In their story on Carly Rae Jepsen and social media's role in helping break her "Summer Song of 2012," the New York Times credits Justin Bieber with helping anoint what was "a minor hit in Canada" when he first heard it. In fact, by the time "Call Me Maybe" first appeared in "ROR" in early February, it was already No. 1 on Canada's Hot 100, several weeks before Bieber's tweet-heard-around-the-world. Canadian CHR PDs, always wary of the songs that fill their 35-40% Cancon quotient, had already given it their highest honor -- putting it alongside the international hits in their power rotation.
"Tug Of War," the best song from Jepsen's first album, was a minor Canadian hit. "Call Me Maybe" was as big a Canadian hit as any Canadian song could be without crossing to Top 40 radio in another territory. It was as big as "Innocence" by Harlequin. As big as "Crying Over You" by Platinum Blonde. As big as "Just Came Back" by Colin James. A few readers might remember that last song as an American AOR hit in 1990. When James played it to open the Juno Awards that year, it was as electric as any "artist performing their big hit" moment you could hope for.
At least "Just Came Back" was released in America. "Crying Over You" took a year to come out here, after Platinum Blonde's "Duran-and-Police-rolled-into-one" status had started to evaporate at home. It made it to No. 1 on the KPLZ Seattle countdown, but no further. Only my American promo single of "Innocence" proves that song even existed in America. While there are more recent examples, these three '80s/early '90s hits all are big enough that they still play on Canadian radio decades later. But to most U.S. readers, they're not even "minor Canadian hits"; they're non-entities.
It would have been easy for Billboard's "Summer Song of 2012" to become a non-entity, too. Two years ago, Brooke Fraser's incredibly catchy, immediately likeable "Something In The Water" became a hit of "Call Me Maybe"-like proportions in Australia and New Zealand before spreading to parts of Europe. In America, Fraser had amassed enough of a following as a Christian artist to sell out a club tour, but she had to settle for non-comm Triple-A promotion and one week on the Billboard 200 with the indie-label release of her album.
Did "Something In The Water" not have the same magic as "Call Me Maybe"? It does belong in the slightly more eclectic column with songs like "I'm Yours" and "Somebody That I Used To Know," but on a recent trip to Germany, where it had been a hit, I watched the reaction when it came on the radio. The people who already knew it perked up within seconds; the American visitors looked up to see what it was. "Something In The Water" sounded like a smash again. But treated like an obscurity in America, that's what it became.
"Call Me Maybe" was probably not headed for total obscurity in America. Its home imprint, 604 Music, was part of the usually-pickup-conscious Universal Music Group. It could have been "Kiss You Inside Out" by Hedley, a band which has racked up more than a dozen top 10 CHR hits at home without really being on the radar here. With a record being worked in the U.S., "Kiss You Inside Out" is pushing its way through the lower reaches of the top 30 at Hot AC. But spend any time with Canadian radio and it's unambiguously a hit.
But most U.S. PDs don't spend a lot of time with CHR radio elsewhere. So if "Call Me Maybe" hadn't eventually received the push of a U.S. label, chances are that radio here would have done nothing to find it on their own, with or without Bieber. The proof is that Bieber had done an earlier tweet on the song's behalf in December, but "Call Me Maybe" did not spread past Canadian-licensed CFLZ (Z101) Buffalo, N.Y., until after February's viral video on its behalf and an almost immediate U.S. label push.
So even if the path to "Summer Song of 2012" was different than that in previous years, it's not an indication that listeners are finally picking the real hits. As with the other records cited by the Times, it demonstrates that YouTube and social media are being used to bring proven hit songs to PDs who don't know they're proven hit songs. Because already being a worldwide hit ("Somebody That I Used To Know") or a proven Alternative smash ("We Are Young") doesn't get you on the docket at CHR.
This column would normally have appeared just before Labor Day, shortly before PSY's "Gangnam Style" made its own Bieber-aided leap from K-pop social phenomenon to airplay smash. And yet, in last week's Billboard Top 40 Update story, Republic's Joel Klaiman reels off a string of big call letters that came in after the label began working the song to Top 40. Only KDDB (Da Bomb) Honolulu began playing the song before Republic's involvement.
You can put YouTube and social media in the same "events" grouping with TV, movie and advertising placements that labels now use to bring any non-automatic artist to CHR's attention. They're the extracurricular activities that have become a necessary part of any college application. They have also become what secondary airplay was in the '70s, what MTV was in the '80s, and, ironically, what an Alternative radio story was in the '90s. And as Cee-Lo's "F**k You" and Philip Phillips' "Home" have shown, even a single off-air phenomenon isn't necessarily enough.
None of this is meant to minimize the chain reaction of the Bieber/Gomez video, the Harvard Baseball Team, the "Today Show" dance-off, the Obama/Romney video, or the U.S. Olympic Swim Team. "Call Me Maybe" was a proven hit before Bieber, and a U.S. chart smash by Memorial Day. It didn't have to become part of the pop culture firmament, and it didn't have to stay there for six months. It didn't have to be the "Song of Summer 2012." The excitement about "Call Me Maybe" also undoubtedly sped things up for "Gangnam Style."
Don't dismiss either how "Call Me Maybe" was a rare up/happy/positive/major-chord entrant in a summer field marked by more strident hits, at least until the Owl City/Jepsen duet, "Good Time," came along. "Where Have You Been" and "Payphone," the No. 2 and 3 songs, were both up, but with a considerably different feel. Consider as well that some of the songs that were seemingly perfect for summer needed until at least late July to kick in ("Let's Go," "Don't Wake Me Up," "Some Nights"). Flo Rida's "Whistle," one of the most obviously calibrated summer songs, didn't win its first week of the summer song derby until mid-August. Typically, PDs had waited for previous single "Wild Ones" to run its course.
So we have summer song contenders that take most of the summer to catch up with a song that hit its peak in spring. We have more ways to bring a hit to radio's attention. And yet, there are fewer real hits at any given time, more songs that people agree will be hits sitting longer in the queue, and no shortage of songs that are proven hits somewhere that will be "Something In The Water," not "Call Me Maybe," in the U.S.
"Call Me Maybe" wasn't just the Summer Song of 2012. It was the song that proved the continued validity of the shared experience. The last song one could truly say that about was "SexyBack." That all its roads to hitdom still led through radio is encouraging as well, if encouragement is what you're looking for on that score. It's a second consecutive "Summer Song" win for Interscope, following "Party Rock Anthem" in 2011. It's also another confirmation of Canada's 40-year-history of making really great pure-pop records, more of which should have come to your attention over the years. In multiple ways, it's a win for the good guys, whoever you think the good guys are.