Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators, label folks and industry insiders involved.
A cosign from a major artist has always been a surefire way to get an up-and-comer some much-needed attention. But in the case of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” Justin Bieber didn’t just hop on the original and drop in a verse. The Bieb went bigger, gathering his famous friends for an on-camera sing-a-long that exploded on YouTube, inspired thousands of lip-dub videos and sent the song sky high. Yet even the grandest endorsement wouldn’t have moved the needle so dramatically if the song in question were not as explosive, joyous and downright addictive as “Call Me Maybe.”
Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” began in pieces, the fragments of the song living separately on other tracks before joining forces like a pop Voltron. “The heart of the song started as the bridge, which was a verse of another song,” Jepsen recalls. One day, while she and co-writer Tavish Crowe were in her apartment on Alma Street in Vancouver working, she sang out, “But here’s my number, so call me maybe,” thinking that it was a pre-chorus for yet another song. “I said to Tavish, ‘Oh that’s maybe too cheesy or too on the nose,’ and he’s like, ‘I think it’s kinda good.’”
Jepsen took the songs to a studio session with producer Josh Ramsay, frontman and co-founder of the band Marianas Trench. Ramsay and Jepsen were both signed to 604 Records and had first collaborated on the song “Sour Candy” from her acoustic-guitar-driven debut album, Tug of War. Of the songs that Jepsen presented to Ramsay during that session, “One of them was this folk tune that her and Tavish had written that was a completely different song, but it did have the melody and lyric of [‘Call Me Maybe’],” says Ramsay. “It had that line in it. And it wasn’t the chorus. It was part of the pre-chorus to a totally different song. And we took that line and then the two of us wrote a new song.”
The finished product sounded like nothing Jepsen had ever done before. Gone were the acoustic guitars and barely-there percussion, replaced by electric strings and a whomping beat. “I did have reservations,” she says. “I was like, ‘Is this a world I can play in? Does this feel like me still?’” Her reticence was undetectable on the song. You could hear the giddiness emanating from Jepsen as she sheepishly suggested to a guy she had just met that he should take her number and “call me, maybe.” That line was the concentrated version of a thousand movie scenes where the main character musters up the courage to ask out the longshot, while we look on with baited “OMG”s. The suspense is part of what makes the song so irresistible.
Jepsen says that while the song was about a real person (“The bridge was definitely about an ex that I was dating”), she didn’t have that exact experience with somebody. “I think I wanted to be brave enough to be the girl to be like, ‘You should call me,’” she says. “But that was so far away from who I was that a lot of it was imagination taking over. But every song kind of sparks with a little bit of ‘I felt something similar to this feeling’ or ‘I wanted to have that feeling.’”
The song was first released in September 2011 in Canada, and at the time, Jepsen had only a third-place finish on Canadian Idol and a debut album under her belt, making her far from a household name. “I was waitressing when ‘Call Me Maybe’ started rising,” she says.
And rise it did. The track debuted at No. 97 on the Canadian Hot 100 on Oct. 22, 2011, and climbed to No. 24 by the end of the year. Bieber kept the momentum going with a tweet on Dec. 30, calling it “possibly the catchiest song I’ve ever heard.”
It hit No. 1 on the Canadian Hot 100 on Feb. 11, three days before the release of Jepsen’s Curiosity EP. A week later, future labelmate Bieber, along with famous friends that included Ashley Tisdale and Selena Gomez, dropped the legendary lip dub video for the song, singing along to the song on video and editing in the music later.
While Bieber’s initial tweet introduced more people to listen to the song, the lip-dub, which had a million views in 24 hours, made the song explode. “I think what that video did was turn it from a hit song to a cultural phenomenon,” says Jonathan Simkin, co-founder of 604 Records.
“Call Me Maybe” debuted on the Hot 100 on March 10, 2012, eventually clocking 50 total weeks on the chart. Jepsen released her album Kiss that September, but the rest of the singles didn’t reach the heights of “Call Me Maybe,” which remains Jepsen’s biggest hit to date. Nonetheless, on her follow-up album, 2015’s EMOTION, Jepsen got more experimental with her pop sound and found a lane — and a cult fanbase — all her own.
“It was a really happy, blurry time of my life,” Jepsen says. “It was a very fast pace. And it was such a relieving thing to realize it wasn’t maybe the way for me. It’s nice now to look back and not see ‘Call Me Maybe’ as this big, terrible thing that I could never outdo, versus the beautiful start to a crazy adventure of its own, and a thing I’m very grateful for.”