite debuting more than a decade ago, “Call Me Maybe” could have just as easily come out today. The lovelorn vignettes and bubblegum dance-pop within her hit echoes throughout the music of Gen Z’s buzziest artists like Olivia Rodrigo, Gracie Abrams, and Dua Lipa. The fact that Swift’s re-release of Red (Taylor’s Version) felt brand new, even aside from the 10-minute version of “All Too Well,” proves just how impactful and fresh the music from 2012 was (and still is). If TikTok existed in 2012, who knows how much bigger Call Me Maybe” could have been?
Thanks to dance challenges and a dose of nostalgia, TikTok has helped breathe new life into both hits and deep cuts. Songs about crushes, in particular, have gone viral on the platform. Take for instance Swift’s “Enchanted,” which was released in 2010: Just this year, it exploded on TikTok because it defined that universally-relatable, lovestruck feeling. Of course, more recently on the video platform and beyond, Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” captured a similar sentimentality. There’s something about “Call Me Maybe” — and Jepsen’s music since — that is timeless. Heartache and falling never really go out of style.
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