Read an excerpt from Billboard's cover story on the 'Call Me Maybe' phenomenon
"It's been a cool day today," Carly Rae Jepsen, calling in from Los Angeles, says casually. "I ran into RedFoo from LMFAO at the airport, and we've been writing a song together today. Over the phone."
This is Jepsen's reality in June 2012 - running into electro-pop stars and concocting spur-of-the-moment collaborations during downtime between interviews about the No. 1 song in the country and recording sessions for her suddenly highly anticipated second album. Last year, Jepsen was a moderately successful singer/songwriter whose claim to fame was placing third on "Canadian Idol" in 2007. But a week ago, Jepsen performed in front of tens of thousands of fans while opening for new pal Justin Bieber at Zocalo Square in Mexico City.
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A week from now, she's scheduled to enter the studio with hit-making producer Ryan Tedder. Hey, she just met RedFoo. But is this crazy? Not really. Not anymore.
"Pretty much every day, there's a moment where I'm having to pinch myself and think, 'When did this happen to my life?'" she says. "What I really love about music is that, despite all this craziness the creative process remains the same. And that same exciting feeling that I had before anybody knew me, when I was just beginning to work on 'Call Me Maybe,' is the same feeling I had today with RedFoo from LMFAO. You can sense the people who really have it are about writing that right word or that right melody to make it lift and make you feel that perfect emotion."
When "Call Me Maybe" reached the apex of the Billboard Hot 100 on last week's chart, the achievement didn't feel like the coup of a top 40 newcomer as much as the long-expected coronation of the year's best pop song. In its 17 weeks on the chart, the song's synthesized strings and playful pangs of flirtation have seeped into the culture at large with an inescapable universality. It's been one can-you-believe-this and did-you-see-that moment after another. Bieber endorsed the song with a viral video in February, prompting thousands of YouTube users to follow suit with visual parodies, earnest covers, knockoffs and reinterpretations. Katy Perry covered the song, the Harvard baseball team danced to it, and Colin Powell belted it out on "CBS This Morning." All the while, its official music video has collected 121 million views on YouTube.
Pop radio caught the "Call Me Maybe" bug too. The song spends a second week atop the Mainstream Top 40 chart, with 126 million in all-format audience, according to Nielsen BDS. WHTZ (Z100) New York PD Sharon Dastur says that part of the reason Jepsen became the first woman to hit No. 1 with her first Mainstream Top 40 entry since Adele did so with "Rolling in the Deep" last year is because the song's performance on the iTunes singles chart gave PDs a better gauge of what people want to hear.
But Dastur also points to "Call Me Maybe" being part of a macro trend in pop: With the recent success of singles by previously unfamiliar acts like fun., Gotye and One Direction, pop music fans may be experiencing a cycle of fresh talent unseen since Britney Spears, Ricky Martin and 'N Sync rapidly became household names in the late '90s. Twenty percent of last week's Hot 100 consisted of artists who never charted a song on the tally before, and with "Call Me Maybe" following Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know" (featuring Kimbra) and fun.'s "We Are Young" (featuring Janelle Monáe) at the top of the chart, the Hot 100 is enjoying its longest streak of No. 1s by lead artists making their first list appearances in almost 35 years.
"If you look at our playlist, there's a ton of people on here you hadn't heard of six months ago," Dastur says. "We're in that perfect pocket of music where it's just all different styles, and that's what people are looking for at the moment. It's not that they're sick of [veteran] artists - this music is just so unique and fresh."
"Call Me Maybe," which was released on the Canada-only "Curiosity" EP and as a single in the United States in February, was too catchy to be relegated to Internet meme status. Bieber's manager Scooter Braun first listened to the song last January. "I said, 'This is the best pop song I've heard in like 10 years,' so I went on a rampage to track it down," he recalls.
Once Jepsen inked a U.S. deal in March with Braun's Schoolboy Records/Interscope (she remains on 604 Records in her native Canada), her new stateside muscle helped the song similarly beguile millions of new listeners with TV appearances, scattered performances and a massive top 40 push. "Call Me Maybe" continues to dominate radio and has logged five straight weeks atop the Digital Songs chart, bringing its total to 3.6 million downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The song is that rare thing: a totem for kids and hipsters alike, and not as a punch line. As Amanda Dobbins, associate editor at New York magazine's Vulture blog and a vocal early champion of the single, puts it, "It's like [Rebecca Black's] 'Friday,' but good."
In the middle of the phenomenon is a disarmingly warm 26-year-old from Mission, British Columbia, who never imagined herself rising to the top with "Call Me Maybe." After all, when Jepsen co-wrote the song on the road with bandmate Tavish Crowe, the now-inescapable four-line refrain didn't catch her ear at first. "We thought it was a nice little pre-chorus or something," she says.
But with that hook now sinking into everyone's mind in North America, Jepsen is a hungry young star with a new album on the way and a team guaranteeing that this is only the beginning. "I sat down Carly in my backyard and said, 'This is not going to be fun. You're going to be so tired,'" Braun says of when he first started working with Jepsen earlier this year. "And she looked at me and said, 'Scooter, I don't care how hard I have to work. I'm going to do it. This is what I've wanted my entire life.'"
Jonathan Simkin, co-founder of Vancouver-based 604 Records, is not a fan of "Canadian Idol." When a friend asked him to take a meeting with Jepsen in 2007, Simkin, who helped build the careers of Nickelback (lead singer Chad Kroeger co-founded 604) and Theory of a Deadman, wasn't interested in signing or managing the third-place finisher on the fifth season of the hit singing competition. "I assumed she didn't write her own songs," he recalls.
But Simkin was charmed by Jepsen in their first meeting together and impressed by the songwriting on her demo, describing an "intangible X factor" in her airy pop. Simkin signed on to manage Jepsen, and after the singer independently released debut album "Tug of War" in September 2008 on MapleMusic, 604 rereleased the disc with distribution through Universal.
"Tug of War," which has sold 10,000 copies in Canada, according to Nielsen SoundScan, failed to spawn a massive hit; two singles, "Bucket" and the title track, peaked at Nos. 32 and 36 on the Canadian Hot 100, respectively. However, the album established a creative team around her, which included Crowe, producer/songwriter Ryan Stewart and Marianas Trench frontman/producer Josh Ramsay. It also helped prep Jepsen for life in the spotlight, with the singer playing 36 headlining shows throughout Canada in 2009 while supporting "Tug of War." "The 'Canadian Idol' stuff, working "Tug of War," the touring and the videos - it's been the most amazing dress rehearsal you can ever have," Simkin says.
Jepsen says that "Call Me Maybe" came together easily, during a four- or five-day process at producer Ramsay's Vancouver studio in early 2011, and was to be included on her sophomore album, "Curiosity." "It wasn't even slated to be her first single," Simkin recalls. "That was me having to fight for that one - the Universal radio team, that wasn't their first choice. It wasn't anybody's first choice, except me. I just knew there was something about that song." "Call Me Maybe" was eventually chosen over the track "Curiosity" and released as a lead single in Canada last September.
"Curiosity" had been completed, and "Call Me Maybe" debuted on the Canadian Hot 100 during the chart week of Oct. 22, 2011, with the full-length slated to follow in Canada in early 2012. According to Simkin, the song immediately began attracting attention from labels outside of Jepsen's native country while creeping up the Canadian charts. "The first offer on the table was from a major in Europe, and we were starting to negotiate that," Simkin says. "And then Bieber tweeted."